Tuesday, September 29, 2009

On the Curious Claim That People "Like Jesus" (But Not the Church)

I would guess that most folks reading this blog have heard the claim, whether on book covers or in popular magazines, that "people like Jesus, but not the church." Lately I have found myself perplexed by this statement.

On the one hand, I get it. Churches, particularly churches in North America, have so forsaken their calling to follow and embody the life of their Lord, have so capitulated to cultural temptations like consumerism and hyper-patriotism, that non-Christians only see a great big archaic institution, rotting in aging outposts dotting the neighborhood's geography like windows into a time -- ostensibly the "good old days" -- when everyone was a Christian and the pews were filled every Sunday. But widespread hypocrisy and an abandonment of the true gospel of Jesus have so consumed the church that, like the Pharisees in Jesus' time, Christians have become the problem rather than the harbingers of God's good news. What are we about? Growing the church. What about Jesus? Oh, well, we'll get to him.

I get it. And clearly, the claim has weight. It is a needed and truthful challenge to a church long used to being on top, merely by being present. And that time is swiftly coming to an end.

But what is curious about the claim, what in all truth is baffling, is this notion that "people like Jesus." Here is my question: What is there to like?

In a culture consumed with money, possessions, and endless creation of wealth, Jesus walks with the poor -- with single moms on welfare, with illegal immigrants in need of health insurance -- and says, "If you are righteous yet wealthy, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor. Then you will have eternal life." What is there to like about that?

In a culture obsessed with sexuality, whether expressed in chauvinist conquest or in personal preference, Jesus walks with the celibate and the faithful, and says, "In the beginning, one man and one woman. What God has joined together, let no one separate." What is there to like about that?

In a culture fixated on marriage and family, with "traditional values" and the white picket fence, Jesus -- a celibate man with no children -- walks with prostitutes and orphans, and says, "Unless you hate mother and brother and sister, unless you leave your own family and follow me, you have no share with me." What is there to like about that?

In a culture possessed by ceaseless lust for ambition, for power and dominance, Jesus lives with the homeless and finds the character of the Almighty in the powerlessness of a child; and he says, "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." What is there to like about that?

In a culture unable to imagine life that is neither grounded in nor sustained by perpetual violence, Jesus refuses retaliation and submits to shameful execution by the state; and he says, "Put your sword away! Instead, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Yes, take up your cross and follow me!" What is there to like about that?

In a culture whose language and values center around concepts like universal humanity and freedom from authority, Jesus comes forth as a Jewish man from Palestine, calling a particular people to himself, and says, "Anyone who is not for me is against me. Do not live like the pagans, but in trust and obedience, imitate your heavenly Father, who shows kindness to the just and unjust alike." What is there to like about that?

And so on. If one actually reads the Gospels, instead of assuming nice pretty pictures of a blue-eyed baby Jesus giggling his guts out in celestial bliss, it is clear that the man from Nazareth -- who lived an identifiable human life in the early decades of the first century in occupied Palestine -- is certifiably not in any discernible accord with what American culture "likes." In fact, he seems to stand squarely opposed to much of it.

Of course, this does not mean that Jesus -- or the life of his people, when faithful -- cannot be attractive to weary American eyes. The offer of the gospel -- as invitation into truthful speech and marital fidelity and enough food for all and reconciled community and peaceful living and witness against oppression and worship of the one true God -- is indeed good news, after all. But the goodness of the news is not that it confirms what we already know: though its judgment is grace, it is still judgment.

And I have a feeling the sort of judgment Jesus brings is not something people "like" beforehand, if they like it at all.


  1. Thanks for posting this. My first response is to say that people who don't know Jesus tend to like Jesus. I imagine that Conservatives tend to like the 'instrumental Jesus' who takes care of the hell problem. While liberals like the forgiving Jesus who tells us to love other people and do good things. I imagine the people that like Jesus apart from the church actually like the Sermon on the Mount Jesus who tells us to turn the other cheek or forgive seven times or seventy. Or the Jesus who tells us to love our neighbor. The more I've read the gospel the more my feelings towards him are of fear and awe. And many of the aspects of his ministry you highlighted are far from, well 'likable'.

  2. Hi Brad,

    A fantastic post. I'm not if you're aware of the "Jesus All About Life" Campaign in Australia at the moment, but it tries to focus on "what's to like" vis-a-vis Jesus and attempts to engage that agnostic response to church corruption/fallibilities, and a generally misdirected judgement founded on little knowledge of Jesus' actual teaching, and a deeper appreciation for the things of the triune God. It has received a lot of criticism, and has been touted as "a conversation starter." I fear also that it is watering down this message of Christ... the power of the Gospel.

    You can listen to a discussion on the campaign at: http://www.abc.net.au/sundaynights/stories/s2684515.htm

    I posted this up on my facebook and received some great appreciation for your post. I think what we should be afraid of is not atheists or agnostics, or people of other faith, but our inability to embrace discipleship and profoundly walk with God. I think in all theologies in the church, even those of the American Right hold grains of truth that get sadly twisted, or are made into cultural norms which lose their salt, even if they seem "positive and uplifting." Fundementalists that claim to know the Bible inerrantly, and thus stake claims at righteousness are so naive, and they probably need to be better aquainted with Christ's judgement. On the other hand, I've seen God move in all people's lives regardless of these failings of which God is aware. Again, faith effectuated in love is what justifies, not specific works.

    Your brother in Christ,

  3. Brad,
    Unbelievable post. Someone told me a long time ago that the function of the Gospel is to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." This post pretty much sums up a good portion of American Christianity today. Many of us claim to "like" Jesus in, what I think, is some fad to reject modern American life. But we like Jesus so much we refuse to be with His Church-doesn't connect.
    I am very suspicious of anyone who wants to exude this great "liking" of Jesus. I agree-this may not be an accurate Jesus they like. As LTJ would say, many of these folks have probably constructed a Jesus who suspiciously looks and acts like them rather than the Jesus of Nazareth who was God Incarnate and still living today. Guys like Bonhoeffer would argue that one is not following Jesus unless one invites suffering upon themselves-this is not likable.
    Great post! There is good news-but it may take a reformation of what we measure as "good" or "like" to judge what Jesus actually calls and demands of us.

  4. I love this. I don't have the time to read your blog regularly, but I learn something every time I pop in for a visit. :)


  5. This was really challenging to me. I really long to know how to live like this in my job and among people, including myself, who believe they like Jesus. I know that it is hard to follow Christ and really love in everything we do, but I wonder what this is like inside the constraints and 'guidelines' of working within an agency that is against anything to do with God. I really struggle with how to follow Christ and his leading inside a place with rules. Do I quit-even though I feel like I am called to be in a regular job following Christ? This is difficult to me, but I believe it can be simple...just thoughts-what do others do?

  6. I have the same reaction when I hear that, though for me it's less about cultural values per se than the whole idea of "liking" the supreme being. Some years ago I read Marcus Borg admitting that he doesn't find the idea of a Jesus who believed himself to be Messiah to be very attractive -- it's so self-important! Well yeah, but if you're God then you *are* important, so that's just being honest. I don't think God could ever be the beer-buddy type, incarnated or not.

  7. Of course Jesus would not be acceptable or even recognized at the Vatican or any of the other seats of worldly ecclesiastical power, wherever they are in the world.

    Nor at your local cathedral or church. Nor at any "divinity" or theology school.

    And of course Jesus was not acceptable to the ecclesiastical establishment of his time. That is why they allowed (even demanded) that he be executed.

    Plus the Catholic church has seldom, if ever, liked its Radiant Saints. They were oft-times persecuted, jailed or executed.

    And speaking of Radiant Saints who are the ONLY living proof of any religion in all times and places.
    NONE has appeared in the West for many centuries now--since the time of the Renaissance and the rise of the culture created in the image of scientism and left-brained (anti-ecstatic) Protestantism.

    The "culture" which has totally eliminated the Divine Radiance from the world. And hence even the possibility of Divine Life.

  8. There is a bit of truth in the post (following Christ should involve trying to live morally responsibly) but its principal message seems rather odd. For me, Christianity is attractive precisely because in the person of Christ, in his life, death and ressurrection, we have the assurance that our life is hidden in God´s love, that neither death nor the sins of the whole world are stronger than God´s love. First God loves us, embraces us, empowers us for our vocation. Though important, our moral life is secondary - a response to God´s loving initiative.
    Benedict XVI has expressed this very nicely: "...“To gaze upon Christ!” If we do this, we realize that Christianity is more than and different from a moral code, from a series of requirements and laws. It is the gift of a friendship that lasts through life and death: “No longer do I call you servants, but friends” (Jn 15:15), the Lord says to his disciples...."
    Square in front of the Basilica of Mariazell
    Saturday, 8 September 2007

  9. Thanks for your timely reminder! As David said, in the midst of an ill-advised media campaign, these are words that ought to be heeded.

    BTW, look out for Yoder's 'War of the Lamb' which comes out from Brazos Press at year's end.

    Grace and peace

    Ian Packer
    (Ontologically superior than Texan - ie Australian)

  10. Interesting post, Beast. You might like to look into Stephen Prothero's 2004 book, "American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon".

  11. Great post, Brad; thanks for writing this.