Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: A More Christlike God by Bradley Jersak

The Christian faith, at its core, is the gospel announcement that God--the eternal Spirit who created, fills and sustains the universe--has shown us who he is and what he's like--exactly what he's like--in the flesh and blood human we sometimes call Emmanuel ('God with us'). Conversely, we believe Jesus has shown us the face and heart of God through the fullness of his life on earth: revealed through eyewitness accounts of his birth, ministry, death and resurrection. We regard this life as the decisive revelation and act of God in time and space. That's still a faith statement, but for Christians, it is our starting point. To look at Jesus--especially on the Cross, says 1 John--is to behold the clearest depiction of the God who is love (1 John 4:8). I've come to believe that Jesus alone is perfect theology. - Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike God

Years ago, I regularly read and enjoyed the writings of the late Michael Spencer, usually referred to by his blog title and online moniker, the Internet Monk. Spencer was an early voice for the "evangelical in exile:" one who was feeling increasingly alienated by the practices and beliefs of that strand of Christianity, holding appreciation for the tradition's contributions to his own journey while reimagining how to be one, with mixed results.

Spencer coined a term that has always stuck with me, that has remained an integral part of his online legacy: "Jesus-shaped spirituality." What would the Christian faith look like, he regularly wondered, if we based it on the life and teachings of Jesus while stripping away everything else? As the term suggests, he explored a spirituality shaped more like Jesus and less like the consumeristic and entertainment-driven trappings of megachurches, the stifling focus on self-preservation of institutions and denominations, and the reactionary theology of fundamentalists that tamps down questions and rarely seems grace-filled. His reflections pointed toward a God of transformational, steadfast love and forgiveness, and a life that followed such a God accordingly. His book, Mere Churchianity, was an excellent look into the meaning and practice of this term.

In A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel, Bradley Jersak undertakes a similar project. He seeks to redeem the concept of God from images that are punitive, judgmental, wrathful, and capricious. The method at the heart of the matter is to begin with the type of God that Jesus embodies. He is seeking, in other words, a "Jesus-shaped" God.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is a deconstruction of problematic images of God with which many work, believer and non-believer alike. He spends time differentiating between a "God of will" and a "God of love." This includes an extensive analysis of the basic theodicy question: how is it that we can consider God all-powerful and all-loving, yet evil exists? Jersak breaks down the typical arguments offered by many to this dilemma, including that God causes evil either for God's glorification or for reasons God doesn't need to explain. Over the course of his argument, he attempts to redeem texts that seem to add to these views of God, interpreting them in light of the God that Jesus reveals instead.

It is in the second section that Jersak analyzes this image of God in a deeper way. Focusing on the cross, he uses the term "cruciform" to describe this new image of a God who chooses to be vulnerable, loving, grace-filled, and freedom-bestowing. There are shades of Jurgen Moltmann in this section of the book--he outright uses the term "crucified God" at one point--as he suggests that a cruciform view of God does not reveal an image of punishment, anger, or bringing disaster for its own sake. To help drive this point home, the final chapter in this section is even entitled, "God is Good and Sh** Happens." He presents the cross, along with other tragic events, as the result of human freedom and the created order rather than God's will. Nevertheless, he says, God is present, loving, and working in suffering. Along with Moltmann, Jersak seems to be influenced by process theology and open theism, as he repeatedly suggests that it is out of God's love that God doesn't interfere with the freedom God has given to creation, including humanity.

The third section is almost entirely about wrath. Jersak makes his way through parts of the Hebrew scriptures, Gospels, and Pauline letters and explores how God's wrath is portrayed in each. This includes a reflection on the development of Biblical interpretation according to one's own spiritual maturity and understanding of and appreciation for complexity. He suggests that many are stuck at an earlier, more literal stage of development, and that a consideration of a more Christlike God may cause us to revisit and reconsider how to read these texts. He also discusses theories of atonement at some length, building on his cruciform idea introduced in the previous section.

All in all, A More Christlike God is a good introduction to the concept of what a God shaped like Jesus looks like. The third section seemed to slip into Christianese jargon a little more, and seemed to fall back on atonement concepts that assume the cross was a necessary event for human salvation rather than the result of a life lived in a certain way. He does frame the resurrection more as a redemption of death, but there is a lingering sense that Jesus' crucifixion had to happen to satisfy something in the universe. I also noticed some erroneous scripture references (he cites a story that he says is from 1 Samuel that is actually from 2 Samuel, for instance), which were relatively minor but still may be problematic for those who go looking up the passages for themselves.

I'd recommend this book with those caveats. I recommend Spencer's book, too.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review by the Speakeasy blogging book review network. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)