Reframing Jesus


Human beings want to be happy, safe, and for things to be fair or just. Societies are formed, and resources are utilized to fulfill these desires. In today’s world, these attempts have grown to unsustainable levels. No one has a practical solution.

Brian McLaren believes we are stuck in this problem because of our dysfunctional framing stories: (1) we believe happiness comes from consuming more and more, yet greater consumption contributes to our problem; (2) we believe safety comes from violence, yet violence contributes to our problem; (3) we believe equity comes from adversarial systems, yet the us/them mentality contributes to our problem.

He believes Jesus may offer an alternative framing story that the world desperately needs.

In Part 3 of “Everything Must Change” (chapters 10-14), McLaren seeks to reframe Jesus. Without making this a marathon post, let me try to summarize his argument.

Jesus’s historical setting was the Roman Empire, a setting in which the Roman framing story (pax romana) claimed that happiness, safety, and fairness came from centering power in a divine emperor. This didn’t really work for everyone, including practically everyone that wasn’t an elite Roman male. But, hey, you can’t please everyone, right?

Jesus was a Jew. And seeing as how the Roman framing story didn’t include them so much, they had their own competing framing stories. There was the “we shall overcome” type of story, made popular by both the Zealots (those of the terrorist bent) and the Pharisees (those of the anal-retentive purity persuasion). On the other hand, there was the “if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” type of story, made popular by the Sadducees and Herodians. (There were also the “get out of Dodge” story – the Essenes – but since Jesus mostly wandered around the Empire, they don’t come into play much for this discussion.)

McLaren’s argument is that Jesus’s “good news” was that he didn’t buy ANY of these framing stories. He offered a new story for his world.

Now, here’s the overarching problem. Everyone knows about Jesus today, but the conventional view of Jesus has distorted, yea verily, compromised Jesus’s framing story. In fact, McLaren argues that the conventional view of Jesus has, ironically, made him a part of the framing story he sought to subvert. For example: There are those who, in the name of Jesus, take the Zealot/Pharisee story and make it out to be Jesus – let’s go defeat the sinners, “us” versus “them.” There are others who, in the name of Jesus, take the Sadducee/Herodian approach and make it out to be Jesus – let’s go be like everyone else. (There are others who withdraw, too, but they still get little airtime in this discussion.)

But that’s not all: Jesus, as commonly understood, not only fails to counter the self-destructive behavior of humanity – he makes it stronger. For example: since the conventional view makes Jesus concerned primarily with the afterlife, why worry so much about global problems anyway? Since the conventional view pictures God’s intent to destroy the world from wrath, then the downward spiral of the world is seen as God’s will.

McLaren, of course, thinks all this is a bunch of baloney. He believes Jesus came with a framing story intent on healing the world and leading humanity to employ transforming actions in a self-destructive world. Instead of choosing “any” of the framing stories available, he advocated a radically different way.

So how does he seek to reframe Jesus? Simply put, as an earthly king, with an earthly kingdom – a kingdom not of this world in that it operates differently than Caesar’s empire (and others, too), but a real king seeking to liberate all of humanity from their self-destructive ways. (Now he doesn’t dismiss all the afterlife stuff – just relegates it to less than primary status.)

Here are the words he chooses to summarize Jesus’s scandalous message: “The time has come! Rethink everything! A radically new kind of empire is available – the empire of God has arrived! Believe this good news, and defect from all human imperial narratives, counternarratives, dual narratives, and withdrawal narratives. Open your minds and hearts like children to see things freshly in this new way, follow me and my words, and enter this new way of living.”

So there you have it: McLaren advocates removing the framework whereby Jesus is solely concerned with the afterlife, and replacing it with a framework whereby Jesus establishes a kingdom very much concerned with the here and now.

NEXT SECTION: Reintroducing Jesus

[Side note: McLaren alludes to Urbino’s question in this section. And I quote, “…perhaps it could help us face and then turn away from at least some of the more disappointing failures that have plagued the Christian religion in its first two millennia. Perhaps it could even overflow the bounds of the Christian religion and bring some benefit to other religions and ideologies as well.” (page 92)]

5 Responses to “Reframing Jesus”

  1. urbino Says:

    Interesting. Just out of curiosity: does he base this “earthly kingdom” frame on any particular Gospel? Say, Matthew?

  2. alsturgeon Says:

    No. He goes through a list of 12 features of the Gospels (and he skips around all 4). Then, he focuses on 4 specific stories: (1) the songs of Mary and Zechariah (Luke), (2) Jesus’s announcement in the synagogue of Nazareth (Luke), (3) Peter’s declaration at Caesarea Philippi (Matthew), and (4) Jesus before Pilate (John).

    I don’t know if McLaren would like my summation, but hey, I’m doing the review, and that’s what I read!!!

  3. urbino Says:

    That makes sense. Those passages in Luke are traditional favorites for this kind of argument. The way it sounded like McLaren was emphasizing Jesus’ radical new kingship is what made me think of Matthew. I guess he’s leaning on 3 & 4 for that, though.

  4. urbino Says:

    Returning to the discussion that ensued from you first post about the book, Al, I have to say that, in fact, I don’t see anything here that hasn’t come up previously in [American] Christianity’s cyclical history. As noted in my previous comment, he’s calling attention to traditional favorites for this kind of argument, and using them to build the argument they’ve traditionally been used to build.

  5. alsturgeon Says:

    No argument from me. I plan to read the next section in the next day or two to see how he “reintroduces” Jesus.

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