I am spiritually blind. Conservative Christian and blind. I am one of the many who followed the broad path and said to Jesus “I will follow you” but did “not sit down first and count the cost” (Luke 14:28). . . . I am the rich young ruler Jesus addressed. I have a car, several computers, lawn sprinklers, a tiled shower, a full pantry, air conditioning, a nice outdoor deck, plenty of books, and I’ve spent years sincerely trying to figure out theological questions—“Good teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18) (3).
So Doug Jones opens chapter 1 of Dismissing Jesus, “Overview of the Way of the Cross” (see Pt. 1 of my review here). It is a jarring opening, but an effective one. It shows us at that whatever this book is going to be, it is not going to be an arrogant diatribe, but a personal confession. If we feel our consciences pricked along the way, then, we can infer, the author speaks from a pricked conscience as well, and we are anything but alone.
This is a good thing, since the language of “blindness,” which dominates in this first section of the book, would otherwise (and no doubt, still will) raise a lot of hackles. Now, while I have concerns about this language, it is clearly Scriptural. As Jones points out, “But when Scripture addresses God’s people, it portrays spiritual blindness as rather normal. It’s regular, common, cutting across Old and New Testaments. . . . [A series of passages are cited.] Blindness everywhere. God’s people have a high probability of blindness” (4). Moreover, as Jones goes on to show
throughout, the very things that we American Christians have in abundance—wealth, power, security—are those things that most conspire to produce spiritual blindness. And sometimes, the more convinced we are that we are not blind, the more likely we are to be. At the very least, the accusation of blindness shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, but should prompt us to sit up and listen, and take a good look at Scripture and our own lifestyles and attitudes. Few of us should come away from the exercise without discovering massive blind spots, if not outright blindness.
There is, however, a danger to the language of blindness, as we see as Jones goes on.
Most truth is not that mysterious and subjective. . . . In the end, Christ’s message is pretty straightforward and obvious. You don’t need five hundred years to figure it out. ‘Whoever does not bear his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.’ It’s not hard to see. In fact, spiritual blindness assumes that truth is easy to see and obey. It’s so easy we have to manufacture obstacles in order to ‘miss it.’ We don’t want to see it. I don’t want to see it. (5)
One could read this as, “It’s all obvious and simple, man! And if you don’t get what I’m saying, you’re obviously blind and perishing.” This is doubly problematic. First, it may prove a stumbling block to tender consciences. Some readers may be baffled or unsure by some of Jones’s claims, or about how to actually apply it in their lives, particular given the lack of clarity we have already complained about. Yet they hear that it should be obvious and simple (two things that ethical questions rarely are). If they do not find it so, this just means that they are still trapped in blindness, that they are making up excuses to hide from Jesus’s clear message. So some may worry. Of course, this is probably not what Jones intends, and this is a difficult needle to thread, as there are certainly hardened consciences as well, that need to be shaken out of slumber.
The second problem, though, is that by insisting that you’d have to be blind not to see the way of the cross, Jones ends up insulating himself against criticism from the outset. If you disagree with something so obvious and fundamental, or even disagree that it’s obvious, that just demonstrates you are still blind, and needn’t be listened to. Jones is a very humble man, so he would not make this judgment arrogantly, and yet the logic of his position pushes in this direction. Once someone buys into it, there is little way to dislodge them from it by argument.
This is all the more so given what Jones goes on to say in this chapter. Although the true way is “obvious,” says Jones, we should expect most people to miss it. Blindness is normal. Most of the church, throughout history, has gotten it wrong. To be sure, Jones says, it has had its advocates throughout church history (though it is striking that when he lists them, he skips right from the late Middle Ages to the 19th century—it seems the Protestant Reformers had nothing to say about the way of the cross). But “They’re usually pushed off to the side, often ignored, often suppressed,” always on the margins (6). No surprise, says, Jones, for “Jesus predicted this marginalizing of himself within the church” (7). Again, this is touchy, because Jesus certainly did say, “Narrow is the way, and few are they that find it,” and Scripture clearly does lead the faithful to expect persecution and opposition. But just because faithfulness should generate persecution does not mean that all persecution is mark of faithfulness—sometimes you can be persecuted just for being stupid. But if you assume that your persecution, or marginalization, confirms that you are in the right, then you needn’t listen to arguments. When it comes to the difference between blindness and what Jones will describe as the “special perception” that can perceive the way of the cross, arguments are of little use. You’re either one of the small minority that gets it, or you aren’t, and the latter can be safely written off. Jones does not intend this, I am sure, but the resulting dismissiveness shows through all over the book; repeatedly we will find him describing any objectors as “defenders of violence” or “defenders of Mammon,” unflattering descriptions indeed that write them off as unworthy of our time. In a world of binary oppositions between God and Mammon, anyone not on the “narrow way” must be on the side of Mammon.
After the introductory remarks on blindness, Jones offers us in this chapter a thesis statement for the whole book, first stated in one-sentence form, and then elaborated in a paragraph:
The dominant form of Christian living is one designed to shield us from Jesus’s explicit priorities. . . . Certain deeply and widely cherished assumptions about Christ, society, and our selves block us from seeing Jesus’s call, and we must escape these blinders before we can walk Jesus’s path again. When we do that, we’ll see that the gospel of Christ is not primarily about getting into heaven or about living a comfortable, individually-pious middle-class life. It is about being free from the ancient, pervasive, and delightful oppression of Mammon in order to create a very different community, the church, an alternative city-kingdom here and now on earth by means of living and celebrating the way of the cross—the reign of joyful weakness, renunciation, self-denial, sharing, foolishness, community, and love-over-coming-evil. (5)
Our first reaction may be to ask, “What exactly does it mean to speak of ‘the dominant form of Christian living’”? In light of the remarks just noted, about the marginality of the way of the cross, we might well assume that he means here to indict most of the Christian tradition. But elsewhere, he seems mainly to have in mind the distinctive problems of American Christians—American conservative Christians at that. The “middle-class life,” Jones’s regular target throughout the book, doesn’t really do that much to clarify matters. To be sure, Jones does eventually attempt to give much greater definition to his target in Part Two, but given how high the stakes are—Christ vs. Mammon, sight vs. blindness—it would be helpful to have a better sense of the exact object(s) of his criticism as we embark on the book.
Speaking of “Mammon,” just who is this “Mammon” character anyway? Throughout the book, Jones will present Mammon as the great biblical rival to God, the anti-God, as it were, that holds sinners under its dominion (it encompasses far more, we learn, than mere greed and money). There is of course some biblical warrant for this, in the verse, “You cannot serve both God and Mammon,” but this seems a rather slender reed on which to build a whole anti-theology, as it were. Traditionally, Mammon, if personified at all, has been treated as just one of the many guises that Satan wears, and as I will argue in Pt. 4 of this review, I don’t think this is a mere quibble over nomenclature. It results in an apocalyptic, dualistic flavor to the book, in which almost everything in this present creation lies under the dominion of Mammon; there is no middle ground, no saeculum.
Of course, this ties in with the concern about over-realized eschatology, which I mentioned in the first installment of this review, and which we encounter again in this thesis statement. When he says that the gospel “is not primarily about getting into heaven…” he seems to be going beyond N.T. Wright’s now-familiar point that the Biblical authors are interested in the redemption, renewal, and resurrection of this world, not our rescue out of it into a disembodied afterlife. Here and at points in the book, Jones seems to want to shift the focus from the future to the present altogether: the gospel is not primarily about changes that will happen to us in the future resurrection, but about changes happening in this world, now. Obviously contemporary evangelicalism, and to some extent the whole Christian tradition, has underemphasized this present, this-worldly dimension. But Jones sometimes appears to talk as if that were all there is, collapsing altogether the eschatological horizon, and speaking as if Christ’s kingdom had already come and all that remained was for us to live up to it. Indeed, his description of the church as “a very different community, the church, an alternative city-kingdom here and now on earth” heightens this worry. Elsewhere in the book, he will describe the church as “a social order sufficient to itself, ultimately without the need of a civil realm” (91), “a political body” (121), “complete and whole and self-sufficient to itself, a real city” (123). Leaving aside the worries about over-realized eschatology, we must first worry about figuring out what he even means by this kind of language. Just what is this “church” that we speak of in such unitary terms as an alternative political community? Properly speaking, “the church” as a singular entity (speaking of the visible church, at any rate, as Jones obviously intends to) can only be a community of communities, either loosely knit together by bonds of charity, or else held together by legal and institutional bonds. Jones does not seem at all keen on the latter, and yet the former can hardly answer to the description of “an alternative city-kingdom.” If he means that Christians are supposed to behave in ways very different from those that prevail in the world around them, including especially their care for one another in the communities in which they live, sharing and bearing one another’s burdens, then that is all well and good and true. But he clearly means rather more than that. It is hard enough to conceive what he might mean if we tried to speak of an individual congregation in such terms, much less what it might mean for the whole church universal to function as an autonomous socio-political order. However, there will be ample occasion to ponder this problem in chapters 6 and 8, so we will postpone thorough consideration till then.
Jones then moves to outline for us the seven forms of the “way of the cross” that will be his theme in Part One of his book. The language of way, he says, is significant:
A way is biased toward action rather than mere thinking. For most of us, being a Christian has meant holding Christian ideas in our heads. Christianity is just a view, a worldview by which we judge everything else. Sure, these ideas also serve as rules and shape some of our behaviour, but for the most part we live the typical middle-class life, with all its worries, activities, and rituals—all the things Jesus warned us against. . . .
As ancient Christians understood it, a way suggests a journey of transformation, with steps and maturing of soul and community. In contrast, one can embrace a system of belief and never mature, except in fine-tuning of doctrines. As many have noted, a system of belief is different than a way of transformation. . . .
What I the way of the cross, then? It is first and foremost a way, a course of action, not merely a set of ideas. (10)
And later, he sharpens his point, driving it uncomfortably close to home:
The question isn’t whether middle-class life is a manifestation of the cult of Mammon. The question is would you be willing to give it up if it were? What if becoming a follower of Christ actually required you to give up your modest middle-class life? Would you follow him? What if Christ required you to take on a life of shame and disapproval by contemporary criteria? Would you do it? . . .
Sure, we say, we have very different ideas than the secularists and evolutionists and “liberals.” We even say some things just to drive liberals crazy. It’s fun to offend secularists, some even say. That’s our way of the cross. Count us in. We believe crazy things, but that’s the limit of being countercultural. We still work, advertise, and seek profit like everyone else. We cheer smart bombs and want sharp houses, just like the rest. We’re not crazy, after all. We’re proud to believe crazy things. We dare not side with the slaves. We dare not lose our middle-class respectability (14-15).
As an indictment of much of modern American conservative Christianity, particularly in Reformed circles, Jones’s critique here bites deep. Obviously, being a Christian cannot mean merely “holding Christian ideas in our heads.” The last thing I want to do in this review is spend up so much time saying, “Now just what precisely do you mean by that?” that the whole thing is turned into another exercise in armchair theologizing (and yes, I decided to climb out of the armchair I was sitting in just as I typed that sentence). Jesus said, “Follow me,” not “Sit around and talk about me,” and Jones is right to call us Reformed Christians to get off our butts and start following (which may mean stopping doing many of the things to which we have become accustomed). However, if we are to act meaningfully, rather than merely doing busily, we need to think about what we are doing, and I worry that many of the thoughts in this book are not clear enough to issue forth into a coherent way of action. My hope is that this review will not turn aside from the call to action that Jesus issues and Jones echoes in this book, but, on the contrary, will help us to come to a clearer sense of how the way of the Cross might be put into action.
Part of this will involve an attempt to highlight anew the doctrine of vocation, which Jones seems either to lose sight of, or to directly oppose, at many points in Dismissing Jesus. For instance, right here in the first chapter, I was struck by this line:
“A church that lived this way,” he says, wrapping up his summary of the seven ways, “would quickly undermine everything dear to our way of life—mortgages, jobs with no kingdom relevance, the assumption of constant ease, military glories, clothing made by wage-slaves, being the greatest among our peers, and the cool relief of blindness” (13, italics mine). That second item stands out like a sore thumb on the list. One can see how all the other items might be actively detrimental to a life of discipleship, but the only problem with the second is that it does not actively contribute—if it is not with Christ, it is against him. One can see how Jones might want Christians to rethink jobs like bank loan officer or Lockheed Martin engineer, but what about a plumber or grocery store manager? Do their jobs have “kingdom relevance”? A key tenet of Protestantism that Jones’s arguments in this book cast into doubt is the doctrine of vocation—the idea that God has sanctified the ordinary callings of human life, so that to be a good shoemaker is to glorify God and enrich his world. At times, however, Jones suggests that the only Christian vocations are those actively oriented toward what he calls “the way of deliverance”—missions and mercy ministry. Is this really what he means? One worried reader asked me this the other day. Perhaps it is not, but it is hardly
clear. In any case, implicit throughout in his call for radical discipleship, and his polemic against the middle-class life, is the insinuation that one cannot be faithful in the mundane settings in which one already finds oneself. Lest this sound like a cop-out, we should realize how few of us are anywhere close to being fully faithful of our current callings. I would like to close here with a quote from a very thoughtful recent post by my friend Matthew Anderson:
The language of “radical” and the examples that get used of saints and heroes presuppose that we have not been faithful even with what we have. Yet their solution is to amplify the stakes, to call us to be faithful with much. . . . One moment Christians are struggling to explain to their neighbor why, no, staying married isn’t the end of happiness–only that’s not enough, we have to go figure out how to be crucified, too. . . . Forget dying for our faith: many of us would do well to not fudge our taxes.
But therein lies my point: the ordinary moments are moments which intersect with eternity, where the meaning of our lives hangs. We’ll be judged for every errant word, yet many of us pray and write as though there is nothing more cheap than a few syllables to throw away. Focusing on the mundane isn’t a call to comfort: it’s a terrifying call to remember the judgment which we stand beneath, a judgment that exists when we drive past our neighbor whose car is stranded in the night.
And now, if you have read all the way to this point, I thank you for your patience; we have, after all, spent about 6,300 words already and scarcely moved beyond the introductory. In the next installment, we will dive right in to the meat of the book, examining what Jones means by “The Way of Weakness.”