December 13, 2017

Christianity’s Forgotten Man

Allow me to relate two recent incidents as a way of introduction to this book review. The first was on a recent Sunday morning in a church associated with a popular Christian movement (they do not want to be called a “denomination”) located in the midwest. The man who preached is a well-known missionary, a man who has been on the side of Christ for more than 40 years. His message that morning was taken from Luke 15, the story we know as the Prodigal Son. The missionary made it through his sermon without once mentioning the name of Jesus. Not one time. Oh, and the message he shared from this parable was that there are three levels of maturity we all must pass through in order to be of useful service to God.

The second incident was also recent, also in the midwest as I was visiting family. A woman asked me if I knew of any DVD series that used New Testament characters to teach positive character traits. Another woman, a teacher in a Christian school, needed it for her middle school classes. I said, “No, I don’t know of any.” Then I continued, “And that would be the wrong use of Scripture.”

“What do you mean?”

“Scripture is given to us for one reason only,” I said. “And that is to reveal Jesus to us. If you want to teach positive character traits, try a book like Mickey Mantle’s The Quality Of Courage. That’s much better to use to teach that kind of thing.”

As you can tell, I am not always a hit at family gatherings.

Both of these situations, along with many others I could relate but won’t, tell me that Jesus may need to mount a PR campaign just to be remembered by his own followers. How is it that we who call our selves “little Christs” can so quickly forget Jesus? Why is it that we talk about everything else but Jesus when we are together?

Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola have teamed up to write Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ. It is meant to draw the reader’s focus back to the center, back to Jesus himself.

“Who do you say that I am?” is the question required of every generation, and every generation must answer it for itself…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?” Or “What are you doing to evangelize the world?” and “To whom are you accountable?” and “What’s your gift?” And especially, “What kind of leader are you?”

Yet Jesus quizzed Peter with one ultimate question, and only one. And that one decisive question is the same one He asks us today.

If you have trouble answering the question, “Who do you say that I am?” then this book is a great primer for you. And if you think you have a good handle on the answer, this book will show you insights into Jesus that just may cause you to rethink your answer.

The authors spend time showing how that Jesus is the central figure in all of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. “Jesus Christ makes Scripture intelligible,” they write. “He is the key that unlocks the entire biblical canon.” When they speak of Jesus revealed in Genesis, it seems that read Chaplain Mike’s series on creation.

The book of Genesis further demonstrates the Scriptures’ preoccupation with Christ. Genesis 1 and 2 were never intended to be the battleground for the Creation-versus-evolution debate. They are rather an unveiling of Christ and His church. Jesus is the new Adam. The church is the new Eve. And the gospel of John is the new Genesis.

Sweet and Viola hold that the New Testament writers were “completely consumed with Christ.” They ask us to picture the three thousand new converts we read of in Acts 2. What would the apostles teach them? First, Sweet and Viola list some things that today’s churches would teach new converts, including:

  • how to live a good, clean life
  • the mark of the beast and end-times prophecy
  • signs, wonders, and miracles
  • divine healing
  • how to live by faith
  • how to save the lost
  • Creation versus evolution
  • leadership principles
  • social justice
  • prosperity
  • spiritual warfare

They compare that with what John tells us was taught in the early church:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life—the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us—that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3, NKJV).

Sweet and Viola spend a lot of time discussing the use of the Bible by those not focused on Jesus, by those whose eyes are on how they can live better lives.

[M]any Christians have turned the Bible into a form of the knowledge of good and evil. They approach the Bible as raw material by which they can gain control over their lives, so life can be more understandable and under control, less unnerving and unpredictable. This is a profoundly grievous misuse of the Bible. Jesus didn’t misuse the Scriptures to gain control and predictability in His own life. To Him, the Scriptures were simple the joystick on the Father’s controller. They were the instrument through which He got to know His Father better and to discover how to live out His mission.

This book will make a great companion to Michael Spencer’s Mere Churchianity. Both point to Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith, both point out the weaknesses of today’s Western church. For instance, Sweet and Viola say,

In times of crisis, the church doesn’t need rules established, laws passed, or wolves shot. She needs a seismic revelation of her Lord—the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form. Sadly, many of us today combat problems and erroneous teachings with laws, rules, religious duty–and the mother of all religious tools: guilt.

The authors do not fall into the trap so many preachers today succumb to, that is to try to exhort each of us to “try to be like Jesus.” Sweet and Viola say this is an impossible task, and only leads to frustration. The answer, they say, is to do as Jesus did. Jesus only did what he saw his Father do, only spoke what the Father gave him to say. We need to be filled with the presence of God, say the authors, and live out of that rather than trying our best to be someone we can never be: Jesus. This seems to allow the reader to breathe a sigh of relief.

Be aware that this book is written in “popular style,” by which I mean it is not a scholarly work, nor is intended to be. This is for the common man and woman, not the theologian looking for additional resource material for his doctorate. This is for the one who has gone to church most all of her life, has heard sermon after sermon telling her she needs to work harder to be like Jesus, has done the fill-in-the-blanks Bible studies about Jesus, but doesn’t really know Jesus at all. This is meant to whet her appetite for Jesus so that she will bypass all of the fast food and go for the real meal. Don’t get this book expecting to come away smarter. But if you read Jesus Manifesto, you may just come away changed.

Update: Frank Viola, a friend of the iMonk community, has a blog where you can discuss this book with him, as well as read interviews with him and Leonard Sweet. Check it out at here.

Comments

  1. Buford Hollis says:

    First! (Woo-hoo!)

    Wikipedia says that Sweet is a Methodist, and apparently very influential. (I’m not too familiar with these circles.) The list of his other books seems very representative of the “Christian bookstore” style (i.e., the same faddishness criticized above):

    *Black Images of America, 1784-1870 (Norton, 1976)
    *New Life in the Spirit (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982).
    *The Minister’s Wife: Her Role in Nineteenth-Century American Evangelicalism (Temple University Press, 1983)
    *(Editor) The Evangelical Tradition in America (Mercer University Press, 1984)
    *The Lion’s Pride (Abingdon Press, 1987)
    *Quantum Spirituality: a Postmodern Apologetic (Whaleprints, 1991)
    *(Editor) Communication and Change in American Religious History (Eerdmans, 1993)
    *FaithQuakes (Abingdon Press, 1994)
    *Health and Medicine in the Evangelical Tradition
    *Strong in the Broken Places (University of Akron Press, 1995)
    *The Jesus Prescription for a Healthy Life (Abingdon Press, 1996)
    *A Cup of Coffee at the SoulCafe (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998)
    *Eleven Genetic Gateways to Spiritual Awakening (Abingdon Press, 1998)
    *Soul Tsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture (Zondervan, 1999)
    *Aqua Church: Essential Leadership Arts for Piloting Your Church in Today’s Fluid Culture (Group Publishing, 1999)
    *SoulSalsa (Zondervan, 2000) (Korean translation, 2002)
    *Postmodern Pilgrims: A 1st Century Passion for a 21st Century Church (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000)
    *The Dawn Mistaken for Dusk: If God so Loved the World, Why Can’t We? (Zondervan, 2000)
    *Carpe Manana: Is Your Church Ready to Seize Tomorrow? (Zondervan, 2001)
    *A is for Abductive (Zondervan, 2001)
    *Jesus Drives Me Crazy (Zondervan, 2003)
    *(Editor) The Church in Emerging Culture: Five Vies (Zondervan, 2003)
    *Summoned to Lead (Zondervan, 2004) (Korean translation, 2007)
    *Out of the Question…Into the Mystery: Getting Lost in the Godlife Relationship (WaterBrook Press, 2004)
    *The Three Hardest Words In The World To Get Right (WaterBrook Press, 2006)
    *The Gospel According to Starbucks (WaterBrook Press, 2007)
    *The Voice from on High (Thomas Nelson, 2007)
    *The Voice: Genesis (Thomas Nelson, 2008)
    *The Church of the Perfect Storm (Abingdon, 2008)
    *11 Indispensable Relationships You Can’t Be Without (Cook Communications, 2008)
    *So Beautiful (Cook Communications, 2009)

    Frank Viola is not in Wikipedia (unless he’s the same guy as the pitcher, which seems unlikely).

    • Better to look them up at Amazon and see what they have published. Both are very well-known authors in many circles…

    • I tried to read Quantum Spirituality: a Postmodern Apologetic several times and gave up. Sweet’s style of writing in that particular book is very annoying. I think he categorized every single person he referenced in that book with multiple slashes (example: Hildegard von Bingen is a mystic/feminist/scientist/theologion – not a direct quote, just an example) apparently to show the multi-faceted nature of those people. It got very tedious, very quickly.

      This looks like a much better book. Thanks!

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Uh, guys, isn’t the name of the whole schmeer CHRISTianity?

    As in, IT’S NAMED AFTER THE SAME DUDE WHO’S GETTING LEFT OUT?

  3. “Do as Jesus did?”

    Hmmm…just how am I gonna pull that off?

    I’d much rather trust in what He did for me. In what He is still doing for me. And in what He will yet do for me.

  4. Many Christians have turned the Bible into a form of the knowledge of good and evil. They approach the Bible as raw material by which they can gain control over their lives, so life can be more understandable and under control, less unnerving and unpredictable. This is a profoundly grievous misuse of the Bible.
    Wow – that pretty much described the first 2 decades of my religious life. Thanks be to God for His deliverance from original sin disguised as pious study.

  5. <b?

    I think I understand that you are trying to say that it is impossible to be like Jesus. However, that should be our goal. Let’s not forget Romans 8:29: “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.” We’ll never achieve it in this life but becoming more like Jesus should be our goal. This involves doing what He did AND thinking like Him (“For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” 1 Corinthians 2:16).

    • Don’t get too hung up on the comment in which you wrote about. Yes, He is our ultimate example, but, when we try to be like Him and fail, we shouldn’t get too down on ourselves. Instead, we should seek His grace and restoration, not run towards a guilt trip that will leave most ineffective, and perhaps so much so that they leave the church.

    • VolAlongTheWatchTower says:

      “bama”fan…Yeah, about that log in your eye. REPENT!!

      🙂

  6. Instead of trying to be like Jesus, we could follow where Jesus leads us.

    • And Jesus leads us to forgiving enemies, praying deeply and often, accepting our deaths and having faith in God through Jesus to resurrect us.

  7. Jeff,

    You write:

    “Scripture is given to us for one reason only,” I said. “And that is to reveal Jesus to us. If you want to teach positive character traits, try a book like Mickey Mantle’s The Quality Of Courage. That’s much better to use to teach that kind of thing.”

    What do you make of passages like James 5:11, 17 and Hebrews 11 where Job, Elijah, and a number of other OT characters are held up as examples for us (even if “positive character traits” is a goofy term, steadfastness, prayer, and faith are all good things that we should emulate)? I understand the danger of moralizing the Bible, but the Bible is what teaches us to look to biblical saints (and Jesus himself, 1 Peter 2) as an example to follow.

    • I stand by what I said. The purpose of Scripture is to reveal Jesus to us. Yes, we see portraits of great men and women of God throughout the Bible. Is that to say we are supposed to be like them, or are those pictures so we can see Jesus revealed in their situations, and look for Jesus in our similar situations?

      Paul does say to follow him, to follow his lead. But Paul’s purpose is to lead his followers to Jesus, not to make more Pauls.

      • “The purpose of Scripture is to reveal Jesus to us.”

        The” purpose or “a” purpose (though perhaps the most important purpose)? E.g., 2 Tim ch 3 vs 16; Rom ch 15 vs 4.

      • Kenny Johnson says:

        I’m with Joe on this one. I think scripture does also teach us how to be better people:

        2 Timothy 3:16-17
        All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

        • You can’t go too long without connecting “righteousness” or “man of God” to Jesus.

          The problem described is not just and now and then situation. Some churches can go weeks with rarely mentioning Jesus. A lot of being a better parent, having a better marriage, etc…

          I have just left one such church- and it has appeared on the new “fastest growning churches” list.

      • Jeff,

        There’s a difference between saying that the ONLY purpose of Scripture is to reveal Jesus to us (which, in your original post, is sharply distinguished from any type of exemplar preaching/looking for good role models) and that the MAIN purpose of Scripture is to reveal Jesus to us. I agree with the latter and think the former is taking a good insight and going over a cliff.

        When Joel Osteen uses the story of David as an exhortation to “stand up on the inside,” I cringe. But the fact that some folks moralize the gospel away shouldn’t make us run away from biblical passages that compel us to look at the saints as models for us.

        If Paul tells me to “practice the things I’ve seen in him,” it’s not pious to tell him that I’m only looking for Jesus, not his “positive character traits.” Scripture is layered and textured; grace comes to us in a myriad of ways; Let’s not flatten out the texture or make middle school teachers feel dumb because we’re running away from moralism.

    • Joe, I think the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11 isn’t so much the saints in the grandstands witnessing our efforts. Rather, they are witnesses to God’s work, referenced earlier as the hope in our High Priest (Jesus).
      When you start looking closely at the list of people in Hebrews 11, it includes some people whose life-stories you would NOT want your children to emulate. It also says that people accomplished things “by faith” (Heb. 11:24, 31, 32) whose original story in the OT does not read like our expectation of faith in action. For example, it says that Moses chose to leave the comforts of luxury in Egypt, when the original story reads that he fled in fear of being caught as a murderer. It says that Samson accomplished his feats by faith, when the original story reads like his goal was revenge, not necessarily to display the glory of God.

      Is Hebrews attempting to rewrite history? Or is it showing a different perspective of how to read the Bible, that all along it is Jesus as our high priest, the hope that is an anchor to our souls, despite how things looked o the surface?

      • Steve writes, “Joe, I think the “cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 11 isn’t so much the saints in the grandstands witnessing our efforts.”

        I know it’s because my understanding is faulty, but does it ever creep out anyone else to think that our deceased loved ones, saints, Jesus, others are “watching” us every second of the day? I prefer to think they are not. I prefer to think that the the love of Jesus is within us to help us…”enlarge?… the Kingdom of God on earth. But I really don’t know.

        • Yeah, it seems a little creepy, and to retate, I think that is NOT what is happening in Hebrews 11.
          I rather think they are facing Jesus, not looking down at us.
          That’s what I would rather do, anyway…

      • Steve,

        Sorry for the confusion. I don’t think Hebrews 11 is about the great grandstand in the sky either. I think the saints there are held up as examples for us. “Look at Abraham. Look what his faith did. Have that kind of faith.” Yes, it points us to Jesus (Heb 12), but it does so by holding up sinners who believed God and accomplished great things.

  8. “…without once mentioning the name of Jesus. Not one time.”

    “The authors spend time showing how that Jesus is the central figure in all of Scripture, both Old and New Testaments.”

    These quotes are the two reasons Henry Halley wrote his handbook.

    “There is almost no Bible preaching in the average church-too much allegorizing and metaphorizing. People can sit for a lifetime even in the modern fundamental church and not know anything about the Bible. Preaching should be plain simple Bible teaching.” – Henry Halley (around 1950)

    I think Mr. Halley would be even more disappointed today.

    And since you were so hard on those two ladies, Genesis 1 and 2 were given to us for one reason only. It was to explain how we got here and it doesn’t include any “survival of the fittest” story.

    Jeff, your disagreement with Genesis literalists seems to rear its head suspiciously often. Is it because you dislike the opinion so, or is it to raise your comment totals?

    “And the gospel of John is the new Genesis.”

    I appreciate the review. This last quote means you’ve just saved me however long it would have taken me to read the book.

    • My disagreement with anyone has nothing to do with comment totals. If I want to jack them up, I’ll run another “Five Favorite” essay. I just happen to side with Chaplain Mike, Michael Spencer, and many others who say that Genesis is to reveal to us God the Creator, not to set down a scientific explanation for how he created. I really could not care less how he created. To me, I just am amazed at what he created.

      If you have an argument with the book’s authors, you need to visit Frank Viola’s web site, given at the end of the review. I didn’t write it, I just quoted it. Let them explain themselves to you.

      • Sorry about the “comment totals” comment. I was out of line there. It just seems that you mention your disagreement with Genesis literalists at every opportunity. Maybe I’m just sensitive about the subject because I do think it is an important one.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      And since you were so hard on those two ladies, Genesis 1 and 2 were given to us for one reason only. It was to explain how we got here and it doesn’t include any “survival of the fittest” story.

      I’m starting to hear a filk of the German National Anthem playing in the background —
      “Young Earth Creation Uber Alles,
      Uber Alles in die Welt…”

      Wouldn’t you be happier trolling Biologos along with Nedbrek?

  9. Dan Allison says:

    Jeff, after reading you for several months now, I’m surprised that you would attend a Calvary Chapel.

    • Way to get a smile out of me, Dan!

      Actually, I have only been to one CC, and that is the original. And yes, I heard Chuck Smith preach. But no, that is not the “movement” church I attended that day…

    • Way back when, I went through the classes for ordination in the Assemblies of God (though I didn’t end up getting ordained — and thank you, Father, for protecting me from that!), and it was repeated often that the A/G was NOT a “denomination” — it was a “cooperative fellowship”!

      It took about five seconds for anyone with a taste for independent thought to figure out that the only difference between a “cooperative fellowship” and a “denomination” was three syllables …

      • My dad is an AoG pastor, and I attended an AoG church until two years, and not to pick nits, but I think there is a difference between the AoG and other denominations in the fact that each congregation in the AoG is “sovereign”. The pastors pay a certain amount to the district, and the district oversees ordination and licensing of pastors, but there is nothing preventing an individual congregation from voting to no longer be an AoG church tomorrow. They could do this and keep the pastor, the building, and pretty much almost everything. This isn’t really the case in a true denominational church.

        So,it’s not that I’m really an AoG apologist. There’s plenty I don’t like, but I do think in this instance, they have a point.

        • A/G polity is a hybrid between presbyterianism and congregationalism. Ministers are credentialed (and disciplined) by the fellowship through its geographical and language districts. There are general and executive presbytries that handle policy setting, missionary appointments, standards for ministerial credentials, etc. But each church holds title to its own properties, and each General Council-affiliated congregation (in contrast to district-dependent congregations) gets to elect their own pastor (ministers are not assigned by a central office, except for district-dependent churches, which areusually church plants or churches that have declined in membership to the point that they don’t have enough people to meet the standards for a General Council-affiliated, soverign congregation).

          So they are not a denomination in the sense of total centralized control, but they are in the sense of having an organization for missionary-sending, credentialing, producing common curriculum materials, etc.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It’s a Non-Denominational (TM) Denomination…

  10. Well, I guess I’ll be the fly in the punchbowl (yeah, I mixed it up)-

    1.) Yea & Amen- Indeed Jesus should be the Ground & the Goal of every Scriptural Message. The idea of leaving Him out of any sermon is appalling.

    2.) That said- the Bible, including the New Testament, is full of lessons about character, success, money, marriage, etc- much of it from Jesus Himself- that is important, should be taught by the Church & cannot be sidelined, anymore than the Gospel can be sidelined. If only Jesus & the Gospel of Grace should be taught from Scripture, then God sure had the writers clutter Scripture up with a lot of other junk.

    • Yet none of those lessons about money, marriage, etc., can be properly seen apart from Jesus. Otherwise we are just another man-centered religion.

    • Well, yeah, there is plenty of stuff in Scripture that we can glean different principles from, but without Christ, those are meaningless. In many ways, this parallels the recent posts about spiritual disciplines. The disciplines are good necessary for our lives as Christians, but without Christ they’re worthless. And I’ve heard many sermons where Christ is thrown in as an afterthought, rather than being the focal point.

  11. I read “Jesus Manifesto” while reading Michael’s book on Kindle. Two books at the same time saying (in different ways) the same thing: the church is missing Jesus. I thought it was pretty incredible. “Jesus Manifesto” has the feel of a sermon about it. You are correct: it is written in a popular style. That just might be one of its strengths.

  12. Haven’t read this one. Viola makes good points in his other books, but:
    1) Remember that he thinks that the institutional church is the principal problem and should be abolished. If you’re attending one, he thinks you haven’t addressed the issue of getting “the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form.”
    2) I got my comments censored for asking practical questions on his blog. It seems to a be a worship vehicle…..worship of Viola, that is.