John Wesley read more widely than almost any man of his time. He was an acquaintance of his contemporary, John Locke, the deist whose writing inspired James Madison and Thomas Jefferson’s “enlightened” view of humankind. Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Montesquieu of France all rejected the Christian doctrine of original sin — yet Wesley read them.
We know how Wesley devoured the writings of Catholics and Anglicans like Thomas a Kempis, William Law, and Jeremy Taylor—all of whom implanted their devout spiritual disciplines into Wesley’s psyche. We know of his long love affair with German pietism, even spending the summer of 1738 in Herrnhut, Germany where he was mentored by a carpenter named David Christian. We know of his mastery of the Edwardian Homilies and his contrast of their Protestant theology with that of the Anglican Church of his own era. Certainly, we know that he constantly was studying and committing to memory vast sections of Holy Scripture. The bottom line is that Wesley read widely and interacted with many people in the highest echelons of British society, politically and intellectually. These are dimensions of our founder’s “elusiveness” that we have too seldom read about. They are part of his doctrine of the “catholic spirit” (If your heart is as mine, give me your hand…..”).
As a foot soldier among Wesley’s theological progeny, I long ago began the practice of reading a lot of books, listening to a lot of lecturers, and cultivating a number of friends who were (and are) at the opposite end of the theological spectrum from me. Maybe this is why conservatives consider me too liberal and liberals consider me too conservative! As for me, I don’t really like labels.
So it is that I read books recommended by friends and family who see “the faith once delivered to the saints” differently than I do. Recently, a liberal friend insisted I order Zealot, written by an author who has rejected Christianity in which he questions almost every biblical reference! He insists that Jesus was not born in Bethlehem, certainly not born of a virgin. Jesus, he suggests, never was taken to Egypt, did not impress teachers in the temple as a boy, and would not have received any attention from either Caiaphas or Pilate! His rather cavalier description of Jesus as “a woodworker from Nazareth presents Jesus as a fanatic who led a band of disciples on a triumphant procession into Jerusalem where he assaulted the Temple. Like John the Baptizer, he too was captured and sentenced to death by Pilate. The author sees Pilate’s sentencing quite differently from the interpretation given in the New Testament: “That is pure fiction. During his tenure, he eagerly and without trial sent thousands upon thousands of Jews to the cross.” The author, Reza Aslan foes on to declare Paul’s conversion as “a bit of propagandistic legend created by the evangelist Luke.” He calls the book of Acts “Luke’s reimagining that describes Paul as the true successor to Jesus.” He says the one word that describes Jesus is “zeal”, therefore Jesus was a Zealot, plotting the overthrow of Rome.
Why would I read this book? For one thing, I want to know what “my enemy” is thinking! Mostly though, I read it because it was (for a brief time) #1 on the New York Times bestseller list! (Thank goodness, by the last of October it was down to #10 and sinking weekly). Thousands have read this book and said, “I read in a book by a scholar what I have come to suspect—that the Bible is not divinely inspired, but humanly concocted.” I find the book biased to the point of being despicable, but I need to read it, for in reading it I begin to know what some of the “exchurched” and “prechurched” multiple thousands are reading—and maybe inhaling? Is doubt of what we have taught them one reason the “Millennials” are not in church?
As I was reading Zealot, my grandson (who is very active in “Young Life” at a large state university) told me about a book that excited him and that I must read. It is entitled Jesus˃Religion. Various sources tell me that it is all the rage on campuses across America, speaking to the disenchantment that so many young adults have with their home churches or with Christians whom they have known. If you want to know how much that hurts me as one who had been a minister in a mainline, traditional, denominational church for fifty-nine years, listen to the first line in Jefferson Bethke’s preface: “What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?”; Why does it build huge churches, but fails to feed the poor?” When Bethke put that on the internet, to his own amazement “it went viral.” Seven million read it in forty-eight hours. Anonymous until he published his “poem,” he was suddenly being quoted in Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Yahoo News, Washington Post, New York Times, CBS Morning, and Glenn Beck! How’s that for diversity! Meanwhile, we can’t get a baker’s dozen to read our local church’s website!!!!
Bethke writes, “Let me be straight with you: I’m not really qualified to write this book. I don’t have a Bible or seminary degree. I’m not a pastor or a counselor. I don’t know biblical languages and don’t know how to do exegesis—whatever that even is. I’m just a messed-up twenty three old guy.” Then he says, “A messed up dude like me can still write about an awesome God. I’ve tasted grace and can’t help but tell others about it.” His view of the church is “a Christian sub-culture that comes with its own set of customs, rules, rituals, paradigms, and products that are nowhere near the rugged, revolutionary faith of biblical Christianity.” In our sub-culture, Jesus would never have been crucified; he’s too nice. We claim Jesus as our homeboy. If we look at Jesus and American Christianity today, we’d be hard pressed to say we haven’t exchanged the real Jesus for one of our own invention. The Jesus of the Bible is a radical man with a radical message, changing people’s lives in a radical way.”
The young carping critic goes on to say, “In many ways, Christianity has become all about those green pieces of paper with dead presidents’ pictures on them. Who would have thought that a little baby born in a filthy animal barn some two thousand years ago would be such a great excuse to feed our material addictions? The Church is a business. Jesus is our marketing scheme.”
We have religion but we don’t have Jesus
We have a good role model, but we don’t have God.
We have theological debates, but we don’t have their living Word.
We have good works, but we don’t have the source of good works.
We have love, but not the God who is love.”
The young man went to Sunday School as a boy and remembers being taught the scripture, “Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength; they will mount up wings like eagles….” His commentary on that is, “Looking back, I realize I’d completely prostituted those verses and made them fit my feel-good Christianity.” He wants someone to market a tee shirt that reads, “From his mouth comes a sharp sword…he will rule with a rod of iron…. When Jesus comes back a second time, he will not sprinkle love dust on everyone. He’s coming to make war on sin and rebellion.” He negates good works: “Praying, reading the Bible, giving to the poor, and going to church nine times a week? Filthy rags apart from Jesus and his cross. Tell me that isn’t a bit controversial?”
“Jesus wants us to love him and serve him not for what he gives but for who he is—dangerous, unpredictable, radical, and amazing.” Chapter Two is entitled, “Why I Still Think Jesus Hates Religion (and You Should Too.”)
Can’t you just “ring his neck”? Keep your shirt on. Now the rest of the story.
Jefferson’s parents were never married and he lived with that stigma as a boy and teenager. His mother was physically challenged and “had mental struggles” so she was unable to work very often. They lived in Section Eight housing, were supported by welfare and food stamps. He went to eight schools. He had bad grades, got kicked out of school for fighting and stealing and developed a porn addiction that lasted more than eight years. All during this time, his mother took him to Sunday School and church. In his junior year, his mom told him she was gay and the woman who lived with them was not just a friend but her partner. At that time she quit church because the treatment of gays finally got to her. He then turned to “girls and beer.” “I stopped looking for the right girl and started looking for the easy girl.”
He confesses to being an addict to porn. He confesses to “one night stands” with many girls, and short term sexual relationships with several others.
Then he writes, “Grace isn’t there for some future me, but for the real me. The me who struggles. The me who was messy. The me who was addicted to porn. The me who didn’t have all the answers. The me who was insecure. He loved me in my mess; he was not waiting until I cleaned myself up. That truth changed my life and I’m convinced it can change yours.”
Now friends, that story is hard to refute! What in his story, and his sharp criticism of what he calls “religion,” can be our teacher? I started that book being really mad with this upstart; then I felt sorry for him; then I wondered how our local church can salvage wrecked lives like his.
There is a lot more grace in most United Methodist Churches than Jefferson experienced, wherever he went. We have less rigidity, less guilt tripping, less parading of righteousness. The church he promotes in his last chapter looks like a lot of our UMC’s with acts of mercy and deeds of kindness that are not “works righteousness.” To paraphrase Wesley, good works don’t save us but if we are saved, we will do good works. Fannie Crosby’s gospel song, written in 1867, ought to be flashed on the screen of every church as we leave: “Down in the human heart, crushed by the Tempter, feelings like buried that grace can restore. Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness, chords that were broken can vibrate once more. Rescue the perishing.”
My grandson is a super kid, chosen by his high school senior class to give the “class address” rather that using the traditional valedictorian speech. After he hurt his arm as quarterback and had to drop football, the coaches and team voted to give him the “unsung hero” award which someone gets each year in our local high school. He is a “product” of a large United Methodist Church. He was an acolyte and a crucifer, a confirmand, and an “intern” to the youth director.
Where are all our children going? Are they resorting to the anger of people like Reza Aslan who was born to a Muslim family, converted in an evangelical, fundamentalist church, and became a carping cynic? Or are they going with Jefferson Bethke’s “Jesus people” who are now creating churches that they insist are “religion-less”?
I might be retired, but I cannot collect my pension and social security checks without saying, “Here am I, send me.” We cannot give up. We cannot falter. We must not fail. Ours is too rich a heritage to squander, too grace-filled a message to lie mute. Our symbol is the cross of Jesus with the flame of Pentecost. Let us in every local church reach out to the “Aslan’s” and the “Bethke’s.” Some of them are “ours” and will be coming home for Thanksgiving, or will drop in for Christmas Eve. Like Churchill challenging Britain during the Nazi blitz, we must challenge ourselves that, by God’s grace, this, in our vulnerability, from our knees, can be our finest hour.