Book Review: Jesus Manifesto
Last year I reviewed From Eternity To Hear by Frank Viola. As a result, I was asked to review his most recent book Jesus Manifesto: Reclaiming The Supremacy And Sovereignty Of Jesus Christ co-authored with church futurist Leonard Sweet.
When something like this happens I always wrestle with the tension of what to do. How honest should I be? If I’m too honest, will I perhaps offend people who are much more well-known than I? Will I miss out on future opportunities or connections as a result? Or if I’m not honest enough, am I compromising my integrity and the high value I have on healthy, open, and honest dialogue (what I believe to be the most productive and constructive)? Will I be true to my Unauthorized Approach To Christianity? I couldn’t decide. I never can. So here I go.
Let me be brutally honest right up front: I didn’t want to like the Jesus Manifesto book.
It’s not because I thought it would resemble the Communist Manifesto (review forthcoming). It’s because I gave 5 years of the best years of my life helping to start and build a church. It was one of the best experiences of my life. But it was also one of the most difficult–and one of the reasons I’m not still part of that effort today. I have a great deal of respect for people who stick with it. Sure, there are lots of ministers, priests, and pastors caught up in scandals. The media loves that stuff because it gives them juicy material and devalues the role of faith in our society. But overall, most of these individuals (not the jerks in the news) are just good sacrificial souls who live with less and live on less in order to share with their communities how much God loves them.
So why does this matter?
To me, Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet often seem to position themselves as curmudgeons of the modern church at large in America. Don’t get me wrong, it deserves much of the criticism. And I know this may seem humorous coming from a guy who wrote a book called 10 Things I Hate About Christianity: Working Through the Frustrations of Faith. But there is a difference between being a skeptic and a cynic–there is a difference between being recklessly critical and a healthy skepticism. Although my book is brutally honest, it is very positive (which always surprises people) and why the sub-title is the key.
That being said, I really liked this book. It was also very positive. It was not cynical. It was not critical. Although it brought out key issues in the modern church and the personal devotion (and character) of ‘Christians’, it did so in a way that was polite, respectful, and occasionally humorous. These factors are the key, and difference, between stepping over that cynical and critical line. As a writer, that is the tension to manage to prevent yourself from entering that unhealthy territory on your prose. If you do slide to the other side, your words seem like complaining, elitism, and contempt. But the Jesus Manifesto was none of these things. Specifically, I really started to like this book at about half-way point.
Overall, the Jesus Manifesto was a refreshing and simple look at the importance of Jesus (his teachings, life, and sacrifice) over all else. Sometimes our strategies and practices and become routine, which dulls our love and devotion. However, there were a couple of times that I got a little lost. Some areas seemed to try hard to sound spiritual and intellectual–which always tickles the reader–but actually said very little. For example the writers commented:
Both of us have developed the habit of counting the number of times the preachers we hear mention the Lord Jesus. Sadly, in many cases, contemporary preachers and teachers who spend an hour speaking on a subject, mention the Lord just once or twice… (p. 14)
This begs the question, isn’t making sure you mention the name of Jesus enough times just the kind of dull routine that doesn’t necessarily mean anything or help your devotion? That’s what happened when I was in the band Strongarm. I would often get criticism for not saying ‘Jesus Christ’ or ‘God’ enough times in the lyrics. Other than a few things like that (that I didn’t care for), I though this was a good book. It is devotional in style and fairly short. It would make or a good stocking-stuffer around Christmas (or something like that).
Some of my favorite lines in the book:
…if God were to write your biography, it would be a fifth gospel, so to speak. (p.43)
Jesus Christ has never been a social activist or a moral philosopher. To pitch Him that way is to drain his glory and dilute His excellence. (p. 105)
A careful reading of the Scriptures reveals that the kingdom [of God] is not something that we bring, or build, or cause, or create. The kingdom is a presence that we enter, a gem-like gift that we receive and treasure, a new creation that engulfs and embraces us. (p. 110)
Caesar sought to change the hearts of men by laws and institutions. Jesus changes the hearts of women and men and brings them into a new society, the church, the firstfruits of a new creation. (p. 111)
We’re not sure that Rousseau was right when he said that the more you think, the less you feel. But we are sure that the more you judge, the less you love. (p. 112)
Too many Christians want to change the world not because they love the world but because they hate the world. (p. 118)
We do not suggest as some do that the church’s “justice mantras” are little more than socialist nuggets honeyed with Christian sweetness. (p. 118)
Christianity is not fundamentally about following a book… It’s about following a person and living out of His life. The library of divinely inspired books we call the Holy Bible best helps us to follow that person, for they testify of him. (p. 137)
The Jesus Manifesto brought critical attention to Jesus in way that his followers can learn from.