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The Heirs of Rome

18 January 2008


If you have occasion to pick up McLaren’s Everything Must Change, bear in mind that it may take an act of the will to persevere in reading it because of McLaren’s Frost-like tendency to take gratuitous potshots at political conservatives and at conservatism more broadly. Red-staters will find it hard not to get defensive or even to abandon the enterprise altogether. But we’ve got to read stuff like this because it forces us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and our philosophical headwaters.

The core of the book, which is to say its most valuable portion, begins in chapters 7-14 with a development of McLaren’s narrative/counternarrative argument. The following excerpt  – well, I just wish I were enough of a history scholar to be able to judge whether or not McLaren’s take is accurate.  Take a look for yourself:

The Roman empire was Jesus’ original habitat and the dominant social reality in which he lived. Its framing story (“narrative” -qb) demanded ultimate submission. The empire could demand this submission because it could boast amazing successes: a system of roads and ports to facilitate commerce, urban planning that featured unprecedented engineering advances like aqueducts and amphitheaters, an economic system that provided a common currency, and a cultural system that spread Roman values through the Greek language.

Driven by the kinds of narratives we considered in the previous chapter, the Roman empire promised peace, security and equity through domination. The pax Romana recipe was elegantly simple, as it is for all empires. Concentrate the power of violence in one source – the emperor (literally, the king of kings, the supreme king to whom all regional kings defer and submit). Decisively crush any and all opposition to the emperor. Then, “unified” (qb’s quotation marks!) under the emperor’s supreme will, the empire will defeat its enemies and punish its criminals so that all will experience prosperity, equity, and peace…

…So the empire benefited everyone – except for slaves, servants, tenant farmers, and women. (pp. 83-84)

As I re-read this passage today over lunch, I couldn’t help but reflect on the last two years of life at Hillside Christian Church and remark how similar our experiences have been to the empire that McLaren describes. What really took my breath away, though, was this concluding paragraph in chapter 10.

There was one other small price to pay so that powerful, wealthy men could enjoy the prosperity, security, and equity of the empire: freedom of speech, of thought, of religion (in other words, a comprehensive, public freedom of conviction -qb). Of course, all three were officially celebrated and defended by the empire – except when they might undermine support for imperial policy. For example, if people were tempted to use their free speech to complain about excessive taxation in the empire, or if their religion came into conflict with the patriotic ethos of the empire – perhaps by doubting the supreme, divine authority given to the emperor – they’d better keep quiet about it, or they may experience the dark side of the pax Romana: the cross. (p. 86)

Of course, guys like McLaren are innate dissidents, so it is not surprising that he sees the world through a revolutionary lens. But that does not disqualify him, and it does not invalidate his message. In fact, one could argue, with Brueggemann, that because the prophetic mandate is to “nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us,” a prophet is always a dissident.

Running through the tape of the last two years, it does not take long to situate Hillside’s narrative comfortably in the narrative of ancient Rome. The cast of characters (emperor, Herodians, sycophants, dissidents) and the physical and institutional settings (great public works, technology, the Senate, Golgotha) come briskly to life.


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