Villification and the Way of Jesus

More often than not, I find my Christian brothers and sisters uncritically embracing the ways and means practiced by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations and causes, people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate emotions, and who then write books or give lectures telling us how we can do what they are doing. But these ways and means more often than not violate the ways of Jesus. {Eugene Peterson}

With our move to Charlottesville, our book club has fallen behind. However, Eugene Peterson’s The Jesus Way refuses to be ignored. A couple years ago, I heard Eugene give a lecture based on one of the themes he develops in this book, the observation that Jesus lived in stark contrast to all prevailing societal modus operandis of his day, both to the way of the Pharisees (the way of religious rigidity) and to the way of Herod (the way of power). It wasn’t only the message of these groups that Jesus resisted – it was just as much their way, the manner in which they pushed their message. The cliche has truth: the medium is our message.

However, dominant church culture has bowed at the feet of pragmatism. If it works (however that is defined), then by all means, do it. With this conviction, we baptize commercialism and individualism and every manner of gimmicky shlop in the name of Jesus. Art becomes merely propoganda. Friendship and justice and hospitality become merely bait. The Gospel is made subservient to a political philosophy or a theological grid or a historical prejudice.

At odds with all this message stands the crucified and resurrected Jesus. Jesus does not offer merely a message or an agenda or a bullet-point list of cultural ills to eradicate. Jesus offers himself, God made flesh. Jesus offers his words and his actions and his friendships and his conversations and his pains and his love. Jesus is the truth, absolutely. Jesus is the life, thank God. But Jesus is also the way, the how, the manner. It is simply a perversion of Jesus’ message if we assume that message to be codified only by theological assertions. Jesus’ message is himself, the son of God, come to save us.

All this seems timely to me. You might have noticed we are in an election year. Why do politics often bring out the worst in us? I’ve already written about the shameful smeer campain on Obama. Unfortunately (but certainly not surprisingly), it has not slowed. I continue to receive forwards and video links and alarming emails with lots of exclamation marks and capitals. A small bit of it centers on policy, fair enough. Most of it, however, maligns character, distorts positions and uses fear as a prime weapon. The Christian response is clear: none of that is the way of Jesus.

The past few weeks, I have been just as apalled at the vile and venom that has been spewed at Sarah Palin. Again, debate on policy and questions of experience are fair game. But the relentless attack on her family, the cruel mockery and elitist jabs at her rural home are, in my opinion, despicable. Of course, it bears repeating: none of this is the way of Jesus.

Personally, I am disgusted by the villification. I know that both parties have their own blame to bear. And of course both sides will claim the other side fired first (sounds eerily like Russia and Georgia). But when we begin to view the other as our mortal enemy, one who we must crush at all costs, we have truly lost our way.

I return, then, to the subversive way of Jesus. I discover that if I proclaim to be a Jesus-person, then my entire life sits under his authority: not only what I believe – but how I believe, not only what I say – but how I say it, not only the vote I cast – but the way I live toward those who cast their vote differently. As Eugene said, “Once we start paying attention to Jesus’ ways, it doesn’t take us long to realize that following Jesus is radically different from following anyone else.”

Book Club | July.08

First, a confession: I did not finish Peterson’s The Jesus Way. So, that will be next month’s choice. If you are like me and didn’t get it done, you still have time. It’s a good one.

This month’s read then was Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome. As I’ve said, I held eager anticipation for this book. Enger’s Peace Like a River would probably land on my top ten novel list. It was stunning, simple, imaginative, earthy. Amazing prose. Vivid characters. And a line here and there that truly stopped me cold.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome was a fine story. For me, not meteoric like Enger’s first, but still, pretty fantastic. Enger has a way of catching a dialect – and sticking with it consistently – that moves you into the world and the lives he has created.

There was a point in the book, perhaps midway, where the dialogue almost annoyed me; but I can’t say quite why. I think the narrative felt a bit too tidy for me at the moment – not enough grit. And somehow the smooth, folksy cadence of the language (mixed with my need for a little more bite) made it feel a tad sentimental. But I simply needed to hold on. Hood’s story was grit enough to go around – there was real tragedy to be found there. I also felt that Enger made a fabulous move in how he brought Glendon’s tale to a close. Enger could have chosen a different, easier path. But he didn’t. It seems he told the story the way it came, not the way we might want it to come. I respect that.

Two things I like about Enger (and these can actually be found in both of his novels):

[1] I see Enger wrestling with masculine themes through many of his characters. He gives the good, the bad, and the ugly about the many roads a man can take on road to becoming (or leaving behind) his true self. Becket, plagued with self-doubt, knew little his identity, but he took the hard path in order to discover who he was, what he was made of. Glendon fought his demons and wrestled for redemption – particularly redemption that was for the good of another. Hood wrangled between being a child and a man – an interesting character study could be found there. As a man myself, I appreciate Enger’s wide-hearted exploration into the masculine soul.

[2] Enger is a romantic. He has high ideals; and while he won’t pretend that all his characters live up to them, somehow his stories always leave you hoping for what is deep and true. Enger’s romanticism is earthy yet mysterious at the same time. Enger described Grace as a woman “who believed romance was no mere ingredient but the very stone floor on which all life makes its fretful dance.” Though written of Grace, I think Enger described himself too in these words. And I like that. Alot.

The Book Club {June.08}

Here we gather for the first round of our book club. A few of us locals met up at Jittery Joes for first thoughts before we brought the discussion to the blog. The faithful present were Liz Rand, Jeromie Rand, Juli Kalbaugh and myself – quite a funky crew, if I may say so (and I may – it’s my blog).

Mainly I want to hear your thoughts. So, my question is – simply: Where do you go as you read? What did you like /not like?

Here are a few first thoughts from me:

The Man Who Was Thursday While this is on Miska’s list of all-time favorites, I will say it didn’t quite carry that level of sparkle for me. I did enjoy it, though. After I got in sync with G.K’s rhythm and tone and got to know Gabriel Syme a bit, I found his wit and sarchasm downright hilarious. One of my favorite sections was the opening dialogue of chapter ten where he spars with his companions about how he planned to introduce himself to the deadly Marquis.

Chesterton’s ability to connect to the human emotions and essence in all of us is, I think, one of his strong suits. I particularly connected with his line here: Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally.

Early on, I fell prey to the temptation to attempt to find Chesterton’s asserted point of view (his political philosophy, his moral philosophy, his vision of the world) embedded in the convoluted twists and turns of the plot and characters. I was chagrined as I read his letter that was included as an appendix reminding readers that we ought read titles as well as we read text. This was a nightmare, after all. Much of this story was neither the world as it was nor the world as Chesterton presumed it should be.

Have any of you read C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength? Did anyone else make any aesthetic or emotive connections between these two novels?

Surprised by Hope Now, this book captured me. It offered a convergence of multiple convictions that have been growing in me for the last year or two – only it took them further and encouraged them toward coherence.

Wright’s central thesis rejecting the notion of Heaven as our final home (particularly with the fuzzy assumption that heaven means some kind of ethereal state in a realm totally separated from the world God placed us in) is, in my opinion, right on target (for those who didn’t read the book: the Biblical vision is that after waiting in Heaven for resurrection, a new earth that has been joined to heaven is the good place all the redeemed will finally arrive). But I found his next point even more on target – the idea that God’s intention has never been to evacuate as many people as possible from this world but is, quite the opposite, to redeem and restore this creation that he named good at the beginning.

In other words – and contrary to much popularized theology and to a whole franchise of Christian fiction – God has precisely not said, “Scrap this planet and my intention for my image bearers (humans) to fill the earth with my glory. The Fall ruined it all.” Rather, God has said, “Satan and his lies and evil will not take what is mine, what I have named good. I will redeem it, every stitch of it. I will re-create it.” And, in the person of Jesus, in his resurrection from death, that is precisely what God began to do. The physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus is the prototype (the “first fruits,” Paul would say) of what God is going to do to all creation, all the earth, every human who will surrender to God’s intent to “make all things new.”

So, as Wright would say, “the Church has work to do.” Every place where sin and ruin has left its mark (which is to say, everywhere) is a place where the people of God should, in the name of Jesus, join God’s work of redemption. Every place of poverty. Every place of ugliness. Every smidgen of shame and abuse. All of these places are places where God’s redemption intends to break free. And this new creation is what we invite those far from God to receive, to enter. We invite them to be united to Jesus, to his death and resurrection. We invite them to be made new and then, in turn, to become themselves agents of God’s newness.

These lines will get much play from me: The church, because it is the family that believes in hope for new creation, should be the place in every town and village where new creativity bursts forth for the whole community, pointing to the hope that, like all beauty, always comes as a surprise.

Next Reads:

So, if you want to join the next round, we have two choices for you. Pick one or both:

[Fiction] So Brave, Young and Handsome, Leif Enger

Enger wrote Peace Like a River, one of my top ten novels. This should be great.

[Theology] The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus is the Way, Eugene Peterson

It’s Eugene Peterson. For me, nothing more need be said. Eugene is probably the writer/pastor/theologian who has influenced me most. This is the third volume in his intended 5 volume spiritual theology series.

The Book Club for Locals

So, for us locals who have joined in on the revelry with the book club, this Sunday @ 2 @ Jittery Joes will be our time to chat. Then, we’ll post our thoughts here for the rest of the club to join in the fray. How does that sound? A little coffee. A little Chesterton. And for those who got ambitious and did both, a little Wright. Should be fun.

Also, I just posted a random assortment of Things I Didn’t Know over at Relevant. (I know, I know, how does Relevant have the bandwidth to store such a huge list? You’re funny, you got me…)

Want to Join My Book Club?

Move over, Oprah. A new book club is in town.

I thought it would be fun to see if anyone wanted to read along with me. We’ll try it this month and see how it goes. The choices for May are:

[fiction] G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. Chesterton has entranced Miska as of late. I’m jumping on the bandwagon too. You probably know Chesterton best for his classic Orthodoxy or from the fact that he was a major influence on C.S. Lewis. Chesterton called this piece of his work “a very melodramatic sort of moonshine.” I’ve never tasted moonshine; I’m in.

[theological] N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection and the Mission of the Church. Right now, Wright is a fellow making a deep impact on my mind and soul. I was able to have a long chat with him last week (more on that to come). This book will bend some categories, I think. However, it pushes us back to Scripture and expands our vision of the radical restoration God is doing in his world. This is no cold, theological meandering on the theoretical state of heaven. This is gritty, real-world, hopeful stuff.

So, we’ll convene in a month to reflect on the works. I’d love to know if you are joining me – shoot me an email or a comment to let me know you’re in on the fun. Or not. You can just surprise me.