Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global
Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope by Brian McLaren (Thomas Nelson, 2007)
McLaren’s book has received attention because he is perhaps the most prominent author and representative of the emerging church movement. Although many Christians are unfamiliar with the movement, McLaren’s views on Christian economic responsibility have already influenced various local churches. I felt led to better understand and write about all of this because I am an economist with an academic background in ministry. Although my review is generally unflattering, McLaren deserves ample credit for his passion in presenting his case and demonstrating a kind heart toward people that find themselves marginalized in their societies.
McLaren concedes he is not an economist, so I am not surprised that the book contains a mixture of valid statements along with ideas that do not reconcile with established economic principles. In addition, his writing seems ideologically based which of course is difficult for any author to avoid including me. There are many dimensions to ideology, but a pertinent fundamental described by economist Thomas Sowell1 involves one’s vision of human behavior. McLaren presents an unconstrained vision, where he assumes that individuals are able to work together for justice. This is opposed to the constrained vision which assumes that self interest dominates human behavior and limits communitarian goals. The unconstrained vision fits with the belief that the world could be ordered properly in the present age. The constrained vision fits with believing sin nature limits mankind until the Lord returns.
In considering perspective beyond ideology, I discovered among the literature a very clear dispassionate article written by Larry Pettegrew for the Master’s Seminary Journal2. He claims that McLaren’s ideas and the emerging church movement in general are predicated on the assumption that a significant part of our culture has accepted the philosophy of postmodernism. A fair statement about postmodernism is that it can be characterized in reading as granting license to interpret from different cultural viewpoints, and therefore the truth is there is not necessarily any specific truth in what is read. Postmodernist professors have influenced a large segment of the younger generation with postmodern teaching. This leaves me uneasy because although men and women are not omniscient, they can know truth. What is written hardly need be uncertain, filtered through different lenses or left as mystery which may cause even more doubt. Authors typically write for their audience so that they may understand. The Bible itself is generally legible, and where passages are not, we have centuries of scholarly research to help laymen comprehend. Gladly there are concordances.
Contrary Views of Salvation
McLaren is a postmodernist, but ironically he wrote a book in which he hopes to influence his readership about the truths he interprets. Many definitive statements in his book caught my eye, but the sharpest came into sight on pages 78-79, when he differentiated two views of Jesus. He harshly described what he called the conventional view of Jesus, where the church is about warning people they are doomed to hell unless they are saved. I suppose that some have heard too much of the sin and hellfire message, but I suspect most Christians rarely hear their pastors pound away in this manner. Instead, church goers are typically taught about God’s overwhelming love and hope that all would be saved through Christ. The reality that McLaren does not mention in his critique is that there is “so much mercy, yet still there is hell” (C.S. Lewis3).
McLaren’s description of the emerging church movement’s interpretation of salvation seems aberrant. I believe that salvation is granted to every individual who in faith repents, recognizes the atonement and accepts the grace of our Lord. McLaren indicates in the two pages and within his book’s theme that salvation is part and parcel to also saving the world from the mess he thinks it is in. This quote for example is foreign to me, “Jesus came to become Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil” (page 79). Apparently salvation is not just personal, but also about saving the planet by ridding the world of its toxic and inequitable systems of social organization.
The Bible is filled with scripture about stewardship and justice, but
the overpowering message is that the Father’s love is so great that he sent his
Son to die for our sins. McLaren’s
statement about salvation seems to be religion without the cross. I was very perplexed that he would reduce or
at best mix the event at
McLaren appears disingenuous because his question does not recognize that salvation is the necessary condition and only then kingdom living is possible. By contrast, Peter writes plainly while encouraging those sanctified by faith. “But also for this very reason, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love. For if these things are yours and abound, you will be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (II Pet. 5-8)
Additions to faith are needed but they are additions and they are not equivalent to indispensable faith itself. If McLaren does not understand this, then his diagnosis is faulty, and his treatment and prognosis of a world economy in crisis are of negligible value. The critical problem with the world is primarily about lost souls I believe, not about saving the earth from the present social systems. If I am interpreting his theology correctly, he commits the error that so many before him have committed such as with the social gospel movement in which they look to works as part of salvation instead of works in response to salvation and a new life in Christ. McLaren’s book presents the possibility of a new heaven and new earth that is dependent upon Christian effort in the present age.
When I read Galatians 2:20 to 3:5, I ironically wonder if the salvation concept is unwittingly legalistic, something of which McLaren himself dislikes. Verse 3 says “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are now being made perfect by the flesh?” Salvation aimed at fixing systems is an imperfect salvation. A friend once told me that if roads to God are from a center of social justice and all roads to outreach are social justice, then what need have we for Christ, the cross or the blood?
What is the Crisis?
The salvation concept described in this book is illogical to me as both a follower of Christ and as a practical economist. But, before I comment further, I would like to propose that social problems are not so much of economics but a moral crisis much broader than social justice. McLaren would have done better to campaign against wider scoped moral decay, where certainly deviancy has been defined downward (an expression coined by the late Patrick Moynihan5). As I read the book, I kept thinking that the New Testament not only teaches us about addressing inequities but also many other failures of moral character. Unfortunately for unconstrained visionaries like McLaren who see the potential for societal change, sin continues to persist.
The downward deviancy of moral character contrasts sharply with known economic progress and aggregate improvement in the standard of living not recognized my McLaren. Love cannot be a legal duty, but what if we were able to track since the first century the love the neighbor problem illustrated by people disregarding most of the Ten Commandments? We would probably conclude that the moral character of the world is worse than ever, where evangelicals need to better promote the conventional salvation message.
For those who are saved in Christ, the fruit of the spirit is not narrow but instead diverse. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are many opportunities for kingdom living. Many of these attributes relate to economic issues, but again we also need to put this in the context that the global economy has shown improvements over the centuries. A recent article by Keith Still presents information that illustrates world economic progress for both rich and poor6. There is overwhelming evidence to reject the proposition that generally the rich become richer at the expense of the poor. Without doubt, workers have been exploited where colonialists and dictators have ruled, where slavery has existed, or where there have been monopsony (i.e., single firm) employment opportunities. However, capitalism under competitive conditions assures market wages. We may not like what they earn, but generally people are paid according the value of their production.
When considering rich and poor, we must understand that poverty is relative where by definition it will always exist. The poor of today are far better-off than those in poverty when Jesus walked the earth. Certainly the gap between poor and rich has widened over recent centuries, and therefore the ability of the rich to help the poor has increased. But why do we worry so much about the gap? I think the premise to worrying is in believing that poverty makes people unhappy. Except for extreme poverty (where people are hungry, without clean water or shelter), there is scant evidence that poverty causes unhappiness. For believers like me, the beatitudes confirm the overwhelming importance of faith toward happiness compared to worldly definitions. The widest gap by far is between believers and nonbelievers.
We must also recognize that the poor in most countries today are better-off than the many of the rich of the first century. The rich did not have motor vehicles, telecommunications, and modern health care of which many poor (certainly not all) enjoy to some degree. Again, I concede that there are many pockets of extreme poor of which we must be very concerned, but most observers are also very aware of the advancements of pastoralists and horticulturalists and also the ongoing migration in seeking better opportunities in urban areas where there has been some development related to technology and international trade in poor continents such as Africa.
McLaren’s conclusion that we are in a global crisis is not logical, and most
economists would characterize his reasoning as either a fallacy of composition
or a sweeping generalization. If one
finds extreme poverty in various pockets of the world, one should not conclude
that we have a global crisis of poverty when aggregate data shows general
improvements in the standard of living across all continents of the world. Instead, it is prudent to consider the individual
pockets and understand each within its own right. One pocket might be related to lack of
geographic endowments, another pocket might be related government corruption,
and another pocket might be related to cultural resistance in the adaption of
more efficient production methods.
This brings me to commenting on the assumptions and conclusions of what McLaren calls the earth’s ecosystem or suicidal machine. I do not recognize the machine that he describes as an interconnection between spokes of prosperity, equity and security. Instead, most economists would describe a model of the political economy, where there is political system that interrelates with an economic system. The political structure can take many forms ranging from totalitarianism to democratic republic. In totalitarianism, the economic system can be state directed capitalism (which inhibits the benefits of real capitalism) or socialism. In either case, the economic system is not granted freedoms to produce efficiently. Totalitarian political systems from kingdoms to dictatorships have dominated the world at times.
Democratic republics are more in favor in today’s world, although still too
many people in the world are under some forms or remnants of
totalitarianism. There are even cases
Capitalism under democratic republics allow for oversight and the
creation of laws to address public matters concerning the very issues McLaren raises
in his book on military, environmental quality and equity. We should never be so naïve to believe that
laws can be created to develop perfect solutions to these issues, but we should
recognize the mitigating progress that has been made. Although good people debate the proper use and
degree of military action, countries such as
Equity will be addressed in two paragraphs down, but I need to comment on McLaren’s view of multinational firms. I agree that in a global economy, firms may seem to be beyond a single country’s ability to regulate. There is incentive for some firms to setup operations in countries that have the least regulation with respect to environmental quality and labor standards. These countries are generally the poorest countries of the world, and regulations come at a high opportunity cost to them. If they attempt to regulate to the same degree as the advanced countries, they will not find as many firms locating and thus production and better paying jobs will be lost. In contrast, McLaren should also recognize that multinational firms are multi-regulated by the various advanced countries they do business within. Witness Microsoft’s problems with the European Union.
McLaren takes aim at corporations in general, seeing them as unaccountable enterprises almost out of control. Although, corporations have their warts compared to smaller firms, this view is also very naïve and typically taken by generalizing from the few infamous cases reported by the media. Corporations are certainly not perfectly managed, but they have organizational structure and incentives to do better than most people believe possible. They are influenced by price competition, creative destructive (knowing that competitors are developing better alternatives), self governance by boards representing stockholders, executive peer pressure and social responsibility, competitive labor markets and government regulation8.
McLaren’s call for charity is an important message of which pastors need to continually remind their flocks. However, I cannot accept McLaren’s economic model as being a means to understand inequities. Equity is a relative term which means fairness, and what I interpret as fair may not be what someone else thinks is fair. Although more could be done, I am unconvinced that conventional Christians are unconcerned about equity and thus a special issue for the emerging church movement. If data were available, I would not be surprised that conventional Christians give more generously than people who have an unconstrained view of human behavior like McLaren.
I also cannot agree with McLaren’s general proposition that because the
rich are in fear of the exploited poor, they set up security systems to protect
themselves. First, there is very little
evidence of exploitation in capitalist systems patrolled by democratic
republics. Exploitation hardly occurs in
competitive labor markets, and if it does, it is usually addressed by
government. Second, security is what
economists call a public good, where security once in place is there for all to
consume. Military presence in the name
of homeland security is for every citizen’s safety. The present military conflicts involving
McLaren is a ‘theosocialist’ (a twist on his ‘theocapitalist’ term), who is convinced that God wants the world to radically socialize its economic system. McLaren instead should be advancing the cause for worldwide democratic republics and capitalism. He can’t because he underestimates how capitalism creates opportunities for those less advantaged. Most economists know - voluntary cooperation within capitalism (as opposed to the force of socialism) creates both employment opportunities and greater purchasing power for almost every participant.
McLaren’s fatalistic conclusion about ‘theocapitalism’ reminds me of the old doomsday prophesies of scientists of the 1960/70s such as by Paul Ehrlich. They used simple models to conclude that economic growth causes natural resources to dwindle until the system collapses on itself. I recall how the late economist, Julian Simon, challenged biologist Ehrlich to pick a list of natural resources that were going to diminish after one decade9. When the results came ten years later, Ehrlich’s predictions were in error. The lesson Simon taught Ehrlich and other pessimists is that capitalist systems adapt to the problem of scarcity. Men and women use their God given ability to think! When a resource becomes less available, its price rises and provides incentive to business men and women. They either discover previously hidden stocks or they innovate to develop alternatives. The world has more available resources today than the past and there is no reason not to predict that it will have even more in the future. The pessimistic view is naïve arithmetic and sometimes very disturbing because it supports abortion to limit population growth’s impact on natural resource utilization10.
I appreciate the good intentions of McLaren, but intentions sometimes do not translate into well thought-out ideas. McLaren’s final chapters contain public policy prescriptions often without understanding unintended consequences. I have critiqued several in what I have written so far, but I would like to critique one more because it is a good example of how well intentioned people like McLaren might make critical mistakes. He calls for fair trade, which involves forcing higher wages than market conditions. If the policy is enacted, some will receive higher wages but others lose employment opportunities. Firms will react to avoid increases in labor costs by eliminating jobs because they are pressured by consumers and competitors to keep prices low (by the way, a good thing for the poor).
There are too many errors in this book for unsophisticated readers. McLaren’s book has value in only to readers who recognize the mistakes but are willing to learn about a position that springs from ideology and a theological framework. For me, the emerging church movement is enough to consider by itself without flawed economics intertwined.
The article by Pettegrew differentiated the emerging church movement into three groups. Relevants are those who want to preserve the conventional church but adjust worship services to include such things as storytelling to peak interest of postmodernists. Reconstructions want to go further and develop non-traditional venues such as house churches. The first two have possibilities. According to Webber11, there has been too much scientific assessment of scripture where instead the divine narrative needs to be rediscovered. Mills12 contends that teaching on the mystery of God does not have to lead to revisionist propositions. I agree, but non-traditional approaches should have accountability through church overseers and also a solid network of well-trained clerical peers.
The third category is the revisionists, who challenge orthodoxy and established doctrines of our faith. The title of the book, Everything Must Change, was my first clue that McLaren might be a revisionist. Reading the book sustained this suspicion, and then I read some scholarly reviews from trusted theologians who have examined McLaren’s writings and speeches. John MacArthur13 for example asserts that McLaren questions the clarity of scripture in his quest to relate to the postmodern culture. McLaren has it backwards, where scripture is very clear especially as it describes the fundamentals of our faith. Another authority who I respect, apologist Norman Geisler14, concludes that McLaren rejects the Bible as ultimate authority.
I tried to confirm MacArthur and Geisler’s assertions for myself, so I looked at an article by McLaren15 where he explains the meaning of John 14:6 when Jesus says he is the only way to the Father. This verse is uncomplicated to me, but he needed 15 pages to interpret the verse. I didn’t understand why something so clear needed to become so complicated, but perhaps his writing appeals to postmodernists. Then I recalled, “For a time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, by according to their own desires, because they have itching ears they will heap up for themselves teachers, and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.” (II Tim. 4: 3-4).
At this stage, I am wondering if II Timothy applies to the revisionists within the emerging church movement. However, I must declare that with respect to the mixing economics and theology, I do not have itching ears for the ideas presented in Everything Must Change.
1 – Thomas Sowell, http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=Xc6xj57Y1h4C&dq=sowell+conflict+of+visions&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=h_DHirhumq&sig=n8BF9VIYGiZLl626cwEcUqjJJRc&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPP1,M1
2 - Pettegrew, http://www.tms.edu/tmsj/tmsj17h.pdf
3 – Lewis, print copy only, http://www.amazon.com/Problem-Pain-C-S-Lewis/dp/0060652969
4 – McLaren, print copy only, http://www.amazon.com/Generous-Orthodoxy-Contemplative-Fundamentalist-Depressed-yet-Hopeful/dp/0310257476
5 - Moynihan, http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/formans/DefiningDeviancy.htm
7- Environmental Kuznets Curve, http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/aml6/pdfs&zips/PalgraveEKC.pdf
9 – Kellard on Simon vs. Ehrlich, http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=44
11 – Webber, print copy only, http://criswell.wordpress.com/2006/03/27/hello-world/
12 – Mills, Ibid. 10.
13 – MacArthur, http://www.tms.edu/tmsj/tmsj17g.pdf15– McLaren, http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/McLaren%20-%20John%2014.6.pdf