About three months ago, Cascade Books published a book with the provocative title, Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross. I had the opportunity to read a pre-publication PDF of the book, and had determined to write a careful review and critique as soon as it came out, but what with the whirlwind of completing a PhD thesis and moving internationally, I am only now sitting down to undertake this task—a Herculean labor, in twelve parts, as I envision it.
Never have I begun a book review with such mixed feelings. It is hard to imagine being more personally entangled with a book than I am with this one. Its author, Douglas Jones, was my teacher and mentor during two of the most crucial and theologically formative years of my life, and I have been blessed to count him as a friend since. Its foreword comes from the pen of Peter Leithart, my pastor, teacher, and closest mentor for many years. Some of my closest friends helped see this book to publication, and there is scarcely a name that appears in the Acknowledgments that I do not know personally, if not intimately. Worse, this book grows out of a series of debates and controversies a few years ago, in which I was personally involved. Though not always agreeing with Jones, I was one of his most forceful advocates during those controversies, and during the years since, in which he has written little (before this book), I have publicly carried forward many of the lines of critique and provocation that he begun.
With this book, Jones seeks to do on a larger scale what he did with many of us students a few years ago—to shake conservative evangelicals out of their dogmatic slumber, to reveal the extent to which we seek to defang and domesticate Jesus, blithely blunting the sharp edges of His very uncomfortable summons to discipleship. At the same time, he aims to unmask the idols of the Christian Right (this book, it should be said up front, may be confusing to Christians outside America, since it is tailored to address our peculiarly American vices), the comforting ideological fictions we tell ourselves in order to quietly set aside the ethical demands of our Scriptures and many of our Christian forebears. Finally, he seeks to stimulate our imaginations with ideas for how we might, as Christian individuals and communities, seek to live out the way of the cross more intentionally, missionally, and radically (to use three over-used buzzwords). These three aims correspond to the three main parts of the book: (1) What is the Way of the Cross?, (2) Special Blinders to the Way of the Cross, and (3) Constructing the Way of the Cross.
All that being the case, I would like nothing more than to be able to welcome this book with trumpets and fanfare onto the evangelical theological scene, to sing its praises, argue its cause, and bask in its reflected glory. Instead, however, I find myself dismayed by it as often as I am encouraged, confused as often as inspired. Have my own views changed that much, or do the differences just loom larger now that the positive effects of Jones’s teaching have sunk in to my thinking? Certainly, although I learned a very great deal from Doug Jones, his contribution was primarily deconstructive: he unmasked idols, shook me out of dogmatic slumbers, and raised a myriad of questions. In the intervening years, I have set to work answering these questions, attempting to discern the shape of Christian discipleship, and see now that I would like to put things quite differently at many points. I write this review in part to clarify such things for myself, and, to the extent that Jones’s views more closely match things I used to say, to offer something of a retraction to anyone who has been reading me for years.
However, I also write out of a growing concern for how Dismissing Jesus might be received by many readers. My discomfort here owes not merely to differences of substance, but perhaps more so to my heightened awareness of the great weight of pastoral responsibility that a writer bears. A writer cannot merely play the prophet, stirring up and provoking the complacent, and giving no thought to the myriad contexts and consciences in which his words will take root and bear fruit, some of it quite other than what he intended. I am reminded of some memorable lines from my friend Alastair Roberts: “Our words are like sons. They bear our image, but can become prodigals. . . . Like children who grow up and fly the nest, our words having left our tongues can work all sorts of unwitting good or mischief.” We cannot be too careful what sort of children we are unleashing upon the world, and it is not clear to me that Doug Jones has been particularly careful when it comes to his writing.
Indeed, Jones would likely be the first to admit that he has not tried to be too careful or nuanced. “To play the prophet” is precisely what he intends to do: shocking, offending, provoking, waking people up out of slumber and tearing down idols. Dismissing Jesus is an example of the prophetic genre if there ever was one. Words from the Lord are hurled sometimes like thunderbolts; denunciations of blindness and wickedness fill its pages. That’s not to say it is always ham-handed; quite the contrary. Jones is a poet by training, and it shows here at points, with the often flowing and striking prose and rich metaphors and imagery. But apocalyptic categories, with their binary oppositions and imminent judgment, predominate: stark oppositions between God and Mammon, between the broad way and the narrow way, between the righteous and the wicked. There is a place for such discourse, to be sure, though I worry that it is better suited for the spoken word, when one can to some extent know and engage with one’s audience, than for the printed word; the offended and confused reader cannot easily gain clarification. Scripture, to be sure, puts some of the strongest and sharpest prophecies into writing, but this is precisely why the doctrine of inspiration is so important. “Imitating Amos” doesn’t give you a free pass, unless you can prove that you too speak for the Lord. Anyone who claims the prophetic mantle for himself today takes on a frightful responsibility with no guarantee of infallibility, and must be held to a correspondingly high standard. False prophets, after all, were supposed to be stoned in ancient Israel; the stakes don’t get much higher than that.
So part of my purpose in this review is to hold Jones to the high standard which he sets for himself by adopting the prophetic stance. Frequently I share his concerns about American conservative blind spots, and often I share also his reading of the ethical demands that Christ imposes upon us, and of what these might mean for our obligations in contemporary churches. But a salvo this forceful must be very precisely-aimed, lest it misfire and do more harm than good, ensnaring sensitive consciences in unbiblical nets, or hardening and turning away opponents who need to hear its message.
Precision, alas, is certainly not a virtue of this book. Whether it be in his charges against American Protestantism, his historical claims about the roots of our idolatrous pathologies, his ethical prescriptions for what it means to follow Jesus, or the theological foundations upon which he builds these, the reader is frequently left scratching his head in confusion. At so many points, the argument seems to rest upon a clutch of rhetorical flourishes, which, when prodded for clarity, dissolve into smoke.
I say this not as a matter of academic nitpicking, as though I were complaining that Jones fails to meet the standards of precision that one would demand of a scholarly work of historical theology or Christian ethics. No, Jones’s book is written for a popular audience, and must be evaluated as such. The standard to which we must hold it at every point is: (1) Does it lead its readers closer to the truth, or lead them astray? and (2) Will it help its readers to be better disciples of Jesus, or not? At many points, the answer to both questions will be a resounding “Yes!”; but at other points, some of them far from trivial, I’m afraid it is “No.” At still other points, the answer will be, “It’s hard to say; it depends what he means (and, more consequentially, on what readers take him to mean).” While we may rejoice that, for many readers, the good will outweigh the harm, that is hardly reason to let the book off the hook. On the contrary, as someone who helped champion many of Jones’s teachings, I want to step forward and call attention to the book’s flaws, precisely so that its virtues may shine out more clearly, and so that others who oppose its flaws may not hastily dismiss all that it has to say.
Because so much depends, in a book like this, on carefully distinguishing the wheat from the chaff, I will bring forward most of my particular concerns (and appreciations) in the course of a detailed, chapter-by-chapter walk through the book. But in order to give this lengthy exercise some coherence, I will pause here just to gesture at some of the points on which I particularly want to prod Jones.
I have already mentioned the overarching problem of imprecision, and it’s worth explaining that this is perhaps less a result of Jones failing to achieve the logical clarity that he intends to, and more a matter of him not being very interested in that kind of clarity to begin with. Indeed, Jones is aiming to contest the “rationalism” that he sees in so much of conservative American Christianity (particularly its Reformed branches). We are way too concerned with thinking all the right thoughts, with dotting every theological “i” and crossing every theological “t,” and way too unconcerned with doing the right things, which Jesus, and the whole Bible, have a great deal to say about. We prioritize mere intellectual belief, and forget the central task of discipleship. In all of this, Jones has a very good point, and says much that contemporary evangelicals, or Reformed folk particularly, need to hear. However, anyone wanting to write a book about the importance of “doing” over “thinking” has a problem—the enterprise can become self-refuting. Writing a book, after all, is an attempt to engage people’s intellects, to persuade them to think different things. To be sure, the point may be for this new thinking to issue in new doing, but the thinking has to come first—we are rational creatures, after all.
Or are we? Jones, in fact, has argued in courses that I took under him that reason should not be seen as a separate faculty, but as one of the emotions, the passions. Rhetoric was thus far more important than logic; the task of persuasion was one of moving a hearer’s passions, not of convincing their rational faculties through argumentation. Thus Jones notes, in a special “Preface on Persuasion” at the beginning of the book: “Persuasion is a terribly strange thing. It has to overcome our personality types, our histories, our ages, all our past friends and safe influences, and our willingness to reconsider. We dismiss books and authors for lacking the right feel or for not sounding like our friends. It’s an impossible task. Persuasion is magic or more like an unbelievable accident. We have to be standing at just the right intersection at the exact moment of time, tilting our head in just one direction to see what we need to see” (xi). Of course, there is a lot of truth to this. But while successful persuasion often seems to depend on a large dose of serendipity, reason usually plays a crucial part as well, a part that I fear Jones tends to underemphasize.
To be sure, in a popular book, persuasion will not be very effective if dialectics and syllogism form the foreground of the argument. But the argument, if it is to be an argument, must rest upon a dialectical foundation—when prodded, it should reveal cogent and compelling premises and conclusions underneath its rhetorically-enhanced surface. At many points in this book, I worry that this is not the case. What do basic words like “church” and “violence,” key planks in Jones’s arguments, mean? Is there any way for Jones’s way of talking about the Trinity not to collapse into tritheism? How does the crucial eschatological boundary between already and not yet fit into his statements about the church, the kingdom, and what it means for us to follow Jesus now? Does his use of certain prooftexts rest on careful exegesis, or are they there merely for rhetorical effect? For that matter, what are the hermeneutical principles that ground his exegesis, particularly when it comes to the relation of the Old and New Testaments?
As the great Richard Hooker once wrote (in a context surprisingly relevant to many of these questions), “The mixture of those things by speech which by nature are divided, is the mother of all error. To take away therefore that error which confusion breadth, distinction is requisite. Rightly to distinguish is by conceit of mind to sever things different in nature, and to discern wherein they differ” (Lawes III.3.1). Throughout, I will be pressing Jones for such “right distinctions” and explaining why they are a matter of urgent pastoral concern, rather than mere academic interest. Of course, I do not ask that Jones always spell out these distinctions and definitions explicitly, tediously clogging up the text by stopping to define every term. But if the argument is coherent, then we ought at least to be able to deduce the meaning and application of his terms, by the way he uses them; if we cannot make good or consistent sense of them, then something is wrong.
Another set of concerns, which will arise particularly in Part Two of the book (“Special Blinders to the Way of the Cross”), concerns the historical dimension of Dismissing Jesus (or the lack thereof). Throughout Part Two, he identifies pathologies of modern American evangelical churches, and in many cases, attempts to trace them to historical doctrinal wrong turns. However, the lack of dialectic precision just mentioned means that bastardized misunderstandings and misuses of a doctrine are often confused with the right or earlier form of the doctrine, and it is not always clear whether this is because Jones does not really understand the difference, or because he thinks that the doctrine, even rightly construed, is not worth salvaging.
As a historian, this is particularly irksome to me, but I don’t think I’m being an academic nitpicker. On the contrary, I think Jones’s rather cavalier approach to history undermines his purposes in several key ways.
First, it deprives him of useful allies at many points. Indeed, there are several points at which his arguments, particularly in some chapters of Part Two, could have been stronger if he had been more familiar with the Christian ethical tradition. Although he seems at times to want to dismiss most of that tradition wholesale as following “the broad way,” the fact is that most of the great Christian ethicists have shared many of his concerns about violence, about the power and manifold forms of greed, about the importance of community and of actively working to deliver the needy. They have identified many of the same pathologies he has, and have worked hard to find lasting solutions to them. The difference is that they have also learned to make careful distinctions where necessary, with the result that they do not perhaps seem to us, stumbling onto the way of the cross for the first time, “radical” enough.
Second, it makes him oblivious to pitfalls at many points. Truly, the Preacher said, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and in few places is this more true than in theology. Heresies and errors fall into well-worn and rather predictable paths, and it is the task of historical theology, and historical ethics, to apprise us of the wrong turnings, and warn us before we proceed too far toward a dead-end. If we ignore history, we are doomed to repeat it.
Third, it is theologically problematic, inasmuch as Jones wants to emphasize “the church,” and the communal, as opposed to individualistic, nature of Christianity. It can seem at times, however, that he is not really that interested in the actual historical community of the church, most of which, it would appear, wandered off along “the broad way.” To be sure, he makes an effort to cite precedents for his teaching, but they look more like a hodgepodge of individuals scattered along the margins of church history, than a community. Perhaps Jones will say that this is necessarily the way the “Way of the Cross” is—it will always be a “narrow way” on the margins. But if so, what are we to make of all the theological and ethical weight he lays on the historical institution of “the church”?. Shouldn’t we rather conclude that Jesus is not interested in the church so much as in forming intentional communities of dedicated individuals, ecclesiolae that are separate from the main body of believers?
Fourth, it is pastorally problematic. Most of the Protestants to whom Jones is writing are only very loosely rooted, if at all, in their Protestant heritage and traditions. Then along comes Jones and suggests to them that this heritage is deeply flawed on many core points, and indeed, has helped to actively lead people away from the way of Jesus. Jones will say that he singles out Protestantism, and Reformed theology in particular, for criticism because these are his people. He wants to take the log out of his own eye first, rather than the Catholic or the Orthodox eye. But the result, for some readers and hearers, will be a disillusionment with Protestantism itself. Given that this disillusionment will be founded on what, to my mind, is often a caricature of the best of the tradition, it will hardly be a healthy reason for swimming the Tiber or the Bosporus.
I hope to work through the rest of the book a couple chapters at a time, lumping together some of the least problematic ones, and pausing to take more time over some of the more problematic ones. Of course, this means that, as with this introductory post, this review will tend to major on criticism and minor on praise. Such is often a problem with book reviews, and this is not due simply to a vicious proclivity to tear down rather than build up. Rather, one problem is that it usually takes more time to explain what’s wrong with something than what’s right with it. Another is that, when the author has said something excellent, you usually want to simply point the reader to the text, to read that bit for himself, rather than attempting to expound it at length yourself. Both of these conspire to make sections of praise brief, and those of critique bloated. I hope that this unavoidable feature of the review will not obscure my conviction that Jones has put his finger on much that is wrong with contemporary Christianity, and has called us back to some of the central themes of Scripture and Christian ethics. May others who read this book will hear and profit from this message, despite my misgivings about the form in which it has been conveyed.