Review of Robin Meyers, Saving Jesus From The Church

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.

"That makes perfect sense to me! ^_^ Anyone else agree?"

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  • 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)To put not too fine a point on it, bulls–t. Belief and behavior are inseparable, since how we behave is determined by our perception, whether explicit or implicit, of the way the world is. It makes me wonder if this guy has actually read the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s see what it really says, shall we?First of all, the beatitudes all express very definite beliefs, namely: 1) that the poor in spirit will inherit the earth, 2) that those who mourn will be comforted, 3) that the meek will inherit the earth, 4)that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness will be filled, 5) that the merciful will receive mercy, 6) that the pure in heart will see God, 7) that the peacemakers will be called children of God, 8) that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who are persecuted and that their reward will be great in heaven. Implied in all these beliefs are further beliefs about heaven, about God, about justice and even about epistemology (i.e. you have to be pure in heart to see God).More beliefs: 1) the whole Law will be fulfilled before heaven and earth pass away, 2) looking at a woman with lustful thoughts is tantamount to committing adultery (this is a psychological belief), 3) heaven is the throne of God and earth is His footstool (whether we take this literally or metaphorically it is still a belief about God’s power and majesty), 4) God’s constancy is shown in the fact that he makes the sun rise on both evil and good, and his rain on both the just and the unjust, 5) God the heavenly Father is perfect, etc.I could go on, but I think the point is clear: the Sermon on the Mount is certainly a behavioral manifesto but it also prescribes very specific beliefs about God and his providence towards the world, without which the prescribed behaviors would make no sense. There’s absolutely no point in behaving like Jesus advises unless there really is a God of power and judgment who is breaking into this world with His kingdom. If belief without behavioral transformation is one extreme of the religious pendulum, then behavior without belief is the other extreme. Both are equally repugnant. If the desire to avoid Jesus’ tough behavioral commands is behind the emphasis on creeds, I say that the desire to avoid the propositional content of Christian belief stems from the desire to avoid uncomfortable questions about God’s action in the world, the incompatibility of Christian beliefs with the other world religions, etc. It’s certainly fashionable to say things like “I believe in Jesus but not Christianity” but I’ve heard the same stuff so long that it’s making me sick. Creeds are indispensable to Christian practice and have been there from the beginning.

  • I’d say that it is overstatement rather than bull. There are certainly presuppositions about God, and about right and wrong, that are assumed in the Sermon on the Mount. But there doesn’t seem to be anything that is really genuinely akin to the sorts of propositions that become the focus of much Christian faith: no doctrine of the incarnation, for instance (but of course, that isn’t in the Apostles’ Creed, either). I think one reason for the development of creeds may have been the shift from a Jewish to an increasingly Gentile context, in which certain core presuppositions could no longer be left unarticulated, since they were not assumptions shared by Gentiles. And so adding details like “We believe in one God” makes sense in that context. But doesn’t it remain true that Jesus’ challenge as presented in the Sermon on the Mount is primarily about what one does? Doesn’t it say something about Evangelical Christianity in particular that it has to rewrite the conclusion of the Sermon, turning it into a children’s song that says we should “Build our lives on the Lord Jesus Christ” rather than (as the Sermon actually says) hear his words and put them into practice?I agree that making the dichotomy too sharp or going to either extreme is unhelpful. But there has been such a strong assumption that beliefs are what matters, that it may be that nothing other than hyperbole can highlight the fact. 🙂

  • I am still not interested, as it is performance driven. I did “behave” as I thought was appropriate “discipleship” by responding to grace.We took a 65% pay cut, by choice, not by necessity. We moved to “nowhere”. We believed that we would find a community to work alongside.I don’t believe that there is reality to anything in scripture as it was my lifeblood, as I had understood it, but the responses were baffling to me…but I worked from a different paradigm. I have changed paradigms, as my faith, commitment and belief destroyed me. Rejection was not in my vocuabulary as a Christian, so experiencing it in the community of faith, was horrendously painful and offensive, so much so, that I am re-defining faith and it doesn’t have to be acceptable to anyone else. I am not going back there again. I have been conditioned…

  • ‘”Consider this: there is not a single word in [the Sermon on the Mount] about what to believe, only words about what to do.’Put oil on your head when you fast.Always pray in a closed room.Watch out for false prophets.Do not conscript children into armies.Do not take people as slaves.Only kidding.The last two are not in the Sermon on the Mount.The Sermon on the Mount is not going to save Christianity from being irrelevant, no matter how many Christians put oil on their head when they fast.

  • Rhoblogy: “Hello Dr. McGrath,I don’t see any rebuttal so far to my contention that you have set yourself up as an authority over the Bible, and that therefore there is really no good reason for you to read or take into acct any of it at all. I do think interaction with that point would really benefit our discussion here.”James McGrath: “Lately I’ve found myself thinking that Jesus’ humanitarian emphasis in his saying about the sabbath law could be applied to the 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.” ——–This is prima facie evidence straight from the proverbial horse’s mouth confirming Rhoblogy’s contention that James McGrath sets himself up as an authority over the Bible.In the form of a syllogism:Premise 1: James F. McGrath is a human being. Premise 2: “A human being is lord of the Bible.” (McGrath)Conclusion: James F. McGrath is lord of the Bible.

  • I took a few classes under Meyers when he was (or still is) a speech professor. I think his brilliance comes from seeing the clash of mindsets in conservative Oklahoma and thus finding a “third way” is a powerful movement indeed.Thanks for the review, I enjoyed it thoroughly!

  • Anonymous

    JD, you think “behavior without belief” is “repugnant”? I assume you think human kindness is bad, unless it comes with an elaborate theological framework?It’s one thing to say that one can’t find God’s favor without the right beliefs — it may be stupid, but I understand it — but to say that being good is “repugnant” That’s a perfect illustration of why fundamentalism is such a terrible thing.The fact is that Christians believe very little of what Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount. Like the poor will inherit the earth (not go to heaven) and the wimpy stuff about peacemakers, and the idea that God will forgive those who forgive others. If you believe that God will only forgive those who truly believe in the correct theological propositions irregardless of behavior, then you must also be saying that Jesus lied to people in his sermons. pf

  • “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).”So Is Meyers saying that we should believe in the pictures of Jesus in the Gospels, or does he think we should follow the historical Jesus behind the Gospels, or both?

  • Meyers is definitely saying the latter, but I think it also becomes clear that even by focusing on the (Synoptic) Gospels, one gets a different impression than from the creeds and many later theological sources and emphases. And so at times he can simply refer to “the Sermon on the Mount” rather than always having to say “the Q material that was incorporated into the Sermon on the Mount”.Does that clarify things?

  • Clarity is something we seek after, but I find it hard to discern. “Christian” is a term for those who want to be identified with some particular “form” of Christian faith. The “form” brings clarity…Humanitarian aid is not particuarly Christian, as many do humanitarian aid and are part of other religious traditions, or none at all. So, it is about owning one’s identity, taking responsibility for your life and the ones that you influence, etc.I get almost physicall ill went i hear platitude, such as the Sermon on the Mount being used as some absolute “standsrd or form” of conformity. That is inappropriate and irrelavant to faith, nor does it answer any of reason’s doubts, understanding, etc.

  • “I get almost physicall ill..”I get that when I drink too much, or if I look at pictures of mangled bodies.

  • I think it does. At the same time, although he thinks the parables about judgment don’t go back to Jesus, I hope he doesn’t excise apocalypticism from the historical Jesus. It’s not that I like judgment and fire and brimstone. It’s just that this motif appears so often in the Gospels that I think it should play some role in how people define Jesus.

  • benjdm

    back to what Christianity looked like before “the fourth centurySo…how many centuries does “Christianity” have to refer to propositional beliefs before people who don’t hold the propositional beliefs will stop trying to get the label back? Apparently, 18 out of 21 isn’t enough (including 18 of the last 18!)

  • MD Gilmer

    Having read many books in recent years about the "real" Jesus, I have finally read one that speaks truth to my heart. Thank God for Robin Myers. We may have to move to Oklahoma to find such an honest, Spirit-filled man.

  • My thoughts exactly, MD. I have spent my life trying to get behind the gospel stories to the "real" Jesus. Meyers has done that. Christians have done some horrendous things in the name of their religion. It's time to start actually following Jesus teachings. I find those most hostile to Meyer's book and outlook are those who worship the creeds instead of practicing the teachings of Jesus.

  • Anonymous

    I know I am late to the party, having just come across this book in the last couple days, but Meyers articulates something that has been on my mind for years. Even as a child I could not reconcile "God is love" as posted on the Sunday School wall, and the physical, emotional, and intellectual violence that permeated "Christian" history and practice. When I became a parent it crystallized for me. There was nothing my little child could do that would make me turn away from her. And I realized that either I was a better parent than God, or the vindictive, judgmental, rejecting trickster I had heard about was not the "real" God. If the real God operates out of love, not vengeance or resentment or whatever, then there is no need for a bloody death to appease Him/Her/It. And that unmakes the concept of Christ as the sinless victim of our sins. I began to think that the point of His ministry was the teaching, and the resurrection was not the centerpiece of the performance, but the validation that the teaching that had gone before was genuine. So where does that leave "the Church"? Stuck, that's where, spending time begging for life eternal, as though THAT battle wasn't already won, instead of feeding the sheep. Any shepherd can tell you what happens if you don't feed the sheep. They die or they wander away.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate this book will cause a great deal of discussion, and that some may be unwilling to accept what it offers. My experience of reading the book has resulted in me re-examining the basis of why I 'believe' what I do. The challenge it offers is difficult – but it has helped me to begin shaking off the ancient orthodoxy in light of the reality of the world I inhabit. Of particular interest is the detail in Chapter 2 which focuses on the distinction between "faith" and "belief". It has encouraged me to seek a faith that is not simply the thing "I use to cover over things I can't explain". Rather, it motivates me to a faith in God that "things are even bigger and better than I can imagine or explain" – no matter how well I can use words. Thanks for the Book. Thanks for the Review. Thanks Jesus for the conversation your very existence continues to promote.

  • Anonymous

    What Meyers has in common with the fundamentalists is the inclination to speak in absolute terms and the desire to put God in a box. I'm a liberal so I found many nuggets of truth in this book. However, just as often I found myself saying, "and you know that how?" Bottom line is that Meyers lacks imagination. Hell if God created natural law why assume He couldn't suspend it? Really it makes perfect sense. If God wanted to connect the dots for a bunch of unimaginative, flat earthers why not shake them up a bit with miracles and a resurrection or two? How arrogant to presume to know what motivates the Creator of all things or what God's over arching plan is. Perhaps our human brain wasn't designed to understand the bigger picture until God chooses to reveal it. Meyers discounts the power of God to put in our minds what He wants us to know when He wants us to know it. I don't require the Bible to be inerrant in order for me to accept that Jesus is both fully human and divine or that He sacrificed His human life so that the rest of humanity can have the opportunity for an eternal relationship with Him. Nor do I need to understand the nature of the Trinity in order to feel the truth of it. Volition is meaningless without temptation and so the world is filled with it. That seems logical. What purpose does choice serve if the only option is between good and good? I think original sin would be better described as the ability to choose bad if we so desire. So then it is up to me to decide what to do with my selfish urges. Just as the Spirit of Truth convinces me that the Bible is not inerrent so does He provide me with the conviction that my belief in Jesus saved me. The next stage for me as a follower of The Way is choosing to demonstrate my love for God by loving my neighbor as myself.

  • Lff1926

    Why is everything either/or?  Why not both/and?

    I was very frustrated with this book because it was consistently either/or.  And there was nothing new in it – although the author obviously thinks his thoughts are completely original…

    • JD1966

      Nevertheless – how do you answer those thoughts?  What do you think about his basic point about following Jesus’ teaching?

  • Jsmith342

    Thank you for the review. I suppose that I’m a liberal Christian in that I’m not an evangelist. I don’t mind the constant use of male gender in scriptures. What I do mind is my current pastor’s fixation on two things: you must praise Jesus to the exclusion of doing anything else, and that you’ll go to hell anyway because you are a sinner. As a result, I avoid anything past the Gospels and Acts. I find nothing in the words of Jesus that support the intolerance of fundamentalism.

    It has been difficult to find Christian scholarship that doesn’t either exude evangelism at the expense Jesus’ message, or lean to the left to the point of being considered leftist propaganda.

  • Jsmith342

    I meant to write embrace evangelism when my ipad 1 froze on me. I suppose that my message was to be that I would like Christian scholarship without the emphasis on recruitment. I would like to read about just about anything without enduring an agenda. I like courses on religion, and am disappointed when I read comments condemning them because of their lack of evangelism. I shun “I’m right, you’re wrong” and “Everyone is right, if it makes you feel better”. I like Elaine Pagels’ writings for their scholarship over agenda.