The Jesus Life: Eight Ways to Recover Authentic Christianity
by Stephen W. Smith
231 pp. David Cook. $14.99.
I’ve said before that, if you want to see what a writer’s really about, look at how the writer writes about the devil. Milton’s Satan, Goethe’s Mephistopheles, and Lewis’s Screwtape, just to pick an obvious trio, let you in on each writer’s perceived enemies, pervasive anxieties, and other particularities much faster than most passages of text do. Pictures of God tend to resemble each other, but every devil tells a story. To that observation I would add that, for modern Christian books, it’s often just as helpful to look at how the writer writes about the Pharisees.
Just so readers don’t think that I’ve got the one, singular, right view of the Pharisees, let me lay out my own position for the sake of contrast. Whenever I teach a New Testament passage that involves Pharisees, I always note first their relationships with other Jewish factions of the first century: they’re neither Zealots nor Sadduccees, so they’re neither eager to wage guerilla war (they’re waiting for the big fight) nor happy with the Roman occupation (when the chips are down, they join the armed resistance in AD 66). They’re also one of only two Palestinian Jewish groups (the other group is the Christians) who survives what Josephus calls the Jewish Wars. So when the New Testament is out and about, they’re really the only other game in town, the strongest opposing voice, calling for a way to be God’s people that differs radically from the Way of Jesus. So my own view of the Pharisees is first and foremost an etiology, an explanation for why Christians turned out the way we did and Rabbinic Judaism turned out the way it did.
Stephen W. Smith sets up the Pharisees a bit differently in his book The Jesus Life, and although it’s not remotely the central point of the book, it’s a good predictor of what’s to come. For Smith, the Pharisees are far more modern than Roman-era:
The truth is, the Pharisees in Jesus’ day did the same thing so many Christians are doing today. We are on information overload. We go to Bible studies, attend seminars, and listen to countless sermons, but this one reality remains: Information and the amassing of information, no matter how true it is, does not lead to life transformation. (21)
In most readings of the Pharisees that I see in modern Christian prose, my main concern is that the author will paint them basically as Pelagians, those who try to “earn their salvation” by doing “good works.” Smith leads off by going exactly the opposite direction: his Pharisees are those who are just too hung up on doctrine and theology and other such “information.” (I do have to tip my hat to him for resisting the easy preacher’s end-rhyme of “information” and “transformation.” )
That stance against theology starts in the introduction, with his riff on the seminar-attending Pharisees, and runs throughout the book. Smith rehearses Bible narratives at every turn, but his focus consistently is neither the historic import of Israel or Jesus nor the latter-generation believer’s position as heirs to the salvation that comes through Jesus but on the particular, concrete details of how Jesus lived, day to day, and how imitation of those details might enhance the everyday lives of modern women and men.
And those details do not mean analogies, perhaps taking up the cross that awaits those who resist the military-industrial complex or proclaiming the Kingdom of God as embodied in the person Jesus just as the person Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God which is already and not-yet. Nothing that abstract. Instead, Smith takes the sociological particularities of the first-century rural Mediterranean life and holds them up as a contrast to the hurried life of a middle-class North American. Don’t eat fast food; prepare meals and eat as a family (chapter 8). Don’t put yourself out to the world via Internet and public appearance; live obscurely as Jesus did until his adult ministry started (chapter 5). Do not resist tradition but embrace rituals, whether ancient or invented last week, as markers of identity (chapter 10). What’s important about Jesus, for Smith’s book, is not the ways in which Jesus departs from the expectations of second-Temple Judaism or even the ways that the incarnation transforms conceptions of divinity and humanity but the fact that Jesus, a first-century skilled worker in Palestine, wasn’t a twenty0first century middle manager in Atlanta.
Thus Smith’s “Eight Ways” are things like valuing family as first-century Palestinians did; living life slowly as first-century Palestinians did; and avoiding “religion” and “church” (224) as ways to follow Jesus, preferring instead a rather insular, family-and-friends sort of life that steers clear of false ideas of one’s own importance, preferring the quiet, obscure life of the first-century Palestinian tekton/skilled worker.
And all of this is good stuff. My problem is not that I want to elevate the hurried post-industrial life but that I’d like to see self-help advice situated within a larger vision of fall and redemption, the decay of sin and the restoration that arises in the wake of forgiveness. And while Smith does occasionally tip his hat to the particularity of Jesus, he always does so with a matching swat to keep away “dogma” and “information,” making sure that the family supper does not become contaminated by Jesus’ warning that he brings a sword that tears up families. As Smith’s focus on self-help practices over against situation within salvation-history shapes Biblical narratives, the reading manifests in oddities like “obsessive-compulsive Martha” (71), a sense that the gospels are mainly there to provide a modern-style biography of Jesus (111), and a warning that one should not “reduce Jesus to the crucifix” (226). I do not disagree with Smith that we moderns could learn some good things about living from the ancients, but I remain concerned that, when “lifestyle” trumps theology, side matters threaten to overwhelm the central realities of the actual life of Jesus, and the “Jesus life” that thus emerges threatens to become yet another self-help regimen.
All of this is not to deny that this book has much going for it. Although I would have liked to see the critique situated in a larger eschatological framework, nonetheless I did appreciate Smith’s critique of Christians who hold suffering to be a sign that the sufferer has done something wrong or lacks faith (205). And his debunking the concept of “balance” as the character of the good life is welcome. I can agree with him that rhythm is a far more helpful metaphor when one thinks about ordering one’s life. But his repeated call for readers to improve their lives by twenty-five percent (29, 142, et. al.) and his obsession with “motivation” as the determiner of good action (171-174) make me suspicious, and his turn to experience as the true marker of devotion (177), though balanced by his meditations on suffering, worry me.
To sum up, this book is one that I chalk up as a good study in how theology shapes up when the “point” of theology is adjustment to the world as it is rather than proclamation of God’s judgment on the ways the world operates. Nowhere in this book is there any sense that suffering and self-destruction are the contingent fruits of a fall, that there will be a consummation of all things in which suffering and sin do not hold sway any more. Instead, this is a book about dealing with the world on its own terms, by choosing “lifestyle” options that are alien but ultimately not revolutionary. If this world is all we can look to for our hope, one could do worse than The Jesus Life. But if there’s something beyond, something towards which God might lead us, perhaps a Kingdom of God which is among us and which has not yet seen its completion, then one could do better.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.