Review of Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).
Sometimes a book you didn’t expect to read, and hadn’t even heard of, crosses your path and makes an impact on your life, or at least an impression. Robin R. Meyers’ book Saving Jesus from the Church is such a book. What makes it valuable is that Meyers is a Liberal Christian and is unapologetically both, and is concerned to move beyond stating what he as a Liberal Christians doesn’t believe, beyond even stating what he does believe and value, to actually proclaiming the Gospel as he understands it. The cover flap provides endorsements from no less voices than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Bill Moyers, John Shelby Spong, Fred B. Craddock, and Diana Butler Bass.
The book is full of so many eloquent and memorable expressions that I could run a series of “Quotes of the Day” for a week and still not be finished. I will try to share at least some of the best ones.
Meyers begins by asking the question at the heart of a recent debate on and around my blog: “Am I a Christian?” The book begins with a nightmare of all the horrific things people have done in the name of Christ, and the refrain that if that’s what being a Christian is, then I don’t want to be one. By the end of the book, the nightmare will have given way to a dream, the list of offenses and shortcomings to one of powerfully challenging ways of living out Christian discipleship, and a different refrain: If that is a Christian, then I want to be one.
The essence of Meyers’ vision is summarized well in the prologue. His is a call, akin to that of the Protestant Reformers, to get back to what Christianity looked like before “the fourth century, when a first-century spiritual insurgency was seduced into marrying its original oppresser.” Closely connected with this major shift in the nature of Christianity, as Meyers sees it, is a shift to focus on creeds: “Students who once learned by following the teacher became true believers who confuse certainty with faith…We have a sacred story that has been stolen from us, and in our time the thief is what passes for orthodoxy itself (right belief instead of right worship)” (p.10). The first chapter continues this theme, focusing on Jesus as teacher rather than savior.Here he clarifies his aim: not to offer yet another book on why fundamentalism is wrong, but instead to offer a positive alternative vision of what Christianity is, can be, and should be (pp.13-14). Meyers writes, “Consider this: there is not a single word in [the Sermon on the Mount] about what to believe, only words about what to do. It is a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one. Yet three centuries later, when the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom, there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!” (p.14). Meyers also identifies at least one reason why this shift occurred and continues to be so popular: “Christianity as a belief system requires nothing but acquiescence. Christianity as a way of life, as a path to follow, requires a second birth, the conquest of ego, and new eyes with which to see the world. It is no wonder that we have preferred to be saved” (p.15). And so it has become the case that, to many, “Being a disciple today often means little more than believing stuff in order to get stuff” (p.20).
Chapter 2 focuses on faith as “being, not belief”. Meyers points out that neither claiming to believe the virgin birth as a sign of one’s faith, nor claiming not to believe it as a demonstration of one’s critical thinking, necessarily leads to “a changed heart or a self-sacrificing spirit” (p.37). Meyers also has some wise words about wisdom to offer in this chapter, which relate to the subject of inerrancy and the Bible. Meyers’ Jesus-centered approach to the Bible translates into the following principle: “when there is a conflict between what the scriptures say in particular and what we have come to expect from the wisdom of Jesus, his wisdom wins. We hold the Bible accountable to the message of Jesus, not Jesus accountable for everything in the Bible” (p.45). In order to put such a principle into practice, of course, it helps to be using historical methods of study. But it isn’t necessarily essential. Even if one places the focus on Jesus’ teaching as found in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, the point still stands, even though the sermon quite plainly represents teachings of Jesus redacted, rearranged, organized and interpreted by the Gospel’s author. And Meyers is aware of this, pointing out, for instance, that the “parables” of final judgment are found largely in Matthew’s Gospel and seem to reflect that author’s redactional and compositional activity (p.54).
Lately I’ve found myself thinking that Jesus’ humanitarian emphasis in his saying about the sabbath law could be applied tothe whole Law and indeed the whole Bible: “The Bible was made for human beings, not human beings for the Bible. Therefore a human being is lord of the Bible.” Humanitarian concerns (themselves articulated in the Bible) must be allowed to determine and shape our own humane use of the Bible. But I digress…
Chapter 3 focuses on the cross, and notes the tendency of much contemporary Christianity in the direction of docetism. “Yet when Jesus ceases to be human and becomes only Christ the God Man, we can choose to believe it or not to believe it, but we cannot follow. We can admire, but we cannot emulate” (p.71). When we emphasize Jesus’ humanity, we pay him a great honor, since his impact on history becomes all the more remarkable (pp.71-72). The chapter touches on, among other things, the relationship between the cross and violence.
Chapter 4 is on Easter as “presence, not proof”. As readers have probably had enough discussion of Liberal Christian understandings of Easter in recent weeks, I’ll not say more. Chapter 5 is about the concept of original sin, and ends with a call for a new Reformation that restores the notion that creation is blessed and in the process shifts the focus back away from beliefs about Jesus to following Jesus (p.116). Chapter 6, entitled “Christianity as Compassion, not Condemnation”, focuses on (among other things) the limitations of words and the danger of our professions of faith, since we are prone to assume that, if we are talking about something all the time, then we must in fact be doing it (pp.117-118). Meyers suggests that, rather than speaking of Jesus as “the Answer”, perhaps we ought to think about him as “the Assignment” (p.120). It is in this chapter that he dives into politics. His approach to the subject of homosexuality is remarkably succinct: “Until we have homosexuality all figured out, shouldn’t we practice radical hospitality? As long as we see “through a glass darkly,” isn’t it wise to err on the side of inclusion and compassion, rather than condemnation?” (p.137).
Chapter 7 is about discipleship, which he points out seems to require relatively little sacrifice on the part of most Christians in affluent societies of our time. I will not quote in detail the humorous analogies between the contemporary approach to church attendance and between the dating game on the one hand, and a familiar airline script on the other (pp.141-142). Here the emphasis on practice and obedience rather than doctrine once again comes to the fore. It continues into chapter 8, on justice, where the contemporary Christian silence on the subject of greed, and even at times aberrant encouragement thereof, is shown to be a recent phenomenon. He eloquently points out that many of today’s Christians are silent on matters about which Jesus spoke, whereas on matters about which he was silent, they condemn (p.177). The fact that the faith of which Christians have historically spoken was in most instances trust is also mentioned (p.179). When we claim unconditional faith in our own “side” and its “rightness”, we in fact are not showing trust but mistrust, in both God and other human beings (pp.179-180). Chapter 9 focuses on the prosperity “Gospel”.
Chapter 10, on “Religion as Relationship, not Righteousness”, devotes a significant amount of attention to Buber’s famous distinction between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships. Having earlier mentioned the “airport theology” of Christians who celebrate only, or focus primarily on, Christmas and Easter (he calls it that because it is all about arrival and departure), Meyers here notes the details of Jesus’ human life that are omitted from the creeds. Looking at the Apostles’ Creed’s affirmation that Jesus was “…born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”, Meyers sums it up well: “The world’s greatest life is reduced to a comma” (p.207). By the end of this chapter, Meyers is summing up a powerful vision of a different way of being Christian, focused not on doctrines but on discipleship. “Christianity requires no sacrifice of the intellect; it can withstand any question we dare to ask and any answer we are brave enough, in the service of truth, to answer” (p.218). A concluding epilogue rounds the book off with a dream to replace the nightmare with which it began.
The book is not entirely free from the sorts of moments that are liable to make a Biblical scholar cringe – such as connecting Nineveh with the Arabs, or getting a little too excited about the possible influence of Mithraism on what later Christianity developed into (pp.26, 28). But this is a book by a preacher, and books by conservative preachers are no less prone to get historical details wrong here and there. Whatever minor shortcomings Meyers’ book may have, it performs a useful service, since it is not enough to say that Liberal and Progressive Christians are not committed to inerrancy, to exclusivism, to various doctrines and dogmas. We must be for something, just as Jesus was not merely opposed to the Pharisees or to various religious authorities, but was for the outcasts, the marginalized, the “sinners” and the “unclean”. What makes this book so valuable is that Meyers is a Liberal Christian with a liberating Gospel to proclaim, and is eager to unleash its power into the world, transforming not merely individual lives but also social structures.
What makes Meyers’ vision for Christianity so powerful is that it at once combines an openness to contemporary issues and concerns (including, but by no means limited to, modern science and scholarship) and a rediscovery of the message of Jesus. The latter is there in the Bible, and I suspect that the greatest fear of conservatives is not that people will dissect the Bible and challenge it with the tools of historical critical investigation or other methods of academic investigation. Their fear is that people will read the Bible for themselves and, whether asking critical questions or not, will discover that the voice from its pages that calls to them to follow is not talking about the issues conservatives generally concern themselves with. And so the issue is not whether Meyers’ vision is “Liberal” or “Conservative”. He is offering a call away from many of the things that both ends of the spectrum share and have confidence in in contemporary society, calling us to follow Jesus with the expectation that our lives will be transformed not by our strongly-held dogmas but by the surrender and self-sacrifice of discipleship.