In answering his fourth question “Who Is Jesus and Why Is He Important?” McLaren frames the conversation in terms of two critics. The first one describes Jesus in a quote as a “prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed” (as per Revelation 19.) The second says that “the only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell.” Now, whether these two quotes are meant in context as holistic statements of theology (knowing the sources, I suspect the first isn’t and the second sadly is,) there is no question that in themselves they are reductionistic. Jesus certainly comes with love and tenderness as well as the “commitment to make someone bleed,” and we have to ignore 90% of the Bible (and I’m being generous) if we think the only reason Jesus came was to save souls from hell, that he had no plans for this world or our lives here.
However, the great danger of fighting a simplistic argument is that we will be simplistic in the opposite direction. When one person says the president is a “pinko godless terrorist scumbag” (yes, my more conservative readers, that is simplistic) it is not helpful to argue back that he is in fact the Messianic hope and deliverance of our poor, huddled masses. Not only will you utterly fail to persuade your opponents, but you’ll be just as guilty as leading people astray with your false picture. This sort of response is exactly what I think happens in these chapters. Brian responds to the badass, soul-saving, world-ignoring Jesus stereotype of his critic with a some-what Jewish Ghandi figure who just wants us to all get along. Neither one is a full articulation of who Jesus Christ truly was.
In particular, there are three things about the New Kind of Jesus that really worry me.
- McLaren’s Jesus can’t fit with the whole of Scripture. Now, he puts a positive spin on things by arguing that Jesus interprets the rest of Scripture. But what Brian really has to reckon with is that his Jesus doesn’t fit. God in Jesus contradicts a good deal of God in the OT, and even quite a bit of God in the epistles. McLaren wants to use this to suggest we reject that other material. But to pit them against each other suggests that McLaren’s Jesus is not very Jewish (actually, he seems quite American) and that the early church got him mostly wrong. Of course, this is possible (it was a major premise of the Jesus Seminar,) but it seems doubtful to me that the picture of Jesus to emerge from such a study will be much at all like the one who existed in history – and, incidentally, the one I think the gospels portray.
- McLaren’s Jesus perfectly fits Brian’s own social agenda. I don’t want to be unfair, but I have to say it. While Brian insists that Jesus challenges him, the only challenge he poses is for Brian to be even more into the things he already champions. This is exactly the case Brian makes against his opponents: their Jesus has been co-opted for their (capitalist, imperialist, torture loving) social agenda. In some cases, that might be true. But if a bunch of Western progressive liberals sat down and tried to figure out what sort of Jesus would perfectly fit all of their agendas, and then they wrote a book about it, well… I’m reading that book. This doesn’t disprove his argument, but it should raise red flags.
- McLaren’s Jesus doesn’t need to be God. This is perhaps the most damning part of McLaren’s discussion. Nowhere in the chapters does he even make a nod to Christ’s deity. I don’t say this as anorthodoxy cop, but as someone concerned to be an orthodox thinker. If your story about who Jesus is could be perfectly carried out by any old human being, then it is clearly a distortion of the biblical Christ. (The same is true, it should be noted, for Christ’s humanity, but McLaren is in no danger of denying that.) It is unclear to me that McLaren has Jesus doing anything which Ghandi or Mandela couldn’t. Indeed, I’m not sure McLaren’s Jesus is doing anything necessary at all, since the social agenda he came to tell us about is shared by many moderns who don’t have anything in common with him at all.
As has been the case in other parts of the book, the reason I get so frustrated by this approach to Jesus is that there’s something that needs to be said. The Jesus of the gospels, like McLaren’s Jesus, does care about social issues and this world. He is deeply human, not just a god dressed in a man-suit. However, the Jesus of the gospels is also able to do something about the world’s problems. He’s not just bringing ideas, but good news of the coming of the kingdom. He isn’t just encouraging men to act a certain way, He is founding a New Humanity.
And, while McLaren won’t like it, this Jesus does have a lot to do with justice, and a lot to do with the cross. In many ways, Brian’s Jesus is the white middle-class American’s Jesus, a Christ for those who don’t feel they need to be delivered from anything. When you live in Afghanistan or Palestine or China, when you see violence and oppression and persecution firsthand, you need the tattooed Jesus on the white horse if you’re ever going to live out Christ’s calling. You need to know that He has the power to deliver you so you don’t give up hope, and you need to know that He will bring justice to resist the temptation to take it into your own hands. McLaren’s Jesus teaches us we should care about poverty and injustice, but at the end of the day, he cannot do any more to change it than any other martyr with a dream. Our world doesn’t need another dreamer – what it needs is a Savior.