Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Everything Must Change: A book review

I’m down south on vacation and won’t be able to keep you very well with my readings of blogs. I’ll get around some, but a lot depends on where I am at (and for much of next week on the coast, I won't have regular internet access). But I will try to occasional post. I committed myself to read five non-fiction books for Joy’s challenge (and I’ve read three to date). This is my second review. I need to get around to reading some of my Southern Challenge books (I started my first yesterday).

Brian D. McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 327 pages, endnotes, some graphs and discussion questions for each chapter.

As anyone who has spent time in American churches knows (and as those who haven’t spent time there probably suspects), the problems our world faces and the issues that seem to command the most attention and interest within churches are not the same. Having observed this disconnect, McLaren sets out to answer two questions: “What are the biggest problems in the world?” and “What would Jesus have to say about these global problems?” McLaren’s hope is to begin a discussion that will get the church addressing the serious problems faced by our planet.

McLaren, in Everything Must Change, draws from hosts of fields and disciplines to make his case. At points, he’s a theologian and biblical scholar. Other times he writes like a politician, an environmentalist, a scientist, a historian, peacenik and an economist. It is impossible for one individual to master all these disciplines; therefore specialists in each field may find chinks within McLaren’s armor. But by focusing too much on small chinks, one will overlook McLaren’s important message.

This book makes a compelling case that the world is a mess (that’s not hard to do!) and that the church needs to change in order to address the problems our planet faces. He is especially critical of the western “prosperity” system that is not sustainable and creates not only environmental problems but also security and equity problems with the rest of the planet. As one portion of society becomes more affluent, they spend more on security to protect their affluence, a loop that becomes an insane trap. McLaren refers to this as a suicidal system.

Drawing on the work of other scholars, McLaren goes to great length to explain the “framing story” of the Roman Empire (into which Jesus was born) and to allow parallels to the modern world be made within the mind of the reader. The pax Romana, which was in place in the early 1st Century, wasn’t enjoyed by all. Slaves, servants, small farmers, women, and those living in the border lands suffered. In order to enforce the peace, the cross was utilized to make sure those disenfranchised towed the party line. Within this world, McLaren identifies four viewpoints. The imperial or dominant view was enforced by the cross. Not only did this view include the Roman soldiers and officials, but also the Herodians and Sadducces, many of whom profited from the Roman system. Defying the official world view were the zealots, the revolutionaries of the day who advocated forceful removal of the Romans. Then there were those like the Pharisees who adopted a “dual narrative” and lived under the Roman rule, but challenged it by their strict religious rule in domestic matters. Finally, there was a fourth group, the Essenes, who fled into the wilderness. Jesus socialized with all, but he provided an “emergent narrative” framed around the “kingdom of God.”

McLaren critiques each of the counter-narrative to the dominate culture, applies them to our lives, and then calls for followers of Jesus not to let the “framing stories” of our age reframe the gospel to support their positions, but to allow Jesus’ teachings to challenge the status quo that is destroying the world. Knowing that the present system isn’t working, this should be obvious, but as McLaren points out, there are ways people have adapted the gospel in order to support the existing system. McLaren is highly critical (and for this I praise him!) of the modern eschatology as appears in popular literature such a the Left Behind series, Such belief supports a dangerous myth that there is no way to keep the world from going from bad to worse, but we don’t have to worry because Jesus is going to come back as a conquering king (they type he refused to be in the first century) and kill all the bad guys.

At the end of the book, McLaren lays out potential solutions. However, this is not a self-help book and he only has broad ideas about possible solutions. His main concern is to get people to question our current “dominate system” (a technique he suggests is similar to what Jesus did to the Roman system) and look for alternatives. Quoting from economists, he makes suggestions of ways we can help address the inequality within the world and help the desperately poor to improve their lives. He calls on believers to embrace Jesus “kingdom narrative” and to involve themselves in personal, community, public and global action.

I am still pondering much of what McLaren has said here. On one level, this book is important as it gets us to think about the church in a new way. The church is not just about saving souls, it’s about exhibiting God’s kingdom to the world (something we have a hard time doing when we’re wedded to the dominate system). McLaren criticizes the Protestant emphasis on grace (page 208), and runs the risk of over emphasizing works (I think the two—grace and works—need to be in tension and perhaps McLaren would agree with such a scenario). I didn’t really hear McLaren cite the traditional Protestant view that from our gratitude (for what God has done for us), we are to do God’s work. It seemed more like he made the case that we better get our butts busy because we’re in deep trouble. From my point of view, such a message lacks grace.

McLaren criticizes traditional economic thinking that growth is the answer. Although I don’t remember him using this analogy, the idea is that instead of cutting a pie more equally, a better way to help the poor is to get a bigger pie. Of course, such strategies don’t work (30 years of trickle-down economics has shown us that the economy isn’t necessarily tied to the laws of gravity and doesn’t trickle-down!) I think McLaren is right in that we need to consider what the limits of growth are and what a sustainable economy might look like. Finally, McLaren doesn’t emphasizes the resurrection nearly enough. He does mention it, but it’s seems to be an after thought-tacked on as a way to provide hope. Instead, the resurrection is the central theme of the Christian faith, a theme that allowed the early church to take the empire’s symbol of domination (the cross) and recreate it into a symbol of liberation. .

I recommend this book. It’s easy reading; I’d love to know what others might think. For more information about Brian McLaren's ideas, check out his website.

For my summer travels and reading plans, click here.


  1. The problem I have with McLaren and similar commentators is, having suggested that it is improper to use the Gospel to bolster a particular world view (with which I agree to an extent), they then turn around and proceed to do precisely the same thing.

    Whenever I hear anyone attempting to co opt the Bible for secular purposes, I cannot avoid thinking of the motto the belt buckles of German soldiers in WWII: Gott mit uns!. It's a sure sign somebody's gonna get hurt.

    Good review.


  2. You are such a good reviewer, Sage! This book sounds like something mr. kenju would like to read. Thanks for the review, and I hope you are enjoying your vacation!

  3. Randall, You make a valid point--for some reason I was recalling my study of Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia recently (this was done nearly 30 years ago in college). If I recall correctly, his critique of "utopia type" movements is that they become bogged down with ideology to defend themselves--in other words, the radical becomes the conversative.

    Kenju, thanks, let me know if Mr. Kenju reads it, it'd love to hear his comments. I'll be in NC next week, but probably will only drive quickly through Raleigh on 40 as we head back up to Michigan. One of these days I'm going to have to meet the two of you.

  4. I have a few books lined up, but this one sounds interesting and something I'll look into in the future.

    As far as church is concerned, I haven't been there in months. It's changed a lot.

    Unfortunately, too many churchgoers think more about what they can get out of church rather than what they can contribute or put into it. I find I do more on my own than when I'm following a church program. It's a matter of finding the right church, I suppose.

    Have fun! Enjoy your time off.

  5. I don't really feel qualified to comment on Christianity, but your review made me want to read this book