George Lakoff, a distinguished cognitive scientist trained in linguistics, came to prominence several years ago as an unlikely guru among Democratic Party strategists. In books such as Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Lakoff highlights the "frames and metaphors" by which Americans organize their perceptions. Why, Lakoff asks, did many conservatives accept President George W. Bush's foreign policy despite abundant evidence that it was badly misconceived? Simple. Conservatives interpreted the Bush Administration's decisions via the "strict father morality" that helps frame their understanding of the world. "Map this onto foreign policy, and it says you cannot give up sovereignty. The United States, being the best and most powerful country in the worlda moral authorityknows the right thing to do. We should not be asking anybody else." In his books, Lakoff systematically contrasts "conservative" frames with "progressive" frames, urging progressives to understand conservatives, and then reframing debates in a way to persuade conservatives to see the light.
In Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Thomas Nelson), Brian McLarenone of the two or three most influential figures in the "emergent" movementpursues a similar project, though one even more ambitious than Lakoff's. McLaren attempts nothing less than a reframing of what Jesus taught and what it means to follow him on the Way.
McLaren contrasts what he calls "conventional" frames ("frequently defined as 'orthodoxy,'" he writes) with "emerging" frames. So, for example, in the emerging view, "Jesus came to become the Savior of the world, meaning he came to save the earth and all it contains from its ongoing destruction because of human evil."
McLaren intends to correct an overemphasis on Last Things in the "conventional" view of salvation. Instead, he stresses "the privilege of participating in [Jesus'] ongoing work of personal and global transformation and liberation from evil and injustice."
McLaren sets this discussion in the context of an apocalyptic global crisis. Whereas Lakoff writes with urgency inspired by what he sees as a "radical revolution" brought about by American conservatives, McLaren speaks of our global civilization as a "suicide machine."
Well. That's a lot to chew on. Much that McLaren says here reminds me of conversations I've had with fellow Christians in the last decade, and in fact, while I disagree with him on many points, I share his dissatisfaction with aspects of the "conventional" account of Jesus' Good News: McLaren's reference to "emerging views" is not mere wishful thinking. But here are some preliminary issuespreliminary, that is, to any serious wrestling with his thesis.
When I brought McLaren's book home to read, I placed it atop a teetering stack that included, about halfway down, a book by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Fogel, The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 17002000: Europe, America, and the Third World. To talk about global crisisand in particular about global povertyand not take into account the evidence for rising expectations laid out in books such as Fogel's strikes me as inadequate. The actual picture is considerably more complicated than McLaren presents.
How do the life and teachings of Jesus direct us to approach "the most critical global problems in the world today": "global poverty, environmental destruction, and increasing violence"? McLaren suggests that no piecemeal approach will work. Rather, we must address "our deeper ideological sickness." So, for instance, we must address our "addiction to war."
In the chapters devoted to this theme, under the heading "The Security System," I thought McLaren was building a case for pacifism. That certainly seems to be the logic of his argument, as he quotes approvingly from Chris Hedges: "Wars that lose their mythic stature for the public, such as Korea or Vietnam, are doomed to failure, for war is exposed for what it isorganized murder." But then at the start of the concluding chapter in the section, he writes:
The last sentences of the previous chapter were not setting you up for a call to ideological pacifism. I agree with the New Vision group: we need to move to a new dialogue beyond the old just-war and pacifist positions. So I would rather sidestep these polarizations entirely and instead call adherents of both positions to a joint consideration of the addictive nature of war, an addiction we may already have but may be in denial about.
I have to admit thatimmersed as I am now in a pile of books about the conflict with Japan in World War II and another stack about the Spanish Civil Warthis talk about war as an "addiction" seems sophomoric, indeed painfully naïve and patronizing. Perhaps I am just in denial. But dialogue between just-war folk and pacifists? Yes, I'm all for thatand if this dialogue can take us further, wonderful.
Such dialogue, of course, has proceeded fitfully for many centuries. Neither the just-war tradition nor the pacifist tradition has been static. And soon this point and across the boardthe claim of McLaren's title, Everything Must Change, is quite misleading.
McLaren is particularly misleading when he's suggesting, as he does quite emphatically at times, that somehow the church went off the rails early on, and that only now are (some) Christians beginning to understand what Jesus was really saying. While McLaren occasionally adds nuances and qualifiers, this ahistorical account runs through the book. In this respect, his message is oddly reminiscent of the ahistorical narrative of church history that dominated the evangelical/fundamentalist churches of my youth. Between an idealized first-century church and the present moment, when the preacher was calling on you to make a decision for Christ, there loomed a great wastelandall those centuries in which the church failed to heed the plain words of Scripture.
The reader of McLaren's book will discover that everything hasn't changed. Do we, as McLaren suggests, decide not to buy a cheaper shirt that has been made in a factory where the workers receive terribly low wages and instead pay more for a shirt that has been made in a factory where the workers are better compensated? Oras a number of economist friends of mine would maintainwould McLaren's well-intended gesture, insofar as it had any effect beyond producing a sense of virtuous conduct, actually tend to undermine the fortunes of those poor workers?
Nothing in this book will help you answer that question with greater confidence than you had before you started reading. But this is not a counsel of despair, or an excuse for apathy. I share McLaren's wonder and delight at the power of new life in Christ, which should inform our thinking and our actions in every sphere. With God's help, there's plenty of work for us to do.
John Wilson, editor, Books & Culture.
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