Friday, July 03, 2009

Book Review: The Jesus Paradigm

(Disclosure: I received a free advance copy with the understanding that I would blog a review of it and with no other stipulations attached)

I finally finished David Black's new book, The Jesus Paradigm. It took me way longer than I expected through no fault of the book. Many of the thoughts Dr. Black expressed required some mulling over and honestly more than a few got me riled up, in good ways and in not so good ways!
I appreciate that Dr. Black, in spite of his advanced education and grasp of the Biblical languages, did not fall into the trap that many academics do of "writing to impress". His writing style is very lucid and concise and is at the same time intellectually challenging while remaining accessible. In other words, a person with a theological background and advanced training in Biblical languages is not going to be bored reading this book nor is someone with minimal formal education going to be intimidated in trying to wade through it.

Another thing I appreciated was that Dr. Black is bold and humble in his assertions. He certainly challenged me while I was reading The Jesus Paradigm and yet it never came across as him scolding me for my failings. The church could certainly use a dose of humility, and I put myself first in line for that. The idea of Christian discipleship is a "downward path" as described by Dr. Black. As we carve away the world and the organized religiosity that pervades the church, we find service and self-denial lead to satisfaction and joy. I thought of the words of John the Baptist when I was reading The Jesus Paradigm: He must increase, but I must decrease. (Joh 3:30) I found that as I examined myself in light of the truths Dr. Black was describing that I was wanting in many, many places. Dr. Black exhibits a Christ-centeredness that is refreshing. Lots of people talk about being Christ-centered but often that is a mask for denominational pride, theological particularism or self-exaltation.

I also liked the focus on the Anabaptists. Often forgotten and even more often misrepresented, the Anabaptists can still teach us a lot about the Christian life and about the church. Even in areas where I don't agree with them entirely, we still have much to learn. I enjoyed Dr. Black's comment that being peaceful doesn't equate to being a pacifist but that we should all seek to be peacemakers. There wasn't much mention of the aberrant theology that is often associated as a blanket accusation against Anabaptism. There were lots of perfectly orthodox Anabaptists. There were also a number of men in that camp who taught damnable heresies. However The Jesus Paradigm is not nor does it seek to be a comprehensive history of Anabaptism but he does show us quite persuasively that the Anabaptists are still quite valuable to the church today. I agree with him that we should seek a rediscovery of the writings and beliefs of those misunderstood and oft forgotten saints.

I guess I would say that Dr. Black "gets it". The "it" in question is a proper view of the Christian life, of discipleship. This book and the thoughts he shares are clearly the product of great study and prayer from a man who has the academic chops to be respected. Instead of pumping out popular books that reinforce the status quo, books like this challenge people and make us uncomfortable. In a church that is all too often far too comfortable, that is something we desperately need. We need to be shaken up.

However, no book is perfect and the big issue I had with The Jesus Paradigm had to do with the running political commentary. Right out of the gate I was a little put off by some of the political commentary. I understand, and would agree, that the church in America has far too often been too intertwined in politics. More often than not, the church has been linked to the Republican party, conservative politics, the "Religious Right" which is not healthy for the church or for the Republican party. But for a book that is not about politics, I found the frequent political commentary to be distracting. In condemning political entanglement, Dr. Black became so specific (even naming names like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity) that in his clamor for us to be apolitical I am afraid he did just the opposite. I think the book would have been healthier and more effective if he had skipped the strident political dogma, in large part because I am sure that many people who would benefit from this book will set it aside after a few chapters precisely because of the political undercurrents. I am not even saying he is wrong, although there are some places I would disagree strongly with him. What I am saying is that his argument in some places crosses over into anger (and as a connoisseur of angry rhetoric, I know of what I speak!) and frankly in some places exhibits naivete (for example, on page 122 he speaks approvingly of the view that peace in Iraq is dependent on reconciliation with Tehran, a view which seems somewhat silly given the recent events that demonstrate for us again that Tehran is not a place where good faith negotiations can take place). Again, it is not that he is entirely wrong but the tone and tenor are kind of jarring compared to the humble tone of the rest of the book.

All in all, this is an excellent book. Well written, accessible, challenging, reasonable for the most part. There is no higher compliment that I can give a book than to say it was challenging to me, made me want to read the Scriptures more diligently and that I marked pages and quotes liberally. This book did all three. It is a book that should and will challenge people to look at the assumptions we have about our walk as Christians, our view of the church and our status as redeemed sheep. Most importantly, this is a book that, as Alan Knox puts it, is strictly about discipleship and being a disciple of Christ involves a lot more than Sunday school, membership in a local church and dropping some money in the offering plate. It is a whole-life commitment. I hope that many Christians pick up this book, read it and examine themselves. I think the church will be far healthier if we focus on a life that is mission minded and Gospel centered, a life of discipleship that goes beyond theological camps and doctrinal triumphalism, that sets aside public displays of religious piety for quiet service.

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