Theology is Difficult Work: A Review of Jesus Manifesto

Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ
By Len Sweet and Frank Viola
201 pp. Thomas Nelson. $14.99

I sometimes wish that I’d gone into theology for my Ph.D work, but that does not mean that I think that theology is easy intellectually.  On the contrary, like literary studies, theology requires a degree of discipline and acumen to which I certainly aspire but cannot at any given moment claim as mine.  I’m not one of those folks who makes the (strange) claim that only theology books older than the American republic are worth reading; there are very good books of theology even from the last fifty years, and certainly I would not be the thinker and teacher that I am without the influences of folks like David Bosch, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, Elizabeth Johnson, John Milbank, Richard Hays, N.T. Wright, and John Howard Yoder.  In fact, the presence of those folks on my own intellectual horizons reminds me that good theology writing is not only possible but very edifying to Christians devoted to thinking, and I appreciate them all the more after I’ve read a book like Jesus Manifesto. Len Sweet’s and Frank Viola’s book does not start out with bad intentions; it just proves inadequate to the task, not a crime but also not a commendation.

The Jesus Manifesto (hereafter JM) asserts that most of modern Christianity (though their critiques tend to focus fairly single-mindedly on American evangelicalism) has displaced Christ as the center of Christian life, preferring (at various turns) self-help (100), politics (106), cuteness (75), political correctness(93), philosophy (xxii), imitation of Christ (68), and justice (113).  The problem is that, as far as I could tell, the book never offers a working idea of what the word “Christ” means that it doesn’t later negate.  In other words, many passages in the book offer sentimentalist versions of Christ, the object of aesthetic gaze that will elevate the soul because of the interior excitement that results.  But then there are other passages that decry sentimentalism.  There are passages that hold out Christ as the true and genuine king in a world of would-be powers.  But then other passages say that Jesus does not have any real politics, that a right-wing Capitalist and a social-justice advocate can equally serve Jesus.  There are passages that place the Church at the heart of the identity of Christ, but then others say that any “religion” is simply a replacement for the real Christ whose claim is on the individual person’s soul.  And so on.

One early problem with this book (a problem common to many popular press Christian books, if my own experiences participate in a trend) is that it attempts to establish itself as too distinct from too many things, some of which are simply part of writing a theology book.  One section heading, just to start with an anecdote, is “Introducing a Jesus Most of Us Have Never Imagined” (27).  (This Jesus, for those who will not read the book, is the Jesus of Colossians, a text widely available if any text is widely available.)  At any rate, the book’s fast-paced style leads far too often to carelessness with subjects that deserve at the very least some serious and humble attention.  JM’s introduction claims that “Christianity is not an ideology or a philosophy” (xxii), but then the following two paragraphs make (as I count them) three philosophical claims in describing what Christianity is.  Likewise, after declaiming theology as one idol among many that distracts from Christ, JM assumes a whole boatload of Anselmian and Augustinian theology as it makes a sales pitch for the “real” (in this case sentimentalist) Christ (32-34).  JM dismisses grand ideas and debates with a wave of its hand, relegating free will and predestination to a simple misunderstanding (163), making Pharisees whatever it wants to make them with no engagement with historical scholarship (131), claiming (again, strangely) that Jesus’ brotherhood with believers is “not some metaphor” (142–call Dan Brown, stat!), and entirely ignoring Daniel 7 and asserting that all mentions of “Son of Man” in the gospels refer to generic mortality and nothing else (166).

Such is a sampling of the strange moves the book makes; in other places it directly contradicts itself, one chapter seemingly unaware of another.  Jesus is not the Liberator that the Liberation theologians want to hold up (110), but Jesus is the Liberator (152).  A strong concern with justice makes one functionally equivalent to George W. Bush (111) and with Iranian Shi’ite clerics (112), but justice is ultimately one of Jesus’ own strongest concerns (115).  Jesus is not at all concerned with politics (118) but establishes a definite politics (119) but is not concerned with politics (120).  The contradictions certainly do point to difficult bits of theology, and theologians over the centuries have written interesting and important treatises and dialogues and sermons dealing with those difficult bits.  But JM seems almost entirely unconcerned with tapping into those traditions, nodding here and there to a line from a theologian that supports what point this or that chapter is already trying to make but giving little sense that that entire project is part of that grand Christian conversation (a conversation, after all, that the book wants to distance itself from as minimizing Christ).

In addition to the contradictions JM presents raw assertion where the moment calls for research.  (Frank Viola recently co-authored a book with George Barna; I wonder why he didn’t tap his recent colleague for some statistics in these places.)  In an early chapters JM’s authors claim to have met “countless ‘Bible-believing Christians'” who think that Jesus is an early hurdle to be surmounted on the way to bigger and better things (23).  Viola relates a story of one person who was impressed with a talk he gave at a conference and extrapolates that nobody in Christendom must be privy to the Spirit in the way that JM makes possible (101).  The eighth chapter begins with the phrase “Virtually every sermon preached today” (123) with no citations indicating that anybody has attempted to study “virtually every sermon preached today.”  (Again, one wonders where George Barna was when they needed him.)  Later in that chapter JM makes reference to “many sermons we hear preached today” (126) but no examples of those sermons.  Now a theology book does not need statistics to make its claim, but a theology book that claims to be responding to trends in Christianity at large probably ought to demonstrate some familiarity with Christianity at large rather than “I know a guy” stories.

The roots of JM’s problems lay in its insistence that so many theological tensions are not complex relationships between interpretations and implications but rather simple zero-sum games.  One can teach on “how to live by faith” or teach Christ, but not both (13).  One can learn theology or worship Christ, but not both (19).  One can combat heresy or worship Christ, but not both (25).  One can strive to imitate Christ or invite Christ to indwell one’s person, but not both (68–I wonder how recently the authors have perused Philippians).  One can be interested in “causes” or worship Christ, but not both (101).  Now few thoughtful people would deny that excessive focus on any of these things could render one’s Christianity a pious veneer over a logically prior ideology, but JM offers few real guidelines for discerning when such concerns become excessive or prior, and as I noted above, in other places it simply contradicts itself.  Such faults certainly reinforce that doing theology well can be a difficult enterprise, and they should point the thoughtful reader to folks like Milbank and Hauerwas (or fill in your favorite theologian here) who have attempted to articulate the complexity of such relationships, but this book in itself will not do much to lead a reader to more adequate thinking about such things.

Perhaps one could object that not every human being needs to be an academic theologian.  I would agree, and I would add that not every human being needs to be publishing theology books.  Sweet and Viola no doubt are crowd-pleasing public speakers, and their flair for clever phrases would no doubt make for a lucrative business designing T-shirts:

  • At the heart of orthodoxy is paradoxy. (66)
  • Grace gives us what we do not deserve; mercy delivers us from what we do deserve. (115)
  • The “Christian life” is impossible.  It’s only Him-possible. (127)
  • We live in a day when what sells best in the Christian world are books, sermons, and television programs […] orbiting around the Youniverse. (166)
  • He is a savior to the uttermost for our “guttermost.” (167)

In addition to these phrases the book fairly frequently wanders off into seemingly unrelated riffs, be those riffs about the remoteness and insignificance of Nazareth (72) or John Milton (99).  There’s nothing wrong with any of these moves; in other contexts, they might serve as thought-provoking reminders of larger arguments or sermons.  But appearing as they do in a mass-market Christian book, they do not remind readers of but substitute for careful argument and thought, and although they might be crowd-pleasers, they do little to advance any particular point.  I have to wonder as I think about this book if its publication in its present form is a symptom of inadequate thought about audience and genre, two things that I think about a great deal as a writing teacher but that likely get minimized in the lives of traveling conference speakers.

One disturbing moment that deserves some comment compares the deaths of Archbishop Oscar Romero with the death of Roger Schutz, who founded the Taize community, and it exemplifies an underlying preference for the political and economic status quo that pervades the book.  The brief passage (another riff, really), reads thus:

This culture loves causes, and it lionizes those who died fighting them.  There is nothing wrong with causes.  Archbiship Oscar Romero took up the cause of victims displaced in the Salvadoran civil war, and was assassinated during his homily as he was giving mass in 1980.  Now “San Romero,” as he is often called, is one of only ten twentieth-century martyrs honored above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey of London.  On the other hand, Brother Roger Schutz, founder of Taize, was killed on August 16, 2005, not for a cause he was promoting, but because of who he was, a follower of Jesus. (94)

As far as I could tell in some quick research, the most anyone would say about Roger Schutz’s murderer was that she was “mentally ill.”  The point here is not to open that investigation again but to note that, for JM, Romero’s death was not “for Christ” because his was more an assassination than a murder, much less a senseless murder.  That Romero was serving Christ in the persons of the poor is hard to dispute, and that martyrs become martyrs not because they die senselessly but because the enemies of Christ kill them is a basic bit of Church history.  But in their quest not to identify themselves with any “cause,” they choose the senseless killing to hold up and relegate Romero to the ranks of “defenders of causes.”

On one level this fear of “politics” (though, as I noted above, it’s a fear of politics that they can’t even sustain for a full page in some places) is understandable: if the goal is to unite Christians under Christ, then either the Capitalists or the supporters of Romero are going to have to budge, and given that neither group is prone to budging, the temptation is there to do an end-run around the question altogether.  But given that their targets in the “politics” sections are consistently those who advocate for the poor over against Capitalism, it’s not hard to see where they’d prefer to throw their Caesar-allegiance when the chips are down.

JM is not a total loss; when the authors do slow down, they do point in helpful directions, most notably in their section on ecclesiology (in which they acknowledge, briefly, that they’re advancing ideas first articulated by Yoder and Hauerwas).  Moreover, as I noted, it can serve as a helpful case study in the intellectual obstacles and tensions lie in the path of one who would think carefully about Christ and living as Christ’s body in a world that does not hail Christ as Lord.  But in most people’s cases, cases in which money is not infinite and shelf space has limits, I’d recommend starting not with this volume but with something that goes about the difficult work of theology more carefully.

3 thoughts on “Theology is Difficult Work: A Review of Jesus Manifesto

  1. I haven’t read this book and after your review I don’t have a desire to read it. However, from your review it seems that JM makes Jesus out to be more of a wisdom teacher and less of an end times prophet. Do they remove Jesus from his context of first century Jewish apocalyptic thought?

  2. Phil,

    There were times I wished for anything historical, even the wandering-sage thesis. Part of my critique that I excised because the review was already getting too long was that the category “person” in this book is an ahistorical and apolitical and sometimes even atemporal category–its rhetorical force amounted to “better than a doctrine or cause,” but its content lacked any of the contingent particulars that the ancients always linked to history and rhetoric. As I hinted in the final review, for a treatment of Jesus as a person and a more careful treatment of the implications of personhood, N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God is still the book that I’d go to.

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