Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 4—The Way of Renunciation

Print In chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation,” Jones introduces us to the heart of the opposition he aims to unpack in Dismissing Jesus: God vs. Mammon.  “Renunciation” here is about renouncing the “whole social system” that is Mammon: “the spirit of unsacrificial wealth, self-interest, and greed, a longing for greatness and prestige, a grasping for power, the power of domination and violence” (36). 

Renunciation is a complete act of repentance, a turning away from the ways of the flesh and the world and a turning toward the way of the cross.  In many ways, then, this chapter offers something of a meta-statement of many of the chapters that follow.  It remains fairly general, but, as far as it goes, is mostly quite helpful.  Readers may particularly profit from Jones’s extended exposition of the meaning of the three temptations of Christ,  in which he shows how Christ’s rejection of Satan’s three temptations encapsulates his rejection of all that the world holds dear: material possessions, public spectacle and prestige, and power.

Jones clearly thinks that he shines new light on these vices of greed and pride by treating all their manifestations as part of a larger overarching whole, which he names Mammon. But I’m not so sure that this new nomenclature really helps us, on the whole.  To be sure, it sheds light on how many vices that we often imagine to be separate are in fact deeply interconnected, and grow out of one another.  On the other hand, it substitutes vagueness for precision.  Moral theology has made a considerable investment over the millennia in classifying vices, and by collapsing them all into one indiscriminate heap, I worry, Jones makes it more difficult to offer concrete diagnoses of particularly evils or concrete prescriptions for resisting them.  Of course, as I have said, later chapters fill in some of the details of the big picture given here, so this worry may be exaggerated.  Still, I think it’s important to resist, at the level of terminology, a flattening out of the moral life that causes us to forget the radical pluriformity of the sins and
temptations we face. Read More

Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 3—The Way of Weakness



Finally, after a great deal of introduction in the previous two posts (here and here), we will begin to dig into the main body of the book, covering, in this review, chapter two, “The Way of Weakness” and in the next installment, chapter three, “The Way of Renunciation” (don’t worry, that installment will be a lot shorter than this one). In both of these, Jones has some hard words for contemporary American churches, hard words that recall us to crucial Biblical themes that we like to ignore.  My worry, though, comes with the question that must come next, after this realization: “How can I live my life differently so as to be a faithful disciple?”  I’m not sure we’re given enough in these chapters to start answering this question very clearly.  This is not because Jones fails to spell out all the specific concrete applications—indeed, to do so would prematurely stifle Christian liberty and in any case, be of little use because of the immense variety of circumstances in which Christians would be called upon to apply these principles.  Rather, my concern is that Jones does not give sufficient coherence to the concept of “weakness” and “renunciation” to enable earnest believers to determine with any confidence how to apply them.

For in these chapters, Jones challenges two of the great gods of our age, military power and wealth, both points on which conscientious Christians will find themselves challenged by myriad practical ethical questions: when and what is an appropriate use of force, if there exists such a thing?  How can I be a good steward of material wealth, or should I even think in those terms?  Of course, his points in these chapters are broader than that, and he has somewhat more focused discussions of each of these issues in chapters six and five, respectively, as well as returning to critique common Christian views of wealth in chapters 15 and 16 and “American Mars” in chapter 17.   Nonetheless, many of the fundamental ambiguities created in these two chapters will remain unresolved in those later discussions.  Read More

Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 2—Overview of the Way of the Cross



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. Read More

Dismissing Jesus: A Critical Assessment, Pt. 1—Introduction


PrintAbout 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. Read More