31 May 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have just released Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ. Thanks to the good people at Thomas Nelson Publishers, I was able to read an advance copy for review.

The book’s thesis is simple: American Christianity suffers from a “Jesus deficit disorder:”

The tragedy of our time is that countless preachers, teachers, even healers are giving dozens of sermons, lectures, and messages, relegating Jesus to little more than a footnote or fluorish to some other subject. At best, He gets an honorable mention. What is lacking is a groundbreaking revelation of Christ that boggles the mind and enraptures the heart. (p. 17)

The solution is “To faithfully represent Jesus in our time,” a task that “requires re-presenting Him. And that’s what we are attempting to do in this book.” (p. xiv)

Readers already familiar with Sweet and Viola will be aware of their associations (for better or for worse) with postmodern Christianity and the emerging church movement. In the present work, there is much to appreciate and much to be wary of.

POSITIVES:

Exultant, Biblically-oriented language. Christ is routinely described in language that exults his sovereignty and supremacy, and in at least this respect the book achieves its stated purpose. While there were a few places where I was not wholly comfortable with their handling of scripture, the authors did an admirable job of incorporating the Biblical canon into constructing a high Christology.

Helpful discussion of justice and mercy. It could rightly be said that the distinction between justice and mercy (chapter 7) requires elaboration, but the discussion nonetheless is helpful given the recent (re-) emphasis on issues of social justice.

Discussion of character: Chapter 6 argues for the development of Christian character that goes beyond mere ethics or the imitation of Christ. This is one of many discussions that could have benefited from more clarity, but was a useful challenge to slogan-driven spirituality.

Readability. The book can be read by anyone. There were even places when the language was downright poetic, and the authors deserve commendation for their style.

NEGATIVES:

Routine appeal to mysticism. This is key. The authors seem to extol “truth as mystery” over “truth as certainty” (p. 86). Mind you, mysticism is not all bad – there are certain things about the Christian faith that transcend the normative boundaries of human reason. But such a strong focus on mystery can lead to a lot of…

Theological imprecision. This stems naturally from the appeal to mysticism. The two errors they find in contemporary Christianity include “(1) theological rationalism and (2) theological ethics.” The former category is defined as “the life application of the correct description of God, found in the right doctrinal system.” (p. 79)

Knowledge, it is claimed, is limited by perception. “While Jesus is flawless, our religious sensibilities – whether our doctrinal or ethical systems – are always subject to error. Thus they are made redeemable as they are made subject to Christ’s constant transformation.” (p. 84)

The problem here is actually one of irony, given that the book’s focus is theological (specifically, Christological) in nature. It’s as if the manual to your George Foreman grill told you that “meat is murder.” There’s an obvious contradiction in laying out theological propositions while at the same time warning against theological propositions. True, dry intellectualism can be spiritually destructive, but only by becoming aware of our theological predilections can we rightly address prejudice and error.

Absence of key doctrines. There is a noticeable absence of key doctrinal issues – namely the atonement. The fundamental meaning of the cross seems a curious omission from a book about Jesus.

Predictable indictments of the contemporary church. “The world likes Jesus; they just don’t like the church” they claim. “But increasingly, the church likes the church, yet it doesn’t like Jesus” (pg. xvi) If this sounds at all familiar, it’s because such sentiments are increasingly common, particularly among younger and emerging-type Christians. I don’t deny that there is at least some truth to such statements. But when such statements go unsupported, I am left only to read them as sweeping generalizations that do not appropriately handle the diversity of the contemporary church.

CONCLUSION

The book will surely challenge as it divides. The authors’ penchant for mysticism must be taken into account. In many ways, the authors’ use of scripture and emphasis on high Christology is refreshing in contrast to books that compare Jesus to a homeless peasant or social revolutionary.

But – as is common when dealing with mystical approaches – the lack of clarity hides the book’s real depth. I generally recommend the book to those already reading in this area, but would caution those unfamiliar with the discussion to look elsewhere to begin their journey.

At minimum, readers will have to read further to get a fuller picture of Jesus. I would highly recommend the recent works Vintage Jesus by Mark Driscoll and Your Jesus is Too Safe by Jared Wilson.

 

31 May 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker from the Charlottesville area. He regularly serves as a research writer for Docent Research Group in addition to doing some guest speaking.

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