I’ve blogged about Brian McLaren books before, and I’ve just started reading a new one, so prepare to read about all the ways it blows my mind as I work my way through it. Based on what I remember of my Intro to Christian Theology class I took in college, McLaren’s Everything Must Change is a book on theodicy, or the problem of evil/suffering in the world, though you’ll be pleased to know McLaren completely avoids theological jargon and, as a former English professor, is an excellent, easy-to-read writer. In many ways, EMC is about the biggest problems in the world and what Jesus teaches us about them, and, refreshingly, to McLaren, the biggest problems are not the usual Christian hot-button issues like abortion and homosexuality. In fact, McLaren identifies 4 major problems, the fourth of which informs the first three, and will be key to solving them. These problems are:
- Environmental breakdowns caused by our unsustainable global economy, an economy that fails to respect environmental limits even as it succeeds in producing great wealth for about one-third of the world’s population. We’ll call this the prosperity crisis.
- The growing gap between the ultra-rich and the extremely poor, which prompts the poor majority to envy, resent, and even hate the rich minority– which in turn elicits fear and anger in the rich. We’ll call this the equity crisis.
- The danger of cataclysmic war arising from the intensifying resentment and fear among various groups at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum. We’ll call this the security crisis.
- The failure of the world’s religions, especially its two largest religions, to provide a framing story capable of healing or reducing the three previous crises. We’ll call this the spirituality crisis. By framing story, I mean a story that give speople direction, values, vision, and inspiration by providing a framework for our lives.
As he makes clear in his other book, The Secret Message of Jesus (which I highly recommend), McLaren believes that in making the Christian message all about where you go when you die and what you intellectually assent to, we have missed the message of Jesus, which, as Jesus makes clear, is that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” which is really that God is at work making “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” come true. That the amazing thing is God coming here, making things new, and staying here with us forever, rather than all of us flying away. And if we believe that the message is that the Kingdom of God is at hand, well, things will start to look really different when it comes to what we, the Church, do and say in and to the world.
McLaren talks about meeting with Christians in Burundi, neighbor to Rwanda, and home to all the sorts of horrors made famous in films like Hotel Rwanda. He describes one man telling him that all his life, he’d only really heard one sermon, the same sermon over and over. The jist of this sermon was, “You are a sinner and you are going to hell. You need to repent and believe in Jesus. Jesus might come back today, and if he does, and you are not ready, you will burn forever in hell.” But this sermon does not speak to his reality:
So much death, so much hatred and distrust between tribes, so much poverty, suffering, corruption, and injustice, and nothing ever really changed. Eventually I realized something. I had never heard a sermon that addressed these realities. Did God only care about our souls going to heaven after we died? Were our hungry bellies unimportant to God? Was God unconcerned about our crying sons and frightened daughters, our mothers hiding under beds, our fathers crouching by windows, unable to sleep because of gunfire? Or did God send Jesus to teach us how to avoid genocide by learning to love each other, how to overcome tribalism and poverty by following his path, how to deal with injustice and corruption, how to make a better life here on earth– here in East Africa?…Over the years, I have come to realize that something is wrong with the way we understand Jesus and the good news. Something is missing in the version of the Christian religion we received from the missionaries, which is the message we now preach ourselves. They told us how to get to heaven. But they left out an important detail. They didn’t tell us how the will of God could be done on earth. We need to learn what the message of Jesus says to our situation here in East Africa.
I’d argue that it’s not just something to learn in East Africa, but everywhere McLaren later describes a South African health worker trying to fight HIV/AIDS, who expresses exasperation that preachers are going everywhere spreading the message of going to heaven after you die, but missing opportunities to save and improve lives in the here and now, when they could be providing job training or healthy activities or small business opportunities.
And when we look at the Church’s response to the horrific Haitian earthquake, while I see a lot of good (in particular, I’m proud to be a supporter and donor to World Vision, which is doing awesome work in Haiti and around the world), there’s also been some embarrassment, a lot of the same kind of spiritual farsightedness that keeps people from ministering to the actual needs at hand, that keeps them from being “thy kingdom come” in the here and now. One glaring example was posted by my friend Celeste on Facebook: a faith-based group is sending 600 solar-powered audio-Bibles to Haiti. Yep. Because there aren’t other, more useful, more desperately needed things they could be sending.
I know that groups like the folks behind the audio-Bibles are, generally, the minority. That organizations like World Vision and, near and dear to my own heart, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, are doing amazing things to meet real needs motivated by the love of Jesus. Which is why it’s unfortunate to see the audio-Bibles making the news. But if anything good can come from such spiritual need-blindness, it’s that more of us can be made aware of the fact that the message of Jesus isn’t just about going someplace perfect after we die, but partnering with God in making THIS PLACE new, a place where the will of God is done as it is in heaven. Many, many people are doing that work in Haiti. Many, many more of us need to begin asking where we can do it in our own communities. I know I am asking myself some hard questions.
I’m barely into Everything Must Change, and I anticipate it will prompt even more questions, and even more blog posts. Stay tuned.