March 31, 2008 / David Fitch

EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE or EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED? 2 My questions for Brian McLaren on His View of the Kingdom

Last post I blogged on some of the highlights of Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change (EMC). To just reiterate, I found EMC to be a compelling statement for the emerging church’s theology (read prior post here). I highlighted several aspects of the book that I felt were valuable contributions that furthered the emerging church’s theology. I could have talked about several more. Having said all that however, I also think the book illustrates why emerging theology/writers are often misinterpreted or criticized. For emerging church theology often leaves crucial tReview of Everything Must Change by Brian McLarenhings unsaid. I see this problem with EMC. As far as specific criticisms of EMC, Tall Skinny Kiwi (TSK) recently posted here some questions on his blog that are similar to mine (and for that matter Scot McKnight’s). Where is “the church” in this book? Is EMC‘s eschatology too immanentist? What do you mean by “the kingdom of God”? I urge you to read TSK’s interview with Brian. To me the interview substantiates this problem of emerging writers “often leaving crucial things unsaid.”
What I’d like to do in this post is concentrate on Brian’s theology of “the kingdom of God.” I think Brian is often too opaque in his descriptions of “the Kingdom of God ” in EMC. I think he implies things he might not really believe if pressed. I think this then weakens his message as a provocation for change. I hope this little post, along with all the others, furthers the upcoming DeepShift conversation (at Oak Park, it’s still not too late to sign up) and encourages Brian further. For I have great hopes that an invigoration of the church can come forth by the Holy Spirit through Brian’s leadership. And I think this could be furthered by some clarity from Brian on some issues concerning the Kingdom of God. So here are my questions in brief:


Brian seems to differentiate “the message of Jesus” (the kingdom of God) from “the message about Jesus” (see for example p.22,98 – this is something I have heard Doug Pagitt do more than once). This hearkens back to the basic questions driving NT Theology at the turn of the last century. For Brian, “the kingdom of God is a framing story (which I agree it is) yet somehow I sense Brian wants to distance this message from the message that indeed the person and work of Jesus Christ as reigning Lord is the means by which this Kingdom is taking place. Am I imagining this? I could be wrong. Because I am sure that Brian would agree that Jesus, the Son f God, having won the victory over sin, death and evil on the cross and in the resurrection, is now sitting at the right hand of God ushering in His Kingdom through the Spirit’s work until its final completion. But somehow this seems to be missing. Brian simply does not talk about the Kingdom of God in this way in EMC. Brian seems to be asking us to follow the message of Jesus, the way of Jesus, and if we believe in it then “everything must change.” My contention is “everything has already changed.” God has begun His reign over evil and sin in Jesus Christ through the resurrection, His exaltation and His reign. Let us now begin to live in/under this change, this inbreaking reality. Is this missing in EMC? Or am I being picky?


Brian’s argument is that the proto-type American evangelical gospel domesticates Jesus into a middle-class gospel that has been flattened down and no longer challenges the social status quo (p.3,4,29). Most of us agree wholeheartedly with Brian (including myself!). This is one of Brian’s great appeals to us disenchanted evangelicals. But if the above is true – that Brian separates the message of Jesus from the message about Jesus – what is to keep “the kingdom of God” from going the way of this middle class gospel? What is to keep the “kingdom of God” as concept from becoming domesticated in the same way as Jesus was by the American evangelicals: i.e. made comfortable for the same middle-upper middle class American Christians.

Many of us believe this already happened once – in the first articulation of a gospel around “the Kingdom of God.” In the mainline protestant social gospel of the 20’s 30’s to the 70’s, the “kingdom of God” became a gospel preached in protestant churches which enlisted thousands for the government programs of justice, “the Good society.” The church then, with the job of God’s justice being taken care of by the State, settled into its comfortable middle class life. Just as “Jesus” became domesticated into a upper middle class gospel about the afterlife that asks nothing of us socially and politically as a people (evangelicalism), so also the message of “the kingdom of God” became domesticated for ulterior purposes as well: i.e. the kingdom of God became a social program (via the protestant social gospel movement) under the auspices of the government which many would argue became the servant of democracy and capitalism, the very socio-political systems which encoded power, wealth and privilege in the first place. INSTEAD OF EVERYTHING BEING CHANGED, very little was changed.

To just rehearse this theological history, Ritschl, Harnack and others of 19th century protestant theology preached the Kingdom of God was the primary message of Jesus. In the aftermath of the sweeping acceptance of the “Quest for the Historical Jesus”: (Schweitzer et. al.), it was accepted that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet, yet the message of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, was the truth of the matter. This “Kingdom of God” got interpreted to refer to what God was doing in the world as understood in the surging progress of democracy (most notably by Rauschenbucsh) and all things liberating the individual from economic and social oppression. Democracy became the stand-in for “the kingdom of God.” Ironically, fundamentalist evangelicals (read here pres.Bush) follow in this shadow seeing American democracy and freedom as the hope for the world’s salvation.

I have argued this before, that once the church was taken out of the engagement for social justice in society, “the kingdom of God” became used to further the agenda of the powers including the state, capitalism and the multi- national corporate hegemony. Racial justice was all but usurped by government economic aims, the war on poverty and exploitation became servants of a sweeping global capitalism. The “kingdom of God” theology, which placed its hope in democratic ideals and economic progress ala the structures of a benign capitalism, became engulfed by the dominant powers which have formed the basis for what Brian calls the Suicide machine in EMC (I know I sound too much like Foucault here). Many may disagee, but the progress for racial justice in the US got derailed once it left the church (it was M L King of the church who started it) and became a set of institutions fed by State and corporate money. Many may disagree, but the progress in the struggle over poverty got derailed once it became a massive social program that depended on the poor for its enduring existence and profits. I know this can sound excessive, but I look to people like Shane Claiborne to make the same arguments more gracefully. So I think it is a fair question to ask Brian: WE’VE TRIED THIS BEFORE – HOW IS THIS DIFFERENT?

Today, there are some who see late democracy, and its collaboration with global capitalism, as the main culprits of this hideous suicide machine that Brian so brilliantly exposits in EMC (I’m talking about post Marxian Continental political theorists). Yet I argue, this is what happened with the first “social gospel” of the Kingdom. How does Brian’s theological proposals in EMC avoid the same fate? I think Brian’s work could be helped, as well as many emerging writers’, if they would spell out the difference. Emerging folk complain often that they get accused of being protestant liberals falsely. I believe they are pursuing a different direction. Likewise, to many of us informed by postmodernity (obviously not all), protestant liberal “kingdom of God” theology is a failed social strategy. It would further the Kingdom and the emerging movement if Brian could clarify these issues for us.

I come away from reading EMC with the sense that, according to all of us who agree with Brain about this Suicide Machine (and I am one of them), EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE, and now “it’s up to us!” And of course it is up to us. Yet in a way, IT’S NOT … you know what I am saying? The reality is “EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED” and now we must join in and cooperate with the ongoing work of God to usher in the consummation of His Kingdom. This guaranteed Final Victory is part of our Framing Story (is this what TSK was getting at with his questions concerning eschatology?).

This problem can be solved simply by linking the Kingdom of God inextricably to the affirmation – “Jesus is Lord.” Nothing is lost here. For we are not asserting a new universalist coercive foundationalism (Lesslie Newbigen) We are telling the Story we believe to be key to the future of all creation (the Secret Message). To me one cannot read NT Wright and miss the power of this (nevermind the host of NT scholars that went before him (Goppelt, Cullmann, Guelich, Ladd etc.). I read hints of this Lordship Christology throughout EMC. But does it seem to be muted in the book? Why? The funny thing is, I’m convinced Brian believes all of this and more. Is this just in my imagination? Other bloggers, help me out here if I misread Brian here.

Very simply, if “the kingdom of God” cannot be separated from “the King,” this places a renewed emphasis on the local church as being the instrument of a new politics, the politics of justice, righteousness and social renewal. It is indeed these people, called out ahead of time to recognize the inbreaking Kingdom, who recognize Jesus as Lord already, who shall be empowered to be the subjects of the new dynamic, the victory over the powers that threaten the earth. Indeed Brian talks in EMC as if this is indeed what he is calling for (pp. 291 ff.). Yet it seems this message somehow gets dissipated in the book. The church does not take the central role here. Yet I can only imagine if a person of Brian’s stature called for the church to begin a micropolitics of subversion WHOOOAH .. can you imagine 1000’s of tiny communities of Christ, gathering under his Lordship to resist the foreign powers that threaten the world. (I think this emphasis on an incarnational subversive ecclesiology is the main difference between the missional movement and the emerging church movement). Somehow this dynamic is present in EMC, yet it misses the punch for the reasons I have stated before, and for a lack of a robust ecclesiology. Again, am I misreading here?

Brian, thanks for your contribution to the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. I think you agree with everything I have just said. I just want you to more bold about it.

I’m open for discussion here. I’m open to being wrong. Heck, I want to be wrong. What are your impressions? Blessings on EMC and DeepShift.