“The more I wrote about the radical nature of Jesus’ message, the more I felt willing, one hundred times over, to completely sacrifice whatever it takes to continue living it out.” — Benjamin Corey, author, Undiluted
The summer of 2014 has been a rich one for Patheos Progressive Christian authors. In the past several months, we’ve seen new releases from the likes of Marcus Borg, Brian McLaren, Christian Piatt, Chris Smith and John Pattison, Tim Suttle, Frank Schaeffer, Peter Enns and Benjamin Corey … all of them exceptional, and all of them receiving significant praise from around the internet.
Ben Corey, of the very popular Formerly Fundie blog, has the most recent release in the bunch with his first book Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus. Brian McLaren has called it “…a jolt of full-strength gospel.” I caught up with Ben this week to ask him some questions about his book and why he’s taking heat for taking on the “Americanization of Jesus.”
Undiluted was inspired by my journey studying various areas of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary from 2008-2012. I went off to seminary as a life-long Christian know-it-all thinking I had little to learn, and long story short, I had my world rocked. Through it all, I realized that many of us grow up with a version of Jesus that is at odds with the Jesus we find in the Gospels, and as a result, the missing component of Christian faith in America is often Jesus himself. Undiluted is all about returning home to the historic roots of our faith and the discovery that the timeless message is every bit as radical today as it was back then.
What’s your biggest struggle with the Church today?
My biggest struggle with the church today is unteachability. It seems as if people cling to an American Jesus and will immediately dismiss anyone — even scholars committed to Christian orthodoxy — who try to help reintroduce them to the historic reality of our faith. We’ve been so conditioned to police the boundaries that anything “different” is seen as some “new theology” to be distrusted, instead of being open to the fact that sometimes, these “new” ideas are simply a return to a de-americanized version of the Christian faith. If we don’t develop teachability we’re going to be in big trouble.
Did you wrestle with the idea of taking on American Christianity in your book?
I did wrestle with the idea of it and knew that folks who are entrenched in Americanized Christianity would probably have negative feelings about the book. However, I believe that the Americanization of Jesus is a serious issue that cannot be ignored, even if I end up taking a few shots for pulling the curtain down. I will say though, that I wrote the book in a much more careful and tender tone than my blogging voice, in hopes that it would be a book that would invite both progressives and evangelicals to take a journey together to rediscover Jesus.
Your book is in some ways for the disaffected Christian who is longing to live a different way but feeling like an outsider in the American church. How do recommend these people find and build community?
I’m not going to lie — building community is hard work and in fact, is something my wife and I are struggling with in our regular lives. However, as I say in the book, “community happens where you do it”. The key I believe is to simply start living authentically, shed off the facades, and find other people who are doing the same thing. Like anything worth building, community takes the investment of blood, sweat, and tears and must be pursued even when it’s tough. The early or transitional stages however can be really exhausting and lonely, so I’m not going to sugar coat that this is a tough issue for many people, myself included.
What was the hardest chapter for you to write?
The hardest chapter to write was Undiluted Justice where I told a sanitized version of an adoption horror story my wife and I lived. We were one of those couples you hear about on an evening news show who experienced an adoption gone wrong and ended up spending two years trying to (safely) parent a teenaged child with homicidal tendancies. It was an extremely difficult and emotional chapter to write, and one that Tracy and I discussed often as we debated whether to include it in the book. In the end, I decided to include it because I thought it was important to reverse the American notion that following Jesus is safe. It’s not– it is radically costly. Yes, the invitation of Jesus is an invitation into life, but only by way of death first.
Did anything surprise you in the writing of the book? Did you discover anything new about your faith or convictions?
There definitely were a few surprises — or perhaps realizations. The biggest of which really came once the book was nearing completion and I had a better feel for the overall story I was telling. The surprise for me was simply how energized and dedicated I became around the commitment to continue living a “Radical Christian” lifestyle. The more I wrote about the radical nature of Jesus’ message the more I felt willing, one hundred times over, to completely sacrifice whatever it takes to continue living it out. In a beautiful way, I feel like I’ve shed myself of so much that I don’t have much more I can lose — which has freed me to this place where I’m willing to lose whatever is left if it means I get to help build this beautiful Kingdom Jesus talks so much about.
You’ve said say that sharing your voice through blogging and your book has cost you a lot. Why is questioning the religious culture and institution so threatening for people?
It’s all fear based. First, people don’t want to consider the possibility that some of what they grew up believing (often generational theology) might simply be untrue because that has HUGE implications not just on theological praxis but often on family relationships as well. Second, people are unwilling to question because of the fear of the unknown: what do you replace X with when you find out X might not have been right? Letting go of X invites you into the tension, into a gray area, and this is uncomfortable regardless of where you’re coming from. Finally, people are afraid that if you knock one pin over you’re going to undermine the whole building, and that’s just simply not true.
A year has passed since you turned in the manuscript for Undiluted. Since then, your blog has gotten incredibly popular, and you’ve written and responded a lot to ongoing events and shifts within Christianity. Would there be anything you would rewrite in the book now?
That’s actually a really good question and something I worried about when I was first writing the book. I can think of a dozen blog posts I regret making public, and didn’t want to feel that way with something as permanent as a book. On one hand, I am my own worst critic and could probably think of a million ways I could say some things better, more passionately or with a little more clarity, but honestly, I don’t regret any of the core content. Undiluted is a book that in the end, I am really proud of and would feel comfortable handing to Jesus and saying “here, I wrote this about you. I hope you like it.”
What words or advice would you share with someone out there who feels like an outsider to American Christianity, yet still wants to follow Jesus?
You’re getting ahead of me Deborah 🙂 What I would say to that person is: hold on tight; I am releasing a book in August of 2015 (Destiny Image) that’s tentatively titled “Without A Tribe: Making Peace As A Christian Outsider”, which will answer that question in complete detail.
What are one or two things Christians can do to begin the process of separating the cultural Christianity from Jesus? How might we start “undiluting” our faith?
That’s a long, tough process, but my best advice is to start by returning home to the root of our faith: Jesus of Nazareth. Re-read the Gospel accounts and consciously try to drown out the tapes in your head that tell you how you should interpret it. I’d pay special attention when you hear the words “but” or “well…” in your mind, because what comes after that is usually a culturally conditioned attempt to explain away the radical message Jesus just said. Instead, ask the question “what if Jesus really meant what he said?” If you can convince yourself to answer “yes”, you’ll likely begin a journey in discovering a Jesus who might turn your life upside down– but in really good ways.
What’s your greatest hope for Undiluted? What would success look like with this book?
I think there’s a growing number (bigger by the day!) of folks who are feeling fed up with American Christianity but walk away still thirsty for a Jesus who captivates them when they consider him. There are also scores of Christians from all sorts of traditions who are bored with their faith as it has assimilated into something safe and predicable. My prayer for this book is that the disaffected, the skeptical, and the bored will all give Jesus a fresh look to see if there just might be something in his radical message that we’ve missed… something that just might change everything.
Read an excerpt from Undiluted at the Patheos Book Club, starting Sepember 1st!