Book Review: Kingdom Conspiracy
Author: Scot McKnight
Publisher: Brazos Press
I read a lot of books and I write reviews for most of the books I read. Most of the books I read are kind of popular level books written for the general Christian population among us and they are thus not too deep or theologically hefty. Mostly they are boring.
Every now and again I come across a book that radically alters the way I think about things or the way I believe or understand things. Sometimes a book utterly rebuilds the landscape. Kingdom Conspiracy is one such book. I say this without the slightest hint of hyperbole: this might be one of the most important and significant books written during my generation. That is how important this book is and that is why this book should be read by every Christian–pastor, preacher, and parishioner alike. I think the Pope should read this book–maybe he has. Seminary professors ought to read this book. In a world where words often mean nothing, it's important that we are also careful not to make words mean anything or everything. This, I think, is key to understanding McKnight's ideas in Kingdom Conspiracy.
Not everyone who reads this book is going to wholly agree with all of his ideas of what the kingdom of God is (sometimes I thought the hair he was splitting was a little too fine) or his understanding of certain passages of Scripture. But one thing I think everyone can and should agree upon is that whatever we think of the kingdom of God we need to be very careful not to define it too loosely or casually. That is to say: not everything people label as 'kingdom' work is, in fact, kingdom work. (To put a finer point on it: merely calling something 'kingdom' work does not necessarily make it kingdom work or sacred and when we call something kingdom work, even if it is, it is not ours to bypass the church in the process.) Definitions matter as much as articulation. Thus his opening salvo: "Precision begins with defining terms" he writes quoting Marilyn McEntyre. Yes. It does. He goes on: "I lay down an observation that alters the landscape if we embrace it–namely, that we need to learn to tell the story that makes sense to Jesus. Not a story that we ask Jesus to fit into. No, we to find the story that Jesus himself and the apostles told" (22).
Definitions and articulation matter. What I continue to see and hear–both from pulpits and in the books being published–is that we get it wrong on both marks most of the time. The Americanized gospel of 'join the club, go to church, and follow the rules so you can also go to heaven' is the result of unclear definitions and poor articulation. It's the result of thinking democracy=kingdom. That is decidedly not the kingdom articulated in the Scripture. Again, I see it in the books I read for review and in the sermons I hear and read. I am grateful for preachers like McKnight, N.T. Wright, and others who refuse to take shortcuts around the Bible to make a gospel that Jesus fits into. Frankly, I think if we asked a group of 100 Christians to articulate the Kingdom story, 99 would fail because it simply is not preached in the pulpits: "Until we can articulate the Bible's kingdom story, we can't do kingdom mission" (23). I agree.
I was in his grip after 3 chapters and he never let go.
What has most amazed me since I started (and finished) the book is how aware I have become of kingdom language in the Bible. Don't get me wrong: I think McKnight nails it most of the time when it comes to understanding what Kingdom is and is not. My point is that as I read through the Bible–I am currently teaching through the book of Daniel–I am amazed at the language that is used: kings and kingdoms, kingdom of God, kingdom of heaven, and so on. It's all over the place. It's amazing and it is there from front to back, Genesis to Revelation, and all places in between. Maybe someday some fine theologian will do a comprehensive study of the Kingdom of God from the beginning to the end of the Bible. I think it would be a fascinating study. (I'm currently reading a book called The Kingdom according to Luke and Acts by Karl Allen Kuhn which is exploring Kingdom in a small part of the Bible, but he is also nicely tying that story in with the meta-narrative of the entire Bible.)
I'd like to note what I think is probably the most significant aspect of the book for me insofar as giving readers something to practice. I belong to a generation of people who have by and large given up on the church. Let me be honest: I'm on the edge. I'm on the edge because of my experiences as a pastor with churches that have refused to move forward and who found that getting rid of me would make their lives easier. But I haven't given up entirely for two reasons. First, the church hasn't given up on me. If one church has gotten rid of me for their own convenience, another church has taken me in and bathed my wounds. I still love the church; the church still loves me. Second, because the McKnight solidified for me something I have already and always believed: the church and the kingdom are synonymous. Thus: "…kingdom mission is church mission and that kingdom mission is not working for the common good…" (115). Further,
What I am not in favor of is assigning the word 'kingdom' to such actions [as public action or social justice or compassion for the poor or feeding the homeless] in order to render that action sacred or to justify that action as supernatural or to give one the sense that what she or he is doing is ultimately significant. When we assign the word 'kingdom' to good deeds in the public sector for the common good, we take a word that belongs in one place (the church) and apply it in another (the world). In so doing we run the risk of diminishing church at the expense of the world. (115, his emphasis.)
And he's correct. For the Christian, the church should be a significant priority. "Kingdom is the realm of redemption and the redeemed, not what followers of Jesus did in the public sector" (114). Yes. His argument is, admittedly, complex and being able to draw that line in minds that are already persuaded is difficult. Nevertheless, we must indeed have our minds open and our hearts rent so that we can clearly define and articulate bible things. In the tradition I have belonged to for most of my life, this has been a part of our 'doctrine'–that we should call bible things by bible names. This is good. Now my tradition just needs to start defining Kingdom with more accuracy and clarity and then begin articulating it from the pulpits of our churches with more frequency, more duration, and more intensity.
I am glad that McKnight takes up for the church. I am guilty, but I get tired of people running down the church, the body of Christ, the Bride for whom Jesus died. So often people are so busy running the church down that we might think christians can get along with it. We cannot. We need the church. All of us. Yet we struggle.
"It is more glamorous to do social activism because building a local church is hard. It involves people who struggle with one another, in involves persuading others of the desires of your heart to help the homeless, it means caring for people where they are and no where you want them to be, it involves daily routines, and it only rarely leads to the highs of 'short-term mission' experiences. But local church is what Jesus came to build, so the local church's mission shapes kingdom mission" (97).
We can do better.We need the church. We need one another. McKnight helped stoke the fires of affection in me for the church again. Maybe I have been too critical; perhaps unfair. With a prophet's insight and conviction, McKnight confronted my own church angst and now restoration has begun in me.
This book asks some difficult, soul-searching questions. It challenges time honored traditions concerning definitions. While I get the point of demarcating this book along lines of 'skinny-jeans christians' and 'pleated-pants christians', I think even McKnight would acknowledge there is a lot of room for frilly-dress and bonnet christians, overalls christians, sweat-pants christians, polyester slacks and silk shirts christians, and many more besides. In other words, his categories help us see the differences but all of us have this problem of definition. His clear point is this: be careful how you define words because your definition directly affects your articulation. I agree.
The book is heavily researched and, as per usual, given that it is written for a popular audience, notes have been relegated to the end of the book. It is deeply exegetical and contextual–in other words, he doesn't prooftext his readers but thoughtfully engages in exegesis of large swaths of scripture to give context and clarity to his ideas. It contains a substantial subject index which will be helpful for preachers and teachers alike. Sadly, there are no references except what is found in the end notes so following up with his research might prove to be a bit of a chore. This is a book that will not disappoint the thoughtful reader–the person wholly engaged in trying to understand what Scripture says about a particular theological subject.
I simply cannot say enough good about this book. Please read it.