Take Five: Reflections on Five Christian Books

In the past two weeks, I have completed reading or re-reading five books. I read each for different reasons—one was a gift, one was in preparation for an interview, one was a hold-out from grad school, etc.—and I have now decided to make an attempt at bringing them together to see how they compliment each other.

The First book is by John Eldredge—Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus (2011). A friend valued this book so much that he bought two boxes of them and announced on Facebook that he would send a free copy to any “friend” who wished to receive one. I was quite willing to take him up on his offer.

Eldredge does look for clues to Jesus’ personality in the biblical material, but it’s not “personality” like a psychologist defines the construct. This is not an application of Myers-Briggs personality types, or DISC, or the Big Five traits. It is also not a salvo in the war, I mean, quest for the historical Jesus. Rather, it provides a consideration of Jesus’ way of interacting with people. His straight-talk with people in power. His wild support of a wedding party. His ample supply of fish for weary fishermen—his overabundance, or extravagance, that comes bubbling out in so many different contexts. Through all of this, the call is to love Jesus radically, with abandon. This I appreciated deeply.

In this effort, or in some ways beyond it, throughout the book, Eldredge makes a case that religion—then and now—gets in the way of understanding what Jesus was doing, what he was about. Religion can distance us from God. Religion can obscure how God wants to interact with us. Religion can distort our picture of Jesus and God the Father (aka Abba). I felt this was a strength of the book, an analysis not hinted at in the title or subtitle on the cover.

A minor theme that was also not hinted at in the title relates to Christian social ethics. Each time Eldredge made comments on ethical themes, I felt he lost track of his main objective and did so in a way that made him lose credibility in my eyes. One aspect of this theme relates to peace. Eldredge states early on, “After all the nonsense that is repeated about Jesus being a gentle peacemaker, reading the Gospels is really quite a shock” (pp. 7-8). Without going into details I have covered,[1] I will say that I believe there is ample evidence that Jesus was gentle (with discouraged people), that he was a peacemaker (rightly understood), and that he could deal assertively with conflict (without turning violent). We are told he was angry with unjust religious leaders, but that anger led to a healing encounter (Mark 3:5).

The peace theme comes up again in chapter four where Eldredge asserts that Jesus’ zeal in cleansing the temple is “particularly unsettling for pacifists” (p. 35). No, it’s not. Pacifism is not passivism, a laid back nonchalance about injustice. Pacifism is simply a determination not to kill people. Jesus was certainly a pacifist, regardless of whether one believes that his disciples should or should not be pacifists as well. Jesus taught enemy love, and he demonstrated this in his forgiving prayer during his execution. No humans were hurt in cleansing the temple. The whip was used to drive the sheep and cattle out. Pacifists have no problem with this show of moral force that injured or killed no one.

Two pages later Eldredge makes the same error in his description of the false Jesus: “Helpless, lovely Jesus. Vegetarian, pacifist, tranquil. Oh, wait—that was Gandhi. Not Jesus” (p. 37). This mixing of adjectives is ridiculous on so many levels, and here I think Jesus would come to Gandhi’s defense more than thanking Eldredge for his.

This ethical theme is continued in a subtle way when describing the kingdom of God. This is not to say that his description is wrong, but since God’s throne and kingdom is based on righteousness and justice (Ps. 89:14; 97:2; Is. 16:5), I found his description of the kingdom to be a bit thin. “For now the glorious kingdom will come, the eternal summer romp of men and angels. His crowning ensures the triumph of a kingdom of laughter and beauty and life, forever” (p. 108). I agree with this, again, I just think it is a bit shallow. I’m looking forward to more than a “summer romp.”

Approaching the end of the book, Eldredge considers the way people respond to Jesus. One camp sees Jesus as perfect and give-up trying to follow him because he is simply too perfect. A second camp tries to live for Jesus on their own strength. This is a decent analysis until he fleshes it out. “These are the folks providing most of the army for Christian activity, the heroes held up in church, the ones fighting for justice across the globe. Bless them, they are engaged. But let me tell you, few things can mess you up as badly as trying to do your best” (pp. 201-202). That’s quite a claim to say that most Christians working for justice in the world are part of this camp that is actually disconnected from Jesus! I’m curious what research he’s drawing on to make this broad claim.

In the Epilogue, Eldredge does turn and say that there is “great suffering on the earth”, such as children in the sex trade, orphans, and those with HIV/AIDS. However, nothing is stated about how working to relieve this suffering is a way to connect with Jesus (Matthew 25). Instead these tragedies are used as evidence that Jesus was right to warn us about dark days ahead. We are also instructed not to let harsh suffering make us distrust God; this was meaningful to me.

The strength of the book is its focus on Jesus’ personality and character traits; however, a weakness was its poor analysis of Jesus’ social ethic—peace, justice, compassion and love were surely  common themes as Jesus engaged people who were hurting, sick and in poverty. The next two books I will discuss more than make up for this deficit in Eldredge’s book. John Howard Yoder’s The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (1971) shares with the first book a commitment to the man, Jesus Christ. The very first words are from the mouth of Mary, describing who God is, and therefore, who her son will be: “he has brought down monarchs from their thrones, but the humble have been lifted high. The hungry he has satisfied with good things, the rich sent empty away” (Luke 1:52-53). This theme of God’s good news (gospel) and its social dimensions are traced through the preaching of John the Baptist and then into Jesus’ inaugural speech (Luke 3-4). Clearly, this book is to be a social analysis of the way of Jesus.

The line from which the book gets its name relates to the distinct group of people God is forming in the world, a group that is separate and yet present. “This is the original revolution; the creation of a distinct community with its own deviant set of values and its coherent way of incarnating them” (p. 28). This theme recurs throughout the book—Christians are followers of Jesus, a community of disciples, who together follow a way that is foreign to and yet relevant to this world.

The second chapter draws out ethical themes from the Sermon on the Mount, and the third chapter presses us to consider the ramifications of Jesus truly being Lord. Christians who wish human history to come out a certain way (i.e., where justice and peace prevail) at times feel a pull between following the example and teachings of Jesus and taking action that is outside of this norm (i.e., relying on violence, deceit, etc.). In contrast to this desire to be effective, Yoder asserts:

Just as has been the case ever since the patriarchs, and most notably at Christ’s cross, the task of obedience is to obey and the responsibility for bringing about victory is God’s alone, His means beyond human calculation. God’s intervention, not human progress, is the vindication of human obedience. The Christian’s responsibility for defeating evil, is to resist the temptation to meet it on its own terms. To crush the evil adversary is to be vanquished by him because it means accepting his standards. (p.63)

The Constantinian Shift is presented as the major turning point in Christianity, both regarding ethics and the status of the church. Rather than supporting the empire, Yoder calls out: “Let the church be the church!” (p. 72). Rather than rejecting language of effectiveness altogether, he does assert that the “most effective way to contribute to the preservation of society in the old aeon [now] is to live in the new [God’s future aeon]” (p. 83). The church can support abundant life by being itself rather than taking on roles and actions of worldly power. This role of the church in the world is explored throughout the remaining chapters, which emphasize the call to be in but not of the world.

Taking this theme of the social relevance of discipleship in additional directions is the work of Gary Haugen in Good News about Injustice (1999). I first read this book close to ten years ago. It opened my eyes to biblical and historical realities that I had not previously wrestled with. It was a highly influential book in my spiritual journey and in my vocational quest.

Haugen leads International Justice Mission, a Christian organization that works to rescue children from bonded labor and sex trafficking among other justice efforts. The first two sections of the book have two objectives—to describe the horrible human rights abuses that Haugen’s team is combating and to provide a biblical basis for Christian involvement. In my view, he achieves both goals with passion and clarity. This is not easy reading, but I believe it is vital. The stories are too dark and the Bible too clear to be ignored. Our God of justice hears the cry of the oppressed and is looking for Christians to stand in the gap on their behalf.

What is the good news about injustice? The God of the universe is against it and desires to use us to end it. “The great miracle and mystery of God is that he calls me and you to be a part of what he is doing in history…. When Christ ascended into heaven, he left behind only two things for the fulfillment of all his aspirations for the world: his Spirit and his followers” (p. 34). I used this theme for a sermon I gave while teaching in South Korea,[2] and later I learned this theme is highly important to Carl Wilkens.[3]

Haugen tackles head-on two obstacles that often stand in the way of Christians joining God in this work for justice. First is ignorance. We must know both the need and the heart of God in order to risk getting involved. The second obstacle is the overwhelming sense of powerlessness one often experiences when learning about the scale and scope of violence and oppression in the world. From multiple perspectives, Haugen attempts to overcome these massive hurdles. Despite the power of coercion and deception, social circumstances can in fact change. Some measure of justice can be achieved. Lives can be changed. Prisoners can be freed.

The final portion of the book covers some of the more practical considerations for working to free sex slaves, bonded servants, falsely accused prisoners and others. This section is worthwhile reading for all Christians, not just the front-line actors who are doing research, filing papers or testifying in court. There is much else to be done to support the work, the ministry—go, send, pray.

This practical dimension of working for justice is in harmony with Joe Holland and Peter Henriot’s Social Analysis: Linking Faith and Justice (1980). The major difference between this book and the final section of Haugen’s regards scope—this is macro, Haugen’s is micro. Rather than research a single case of incident, Holland and Henriot, S.J., set out to describe how ministry leaders can conduct social analysis in planning pastoral responses to the world’s needs.

These are Catholic authors writing for a Catholic audience, but there is much here of use for any religious person or institution attempting to better understand the social context of its community service and outreach. Readers with a background in theology will quickly note the language of liberation theology, but this should not be off-putting for those who do not entirely embrace this type of theological reflection. The social tools are useful regardless of one’s views on this heritage.

Central to the book’s analysis is the pastoral circle, or the circle of praxis or the hermeneutic circle. The cycle includes insertion, social analysis, theological reflection, and pastoral planning (and back to insertion…). This short book is focused on the “social analysis” segment, though this is necessarily couched in the broader circle. This analysis is described as “the effort to obtain a more complete picture of a social situation by exploring its historical and structural relationships” (p. 14). Both historical and structural components are broken down and described in some detail, fleshing out what is meant by each.

Theories of change (traditional, liberal and radical), models of development (economic, social and political) and stages of industrial capitalism (laissez-faire, social welfare and national security) are also presented and discussed in an effort to demonstrate how pastoral action must be appropriate for the present social context. The Afterword includes additional procedures and questionnaires to use when conducting a social analysis, making the book highly practical despite its brevity.

The final book I have read recently is Howard Zehr’s Little Book of Restorative Justice (2002).[4] I read this in grad school when I began volunteering at a local VORP (victim offender reconciliation program), a volunteer experience that was short-lived since I moved shortly after connecting with the agency. Zehr was an early leader in the restorative justice movement, a movement that has diversified and spread world-wide in various forms.

Rather than present a single “restorative justice program,” this short book describes the principles, pillars, goals, practices, questions and signposts of restorative justice. Zehr defines restorative justice as “a process to involve, to the extent possible, those who have a stake in a specific offense and to collectively identify and address harms, needs, and obligations, in order to heal and put things as right as possible” (p. 37). As opposed to standard criminal or retributive justice, which asks “What law has been broken, and what is the punishment for said infraction?”, restorative justice seeks to ask and answer the following guiding questions:

  1. Who has been hurt?
  2. What are their needs?
  3. Whose obligations are these?
  4. Who has a stake in this situation?
  5. What is the appropriate process to involve stakeholders in an effort to put things right? (p. 38)

This is a challenging book to bring into conversation with both Social Analysis and Good News about Injustice. Social Analysis is a resource or tool for understanding society-wide injustice. In this macro context, these five restorative justice questions could be used in moving from analysis to pastoral planning in the Pastoral Circle. This could potentially be a fruitful supplement to the questions asked in the Afterword of that book.

These same questions could be relevant to the issues raised in Good News about Injustice. Once perpetrators of oppression are stopped, what is the most restorative next step? Is retributive punishment sufficient or best or only response? What role could these questions play in finding restorative actions for victims, offenders, and the communities where violence and oppression have taken place? Since restorative justice principles and programs are being implemented around the world, I wonder if IJM has had the opportunity to work with restorative questions in mind.

While I did not choose to read these five books in order to put them in conversation with each other, it has been a rewarding project. As I neared the end of the fifth book, I thought it might be interesting to spend some time reflecting on how they supplement or complement each other. They each have such unique strengths and perspectives. I could easily see myself reading them again in time. They are not long books, but they do offer much for contemplation. Thank you for joining me in this reflection. I hope you are motivated to read them and mine their wisdom for yourself.


[1] See my essay, “Peace Theology” — http://advactivism.wordpress.com/about/theology-of-peace/.

[4] I also read Zehr’s Little Book of Contemplative Photography this past month, but that was outside of the time window I used as a constraint for this writing project. I wrote about that book here: http://blog.nicholasjensenphotography.com/2012/06/contemplative-photography.html.

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