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Kingdom Conspiracy: Book Review

Scot McKnight has a bee in his bonnet.  He’s been observing how the word “kingdom” has been used by Christians over the last few decades and he doesn’t particularly like what he sees.  The word has become a kind of vaguely Christian (or not) catch-all term to describe generically good deeds that have a connection—sometimes strong, sometimes tenuous—to the ethical vision of Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than pointing directly to the biblical vision of a specific King and a kingdom with a specific people, it often devolves into little more than the baptizing of a liberal, western, democratic ethic from which Jesus could quite comfortably be subtracted.

McKnight seeks to recover the shape and scope of “kingdom of God” language. Indeed, he asks us to recast the entire biblical narrative according to evolution of the role of “king” in Israel’s story. Rather than the familiar Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation paradigm that is often layered over the biblical story, McKnight prefers what he calls the “Plan A-B-A′ view:

Plan A: God alone rules as King (Adam through Abraham to Samuel).

Plan B. God concedes to Israel’s demand for a King (human kingship = rejection of YHWH as king; covers the rest of the OT until coming of Jesus).

Plan A′: God comes again to reign over his people as king in Jesus.

The argument has its merits, in my view. It is a theocentric rather than an anthropocentric presentation of salvation history, oriented around God and his movements toward his people, rather than human beings and their need for salvation. The two need not be mutually exclusive, of course, but the A-B-A′ model makes a certain kind of sense of Scripture’s usage of “king” and “kingdom” language, arguing for more of a continuity between how the word was used in previous parts of the story and the way Jesus himself used it.

Over and over again, throughout Kingdom Conspiracy, McKnight repeats a variation of this refrain: Kingdom implies a people governed by a King. “Kingdom” is not a mystical way of referring to a postmortem redemption, nor is it a poetic way of referring to the human struggle to “make the world a better place.” Throughout the biblical narrative, argues McKnight, the word “kingdom” only makes sense within the context of Israel’s history and future hope. When Jesus talked about the kingdom of God he was not talking about an idealized twenty-first century pluralistic liberal democracy characterized by tolerance and the supremacy of individual “human rights”; he was talking about a particular people in glad obedience to a particular King. No King, no kingdom.

Which brings us to the church. McKnight makes the strong claim that “church” and “kingdom” should be treated as virtual synonyms. It is here that many will protest. Did Jesus not proclaim the arrival of the kingdom long before there was ever a church on the scene? Did not Jesus say that the “kingdom of God is among/within you?” Is not the kingdom of God far bigger and broader and more hopeful and more attractive than the church? Why does McKnight seem so concerned to so closely identify “church” and “kingdom?”

Remember: Kingdom implies a people governed by a king.

The kingdom of God, for McKnight, does not describe wherever and whenever and for whatever reason things more or less happen to reflect God’s intentions for the world. Kingdom work can only be done by those who accept the right of the King to determine the shape of the kingdom. The church, like the kingdom, is not yet what it will be.  But if you don’t accept the king, you cannot build the kingdom. You can add to the common good, you can improve the state of affairs in the world, and many other things besides. But don’t describe it with language of “the kingdom.” It is a strong claim, but McKnight is sticking to it.

McKnight wants his “kingdom” language back—back from the religious right who have too long co-opted political power for misguided ends and, more recently, from the religious left who have done the same thing, if for different reasons. In one of the most strongly worded (and memorable) passages of the book, McKnight pulls few punches:

Progressive kingdom theology has become too often an emasculated kingdom of those whose theology is framed to make reparations for past injustices.  As such it functions as little more than the puppeting echoes of progressive Western liberalism and politics with a thin veneer of soteriology slathered on top of what is little more than a feeble attempt to salve a guilty conscience over a sinful history… [I]t is largely a shame-based movement masking a shallow gospel and an inept grasp of what kingdom means in the Bible.

Whew. Tell us what you really think, Scot. 🙂

Readers may not find all of the arguments in Kingdom Conspiracy compelling, but this is a book that will undoubtedly stimulate vigorous conversation. Looking at my own context, this would be an interesting book to read in Mennonite circles.  Have we, at times, embraced some of the faulty kingdom approaches that McKnight so dislikes (“the puppeting echoes of progressive Western liberalism…” “a thin veneer of soteriology…” “a feeble attempt to salve a guilty conscience…”).  Do we use “kingdom” language to avoid ugly words like “evangelism” or to justify our preferences to busy ourselves with social concerns rather than ever actually inviting people into the kingdom? Is it safer to preoccupy ourselves with the political agendas of the liberal intelligentsia?  Do we secretly often speak and act as if the kingdom could actually get along quite nicely without the King?  These are among the many questions that McKnight’s book provokes, at least for me.

Indeed, I can think of few Christians and few church contexts that could not profit from a reexamination of their understanding of both King and Kingdom. McKnight’s book gives us a needed push.

——

I received a copy of Kingdom Conspiracy from the Baker Publishing Group in exchange for my honest review.

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. BOOM

    October 23, 2014
  2. Paul Johnston #

    Do you understand McKnight to say one King, one Kingdom, one Church?

    October 23, 2014
    • Yes, that’s how I understand him.

      October 23, 2014
      • Paul Johnston #

        Does McKnight discuss what one church looks like on the ground? Any suggestions as to how the Christian churches might reconcile?

        October 27, 2014
      • He doesn’t spend a lot of time on this specific question. I think he would say that the one church is defined as something like “all who submit to the king in love, obedience, and worship.”

        October 27, 2014
  3. mmartha #

    Q. ” Do we secretly often speak and act as if the kingdom could actually get along quite nicely without the King?”
    A. We often openly speak as if it couldn’t get along at all without “my contribution.”

    October 23, 2014
  4. Sounds a little like Paul Marten’s critique of Yoder. I don’t like it when people play the card of ‘anthropocentrism’ when, you know, talk about God has been and is still mediated in some pretty lousy dude-centric ways but because, oh now we’re talking about GOD!, then we are getting back to the good stuff.

    October 23, 2014
    • Not overly familiar with Martens. I gather he was critical of Yoder for, in his view, reducing theology to ethics?

      I don’t think McKnight’s view of anthropo- vs. theocentrism is quite as naive as the way you frame it here. He was pushing back against the way that the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Consummation narrative can, at times, devolve into making the entire biblical narrative seem engineered for individual human salvation. I don’t think he’s under the illusion that there is any theology that isn’t mediated through human beings, whether of the reasonably helpful sort or the lousy dude-centric sort.

      October 23, 2014
  5. mike #

    Vast numbers of believers and non believers alike can no longer march to the sacred mantra of Right Wing ‘Christian’ capitalist philosophy, this book sounds to me more like a partisan defense against the advancing Democratic/socialist Ideology that’s sweeping through large segments of “the kingdom”.
    Christ’s Kingdom has always been about Ideology. Where does the Social Justice/reform movement originate from if not from the indwelling Christ himself, whether they know him personally or not. (see Matt: 5-7 for details)

    October 23, 2014
    • Well, then I’d encourage you to read the book to see if you’re right in your assessment. 🙂

      October 23, 2014
      • mike #

        I apologize for the abrasiveness of my comment. I know nothing about Scot McKnight and I’ve never read any of his books so I really don’t know what the man does or doesn’t believe, in fact, most of the time I don’t even know what I believe anymore. So often I’m just a clanging cymbal hoping for an audience.

        October 25, 2014
      • I didn’t interpret your comment as abrasive, Mike, so no apology necessary for my part.

        This morning’s gospel text was Matthew 22:34-46, the passage where Jesus distills “all the law and prophets” down to the double command to love God and neighbour. I find these sorts of passages helpful when I feed adrift or uncertain. It really is all about love, not about the strength of my beliefs or the accuracy of my cognition or about getting it all right… Thank God!

        (Of course, then I go out and actually try to love God and neighbour… And I realize that Jesus makes things easier for us by making things harder for us.) 🙂

        October 26, 2014
    • mmartha #

      Hang in there, Mike. God bless.

      October 26, 2014
      • mike #

        🙂

        October 26, 2014
  6. Hi Ryan Have been enjoying your blogs. Are you interested in applying for the pastor’s position at my old church, Sardis Community? Blessings, Graeme

    October 23, 2014
    • Thank you, Graeme. It’s good to hear from you. I’m not looking for a job at the moment but thanks for the tip. 🙂

      October 24, 2014

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