I managed the book department of a retail store when I was in high school around the time the Harry Potter novels were being made into movies. The new book release dates were being shuffled to coincide with new movie releases, and since our store was adjacent to a movie theater I was beleaguered by questions and rumors from fanatics day in and day out. I developed an aversion to all “wizard” things and to this day I still stubbornly refuse to read the novels (or even watch the movies). Yet, I must acknowledge that my bias against J.K Rawlings has nothing to do with her books, for how can I dislike something I've never experienced? In fact, logic states that they would be very entertaining, for how can the testimonies of so many be wrong? No, my disdain stems from the hype and my bad experience with the fans surrounding J.K. Rawlings' works. I know I'm not alone in the way I've reacted, for tragically this is precisely the way millions of people have reacted to the story of Jesus Christ. They've become turned off to Jesus Christ simply because they're sick and tired of hearing about “Christian” things and may have had bad experiences with “Jesus Freaks.” Just as the only way for me to overcome my prejudice toward Rawlings is to read her books, so too must others overcome their prejudice toward Jesus by reading his books, the gospels. This is the goal of Philip Yancey in his book “The Jesus I Never Knew,” as he attempts to strip away the distracting (and often erroneous) hype that encrusts the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As a young Christian, I remember being dumfounded the first time I read Yancey's book by all the things I didn't know about Jesus, the truth beneath the crust if you will. Now, as an aspiring scholar studying the life of Jesus, I am dumbfounded by the fact that I didn't know all these things about Jesus the first time I read the book. For, after a second reading, I realized that there is nothing truly “profound” in the book. Yancey almost outlines obvious observations that anyone beyond Christianity101 should know by default, or at least anyone who's read the gospels. For even a cursory scan of the gospels would show that nowhere is Jesus physically described (Yancey, 20), yet, on my first read, this somehow struck me as shocking. On that note, I feel ashamed that before my initial reading I had never thought that Jesus might have been a Jew, revealing a complete lack of basic cultural knowledge of Palestine in Jesus' day or His Jewish birth lineage (Yancey, 50). I think I may have even missed the scandal of the virgin birth due to the white washed nativity pageants I witnessed growing up in church (Yancey, 32). Instead, I went along with the safe sweet baby Jesus who never left the manger to overturn tables in the temples and then overturn our lives on the cross. Now, I don't know how I would have reacted in that situation if I were Joseph. I also bought into the common notion that Jesus was always “cool as a cucumber,” or “Prozac1 Jesus” to use Yancey's words (Yancey, 88), instead of the emotional and excitable man portrayed in the gospels getting frustrated with disciples, angry with church leaders, amazed with faith, and weeping with the passing of a friend. Where was I when these things were taught in church? Were they? Somewhere in my spiritual journey between my first and second reading I switched from being amazed at discovering the Jesus I Never Knew to disheartened that others who claim to be Christians don't know the Jesus that I now know.
In this, I feel like I now understand Yancey's journey and why he wrote the book. The longer the church (and those outside the church) attempt to explain and justify the historical accounts of Christ, the more those accounts become lost in the shuffle. Yancey's months of time in various seminary libraries reading shelves upon shelves about Jesus seem to confirm the information overload that exists in our world today (Yancey, 20). This scene reminded me of a recent conversation with a professor (Dr. Little) regarding the direction of missions with the rise of conflicting scholarship from so many different church (and so-called “church”) backgrounds, in which the question was raised, “who can claim Jesus?” While I don't believe I'm qualified to answer, my gut reaction is “those who get Christ's history right,” in which I have to agree with Yancey, that “the fog” seems to lift whenever we return to the facts in the gospels themselves (Yancey, 20). Unfortunately for many churches and denominations, comfortable mono-ethnic middle class self-help groups don't fit Jesus' radical core message (Yancey, 156-157). I'm not quite sure what some modern churches I know would do with the biblical Jesus who attracted those who opposed His church (heaven forbid!) and summoned others who would have violated the Behavioral Standards of Christian schools like CIU (μὴ γένοιτο!) (Yancey, 15). In fact I doubt any person, including myself, would truly look forward to an encounter with the real Jesus of the gospels whose rebuked religious leaders and revealed sin in others versus the “tamed Jesus” (Yancey, 23) we've created who wouldn't think of hurting somebody's feelings let alone offend them. I doubt think Jesus would take kindly to all the ideas and reconciliations of who He was and what He stood for in all those seminary libraries, or to the Church and State's attempts to improve on the way of Christ with manipulation and compulsion (Yancey, 81). I wonder with Yancey whether any political party can claim Christ, especially as “I [also] sense that much uneasiness among Christians today stems from a confusion of the two kingdoms, visible and invisible,” (Yancey, 250) many completely losing sight of Christ and His Church in favor of America and Washington. In a world where church leadership always seems to mimic the popular leadership style of its day (Roman Empire, Nation-State, and now Business corporations), few seem to recognize that church always becomes ineffective in building God's Kingdom when it uses the tools of the World's Kingdoms (Yancey, 246).
However, this is not to say that I didn't see anything new or gather new insight from Yancey as a result of a second reading. I somehow walked away with even more respect for the God-man Jesus as Yancey expounded on the implications of His Temptations in the desert. The self-restraint of Jesus to follow through on His mission without resorting to the Messiah people want (bread: humanitarian savior, Torah: Jewish Temple savior, World: absolute authoritarian King) all to preserve human choice since morality can't be compelled (Yancey, 73-76). Such an accomplishment seems almost surgical, to create a delicate balance that the creator of the universe artfully ensured He didn't tip one way or the other when he could have forced Himself on those were not willing (Yancey, 77) in a form of cosmic rape. Jesus worked in such a way as to invite belief without compelling it, for genuine faith requires the possibility of rejection or else it isn't faith (Yancey, 217). Jesus' strategy also defies all modern and seemingly “logical” understanding from our point of view. For whatever reason, Jesus chose to execute His plan by, for, and with sinful, selfish, and silly people (Yancey, 93). Jesus' legacy wasn't in writings, structures, empires, or philosophies, but people. Jesus focus on people stands above all else, so that He might be with them and send them out. Such an approach creates a mysterious paradox of gloom since the fate of the world is in the hands of foolish man, but also hope that we (as foolish people) might somehow be usable by God (Yancey, 99). That said, I still stand convicted as I follow Yancey's lead in placing myself in the cross-hairs of the Christ's teachings (Yancey, 148). For, I see myself as more of a Pharisee now than during my first reading, for now I revel in a good Pharisaical debate over the minutiae of theological teachings and pronounce judgment on those Pharisees who believe in a more legalistic system than the one of my choosing. I also wasn't without complete surprise on my second reading, since I had no idea that people took offense to the Sermon on the Mount (Yancey, 130). I understand their perspective now, Jesus' sermon truly did make the law impossible for anyone to keep and yet He charged them to obey it perfectly (Yancey, 132), but for some reason it took somebody to point it out to me. Furthermore, I was struck with several unforeseen coincidences as Yancey quoted from authors on my “To Read” list such as Shusako Endo2, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I have no recollection of ever reading these names in Yancey the first time, but now the coincidences almost appear as markers on a trail left behind by a preceding pilgrim. Such a discovery tells me that there is much to be gained by standing on the shoulders of those who have come before, learning from their lifelong struggles, questions, and mistakes without having to repeat them to learn the answers they discovered.
In my double experience of Yancey at two different spiritual stages in my life, I believe his writing style serves readers in different ways dependent upon their context. For “Cultural Christians,” like I was during my first read, Yancey has the voice of a prophet speaking out against the complacency
which has crept into Christianity. His words cut and often shock with quotes from unlikely sources including skeptics and scholars such as Jurgen Moltman stating Jesus would have been gassed by the Third Reich (Yancey, 51). Yet, they are also comforting as he shares insights free from technical lingo and openly talks about the doubts churches often unconsciously forbid. For dogmatic traditionalists or fundamentalists, Yancey will come off as “loose cannon” doing more harm than good to the faith. A good deal of skepticism is laced throughout the book. Questions that aren't normally asked get raised, often without answer, or carrying a strong rebuke for the church, such as “where is the church when it hurts?” (Yancey, 233), quoting prostitutes who cite churches as places of condemnation (Yancey, 148), and referring to his own fundamentalist upbringing as “biblical child abuse” (Yancey, 140). Yet, then there are those who will see Yancey as I do, as a radical, as one attempting to get back to the root of the faith. Each chapter will resound as a call to reclaim the “best kept secret of Christianity,” that is the Jesus of the bible (Yancey, 258). From there, the church will recapture God's mission as taught from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 (Yancey, 268), to reach everyone with Christ's message of repentance and forgiveness of sins through His crucifixion. In light of this, I would hope every Christian would read Yancey's book and prayerfully consider how they may have re-imagined Christ compared to His historic portrayal in the gospels. Hopefully then “the body of Christ” will stop crucifying Christ again and again each time we wound the church with our ignorant sins of commission and omission (Yancey, 236). Until then it seems we'll continue singing:
Jesus on the radio, Jesus on a late night show
Jesus in a dream, looking all serene
Jesus on a steeple, Jesus in the Gallup poll
Jesus has His very own brand of rock and roll
Watched Him on the silver screen
Bought the action figurine
But Jesus is the only name that makes you flinch
Oh, can anybody show me the real Jesus?
Oh, let Your love unveil the mystery of the real Jesus
-- Downhere, The Real Jesus