So what is Christianity? It is Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less. Christianity is not an ideology or a philosophy. Neither is it a new type of morality, social ethic, or worldview. Christianity is the "good news" that beauty, truth, and goodness are found in a person. And true humanity and community are founded on and experienced by connection to that person.
Thus begins Jesus Manifesto, the latest book from popular theologian Leonard Sweet, coauthored with Frank Viola. Lamenting a distortion of the Christian message in modern N.A. culture, Sweet and Viola attempt to answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say that I am?...the question required of every generation, and every generation must answer it for itself."
So, their answer you ask? Well, attempting to write in an "ancient devotional tone" - they never define what this is - the authors explore a variety of themes related to how we as 21st Christians can "exchange our dusty rites, Christian-speak, and pop-culture church-building tactics for the joy of becoming a walking breathing 'Jesus Manifesto.'" With chapters titled "The Occupation of All Things," "His Face or Your Face?" and "Who is this Lord of Yours," over and again the reader is confronted with a different angle for how Jesus can become the center of everything we are in life. Instead of Christianity being concerned with certain "causes" - e.g. social justice, peace, or morality - the book is simply about describing the reality Jesus Christ. As the authors state, "If Christ is in you, then the Christian life is not about striving to be something you are not. It is about becoming what you already are" (emphasis original)
Overall, I found the purpose of Jesus Manifesto quite refreshing in a culture prone to consuming whatever the latest and greatest spiritual technique happens to be. On this line, we can't get enough Jesus to re-center us so to speak. I'll admit, however, as refreshing as a centering towards the person and work of Jesus is, Jesus Manifesto ends up creating too many false dichotomies between Jesus and attempts to follow Jesus. The authors claim, for example, that "the end of existence is not understanding faith. It is living faith--a walk of utter dependence upon and loving attentiveness to Jesus Christ." So, does that mean my friend from church who came to know and love Jesus through an arduous process of intellectual understanding should have packed it in and simply been more attentive? Or more dependent? Such contrasts - and this is just one of many - create unnecessary separation between the human attempts to follow Jesus and the process of Christ's transformation within the lives individuals and the church. There is too much either/or and not enough both/and for the reader to grasp how we can "become who we already are" amidst the messiness of our lives. And while perhaps this is just the "making the best of it" influence of my former professor, John Stackhouse, Sweet and Viola would do well to offer some realism to their admirable call to center us on Jesus.
Jesus Manifesto has no shortage of quotable moments, although the authors extensive use of metaphors and catchy (shallow?) sayings do get tiresome. Unfortunatley, the writing comes across inconsistent. On one page I would encounter a compelling description of Christ and faith, only to be followed by a catch phrase used to illustrate a point that was already clearly expressed (e.g. "Listen to the Lord again: 'Without Me you can do nothing.'" Okay, good point. But here's what follows: "The 'Christian life' is impossible. It's only Him-possible" - serious!?!) Blame the editors I guess...
So while I endorse the purpose and topic of Jesus Manifesto - you can't argue with more Jesus can you? - the authors make it sound too easy. I was challenged to consider how my faith reflects an identity in Christ beyond simple behavior, but reading Jesus Manifesto actually left me wanting more of Jesus, if that's possible. I mean more of Jesus in the real world of our lives - more of Jesus in a world where the idealism of complete identity in Christ confronts the realities of just how difficult such a realization is.
Here's a sampling of the quotable highlights (which however good, definitely illustrate the authors' idealism):
So what is Christianity? It is Christ. Nothing more. Nothing less.Christianity is not an ideology or philosophy. Neither is it a new type of morality, social ethic, or worldview. Christianity is the "good news" that beauty, truth, and goodness are found in a person. And true humanity and community are founded on and experienced by connection to that person (xvi).
The Christian family has swung so far from its Lord that most of our preaching and teaching today is an "it" rather than a "Him" (19).
We awaken in Christ's body as Christ awakens our bodies...and everything that is hurt, everything that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful, maimed, ugly, irreparably damaged, is in him transformed, recognized as whole, as lovely, and radiant in his light (65, quote of Symeon the New Theologian).
Most people thing of evil as a mystery. We believe the mystery of goodness, beauty, and goodness is an even greater mystery than that of evil and wickedness. As one of "God's spies," are you always on the prowl to spy on the beauty, truth, and goodness Jesus is birthing in the world? (85).
Practically speaking, the church (when she is functioning properly) is the new society that Jesus creating. Christ and the church cannot be separated...The kingdom of God is made visible when the community of the King embodies justice, peace, and love together and then shares it with the world. The church, therefore, is the embodiment and instrument for displaying the kingdom of God (107).
It is one thing to get the meaning of what Jesus said and did; it is another thing to start meaning it. Meaning is meaningless until and unless you start "meaning it" (109, emphasis original).
Christians have a lover's quarrel with the world. Too many Christians want to change the world, not because they love the world but because they hate the world. The test of love's radiance: does it both transcend and embrace the world? (118).
According to the many sermons we hear preached today, one would think that Jesus gave us a completely differnt way to live than the way He lived. Jesus said clearly that He couldn't do anything on His own strength. But we are told (or it's heavily implied) that we can (126).
Those who live by the life of Christ do not act as though they are morally superior to other. While they stand separate from the defilements of sin and the world, they embrace those who are wounded, hurt, confused and defiled by them. So on the one hand, believers are "set apart from sinners," but on the other hand, they are the friends of sinners (135).
And summarizing the whole book well:
Christians don't point people to core values; they point them to the incarnated, crucified, resurrected, ascended, enthroned, exalted, triumphant, glorified, reigning Lord--Jesus of Nazareth, the King, the Messiah--the Christ beyond the tomb (173).
I received an advance of copy of Jesus Manifesto through the Booksneeze review program.