A contextual review of the literature.
Jethani, Skye (2020). What If Jesus Was Serious ? Moody Publishers.
Jethani, Skye (2022). What If Jesus Was Serious about the Church? Moody Publishers.
I never thought I would be seriously reviewing Christian pop literature again, since 1994, when I exposed the mind-numbing stupidity in the cultural Americanisation on the Queensland theological landscape.
What has changed? The American-based evangelical Protestant world, in the last decade, has been in turmoil, with one wing of the historical movement succumbing to Trumpism as a new evangelical doctrine, and the other wing revolting against such idiocy – in large numbers within the smaller scoping of American evangelicalism. We are on the abyss of another great schism in Christianity. It has been a long time coming as “the rest of the world” (my dear American friends take note) increasingly became feed-up with the arrogance of the American ‘imperial’ culture, in its insanely stupid idea that God had granted the United States, as a nation, an exceptionalist mission.
After my doctorate, awarded in 1995, I took my step in renouncing the ‘Christian’ labelling for a Unitarian-Universalist type of Post-Christianity. My cultural analysis in the intellectual histories – both Australian and American – brought me to the realisation that the problem was not the ‘Ethics of Jesus’ but the way institutions abuse popular movements for their own orthodox agendas. The mob grief at the passing of Queen Elizabeth II is a case in point.
Skye Jethani has produced a series of evangelical pop paperbacks that was unimaginable 30 years ago. It is a sign of how much has shifted, although it is not as forthcoming as the new evangelical critique in the attack on ‘whiteness’ and the white supremacy paradigm. Nevertheless, for the very conservative Moody Publishers, this is a risk. With the inferred criticism of the Trumpist psychology, either the books will be ignored or there will be a backlash.
Skye Jethani is an American author, speaker, and the managing editor of Leadership journal, a magazine and online resource published by Christianity Today International. He is known for his The Divine Commodity: Discovering A Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (2009, Zondervan). Although the ‘megachurch phenomenon’ is not examined carefully, the work is an indirect critique of what he calls “the gospel of Consumer Christianity”. In many ways it is a critique of the American prosperity gospel in a ‘softy-softy’ approach. Whether this would work, I seriously doubt, in the same way as Jethani seeks to be serious and genuine about Jesus of Nazareth. There is an ethos here of an institution attempting to reform itself without seriously tackling the problem of the institution itself. It is the institutions of Christianity which are not being genuine, as opposed to many followers and non-followers who are genuine to the Ethics of Jesus. From Jethani’s profile on his website, the sense that a reader might have is that Jethani is a ‘performer’ rather than a serious scholar and expert in the field. There is nothing nasty in saying this. Jethani’s recent works take-on Jesus seriously, but it is built upon a few hundred years of work in the Historical Jesus literature, without the acknowledgment of the scholars and without understanding the layers of nuanced thought. The problem here is not Jethani’s personally, except where there might be a ‘wilful ignorance’ to the core problem of the institution.
Such pop literature is justified as easy-to-read introductory texts. The justification reaches a certain point when it becomes part of the apologetic problem. Many well-educated faithful pastors, ministers, and laity will have mixed feelings about the ‘taking Jesus seriously’ texts. Originally, I thought I could review two books in the series by separating the ‘wheat from the chaff,’ for each numbered proposition. There are 72 such propositions (“If Jesus was serious…”) in the original text of the series, and 51 in the text on “What if Jesus was serious…about the church”. In the latter I was expecting to find the answer: that if Jesus was serious, we would take heed to his call to abandon the institutionalised ‘Church’. While respecting the ‘Temple’, remaining outside of it; within the Holy Spirt, a different spirit than that of the Temple. Again, and strangely for a prophetic book, there is this ‘softy-softy’ approach. A major part of the problem in the evangelical world is that boldness has only come from the Christian and culturally-bound neo-conservatives (those like William F. Buckley who turned nostalgia into bold reaction). The institutions are compelled to play it safe in the face of utter militancy and polemics, until the day the extremists (not reformers) take hold of the institution. This is the reason why there is an ethical argument for bold contempt in the face of mob belief in outlandish propaganda.
As I read the two texts, I quickly realised that I could not review the works in a binary ‘wheat from the chaff’ approach. The issue was the genre of pop literature itself. It is flashy ‘PR’ language, ironically, in works which reject the American-hyped consumer culture. The ‘softy-softy’ language betrays the semantics from the biblical text, in a presentist play in the history.
This goes to the ‘fundamental’ (a pun) problem in the biblicism. There is a very thin red line between the belief in the biblical canon as inspiration for the issues of today, and taking ‘scripture’ as historically written “at its word”, without deeply considering the translation and original text challenges. In taking Jesus seriously we must appreciate that it is an oral tradition, and a tradition not bounded by orthodoxy. Moody Publishers for a long time was a fundamentalist press, which rejected the modern ‘biblical’ scholarship, because in contemptuous arrogance, the fundamentalists did not believe such scholarship as ‘biblical’. In the 1960s the American neo-evangelicals, former fundamentalists, embraced the modern scholarship, but they did so without an apology to their critics; only an apology for their own institution (double-edged semantics here).
As I read each proposition of the texts, I am deeply troubled. Most of the call for change is for individual believers. There is no call for structural change to the institution, and there is no call for leaving ‘the Church.’ Again, the American evangelical writers of pop literature cannot see the cultural influence of the American individualism doctrine. Is it ‘willful ignorance’ ?
Skye Jethani’s works are not without worth. The propositions, the broad scholarship will say, is correct in the context of what is given, nevertheless, the broad scholarship will say that the propositions are grossly inadequate. A few read extremely oddly, in fantastique imagination (“If Jesus was serious…Then his Table is a Time Machine”). There are semantic problems, and they are not solved in Jethani’s folksy stories. The hoi polloi will continue to be undereducated as long as pop literature has undereducated them.
Image: Photo 52305152 / American Jesus © Joe Sohm | Dreamstime.com
 Jones, Robert P. (2017). The End of White Christian America, New York: Simon & Schuster;
Jones, Robert P. (2020). White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, New York: Simon & Schuster.
 Aly, Waleed and Scott Stephens (2022). Uncivil Wars: How Contempt is Corroding Democracy, Quarterly Essay, Issue 87. Pp. 1-71. The authors hold to the opposite view, but their argument leads me to think that there is an ethical place for ‘contempt.’ For example, much of the traditional conservative doctrine is based on contempt for the revolutionary mob.
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