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).
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.
To 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...