Your Jesus is too safe

It’s a great pleasure to participate in the blog tour for Jared Wilson’s book Your Jesus Is Too Safe: Outgrowing a Drive-Thru, Feel-Good Savior—though I must confess that the term “blog tour” gives me an image of a truly strange-looking trolley rolling along the infobahn, dinging merrily away, with a disembodied voice gravely intoning, “Next stop . . .” None of which, of course, has anything to do with the book.

Full disclosure: I’ve known Jared Wilson as a blogger and blog correspondent (for lack of a better term) for a couple years now, I had the privilege of meeting him in person and spending a little time with him at GCNC this past April, and I consider him a friend. I like and respect him a great deal.

Truth behind full disclosure: none of that affects my review of his book. If anything, it’s the other way around—this book captures much of the reason why I like and respect Jared. When Ed Stetzer begins the foreword by declaring, “The pages you are about to read are an antidote,” he’s right; and it’s an antidote that far too much of the American church badly needs.

An antidote to what? To the legalistic no-gospel that fills so much of the American church—conservative as well as liberal; some of the worst offenders consider themselves “evangelical”—and our convenient, comfortable, sanitized, commoditized caricatures of Jesus, all precisely designed to meet our felt needs. As Jared says, our culture is plenty familiar with Postcard Jesus, Get-Out-of-Hell-Free Jesus, Hippie Jesus, Buddy Jesus, ATM Jesus, Role Model Jesus, and Therapeutic Jesus, and many Christians are thrilled when some famous person or other gives thanks to Grammy Award Speech Jesus; but the real Jesus, the Jesus we find in Scripture, is an altogether unfamiliar figure, because all too many churches aren’t preaching him. After all, he makes us uncomfortable, and he makes the world uncomfortable, and that’s no way to grow a church, now, is it?

To this kind of thinking, Jared offers his book as an antidote, driven by the love of Christ and the provocation of the Spirit of God. As he writes (239-40),

The passion of my life is the scandalous gospel of God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit cultivated this passion in me through the Scriptures, in which I see Jesus chastised and criticized for proclaiming the gospel by eating with sinners and giving himself to sinners. My encouragement to you—my call to you—is to partake of that gospel, to acknowledge and confess and believe that you are a sinner in need of God’s grace, and that Jesus Christ died and rose to manifest that grace to you, and that you can’t live without Jesus. You cannot do it.

That is the sort of thing that ought to be the lifeblood of every Christian and the heartbeat of every church . . . and it isn’t. It isn’t because we don’t take our sin seriously enough, and we don’t take Jesus seriously enough. The purpose of this book is to change that, for those who have ears to hear.

To do this, Jared presents what he calls twelve portraits of Jesus, looking at Christ from twelve different angles, through a dozen different lenses. He considers:

  • Jesus the Promise
  • Jesus the Prophet
  • Jesus the Forgiver
  • Jesus the Man
  • Jesus the Shepherd
  • Jesus the Judge
  • Jesus the Redeemer
  • Jesus the King
  • Jesus the Sacrifice
  • Jesus the Provision
  • Jesus the Lord
  • Jesus the Savior

Some of these sound familiar to American ears, while others are quite strange (I can imagine readers asking “Jesus the Provision? What does he mean by that?”); but the truth is that even the familiar ones have been trimmed and tamed, made safe and non-threatening and altogether nice, in the teaching of far too much of the church in this culture. Not to put too fine a point on it, far too many of us in this country aren’t Christians at all but idolators, worshiping a Jesus of our own invention who is nicely tuned to tell us just what we want to hear. In response, Jared sets out to open our eyes to what it really means that Jesus was a fully human adult male, or that he is the King of Kings. In so doing, he will no doubt make a lot of folks very, very uncomfortable—but it’s a holy discomfort, the evidence of the Spirit of God at work.

In painting his portraits of Jesus, Jared draws heavily on Scripture, as he should; this is a book filled with biblical quotations, and not just single verses, but whole passages. Of course, there are plenty of books out there which quote a lot of Scripture and then proceed to misuse it, but that isn’t a problem here; one of the chief qualities of the book is its careful attention to what Scripture is actually saying, and its author’s clear determination to follow wherever the word of God leads and let the chips fall where they may. Rather than using the Bible to make his points, he has sought to place himself under the Bible and its authority, and thus to say only what it says.

This is not to say, however, that he has produced a book which is disconnected from life as we know it; quite the contrary. The academic foundation is clearly there, but this is no theoretical discussion; it is, rather, a profoundly practical book—or perhaps we might say, following G. K. Chesterton, that it is a profoundly unpractical book in all the right ways. Chesterton has one of his characters, the poet and painter Gabriel Gale, offer to help a man who has attempted suicide, explaining his offer with these words:

I am no good at practical things, and you have got beyond practical things.

What you want is an unpractical man. . . . What can practical men do here? Waste their practical time in running after the poor fellow and cutting him down from one pub sign after another? Waste their practical lives watching him day and night, to see that he doesn’t get hold of a rope or a razor? Do you call that practical? You can only forbid him to die. Can you persuade him to live? Believe me, that is where we come in. A man must have his head in the clouds and his wits wool-gathering in fairyland, before he can do anything so practical as that.

Chesterton was right: the practical counsels of this world can only forbid people to die (or, more ominously, order them to die); they cannot persuade people to live, much less tell them how. That is for unpractical people, for those who have given their lives over to the unpractical mendicant teacher from Nazareth, and in so doing have learned how to live; and to illustrate that, Jared offers a number of stories of just what that unpractical life looks like. Some, like the story of the Amish of Quarryville, PA who forgave the man who murdered their daughters, are widely known; others, like the story of his cousins Steve and LaVonne Jones and their son Colton (which, as a father of three, wrenched at my heart), are not. All bear witness to the truth that it’s only in the real Jesus Christ, not any of the more “practical” or “useful” versions of him that we invent, that we find real life.

The tone of this book is informal and conversational, at times snarky and sarcastic (though the bulk of that is to be found among its copious and entertaining footnotes), and occasionally slangy; some, at least of older generations, may find that off-putting at points. In general, however, I don’t think any but the most formal of readers will find it a true problem, while younger folks in particular will likely find the tone attractive and appealing. Taken as a whole, I believe the conversational tone is a benefit to the book, for a couple reasons.

One, it suits the author; I don’t have any way of knowing if attempting to write in a more formal style would have made him sound stuffy and pedantic, but writing in this vein makes it clear that he is anything but. That’s disarming, which is a good thing; given that he’s calling his readers to set aside our comfortable Jesuses for one who will challenge us and make us very uncomfortable with ourselves, the natural response from many will be to look for a reason to reject that call. Many will no doubt find reasons, but branding Jared as stuffy and out of touch won’t be one of them.

Two, the book’s tone serves to reinforce the point that its message is for all of us, and all of life. Following Christ isn’t just about doing formal things for an hour or so on Sunday morning, but it’s about how we’re supposed to live all the rest of the time, too; it has to do with cracks about old teen movies and popular fiction just as much as with the sorts of things we think of as “spiritual.”

The great risk Jared took with this book—one which he himself acknowledges—is that in looking at Jesus from twelve different perspectives, he might have “inadvertently propose[d] twelve different Jesuses, creating intellectual confusion where the purpose has been to enhance clarity.” I think, though, that he has avoided that quite successfully by tracing one strong theme through all twelve chapters: “the great unifying presence of the gospel.” This is the hub of which the twelve perspectives are spokes, as he lays out in the conclusion of the twelfth chapter (280):

The good news is that Jesus Christ is not just God with us, but he’s also God forus. For us, he is the promise of fulfillment, the prophet of truth, the forgiver of sins, the man of sorrows, the good shepherd, the righteous judge, the redeemer, the reigning king, the atoning sacrifice, the all-sufficient provision, the almighty God, and the rescuer of the lost. He is all these things and more, but none of this is good news if he is not also the Lord and the Savior of sinners in need of grace.

Today is the day of salvation. The kingdom is at hand. Repent and believe.

If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Jared Wilson has written a book that is full of the gospel of Jesus Christ, that shines the light of that gospel from every page, and that I believe will call many in this country to that gospel for the first time. It is a book for the reconversion of the church, and for the conversion of many who are outside the church because they’ve rejected our false Jesuses, not knowing that the real Jesus is someone altogether different. It’s a book we need to read, not because Jared is wonderful, but because Jesus is wonderful, and Jared is talking about Jesus. It is, in short, a book for which we can honestly say, “Thank you, God.”

Jesus Brand Spirituality: Reclaiming the pilgrims’ path

OK, so when I said, “I hope to get the post on the first chapter up in the next day or two,” I should have said “a week or two (or three)” . . . sorry about that. I’m too easily distracted, I guess. That’s too bad, because the first chapter of Jesus Brand Spirituality, “Reclaiming the Pilgrims’ Path,” sets out the book’s overall agenda and approach, and does so in admirable fashion.

I have only one significant objection, and I’ll begin with that, both in order to get it out of the way and because it deals with Ken Wilson’s very first page: I don’t agree with his statement of the problem. He starts off by saying,

Jesus wants his religion back. And he wants it back from the orthodox, the Bible-believing, and the defenders of faith as much as from anyone else. So it can be for the world again.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not objecting to that paragraph as I understand it. It’s strong, bracing language, calculated like a slap in the face or a bucket of cold water to shock the reader to attention, and I think that’s undoubtedly necessary for what the book is trying to accomplish. However, the caveat is important, because what this isn’t is precise language. What does it mean to say, “Jesus wants his religion back,” and why and in what respect does he want it back from his own followers?

In the next paragraph, the Rev. Wilson imagines what it might look like if he were a non-Christian beginning to be interested in Jesus; he writes,

How would I begin to pursue faith today? I’ll tell you what would put me off. I’d be repelled by the witch’s brew of politics, cultural conflict, moralism, and religious meanness that seems so closely connected with those who count themselves the special friends of Jesus. It’s a crowd that makes me nervous. Beneath all the talk of moral values and high principles, I don’t think I could get over the hissing sound.

I would be deterred by the impression that the more people organize their lives around Jesus, the more likely they are to become defensive, prickly, and dogmatic about their beliefs. I’d have to stuff my questions, curb my curiosity, and be willing to get with the program. I’d have to mindlessly accept some package deal agreed on by the gatekeepers of orthodoxy—virgin birth, heaven and hell, Jesus as the only way, the Bible as the unquestioned Word of God—where would it stop?

Methinks the Reverend doth concede too much. This is certainly the perception of the church among non-Christians (especially the intelligentsia), and it’s the perception of the conservative wing of the church in this country by its liberal wing; but is it fair? I know there are churches like this, but in my own experience (limited, but random enough not to be completely meaningless), I’ve never come across any; the churches I know fail in other ways and in other directions (many of them in efforts to address precisely this perception among non-Christians in their communities). The perception problem is obviously real and significant, but it seems to me that it might be more gracious not to assume that the perception is correct.

That said, where the Rev. Wilson goes from this point is excellent. I appreciate his use and defense of the word “religion,” a word which needs to be rescued from those who oppose it (negatively) to “spirituality”; indeed, perhaps the most interesting aspect of the chapter is the model of religion he lays out, which he takes from Dr. Phyllis Tickle, describing it as

a rope that . . . has three cords: spirituality, morality, and corporeality . . . held together by a casing, like the clear plastic casing that holds the strands of a rope together and keeps the water out. The casing of any religion is the story it tells about the way the world works. . . . Everything else about religion makes sense only in the context of the story it tells about the world.

Though the Rev. Wilson focuses in this book on spirituality, he doesn’t elevate it above the other elements, but rather recognizes them as equally necessary and important, and I appreciate that. Indeed, he seems to recognize as well the ways in which these various components overlap and interpenetrate one another; I will be interested to see what he makes of that in future works, assuming God grants him the opportunity to write further.

This is particularly true because I think I see a parallel here that could be fruitful. When I first read the book The Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North Americaa decade ago at Regent, one of the things that struck me was in chapter 7, drafted by the Alan Roxburgh, on “Missional Leadership.” The Rev. Dr. Roxburgh describes the typical picture of the life of the individual church this way:

In this series of concentric circles, the inner circle A represents the committed core of a church community. . . . They seek to live out faithful lives but give most of their church time to providing services to those who only attend. . . . Circle A represents people with a genuine commitment to function as bearers of the gospel. But the gospel itself is reduced to the categories of our culture. . . .

The next circle (B), the congregation, includes the core (A). Circle B is composed largely of affiliates who expect services but have minimal ownership. It is a voluntary association of expressive individuals. Again, leadership spends a large part of its time responding to the expectations and needs of these people. . . .

The final circle (C) represents the context. The unchurched and the seekers reside here. Much of the activity in A and B is spent convincing unchurched people to connect with a particular brand of church. . . . The focal energy of leadership is directed toward getting people into the center, A, but the location where the leader expends most of his or her time and energy is in circles B and C. All of this assumes a reductionistic gospel of meeting personal, individualistic needs. This assumption is what generates vendor-type ecclesiologies.

Against this, the Rev. Dr. Roxburgh points us to the truth that the church is a “pilgrim people, moving in and toward the reign of God,” and that this is what is really “the center of the church’s life and identity”; he proposes therefore that rather than understanding the church as merely a bounded set defined by formal membership and formal roles, we need to understand ourselves as a centered set, with our center being “the gospel’s announcement of God’s reign that is forming a people as God’s new society.”

In our pluralistic context, where people search in multiple directions and struggle to understand the nature of Christian life, a centered-set model represents the church as a people on the way toward the fullness of God’s reign in Jesus Christ. People are constantly being invited to move toward and into a covenant, disciple community. This kind of centered-set church is open to all who may want to be on this journey. It has a permeability that is open to others since it seeks to draw others alongside and minister to people at every level on the way.

This, it seems to me, sounds quite a bit like the “thought experiment” the Rev. Wilson proposes:

Maybe it’s time to adjust some of the conventional assumptions about Christian faith. Maybe the starting point is as basic as people in motion, moving toward Jesus. . . .

Let’s imagine ourselves in relation to Jesus—all of us who feel drawn to Jesus in some way—as being neither on the outside of faith looking in, nor on the inside looking out, nor at one of the stages of a predetermined four-stage linear progression of belief.

Instead, let’s imagine ourselves at various points in relation to an imagined center, like pilgrims coming from the north, south, east and west and every point in between to a holy city. Only we aren’t pilgrims in search of a city so much as pilgrims in search of . . . Jesus of Nazareth. Some of us are here, others there. Some are running, walking, milling about, traveling in groups or singly, doubting or believing—but all of us are within range of his attractive pull. Because we come from different points of origin, we take many paths to our destination. The closer we get to the center, the more our paths converge. But for now, the only concern each of us shares is this: how can we take “one step closer to knowing,” one step closer to that center we’re longing for?

It strikes me, in comparing these passages, that perhaps Ken Wilson is trying to do the same thing with regard to the spirituality and spiritual theology of the church that Alan Roxburgh, Darrell Guder and the rest of that group were and are trying to do with the corporeal reality of its structures and programs. Certainly when the Rev. Wilson writes, “Jesus brand spirituality is a way of living that Jesus modeled as a fellow pilgrim,” it seems reasonable to describe that as a truly missional spirituality; we should be wary of defining his work in terms of someone else’s work or agenda, but there seem to me to be real affinities there. As such, those who are attracted by the missional-church movement and its understanding of who we’re called to be as the church and how we’re called to live, and who are grappling with trying to lead a congregation in that direction, may well find this book particularly valuable.

One further word on the first chapter would seem to be in order, to set up the discussion of the rest of the book: having set up his description of Jesus brand spirituality as a life of pilgrimage toward Jesus, the Rev. Wilson identifies four dimensions to this pilgrimage, four different aspects to the spiritual life.

By “dimensions” I mean aspects of reality . . . the four dimensions I’ve selected to describe Jesus brand spirituality are active, contemplative, biblical, andcommunal. . . .

These four dimensions of spirituality are as interdependent as the four space-time dimensions. We separate them to examine them, but as soon as we’re done, they reconnect. We must resist the temptation to force-fit these into a preordered path: “First, we take the active step, then the contemplative,” and so on. It doesn’t work like that. Depending on where we find ourselves on this pilgrimage, we may be drawn to one dimension or the other first or next. But as we move forward into one dimension . . . our understanding of all the others will be affected because they are four dimensions of one reality.

Why these particular dimensions? Because they are integral. Each is an essential part of spirituality—distinguishable in representing a discrete aspect, yet interdependent in affecting and being affected by the others. They also emerge naturally from the spiritual path of Jesus himself.

There is, it seems to me, a lot of wisdom there, though I would add that all of us are probably temperamentally tilted in one direction or another; I’ll be interested to see how the Rev. Wilson develops this model and fleshes it out in subsequent chapters.


Jesus Brand Spirituality: Introduction

A number of weeks ago, I wrote a post highlighting an extremely positive review of a book called Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back. In response, I received a friendly communication from the author, Ken Wilson, the senior pastor of the Ann Arbor Vineyard, asking me if I wanted a copy. That was an easy one (of course I did), and in return for his generosity I promised to review the book once I’d finished it.

Unfortunately, various circumstances delayed me in starting the book, which I was only able to begin reading this past weekend, so I have not yet been able to redeem my word to the Rev. Wilson. I have, however, greatly appreciated the book so far, and am eager to do so. However, never having written a true review essay, I’m a bit dubious of my ability to do it justice by reading the whole book and writing on it all at once; what’s more, doing so properly would produce a very long piece which might not be well-suited to the medium of a blog. So, what I’ve decided to do is to comment on the book a chapter at a time, and then once I’ve finished, write a concluding post with final commentary. I realize that this has its drawbacks, but I think it’s probably the best way to do it. It’s also the quickest way to get started, which factors into my thinking as well.

I hope to get the post on the first chapter up in the next day or two—unfortunately, it isn’t finished yet, but those who follow this blog will be aware that I’ve had one or two other minor matters occupying a lot of my attention here. For now, I’ll close with one of Phyllis Tickle’s encomia from her foreword:

This . . . is a book that contains niches and corridors and apses of beauty that catch my thorax and make me feel the salt and burn of beauty rising.