Everything Must Change by Brian McLaren: Book Review

In Everything Must Change, Brian McLaren maps his journey with two questions that have shaped his life: What are the biggest problems in the world? and What does Jesus have to say about these?  With these framing questions, he signals to religious educators immediately the degree to which his approach is squarely within the liberation paradigm.  This book, is premised on the assumption that the concrete situations that face humankind are the site at which religious education must begin.

Action is, without a doubt, something McLaren believes is essential—and he writes to those that share his desire to translate faith into a “way of life that makes a positive difference in the world” (3).  Not content to merely goad or guilt readers into action, McLaren
takes it upon himself to convince them that “making a difference is not another dreary duty for an already overburdened person, but rather that making a difference is downright joyful--fulfilling, rewarding, good” (2).  While this post is most interested in the contours of McLaren’s pedagogical approach, it will begin with a bit of necessary attention to his diagnosis of the human plight. 

McLaren’s approach to understanding the various global crises is to conceive of   human society as a complex of three interlocking systems: the prosperity system which seeks to help satisfy human desires, the security system which protects successful prosperity, and the equity system seeks to spread and equitably support the further prosperity.  In the case of contemporary global society, these interlocking systems compose a “suicide machine” in which prosperity is gained by few who develop massive means of security in order to reject equity.  Consequently, most of humanity lives in squalor, the rich rightly fear violent revolution and the planet stands on the precipice of environmental catastrophe.

At the root of this “vicious self-reinforcing cycle,” McLaren finds a “disease of ideology” (52, 50).  The problem is that “our world’s dominant framing story is failing” (68).  A “framing story” or metanarrative is the way a person or society make sense of experience.  They are what we believe most deeply, but usually at a subconscious level.  The dominant framing stories that have generated and perpetuated our current crises include a web in which some narrate their existence as impoverished victims deserving revenge, or as the holy religious fleeing unrighteousness or as dedicated beneficiaries of theocapitalism. 

This scourge of contemporary destructive stories, asserts McLaren, is as old as time, and into a world like ours Jesus proclaimed a message of salvation, not merely from hell, but from the grip of framing narratives that if unchecked would degrade and destroy humanity.  Thus “salvation...is not located in an other-worldly afterlife; it is what we might call political and social liberation” (104).  Jesus offered his contemporaries an alternative to the revenge narrative of the zealots, the isolation narrative of the Essenes, the empire beneficiary narrative of the Sadducees and Herodians and the scapegoating narrative of the Pharisees.  Indeed “at the heart of the life and message of Jesus was an attempt to expose, challenge, confront, transform, and replace the unhealthy framing stories of his day” (39).

The “good news” of Jesus is that another framing narrative is available, and it is one under which human society will flourish.  This story “tells us that we are free and responsible creatures in a creation made by a good, wise, and loving God, and that our Creator wants us to pursue virtue, collaboration, peace and mutual care for one another and all living creatures, and that our lives can have profound meaning if we align ourselves with God’s wisdom, character, and dreams for us...” and if we take this narrative as our own than God’s intentions will finally be done on this troubled earth as they are in heaven (67).  In sum, Jesus “proposes a framing story of prosperity, equity, and security through generosity rather than anxious hoarding” driven by a narrative of scarcity (135).

Like Paulo Friere’s praxis pedagogy, which places early focus on the process of  conscientization—including an awareness of the internalized oppressor-oppressed narrative—McLaren sees in Jesus a primary attention to luring the “dark machinery” of Caesar-centric framing stories into the light—exposing, naming, rejecting and defecting from them.  And yet, while McLaren shares this aim, he seems to believe it is possible via the “banking” method against which Friere rails.  Notwithstanding the “Group Dialog Questions” at the end of each chapter which feature one of Friere’s favorite words, the very format of a book fails to heed his emphatic caution: “dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one person “depositing” ideas in another” (Friere 89).  The clearest example of McLaren’s banking approach is found in Chapter 10 which provides what might be seen as something of a catechism.  In question and answer form, McLaren poses the key questions which reveal ones framing story, and distinguishes the “conventional” answer from his own “emerging” view.

Despite the glaring limitation of the media and pedagogy that it evidences, McLaren does esteem greatly the importance of questions in his educative work.  It is the two opening questions that drove his own education, and throughout poses new queries provocatively.  The newness of these questions is key for McLaren since, according to Albert Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it” (49).  New questions have the potential to “dislodge” and “liberate our imagination from its captivity and domestication within the close and depressing narrative of the suicide machine” (253-254).  Thus, education is largely a task of escaping from assumptions to a vantage point from which to evaluate them in the light of alternatives.

While firmly within the liberative approach, McLaren does highlight the important role of the community of faith in the education he envisions, noting that “whenever we belong to a group...we are under the influence of that group’s framing story, learning where we come from, what’s going on, where we are situated in the story’s plotline, where we are going, how we should act, and what we are here for” (66-7).  Thus when gets to his prescriptive call for action in his conclusion, he confesses that community action is primary to personal action “because individuals can’t learn a new kind of faith to inspire new personal action without a faith community to teach the faith and model the action” (298).  In an explicitly pedagogical passage, McLaren instructs faith communities in their dual task: “First, they must recognize that the dominant societal system...has its own covert curriculum, a curriculum that must be unlearned.  Second, they must develop their own creative counter-curriculum to teach people the art of living in this new way” (284).  Along these lines, McLaren finds hope in emerging faith communities that engage in “profound spiritual formation leading to liberating social transformation” (299).

The importance of personal development as an educational aim is subtly devalued when McLaren invokes Gandhi: “The difference between what we do and what we are capable of doing would suffice to solve most of the world’s problems” (146).  This is in stark contrast to the words of Dallas Willard, an advocate for spiritual formation who said “Justice will prevail on earth when there are enough transformed people to see that justice is done.”[1]  McLaren gives only a slight nod to traditional spiritual disciplines, noting that a proper response to the gospel of the kingdom would involve a practice of prayer in which no longer enlists God’s assistance for “making it” in the dominant system but that baths ones inner world with the transforming presence of God (298).  McLaren also calls on disciples to “dehabitualize and delegitimize even small expressions of aggression like name-calling” (179).

According to McLaren the struggle for justice “must begin with education, supported by persuasion, leading to the development of faith-inspired movements for social justice around the world” (253).  Ultimately, education can only hope to foster one irreplaceable thing—faith.  What McLaren has in mind here is very specific, he cherishes a faith that believes that “the old narrative of domination is suicidal, and that a new story (good news) of liberation and reconciliation is available if we will only rethink everything and believe it” (273).  Even for someone so committed to the need for liberative action there remains a fundamental conviction that “believing is the most radical thing we can do” (274).  It is with this insight that McLaren prays for heroes to arise with a new vision and a new way, lest the dominant framing story of our day become our obituary (204).

McLaren, Brian.  Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope.  Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007.
Friere, Paulo.  Pedagogy of the Oppressed: 30th Anniversary Edition.  Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.


[1] Heard directly at a Renovare International Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation.

1 comment:

  1. I love this book so much and very good for my education and need help with research paper here and recommended students quickly.