July 8, 2010

books: jesus manifesto

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I mentioned earlier that I was reading Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. And here it is:

There has been a lot of attention over recent years drawn to the two authors of the book, Jesus Manifesto. Beginning about a decade ago, Leonard Sweet stirred imaginations and pushed boundaries of the evangelical community concerning Church and Christianity in a postmodern context. Frank Viola was for years on the fringes of Christian publishing, writing primarily about house church expressions of church. His partnership with George Barna in writing Pagan Christianity has brought more attention to his pen.

In Jesus Manifesto, the authors thesis is found in their subtitle: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ . Sweet and Viola set out to call for a radical commitment to the centrality of Jesus to Christianity. As they say in chapter two, "Christianity is Christ." I appreciate what they authors set out to do. They are right in this regard; we too often become absorbed with our various agendas, placing them under the banner of our faith without thoughtfully considering how it relates to our understanding of who Jesus is. The authors don't shy away from taking on both conservative and liberal definitions of Christ:

Some have made Jesus the chaplain of the American dream. Others have made Him the chaplain of the Democratic Party. Still others made Jesus the chaplain of capitalism and Republicanism. All are equally blasphemous. (emphasis mine)

This short-sightedness of Jesus has, for Sweet and Viola, diminished our view of the gospel from each end of Christianity:

The contemporary gospel boils down to a fire-insurance policy, a Santa Claus God, or a performance-based religion. As long as we stay on that plane, we'll never see or comprehend the staggering enormity of our Lord.

But articulating well that enormity is where Sweet and Viola struggle in my opinion. And while they humbly admit in the Introduction that their work is only "dry straw" there is an air of "we've got it right and no one else does" in their tone. This is most evident at the beginning of chapter 2. The presumption that the two authors bring something new to the conversation of Christology demands a fresh approach that they often lack. In order to draw in some of the audience I assume they hope would read this requires the explanation of some "Christianese" they depend on. They do their best with a few different metaphors. But they often break down. Additionally, their limited perspective is made evident when they write things such as all "Christians retreated to the suburbs" during the 1980's. Really? Only if by "Christian" they mean white and middle class Americans.

Oversights such as this are inevitable. All of us are limited by our own perspective. Still, there are some profound, fresh pieces in this book. At times, the book is almost an act of worship. Their work with the knowledge of "good and evil" v. "life" is fantastic (chapter 8). And the way Sweet and Viola tie Jesus and the Kingdom of God together is excellent. I also appreciated their Christ-centered approach to justice and mercy as outlined in chapter 7. The influence of theologians such as Hauerwas and Yoder seems evident here and in their thoughts on ecclesiology (but as I've admitted before I'm biased on that account).

While I wouldn't frame everything the way these two authors do, I highly recommend the book to just about anyone. It draws our convictions and relationship to Christ to the surface. And whether or not you agree with Sweet and Viola, its a needed exercise that we too often put on the shelf-until we need it for our cause or in order to beat someone over the head with it.

My only lingering contention is with the book's title. It seems an act of ignorance to borrow a title that others have already been using. Many will assume I'm referring to JesusManifesto.com. In part, I am. I'm certain this title is part of the reason why Mark is merging with JesusRadicals.com. Both networks are run by people I admire and love. But I am primarily speaking about the fact that both the site and book borrow a title used by Ken Oster for his interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount. Ken's Jesus Manifesto is still available for free from Duolos Christou Press. It's wonderful, shocking meditation on Jesus' words. You should check it out.

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