"The Jesus Manifesto" - Review (sort of)

I recently made reference to The Jesus Manifesto, by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola.  I’m spending some time this afternoon at the library, and noticed the book on the New Nonfiction shelf.  Skimming through it, there’s a lot to admire.  The authors identify the genuine lack of focus on Jesus among contemporary churches, and I commend them for that (well, I commend Sweet, I remain childishly disgruntled at anything-Viola which unfairly colors my perceptions of this book).

They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations
In the introduction, the authors diagnose “Jesus deficit disorder,” a cute way of saying we aren’t paying enough attention to Jesus.  They also insightfully comment on the other side of the They Like Jesus But Not the Church coin: the world likes Jesus but not the church, while the church seems to like the church more than it likes Jesus.  Which strikes a familiar tone with Kierkegaard, “My God, they’ll say…” when the church actually reads the New Testament.  The Gospel ruins any sort of practical, moderated, “balanced” life.  The cross of Christ is suffering, sacrifice and humiliation.  Sounds fun, eh?  That's why our advertising is so dishonest.

The authors complain, “Unfortunately ‘who do you say that I am?’ is no longer the only question. ‘What are you doing to bring in the kingdom of God?’ is now an equally asked question, as is ‘what are you doing for justice?’ and ‘in what causes are you engaged.’”  Here is Sweet’s articulation of his distaste for Emergence Christianity, which has tried to counterbalance Evangelicalism's obsession with salvation, the afterlife and personal morality by reminding Christians that Jesus spoke in very corporeal terms about the Kingdom of God and the outworking of the Gospel. 

I think such distaste is a mistake.  It’s a mistake to criticize Tony Campolo’s Red Letter emphasis (a social justice movement, in the name of Christ, according to the teachings of Christ), when that emphasis came out of the same cultural-religious vacuum Sweet and Viola are rightly lamenting.  The Church hasn’t paid attention to Jesus.  But paying attention to Jesus necessitates focus on the things Jesus actually said and did and cared about.  The Church has focused on the two dimensional imagery of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection, and reverted to Old Testament theocracy for its practical teaching.

Red Letter Christians: A Citizen's Guide to Faith and PoliticsTo tell you about myself, I would tell you more than where I was born, what I look like, and what my job is.  I would have to tell you about the things that I care about.  The ways that I spend my time.  I would tell you who my friends are – whom I love, and who loves me.  There’s a section in this book about how the authors “count” how many times a Christian radio personality uses the name Jesus.  Disappointed, they observe that most only reference Christ once in an hour.  I think Sweet and Viola are quantifying the wrong thing.  In fact, I think this sort of Jesus-upsmanship is the very sort of thing they’re supposed to be critiquing.  The Christian culture I come from uses Jesus and other references to God as a sort of punctuation.  “Praise God, what a beautiful day... I’m just so thankful to Jesus that blah blah blah… Jesus take the wheel.”  C’mon.  It doesn’t mean anything.  The people I know most in love with Christ aren’t just talking about Christ – they’re speaking as Christ.  And not in some heeby-jeepy sort of way, and not in some elitist “I’m-like-Jesus” sort of way.  As people mystically conformed – slowly, bit by bit – into the image of Christ, we take on Christ’s nature.

At the beginning of Chapter One, Sweet and Viola use imagery of the sun as an allegory for the necessity of Christ’s centrality in our lives: “God put an image in our galaxy to demonstrate what Christ is to us.  We call it the sun.  Without it, no life can exist on planet Earth.  We are dependent upon the sun for everything.  And just as the sun is the center of our solar system, Jesus Christ is the centerpiece of God’s universe, and even our lives.” (pg. 1)  I find this unfortunate use of imagery, given Christianity’s historical precedent as a Sun God religion.  Not only is that problematic in itself, but to continually liken Christ to the sun (it’s not uncommon) undermines theologies of darkness, mystical traditions that find God in unknowing and emptying.  The sun is too synonymous with abundance and with domination – things that may not be objectively incorrect about a creator God (I would argue against domination, but abundance, perhaps), but which are unhelpful in a religious landscape already soaked by them.  Moreover, there are too many racial undertones and overtones related to light and darkness, that imagery of a Sun-God-Jesus only exacerbates. 

If Jesus is the sun, Jesus is also the moon: gentle, quiet, reflective, acquiescent, waxing and waning, elusive, cool and mild.  But none of these images is perfect, because I do not believe that God initiated the Big Bang with the intentions of creating a bag of metaphors for Christians to sell books on (this, despite my chapter on supernovae in Sweet’s Church of the Perfect Storm).  Whatever we find in nature that reminds us of God resonates with us as such because the evolving, beautiful universe bears God’s beautiful, evolutionary fingerprints. 

The book closes with a verse by Charles Wesley, and this prayer: “May God have people on this earth who are of Christ, through Christ, and for Christ.” (p. 172)  I’ll second that!  I do pray, daily, that I may be more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus Christ is Jesus of Nazareth.  A revolutionary, egalitarian carpenter who loved God and his neighbors, who subverted his own religious paradigms because people mattered more to him than rules.  Love mattered more to him than winning.  Which is why he died.  Which is why he won.  And we win when we align ourselves – our minds, hearts and spirits, and our lives – with the nature and image of Jesus Christ.  I don’t care what you call it.   Frankly, I don’t care if you use the name Jesus (that wasn’t actually his historical, Nazarene name). 

And maybe you’ve been too hurt or frustrated in your life to ever adopt Christianity.  Fine, I don’t blame you.  When we live and love passionately for what is good, and when we humble ourselves enough to believe (even if we don’t quite, “Lord I want to believe, help my unbelief”) I think that’s a start.  And if there’s anything true about Jesus, there’s a spirit of truth that will do some of the work in us, for us. 

I am ready to applaud any effort in the church or the publishing world to orient people toward Jesus, rather than toward Christianity.  But just talking about Jesus easily gets lost in the din of Evangelical chatter that does little more than reinforce and re-entrench Christian culture that talks a big game.  We have to help folks connect the dots of what the rhetoric is supposed to lead to... 


audreygeddes said...

I agree we need to focus on Jesus and not just play church. Thanks for the great review and recommending this book. You might also enjoy a great read on Christian living called, "Principle Centered Living," by Rev. Dr. Sheldon E. Williams. The author does a great job of demonstrating how doing the right thing is the best way to live and fosters a winning situation for all.

Peter J Walker said...

Audrey, thanks for the visit. I wouldn't quite call this a "recommendation" for the Sweet/Viola book, but no worries. Thanks for the recommendation,

pastormack said...

I think there is a clear temptation to a masochistic kind of self-flagellation in all this. Yes, Christians drive folk from church. I get it. But we should also be honest and say that some - many? - people also like Jesus but not the church because what they really want is a gnostic gospel. A disembodied Jesus doesn't ask you do anything, go anywhere, or be anything different. Jesus in, of, and alongside His Body, the church, demands concrete discipleship. So much of this "Jesus, but no church" is characteristic of the 'bowling alone' syndrome that is plaguing western modernity: we all want to be lone atoms (unless we're horny). We want to be spiritual lone rangers, too, and construct a Jesus to make that happen.

As for Jesus the "revolutionary, egalitarian." Meh. Sounds too much like the 1960's to be authentic to Jesus. A revolutionary? Revolutionaries don't live at home working with their dad until they are 30. Egalitarian? The guy who constantly talks about separating sheep from goats, about exceeding the scribes and pharisees, about not finding the faithfulness of a centurion in all of Israel? I'm not so sure about that one, either. But I doubt I'll convince you otherwise.

Ira said...

Would it be inappropriate to ask what your beef with Viola is? I'm not a fan, myself -- I'm just curious. If you've already covered this just point me in the right direction.

Peter J Walker said...

No, not inappropriate at all. And I'm afraid it's not something I can altogether quantify. At this point, my comments about him are more tongue-in-cheek than anything. I don't lay awake nights thinking about my distaste.

Basically, I was at a conference he spoke at, and attended a smaller dinner he was at following the symposium. I wrote briefly about it here some time ago: http://www.emergingchristian.com/2009/02/recalibrating-church-part-2.html

All I can really tell you is I get a really bad vibe - from him. Maybe he reminds me of the big kids that used to pick on me in middle school...

Al said...

A good friend/blog buddy ++ (Ron Cole) recently reviewed this book http://thewearypilgrim.typepad.com/the_weary_pilgrim/2010/07/jesus-manifestoor-ultimatum.html , and lent it to me to read.

I couldn't get past the first couple chapters. To me, it was just like so much of the stuff I am steering away from. Sermonizing, but not particularly practical.


pastormack said...

I can tell you why I don't like Viola - 'Pagan Christianity'. Atrocious book.

Peter, do I take your silence as complete agreement with me? That doesn't seem like you.

Ira said...

The Jesus of the Gospels was executed as an insurrectionist. I don't know that that makes him a revolutionary, per se, but the people telling his story didn't seem to think he was crucified for working from home.

I'm not sure what Peter's working definition of "egalitarian" is, nor am I sure that anybody's definition was something on the radar screen of 1st Century Asia Minor. But I fail to see where Jesus' propensity to give his coreligionists the business is a direct counter to the egalitarianism Peter finds in Jesus.

I'd bet a dollar that the "gnostic" Jesus you lament was cooked up in churches, and while you apparently enjoy a robust and meaningful community life, I'm afraid, looking out over the landscape of modern Christianity, the "Jesus but not the church" crowd are hardly unique in bowling alone.

Ultimately, though, most of us get the Jesus we need, which is not to say we just make up the Jesus we want (usually other people make him up for us, and we tweak from there). Sure the scriptural data delimits the construction process in certain ways, but the sheer multitude of Jesus visions means that any one vision, even if it happens to get Jesus exactly right (about which I'm infinitely skeptical), is always going to be awash in a sea of competing claims.

Peter's Jesus is exactly what he needs to be, at least for the moment. So is yours. So is mine.

Peter J Walker said...

Mack, no not purposefully silent. Sorry. No, I disagree that people "want Jesus but not the church because they really want a gnostic gospel." I think people see clearly that Jesus and the church are two very different - too often incongruent - things.

I didn't like Pagan Christianity, but I wonder why you didn't? I don't like his writing or his self-congratulatory style. But I think it's actually healthy to recognize that the Christian church was not built brick-by-brick by the hands of God. And it's not built on the foundation of Christ. It's built on the foundations of all sorts of things, including Christ, contemporary cultures, pop-cults, political demands, and so on.

You're probably right about 'egalitarian' Mack, and Ira, you said it too: "nor am I sure that anybody's definition [of egalitarian] was something on the radar screen of 1st Century Asia Minor." It seems impossible to view Jesus or any biblical figure outside our own lens. We do our best to understand the historical and cultural contexts of the scriptures we read, and we interpret with 21st Century minds. So we make inferences about the nature and character of folks we encounter in the Bible. Jesus was kind to women, stretched boundaries of what was socially appropriate, what was biblically "clean," and who deserved compassion and attention. He healed the male slave of a centurion without questions about the nature of their relationship. He was seen alone with a scandalous foreign woman at a well. I don't think the Gospel of Luke (as many argue) provides an equal treatment of women. MENTIONING women does not equate to equality. So we all engage in experiments, and they sadly become trivialized with bumper sticker wisdom: we ask "what would Jesus do?" and it's still not a bad place to start.

Al! "I couldn't get past the first couple chapters. To me, it was just like so much of the stuff I am steering away from. Sermonizing, but not particularly practical." So true. It doesn't feel any different than any other Jesusy books filling the shelves of Christian bookstores. If I want to read about how wonderful Jesus is, there isn't a wealth of source text on the subject. I can get the majority of what's out there from four Gospels (wow, I sound like a Bible-thumper!).

Peter J Walker said...

Mack, tangentially, I do agree the "Bowling Alone" syndrome is a troubling trend. It just doesn't give us within the church the ground to validate wagging our fingers at those who stay outside. They have good reasons. Sometimes, they have better senses of community than we (I) do.

pastormack said...

I think most of what you're classifying as revolutionary/insurrectionist behavior is fully in line with the Hebrew prophets. That makes him a prophet (and more), but not Che.

I don't think the church came up with a way of excluding corporate life from the life of discipleship to Jesus. A better question might be, "How do those who love Jesus but not the church actually love Jesus?" They have to hear the story from somewhere. Even strict biblicists have to learn to read Scripture somewhere. There is certainly no loving Jesus without worship - and worship is not the same as taking a walk in the woods, despite the claim of our hippie friends.

The use of gnostic may have been a bit overdramatic. Such words make you big cheese in a seminary classroom but aren't really useful elsewhere. What I should have said is what I deeply believe: people these days, especially young adults and those near that age, have by and large inherited without thinking the anti-institutional bent of modernity. Doesn't matter what the institution is. The church has always been full of sin and in need of repentance and reform, on the edge of being the whore of Babylon; what is new is this fiction that one can "love Jesus" apart from a community of faith to hold you accountable to that claim. More likely, I think, is that these folks like the idea of Jesus and his teachings, but in reality, don't want to go to the trouble of conforming their lives to Christ as God (think Thomas Jefferson, a truly "modern Christian"). I think it's a complete farce. But I'm a pastor, so it's my job to get all these cultural/nominal Christians into God's house :)

Peter J Walker said...

I think that's a good reminder, in terms of our priorities. You're a pastor, which I warmly affirm. For me though, I'm not concerned about the survival of the current structure of the Christian religion. I believe strongly in the identity of the Body of Christ AS the Body of Christ, as I know you do, but I think if Christianity is forced to reinvent itself, that's probably a good thing. If fewer folks end up in God's house (the church) then I hope more folks learn to identify God's larger house (the world).

Your comment about worship is an important one.

It's interesting that you mention the anti-institutional bent of modernity, because I think institutions/structures/organizations are one of the purest identifiers of modernity. And I think society's trust in institutions, both inside and outside the church, is one of the most continually dangerous features of the present age.

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