McLaren's focus in this book is on the meaning of a phrase that Jesus used repeatedly in his teachings: the Kingdom of God. The church, influenced by Greek philosophy, has traditionally spiritualized its meaning, but McLaren makes a strong case that Jesus' audience would have understood that the kingdom Jesus was describing was in the here and now (though still not a literal, political kingdom), and that his plan of redemption encompassed all of creation and not just preparations for the afterlife.
The idea that our primary purpose as Christians is to make the world around us a better place (and to invite others to do the same), as opposed to selling "fire insurance" or declaring war on those who disagree with our "family values," is a compelling and energizing one. It's also a very convicting message, since it reminds me of how little I actually do to improve the lives of those I come in contact with.
I may come back and revisit those thoughts at some point in the future, but right now I want to leave space for one of my favorite quotes from the book:
This is the scandal of the message of Jesus. The kingdom of God does fail. It is weak. It is crushed. When its message of love, peace, justice, and truth meets the principalities and powers of government and religion armed with spears and swords and crosses, they unleash their hate, force, manipulation, and propaganda. Like those defenseless students standing before tanks and machine guns in Tiananmen Square, the resistance movement known as the kingdom of God is crushed.
But what is the alternative? We really must consider this question. Could the kingdom of God come with bigger weapons, sharper swords, more clever political organizing? Could the kingdom of God be a matter of what is often called redemptive violence? Or would that methodology corrupt the kingdom of God so it would stop being "of God" at all and instead become just another earthly (and perhaps in some sense demonic) principality or power? Perhaps the kingdom could come with flawless, relentless, irresistible logic - a juggernaut of steamroller counterarguments to flatten every objection. Or would that mental conquest be as dominating as military conquest, reducing the kingdom of God to a kingdom of coercive stridency?
What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form - as a kingdom "not of this world" - is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideologies and counterkingdoms - so they, having been exposed, can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom? What if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?
Yes, what if?