Top Ten Books 5

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 3.35.58 PMBy John Frye


Jesus Roiling His World

Ministry in the 1980s included a two year teaching opportunity on the faculty of Moody Bible Institute and being called as pastor to Bella Vista Church, Rockford, MI, where I served 24 years. You can imagine the many books that I read to keep my mind and heart vibrant. Yet, reflecting on the decade of the 80s, two books were profoundly influential on my view of Jesus and pastoral ministry. In the line-up today is book #5 of ten that shaped my life: Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom.

Kraybill’s book was my first foray into the sociological, cultural underpinnings of the synoptic gospels. “I have completed graduate degrees in sociology and tend to read the Scriptures through the lenses of that academic discipline. Such an endeavor is quite precarious because as one wanders back and forth between the disciplines of theology and sociology, one is bound to insult the guardians of both traditions” (9). Kraybill is a person trained in “the radical reformation heritage” (an Anabaptist). Kraybill’s focus is Jesus’ teaching and demonstration of the Kingdom of God. Yes, I know many others have since written about Jesus and the kingdom within the cultural realities of 2nd Temple Judaism, yet Kraybill opened my eyes in wonder to the sheer courage and startling otherness of Jesus within his own Jewish context.

An interesting observation is made by John F. Alexander in the Introduction. He writes, “Jesus is very popular. … hardly anyone ever criticizes Jesus. Or obeys him. In fact, we go to great lengths claiming He didn’t teach what He clearly did” (13). If you want a current baptism into the challenge of Jesus, read and meditate through Scot McKnight, The Sermon on the Mount: The Story of God Bible Commentary. I learned that if we want to serve and represent a radical Jesus in our 21st century culture, we had better take the time to understand Jesus within his own time. We declaw the Lion if we don’t. Studying a theological construct of full deity and full humanity in one Person forever (while accurate) is a limp replacement for reading of the brazen audacity of the carpenter from Nazareth.

Kraybill’s section titled “The Female Box” left me breathless. In the discussion of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), I saw redemptive dynamics and cultural bravery at work for the first time. Since that first reading, I’ve developed a powerful sermon (can I write that?) around Jesus’ and the woman’s conversation. By simply putting himself in the powerless position and asking a simple (human) question—“Will you give me a drink of water?”—Jesus literally exploded every cultural barrier between himself and the woman. The only person to whom Jesus revealed himself personally and privately as Messiah was to the marginalized Samaritan woman at the well. Kraybill writes of “Jesus’ revolutionary attitude toward women.”

In a stratified, shame-based society, Jesus dared to see all people the way his Father saw them: as loved bearers of the image of God. Sadly, we still live in a stratified society where power (Kraybill calls it “social muscle”) is encased in prestige, privilege, and status (263-264). Let me give you an example from my life here in Grand Rapids, MI. At the 20 year mark of living here, I met a wonderful Black brother and fellow-pastor. He had only lived in Grand Rapids for 2 years. In that time, he had been pulled over 15 times by the police not because he was breaking the law, but because he was Black. He told me this. In my now 35 years here, I have never been pulled over because I am White. I have an Hispanic friend who is a seasoned executive in the Steelcase Corporation. In his work world, he is respected, leads and gets things done. When he goes to lunch with his White friends, the people taking food orders treat him as if he were an illegal alien. He told me this. The kingdom of America is not the Kingdom of God.

The Upside-Down Kingdom was first published in 1978, but is as current as recent news out of Orlando.

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