Following Jesus

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Following Jesus

Quick Reads for April 2018

April 27, 2018 by

Bonnie Kristian’s A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today is, in her words, a “friendly tour” of the different branches of small-o orthodox Christianity. She boldly covers the biggest of the big issues over which we Christians like to argue – atonement theology, biblical inerrancy, baptism, communion, hell, salvation, the role of women, and yes, even homosexuality – and offers up the prevailing viewpoints for the reader’s consideration. (She even bravely touches on some things that might be considered heresy, not orthodoxy, by some Christians; for example, universalism in the chapter “What happens to people who never hear about Jesus?”)

Working from a model of concentric circles, in which Jesus is central but surrounded by dogma, then doctrine, and finally mere opinions, Kristian seeks to illuminates that “middle ground between insisting my version of faith is Christianity, on the one hand, and making our faith totally open to everyone’s individual interpretation on the other.” She says she’s “passionate about theological diversity because I don’t want to see my generation leaving the church over an unnecessary misunderstanding. I don’t want to see Christians become nones because they’ve been falsely told there’s just one way to follow Jesus.” And, she says, the “vibrant diversity within Christian orthodoxy… is a strength of our faith, not a weakness.” In a world with more divisions than ever, her effort is worthy of applause.

Image of two books

But, Kristian told me in an email exchange, she also doesn’t want to “gloss over real theological differences or engage in a sort of mealy-mouthed ecumenism that devalues truth for the sake of cooperation.… The ethos I’m proposing is an irenic balance of conviction and humility which says, ‘I’m confident I’m right, but I know I could be wrong.’ It requires that we keep our various theological commitments in perspective, refusing to level them and make every single question an indicator of orthodoxy or heresy.… One of the great joys of the resurrection will be to see the church united, but in the meantime, we must learn to negotiate these differences with grace and forbearance.”

Kristian generally keeps her own thoughts and convictions out of sight, except on a few topics about which she’s particularly enthusiastic, and there she offers a short “My View.” That’s because of her background in journalism, she says, and a desire to not hide her own perspectives, while also not making the book about herself.

You may find that some topics are wrapped up a little too neatly, but that’s the definition of a summary. There are entire books written about what she covers in short chapters, and she helpfully suggests plenty of further reading for those interested. (Spoiler: her across-the-board favorite – recommended multiple times – seems to be Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy’s Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. Perhaps that was the quid pro quo for obtaining Boyd’s foreword? Although there are some crucial differences: Boyd and Eddy keep their focus squarely within evangelicalism, while Kristian ventures out into Catholic, Orthodox, and other views. She also hits a few more “lifestyle” issues, such as wealth and poverty or participation in politics.)

At the end of almost every chapter is short character sketch of a historical Christian who connects to that particular issue: Augustine, Wycliffe, Tertullian, Hildegard von Bingen, and the like. And between the chapters are interviews with modern Christians of different branches of orthodoxy, who, while not necessarily addressing the issues of the chapters they’re sandwiched between, give a glimpse of the breadth and depth of today’s church. This is one of the most fascinating parts of the book – and not just because the very first one we meet is Bruderhof member Clare Stober. Others include a Quaker, a messianic Jew, a charismatic, a Benedictine nun, and a missionary working with underground persecuted churches. (And also Natalie De Laurell, of Plow Creek, who recommended our Called to Community as a resource for Christians interested in intentional communities. Thanks, Natalie, we recommend it too!)

“Our job as followers of Jesus is not to obsess over eschatology but to live in love, as Christ loved us." - Bonnie Kristian

While I generally found the book enlightening there are places where Kristian’s “let’s agree to disagree” conclusions likely won’t mollify or satisfy anyone. Take, for example, the chapter asking “Are gay relationships sinful?” She’s not going to change anyone’s mind about that one. But at least she humbly admits it, and simply asks that we consider all the conflicting viewpoints with an eye to experiencing “more light than heat.”

Two much more important chapters – ones I wish more Christians would argue vigorously about – follow immediately, asking “Are Christians allowed to be rich?” and “Can Christians be violent?” She doesn’t share her personal view on the first one, but does on the second: After recounting the story of Anabaptist Dirk Willems, who escaped from prison but saved a drowning soldier who chased him across a frozen pond, leading to his recapture, Kristian astutely points out that “Christian pacifism isn’t passive.… It isn’t cowardice, laziness, or weakness. Loving our enemies doesn’t mean inaction in the face of evil, though it may well mean self-sacrifice.” And perhaps the best thought comes in the profile of pacifist pastor Brian Zahnd who said, “The cross of Christ forever shames the worn-out idea that the world can be saved though violence. It is the Jesus way of non-violence that God has vindicated in the resurrection. The Christian pacifist takes Jesus seriously when he says, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.…’”

It is chapters like these, and also the one asking “Should Christians vote?” that make this book a great candidate to be read with others; it would be a good fit for young adult groups. Having Christians of different persuasions present might also help clarify some of the slightly muddy sections; “Does God plan everything that happens?” and “What happens at the end of the world?” are two that could have used a little more attention.

But the only really disappointing thing about A Flexible Faith is that you realize just how far the present-day church is from fulfilling Jesus’ prayer that we “all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you” (John 17:21). Luckily, Kristian leaves us with a challenge (in the chapter about the end of the world) that might help us all get a little closer to that ideal: “Our job as followers of Jesus is not to obsess over eschatology but to live in love, as Christ loved us, serving God and neighbor here and now.”

Amen to that. There is nothing to lose – and perhaps a lot to gain – from examining and discussing all these issues, but let’s not lose sight of our real calling: loving everyone, as He loves us.

Want to know more about seeing beyond our differences? Watch this.

Just as Bonnie Kristian shows that there a numerous valid ways to serve and follow Jesus within the church, a new book from Amy Bass shows that even outside the church it is possible – and vital – to follow his commandments about welcoming the stranger and being a peacemaker in the face of persecution. One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together is a decidedly secular book containing a powerful message about opening your city, your school, your team, and ultimately your heart to “the other.”

Telling the story of the Lewiston, Maine, high school soccer team that integrated the numerous Somalian refugees that flooded the town beginning around 2000, combatted bigotry and racism, and ultimately won a state championship in 2015 (and another in 2017), One Goal transcends the tired trope of underdog sports victory narrative and attains a higher truth. It doesn’t gloss over the difficulties faced by Lewiston – and certainly not every town that has welcomed refugees has had such a happy success story – but it does show the best of what can happen when municipal authorities, school administrators, teachers, coaches, and plain old decent citizens decide to accept, instead of reject, refugees.

Of course, it does help if the refugees are fantastic soccer players.

That said, Bass has put together a riveting story that – while not exactly a mystery with an unknown end result – will keep you turning pages almost as quickly as the ball moves around in the one-touch soccer exhibited by the kids of Lewiston High.

A Flexible Faith will be released on May 15; you can pre-order a copy here.


About the author

Andrew Zimmerman, Austria

Andrew Zimmerman

Andrew Zimmerman and his family live at the Gutshof Bruderhof, recently founded in Austria.

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