on 28 February 2010
Brilliant book, fresh, clear ideas set out in bite-size formats, getting the message across that Christianity was never meant to be about empire-building, grandiose cathedrals, power, money or success; but on the contrary, it was always supposed to be about kindness, humility, courage in the face of evil, servant-hood, even embracing poverty for the sake of suffering people. The book exposes the religious lies we are all too polite to mention and encourages individuals who want to follow Jesus to get on with it. Shame it wasn't written 30 years ago, but maybe people are now ready to listen to these things.
on 31 October 2014
Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch are well known for their contribution to mission theology and practice. Some will be familiar with their 2007 book, The Shaping of Things to Come. In this more recent book, they seek to address what they see as a drift within missional initiatives away from the centrality of Jesus. Their concern here is to renew mission by asserting as the primary calling of the Christian and the Church to discipleship, defined broadly as being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. As they put it, ‘Christology is the study...of the entire phenomenon of Jesus...for the purpose of exploring in what ways the various elements of his life and activity can be emulated by sinful human beings’ (15). Refounding the church on the author and founder of our faith is what they mean by the title, ReJesus, arguing that Christology must form the entire missional shape of the church.
They are however also particularly concerned to portray Jesus as ‘wild’, ‘radical’, ‘different’ over and against the sameness and tameness they see encapsulated both in contemporary consumerist theology (particularly within the Pentecostal and Evangelical churches they know well) and in established romantic iconography (such as Holman Hunt’s painting Light of the World). In chapters 1-4, they spend a while discussing the way that Jesus has been appropriated, and distorted, historically and in recent times. Chapters 5 and 6 go on to do some theological ‘heavy lifting’ by reasserting the significance of Hebrew monotheism for Christology and arguing for the primacy of orthopraxy over philosophically conceived orthodoxy.
There is little that is new here, although the way the authors put the material together is original and challenging. Indeed, at one level, this also serves as a decent introduction to Christology from biblical theological perspective (largely influenced by NT Wright), from a historical-doctrinal perspective (largely influenced by Bonhoeffer and Jarislav Pelikan) and from what you could broadly call an ‘existential’ or experiential perspective (largely influenced by Soren Kierkegaard and Jacques Ellul). I would suggest for those not familiar with Kierkegaard and Ellul, you might find in Frost and Hirsch’s engagement with their writings some new and challenging insights for your own personal discipleship and resulting missional practice. They commend in particular Kierkegaard’s concept of Jesus’ ‘contemporaneousness’ or immediacy to us, and Ellul’s critique of religion and advocacy of a return to a Hebrew view of revelation as historical experience and ‘orthopraxy’ over against religious and philosophical ‘orthodoxy’ (53ff, 142ff). As they put it, ‘A world of difference exists in how we inhabit the theology we adhere to – how we believe it...And here again, Jesus is the key. Without the active love for, and presence of the radical Jesus, Christianity easily degenerates into a religion.’ (73). Only a living relationship with our founder can ‘re-found’ the church, rather than the reforming agendas of our particular tradition (75).
It is of course hard to criticise a book that encourages you to get closer to the Lord. It certainly gave in me a desire to go away and read the gospels again more closely, perhaps with more engagement with historical scholarship than these authors have space for. However, there are a number of problems with ReJesus as a book and a concept. As a collaborative effort, the book is overwritten, repetitive and overly long; it can read like a collection of talks and lecture notes at times! The authors also make some loose comments at times, most obviously in connection to their use of the term ‘religion’ to describe all that falls short of Jesus, often in traditions they don’t know so well. The concerted focus on the gospels also left asking also what place the authors had for the Ascension and the way it marks out the difference between Christ and the church, over against our call to be like him. An essential element of classic Christology is to talk about things Christ has done for us that we can’t and don’t need to do for ourselves. The short discussion of Ephesians in Chapter 7 only gestures in this direction.
Yet to be fair, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses. Firstly, the book’s style is polemic because it is seeking prophetically to challenge what they see as an unacceptable inculturation of the message of Jesus within Western-led consumerism. Secondly, however, there is a good balance in their assessment of culture, and as in their previous work, there are also some excellent examples of engagement with contemporary film and literature, which made me want to go away and explore their ambitious claim is going on in Western cultures: that people are crying out for the church to ‘re-Jesus’. Thirdly, there are a number of short biographies of Christian practitioners who fill out the authors’ insistence on costly discipleship.
Finally, I have to concur with one of the reviewers who states, ‘this is a book that reads you rather than you read it’ (there are supportive reviews from missional practitioners such as Eddie Gibbs, Stuart Murray and Howard Snyder). And at a time when one could say that Pope Francis is seeking to ‘re-Jesus’ the Roman Catholic Church, it’s a worthwhile read for those of us working out at parish, deanery, diocesan and national level the concrete and missional shape of the body that Jesus founded and still ‘heads up’.