Category Archives: Christology

More Imaginary Jesuses

Yesterday I started a review of Matt Mikalatos’ Imaginary Jesus. As I said before, this is a book that manages to be both fun and theological at the same time (terrifying, I know). But, I also said that I would offer a few critical comments as well (mostly because I like being mean).

My first criticism is one that I need to be careful with. Imaginary Jesus is a satire and, consequently, you should expect a fair amount of biting (though humorous) criticism. And, like all satires, there will be some places where you get a bit uncomfortable. Again, that’s the point. But, for satire to work effectively, you can’t cross the line to where the criticisms begin to feel unfair. For the most part Imaginary Jesus succeeds. But, there are a couple of places where the satire stretches a bit too far. This was particularly noticeable with Meticulous Providence Jesus. Now, I’m not a meticulous providence guy, so this isn’t me defending my own imaginary Jesus. But, I know a lot of people who hold to some version of meticulous providence, and I’m not sure that they’d see enough truth in the caricature for the satire to be successful.

Second, I think Matt lets us off too easy at the end. After all his wrestling and struggling with his imaginary Jesuses, Matt seems to suggest that we can arrive at that point where we have finally found the real Jesus. But, do we ever really arrive at that point? Is my vision of Jesus ever separated from my own culturally conditioned expectations, needs, and desires? Of course not. And Matt knows that. But, he lets the story end without offering what I think would have been a needful caution that we will wrestle with imaginary Jesuses for the rest of our lives. Maybe he intended to suggest that by offering a real Jesus at the end of the story whose face was hidden – suggesting that we will always supply our own. But, if so, I would have liked to see that made more explicit. A little less of a “happy ending” and a little more emphasis on the not-yet of our present understanding would have been appropriate.

I was also surprised and frustrated not to see the church play much of a role in the story. Matt is on this amazing adventure to find the real Jesus, but apparently that is something you do entirely on your own. (Assuming that you don’t count the Apostle Peter, the talking donkey, and the former prostitute.) I would have preferred to see Matt engage with the church at some point in the process. In this way, the atheists again come the closest. They’re at least working together in trying to understand the Bible and what it says about Jesus. So, although I liked the emphasis on finding Jesus in the text, I would have liked to see a strong emphasis as well on finding Jesus through his people.

I also think George Barna gets off too easy. Come on, George Barna in a book that satirizes evangelicalism? That’s just begging for some scathing satire in its own right.

Imagining Jesus(es): What does your Jesus look like?

I just finished reading Matt Mikalatos’ Imaginary Jesus (BarnaBooks 2010), and I must say that it’s a fabulous read. Any book gets my vote that includes a fistfight between Peter and Jesus, a conversation where Peter tells Matt that they need to go “find a whore,” Jesus hotwiring a car, and a whole bunch of Jesuses getting into a brawl in Powell’s. (Really, it all makes perfect sense in the story.) The whole book functions as a narrative satire on different ways that we misconceive, and in a sense “tame”, Jesus by fitting him to our preconceptions and perceived needs.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should also say that Matt is a Western grad. But, he only took one class from me, so I can’t take any credit (or blame) for anything he’s written.

Imaginary Jesus is a satire that tells the story of Matt coming to realize that the “Jesus” he hangs out with all the time is not actually the real Jesus. Instead, he’s an imaginary Jesus that Matt has constructed out of his own needs and desires. So Matt goes on a search for the real Jesus (along with the apostle Peter, a talking donkey, and a former prostitute). Along the way, he confronts quite a large number of imaginary Jesuses as he discovers that nearly everyone has their own personal Jesus (to steal a line from Depeche Mode). And, eventually he has to struggle with his own inner needs and weaknesses that have caused him to hide from the real Jesus for so long – a struggle that will cause Matt to deal with the difficult questions of pain, death, loss, and the love of God.

Imaginary Jesus does a number of things very well. First, as you’ve probably figured out, it contains a fair amount of irreverent humor. And, it’s great. Theology can often be a discipline characterized by an almost stoic unwillingness to see the value in wit, humor, and joy. Matt has no such problem. Throughout the book he uses a whimsical narrative to address substantive theological issues. And, he does it well. He also mixes in an obvious appreciation for the wondrous side of life (art, food, friendship, children, etc.) that helps keep the story alive and fun.

The book also succeeds because of Matt’s extensive familiarity with evangelicalism, particularly in the northwest. Since the book provides a satirical look at a whole range of Jesus-like misconceptions, the book pokes into the evangelical psyche of almost every evangelical subculture. Matt spends most of his time with those subcultures that he knows best (white, middle-class, Portland), but his vision is much broader than that. And, although the satirical approach will rub people the wrong way at times (satire is supposed to do that), he is generally fair in the way he makes fun of himself and others.

Matt should also be commended for the way in which he handles the challenging issues of death, pain, and suffering as they relate to the nature and character of God. I don’t want to give away too much of the story here, but the burden of the narrative really rests on how the pain in Matt’s life affects his image of Jesus. And, throughout the story, Matt resists offering any easy answers to the questions that he asks. In the end, he offers only a hope that belies the brokenness of this present reality, a hope grounded in the goodness, faithfulness, and sheer otherness of God, as well as the fact that Jesus has entered into our pain and has promised to make all things right in the end.

Finally, I appreciate that Matt ultimately grounded his understanding of Jesus in the narrative of the Bible. I got a little nervous in a couple of places thinking that finding the real Jesus was going to be a semi-mystical “journey within”, an attempt to ground our understanding of Jesus in our own spiritual experiences. But, as important as personal experience is in the book, he clearly shows that the only reliable picture of Jesus is one that is grounded in the biblical text. And, unsurprisingly for this book, it’s an atheist who demonstrates this most clearly.

When it’s all said and done, Imaginary Jesus is a fun read, but one that will also press you to think about your own imaginary Jesus(es). It would be a great book to use with people who might find “theology” intimidating, but need some theology in their lives anyway.

Tomorrow I’ll offer some more critical comments on Matt’s book. But, they won’t change the fact that this one is worth reading.

Origen: Heretic or Great Theologian?

Here is my paper that I wrote for our Greek Father’s class.  Before taking the class, the only thing I had heard about Origen was that he was a heretic.  After studying him this semester, I found that my conclusions were wrong.  There we definitely things he taught that would be considered unorthodox today, but he was clearly one of the first great Christian minds.  Therefore, I submit this paper for your reading enjoyment.

Origen’s Trinitarian Theology

Abstract:

Origen is one of the most controversial early church fathers.  He was accused of heresy by the 5th Ecumenical Council and was excommunicated from the church.  The anathema centered around several tenets of his theology, one of them being his doctrine of Subordinationism.  Subordinationism was the teaching that the Son and Holy Spirit were both subordinate to the Father in nature and being.  Origen is thought to be the first theologian to insinuate, if not out right teach such an idea, and that subsequent heresies derived their authority from Origen’s initial teaching.  In light of this accusation, this paper attempts to do three things.  The first section takes a look at what Origen actually said about the Father, Son, and Spirit and tries to piece together a coherent view of his Trinitarian theology.  An explanation is then given as to why Origen appears to be misunderstood, and clearly affirms that he does not adhere to a doctrine of relational subordinationism within the Trinity, but does see a subordination of roles within the divine mission.  The final section discusses two contradictions between Origen’s theology and that of the Arian doctrine that was linked to him.

ETS Paper – Christology and the Mind/Body Debate

There have been a few requests for the paper that I presented at the NW regional ETS meeting, An Empty Cipher? Christology and the Mind/Body Debate. So, here it is. Feel free to post any questions or comments you might have.

Death by Love 4

As much as I have enjoyed reading Death by Love, there are two other things that I think are worth commenting on. First, the book manifests an occasional tendency to confuse the effects of the atonement with one’s experiential realization of those effects. For example, in the redemption chapter, the authors indicate that a person needs to do five things in order for redemption to occur: conviction, confession, repentance, restitution, and reconciliation. But the authors certainly would not want to suggest that the atonement has no effect on a person until resitution has been made for all of his or her sins. If so, we are all in big trouble. It would seem much more appropriate to say that a person will not experience the full benefit of their redemption until they have walked through these five steps. Similar confusion arises at various points in other chapters as well. This is almost certainly because, again, the authors are concerned throughout to demonstrate the practical significance of atonement-thinking. As closely related as existential realization and objective accomplishment are and should be, however, we must be careful not to conflate them.

Second, consistent with other books that Driscoll has been involved in, Death by Love is occasionally marked by an unfortunate tendency toward a form of hyper-masculinity. Thus, in this book real men are strong, protectors of the weak, who get angry when they need to and seek vengeance against wrongdoers. Such men have “raw masculine integrity” (p. 74). Wolverine would be proud. The villains of the book are often the “docile, neutered church guys” (p. 74) and the “flaccid church guys” (p. 127), who fail to get angry at the right times and do not protect the innocent. Reading through all of this, at least two thoughts come to mind. First, are these really our only options? Have I failed in the realization of my full masculinity if I do not find Ultimate Fighting to be the pinnacle of masculine achievement? And second, what makes these things specifically masculine? Shouldn’t women protect the innocent and be angered by sin as well? This comes across particularly clearly when, in one chapter, a young girl prone to promiscuous sex is encouraged to realize that he behavior is partly her father’s fault – he failed to cherish her properly. That may be true, but it does leave one to wonder why her mother is not similarly faulted for failing to cherish and protect her as she should. An overly realized masculinity that emphasizes only certain qualities runs the risk not only of mischaracterizing masculinity, but implicitly undermining the significance of those qualities for a proper view of femininity at the same time.

Nonetheless, Death by Love is a fine book that is well worth reading and pondering as we seek to become people’s whose minds and lives are shaped by the cross.

Death by Love 3

Having identified several things that I find very helpful about this book, it is time to move on to the more critical task. To be fair to the book, though, we must keep in mind throughout that the intended audience and brevity of the work mean that the authors are necessarily limited in what they can accomplish. Nonetheless, there are a few critical points that I would like to make. In this post, I will focus on the first two.

First, in the introduction to the work, the authors present penal substitution as the core of the atonement, virtually equating ‘atonement’ with ‘penal substitution’, but they make no effort to establish that this is the case. Given that the rest of the book develops a whole range of other ways of viewing the atonement, they leave unanswered the question of whether one of these others might actually be the basic perspective from which the others arise. Or, might it not be the case that none of them is fundamental, but that they are equal and diverse witnesses to the beauty of the atonement? The authors may be correct in presenting penal substitution as fundamental, but they give us no reason for thinking so. This is particularly surprising given the strong criticisms that have recently been leveled against penal substitution and the authors’ own obvious appreciation of all the various aspects of the atonement.

A second concern is actually generated by the strengths I mentioned in my previous post. Although the authors present their book as an examination of the “twelve glorious sides” of the atonement, it really is more of an exercise in applying limited aspects of those twelve sides to particular situations. For example, the Christus Victor chapter focuses almost exclusively on the issue of individual demonization. This is very helpful for the particular situation they are addressing, but it falls far short of being an ‘examination’ of the Christus Victor idea in that it neglects other issues like victory over sin, death, more corporate/institutional aspects of the demonic, and other forms of oppression and bondage. So, rather than providing an examination of the Christus Victor view, the chapter serves much more as an exercise in applying one aspect of that view to a particular situation. Admittedly the authors go on to deal with sin and death in the following chapter on redemption, but that only exacerbates the problem by making it appear as though sin and death belong to the redemption metaphor and not to the victory metaphor, when in fact they belong to both. Indeed, each of the chapters likewise focuses on a rather narrow slice of their respective metaphors. As I mentioned, this actually serves the book’s purpose of being an exercise in atonement-thinking, but insofar as it explicitly presents itself as being an ‘examination’ of each metaphor, it runs the risk of conveying an overly truncated understanding of each metaphor.

Death by Love 2

Continuing our review of Death by Love, we will focus in this post on two things that this book does very well. First, it does an excellent job of presenting a very broad range of perspectives from which the atonement must be viewed. Although they present the atonement as most fundamentally about penal substitution, Driscoll and Breshears do an excellent job of articulating a broad range of aspects that must be included in any adequate understanding (victory, sacrifice, justification, propitiation, expiation, ransom, example, reconciliation, and revelation).The reader is thus challenged to reconsider the atonement and realize the tremendous breadth, depth, and reach of this central truth of the Christian faith. Given the size and nature of the work, it is, of course, not comprehensive, and one might have wished that they had dealt with some metaphors more directly (e.g., healing metaphors, and payment metaphors beyond the ransom metaphor). Nonetheless, it is still a very useful work for demonstrating the breadth of the biblical portrayal of the atonement.

Although oddly presented as another aspect of the atonement, the authors also provide a very nice defense of “unlimited, limited atonement” (i.e., the atonement is unlimited in its extent, but limited to the elect in its application). This chapter is unlikely to satisfy fans of limited atonement or those preferring more Arminian articulations of unlimited atonement; nonetheless, it is an understandable presentation of some of the key issues and a clear articulation of the position.

A second key contribution of the book, and the one that I think is even more important, is that Death by Love is ultimately an exercise in atonement-thinking. That is, Driscoll and Breshears seek to model how belief in the atonement should permeate Christian life – all of our decisions, the things that we believe, the ways that we respond to people in crisis, and how we approach sin in our own life, should all be grounded in the cross. For example, in the first chapter, a woman who has long struggled with deep-rooted sins and issues with demonization is not approached with a particular method of dealing with the demonic, but is presented with the truth of the atonement and Christ’s victory over sin. That is, she is encouraged to think and live atonement-ly. This process is then repeated through all twelve chapters. If you are paying attention, by the time you get to the end, you are beginning to wonder where your life and ministry need to be challenged by the reality of the cross and the truth of the Gospel as you come to recognize that we should all be people who think atonement-ly at every turn.

For both of these reasons, then, Death by Love should be a very useful book for anyone wanting to develop their understanding of the atonement’s breadth, sharpen their atonement-thinking, or help others in their church do likewise. It should be especially useful in a Sunday school or small group setting, given the wide range of discussion topics that it provides.

Death by Love

I just finished reading the new book by world renowned authors Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Death by Love (Crossway, 2008). I was going to suggest that one of you write a review of it, but I decided that maybe reviewing a book co-written by one of your professors might be a little intimidating. You should reserve that for when you’ve graduated and they no longer control your destiny (which, by the way, never happens). So, I thought I’d take a stab at it.

To keep this from becoming obnoxiously long, I will break my review into a few pieces. In this post, I will start by summarizing what the book is about. Subsequent posts will comment on some of the things that it does really well and make a few critical observations.

In Death by Love, Driscoll and Breshears seek to explain to a lay audience the multi-faceted nature of the atonement and its practical significance. As a popular-level work, Death by Love is replete with stories and examples, most of which function effectively to communicate challenging theological concepts in easily understandable ways.

In the introduction, the authors lay out their basic theological convictions regarding the atonement. They argue that any biblical understanding of the atonement must recognize that it is both substitutionary (Christ died in our place) and penal (Christ took upon himself the punishment that was God’s just judgment on human sin). Thus, penal substitution is what the atonement is fundamentally about.

To understand what this penal substitutionary atonement means in its fullness, though, one must consider all of its various facets. The majority of the book, then, comprises twelve chapters that each focus on a different aspect of the atonement. Probably the most unique feature of this book is that each of these chapters unfolds as a letter written to some person explaining how the atonement bears on the sins and life problems facing that person. Thus, we find people struggling with sexual sins, abusive relationships, Pharisaic self-righteousness, and addiction issues, among others, and each of them is confronted with truths about the atonement that challenge their ways of behaving and believing.

At the end of each chapter, the authors respond to some of the key questions raised. Since the answers are necessarily brief, they tend to provide more of an outline of an appropriate response than a complete answer. They are helpful nonetheless. The book closes with a chapter offering resources for studying the atonement further. Though largely limited to conservative evangelical works on the atonement, the works on the list are generally good and helpful for anyone seeking deeper discussions of a whole range of issues.