The End of Religion is published by NavPress Deliberate, which is clearly a promoter of emergent theology and stresses redeeming the world (that is, bringing God’s kingdom to earth through improving earthly conditions), contemplation, mystery-embracing, inclusivism (embracing God’s truth in other faiths), and creative culture (p. 5). The End of Religion does not endorse most of these emphases, and Cavey (in personal correspondence with me) rejects affiliation with the emergent community. However, having the book published by NavPress Deliberate and in addition by quoting or receiving endorsement from many in the movement or on the fringe (Erwin McManus, N.T. Wright, Dallas Willard, Gregory Boyd, Larry Crabb, John Michael Talbot, Jim Wallis, Clark Pinnock and of course Brian McLaren), the reader is left wondering. This is especially true since McLaren, the recognized leader of the emergent movement, wrote an endorsement for the cover and Cavey acknowledges McLaren’s The Secret Message of Jesus as a great follow-up to this book. The Secret Message of Jesus is McLaren’s sad attempt at a gospel message and is a clear perversion of the true gospel (you can read my review at www.svchapel.org/resources/bookreviews). In a personal letter to me Cavey clarifies that he does not agree with everything these men write, but he uses them to connect with his audience, which he sees as mostly non-believers.
With this introduction here are my specific concerns about The End of Religion:
• Some statements could be interpreted as inclusivism
Cavey says that Jesus can offer spiritual help to people of other religions. He is seen as “a rabbi to the Jews, a prophet to the Muslims, and avatar to the Hindus, and enlightened one to Buddhists…” (pp. 11-12). Cavey tells me he means by this sentence that Jesus is already considered these things in other religions and this is a good starting point for evangelism. Still the comment is confusing in light of the resurgence of inclusivism today. We must be clear that Jesus came to seek and to save the lost—to call them from their idols to the living God, not offer false religions spiritual help. I was further confused when the author speaks of an atheist as a “committed Christ-follower” (p. 188). This is apparently a careless statement and does not reflect Cavey’s belief in the exclusivity of salvation through Christ alone (see p. 166).
• A misunderstanding of the kingdom of God
Cavey follows the theologically liberal postmillennial understanding of the kingdom that is prevalent in emergent circles. He writes, “Every time we allow our choices to align with God’s will of love for us, we experience more of His kingdom on earth” (p. 125). It is common in many circles to point to the fact that Jesus often said that the kingdom was near; however it is seldom noticed that Jesus never said the kingdom was here and when Jesus ascended the Messianic kingdom had not yet come (Acts 1:6-8). They try to wrap their “kingdom has come” theology around Luke 17:21, which is actually a statement made by Jesus to the Pharisees and is not teaching an inner, spiritual kingdom (unless one wants to believe that the kingdom was presently in the hearts of the Pharisees who would soon murder Jesus).
• The search for the historic Jesus
Commendably Cavey wants to take us back to a true picture of Jesus (p. 25). Unfortunately the portrait he paints of Jesus is, at times, a bit lopsided. For example, he showcases the love of Jesus but leaves out His anger (p. 80). Jesus, Cavey states, “never went out of His way to convince people they were sinners” (p. 239) and He “promoted a nonjudgmental spirituality” (p. 213). These statements are rather ambiguous. In light of Jesus’ rebukes (check out Matthew 23), and the numerous strong statements in the epistles (as a sampler try 2 Peter or Jude), to portray Jesus as all love and tenderness and not also extremely harsh on rebellious sinners is not a balanced picture. We as Christians are not to sit in judgment over nonessentials, nor are we the determiners of men’s souls, but we certainly must, after examination of our own lives, deal with sin and false teaching in others (Matthew 7:5; 18:15-20). Cavey tells me in his letter that he is in strong agreement with my comment here.
• Confusing statements concerning the gospel
As far as I can tell (from the book and correspondence with Cavey), he understands and teaches the biblical gospel message (see especially pp. 237-241) Therefore it is disconcerting to read an almost direct quote from Brian McLaren, “Salvation is not ultimately about going to heaven as a disembodied spirit, but about the renewal of all creation back to what it should have been in the first place” (p. 198; see also pp. 213, 238). Restoring the planet has become the gospel message of emergent. In the process it is hoped that many will become “Christ-followers,” even if they remain Buddhists or Muslims. But the real issue is bringing the kingdom to earth through our good deeds. Even though Cavey rejects this understanding of the gospel these are the things that McLaren references when he makes such statements.
• Some unfortunate statements concerning Scripture
One of the most disconcerting aspects of The End of Religion is some weak statements pertaining to Scripture. Cavey, perhaps because he sees this book as addressed to unbelievers, carefully tiptoes around the proclamation that the Bible is inspired by God. He admits the Gospels are “historically more valid than many of us have been led to believe” (p. 24), and God “commissioned” the Bible (p. 255), but he comes up short in pronouncing a belief in an inspired Bible. In the same arena, he often pits Jesus against the Word. “Truth is a person to be known, not a collection of disembodied facts to be studied…When God wants to ‘share His heart’ with us, He gives us Jesus” (p. 175, see p. 210). True enough, but what we know about Jesus is found in the Scriptures, not in mystical experiences or the like. He quotes Larry Crabb who writes, “Jesus seekers across the world are being prepared to abandon the old way of the written code for the new way of the Spirit” (p. 159), which in its context is a call to mystical Christianity. Cavey also accepts rhetorical hermeneutics (also embraced by McLaren) which is an approach to Scripture in which more attention is paid to body language than to the words (pp. 134-135).
• The Pharisees
Cavey paints the Pharisees as the ultimate bad boys of religion. Fair enough. But then he misunderstands the real problem and lumps “Bible lovers” (he calls them the dreaded fundamentalists) with them. He claims the Pharisees “were the Bible-fundamentalists of their day. If they had a motto it would have been, ‘The Bible says it. That settles it. I believe it. Let’s do it.’” (p. 97) He could not be more inaccurate. Jesus never condemned the Pharisees for their “Bible-thumping” (p. 80) but for their distortion, supplementing, and invalidation of Scripture (Matthew 15:1-9), something Cavey seems to recognize (p. 102), but sometimes ignores.
Finally, I found it disturbing when, after summarizing what Jesus taught about sin, Cavey states, “I am inclined to agree.” Perhaps this is a misstatement but I find it amazing that a “Christ-follower” is “inclined” to agree with Jesus. Does it really matter if we agree or not? And if we don’t agree are we not simply wrong? On the other hand I am not certain how settled Cavey is in his “Christ-following” mode. In a footnote he expresses his belief in the historic Jesus, but if he is wrong about this he wants to find the real man behind the stories and follow him: “For now, I’m happy to call that person ‘Jesus.’” (p. 244) It sounds like he is still open to other options. Again, in Cavey’s letter to me he affirms his commitment is to Christ and His teachings, and he was simply using understatement as a communication tool. I have encouraged him to make this far more clear in future writings.
The End of Religion makes some good points about religion and even sin. Cavey correctly writes, “Rightly understood, sin is a good-news idea… Jesus taught that sin is forgivable – karma, by definition is not” (p. 78). Still there are a number of issues that are of concern and/or need further explanation. As an added note, even as Cavey is writing this book against religion, many in the emergent fellowship are headed toward traditions and rituals in the form of the Ancient-Future Faith movement, including McLaren. Cavey’s position (pp. 107, 211, 220-221, 237) would be out of sync with this new direction. I believe the overall theme of The End of Religion is much more in line with the teaching of Scripture than the Ancient-Future Faith or emergent movement. Cavey tells me that he is not part of the emergent movement. If so, I would encourage him to clarify this in his writings and especially to distance himself from Brian McLaren.