Scholarly friends of the Church have become increasingly numerous in recent years: Jan Shipps, Margaret Barker, Richard J. Mouw, and Douglas J. Davies, to name a few. Other friends resonate with some truths of the gospel unwittingly: Bart D. Ehrman, James Charlesworth, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, and many others. Pastors as friends are much more rare, however, given the problems Joseph Smith and many Latter-day Saint missionaries have had with men of the cloth since the Church was restored. Brian D. McLaren, Evangelical pastor of the Cedar Ridge Community Church in the Washington-Baltimore area, is an exception who fits the bill very well, although he may not be aware that many of the ideas in The Secret Message of Jesus have been taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for many decades.
While the title implies that the book is a controversial one (like Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) or at least a newly discovered pseudepigraphical work, it is neither. I found The Secret Message of Jesus more edifying and important than either possibility. Pastor McLaren assumes a mission of attempting to bring Christians and non-Christians together—despite their theological differences—by elucidating for us the Sermon on the Mount of Jesus Christ in Matthew chapters 5–7. He points out that even though all Christians are familiar with what he calls “the Manifesto of the Kingdom,” they miss the practical message of how the words of the Savior can be literally carried out in everyday life. He reminds us that “Jesus is calling people to a higher way of life that both fulfills the intent of the Law and exceeds the religious rigor of the religious scholars and Pharisees who focus on a merely external conformity and technical perfection” by substituting “God’s perfection [which] is a compassionate perfection.” “The secret message of Jesus isn’t primarily about ‘heaven after you die.’ It doesn’t give us an exit ramp or escape hatch from this world; rather, it thrusts us back into the here and now so we can be part of God’s dreams for planet Earth coming true.”