ReJesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, is a call to a renewal of spirituality and discipleship centred on Jesus; it describes what that renewed spirituality and discipleship might look like; it tells some powerful stories about spirituality and discipleship. It’s a wonderful book. Quintessential Frost and Hirsch.
But it is not really a book about Jesus. The authors expressly excuse themselves on this point. They are not endeavouring to outline the contours of Jesus’ teaching because ‘so many books have done a better job of that than we can possibly accomplish’; rather they are trying to find the ‘spiritual centers’ of the ‘lifestyle and faith that Jesus taught and exemplified’ - ‘to touch the wild and primal energy that radiates out of Jesus’ (41).
The rhetoric is compelling, but the argument bothers me. Frost and Hirsch call people to follow a captivating messiah, but they won’t tell us what he did, why he did it, or where he thought he was going. If we are not given the overall shape of Jesus’ teaching, how are we to be sure that the ‘spiritual centers’ have been correctly located? Much is said - and said well, if a little hyperbolically at times - about the character of Jesus: a ‘daring, radical, strange, wonderful, inexplicable, unstoppable, marvelous, unsettling, disturbing, caring, powerful God-Man’ (111). But is it wise to encourage people to follow - indeed worship - a dangerous charismatic figure without providing some basic information about his agenda, some sketch of the contours of his teaching?
Or to pose the question in a different way…. There is a nice satirical critique in the book of various popular portraits of Jesus which highlights the extent to which they have been shaped by the ‘psychospiritual needs’ of their proponents: the racist Jesus of the Ku Klux Klan, the ‘bearded lady Jesus’ of Victorian sentimentalism, the ‘spooky Jesus’ of Catholic mysticism, the moderately pale Galilean holy man of modern liberal scholarship, and so on…. But I did not hear Frost and Hirsch consider the possibility that their ‘loving, wildly passionate, dangerous, radically merciful, and always surprising’ Jesus is largely a projection of the ‘psychospiritual needs’ of a couple of passionate, radical, postmodern (in some respects) missiologists. Why should we trust their version over the others?
(I’ve just noticed that Ed Stetzer asked Alan the same question in a good interview about the book.)
A wild and context-free messiah?
The problem is, I think, that Frost and Hirsch give very little attention either to the story that Jesus tells or to the story that he finds himself in, which is a story about Israel and its place in the world. As a result large areas of the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus are obscured or obliterated. The message of judgment against Israel is barely visible; the controversy with Judaism tends to be construed as a simplistic competition between authentic community and institutional religion; the apocalyptic material is reduced to a marginal hope in a second coming; and central notions such as kingdom of God, salvation and mission, texts such as the Beatitudes and the parables, are detached from their narrative context and affixed to a powerful but hermeneutically restricted missiological programme.
I think that even the passionate missional church needs to get beyond the sort of universalizing interpretation of Jesus’ teaching that so glibly finds in the parable of the sower, for example, an argument against conservative Christians who ‘won’t even acknowledge that the rock star, Bono, is on the side of the angels in his fight against global poverty’ (31). Bono may well be on the side of the angels, but that’s not what the parable is about. Frost and Hirsch have read Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God (at least, it’s in the Selected Resources), so why is there no recognition of the basic exegetical point that this is a parable of judgment on Israel? We get this Wrightian statement close to the end of ReJesus:
Not only is Israel like the prodigal, who has experienced exile and has returned home to be restored by their Father…, but those of us who have followed the unhelpful leads offered by modern form critics have found ourselves in a far land, barely surviving on the non-nutritious results of their scholarship. (162)
But by this point it’s too late. This broader narrative perspective is not reflected in the body of the book; and even at this belated stage the real significance of the observation for understanding Jesus is missed. The emphasis is on a rather existential engagement with scripture: ‘we believe rather than reading the Bible, we need to allow it to read us’. Yes, of course; but first I think we need to let the Bible read Jesus, otherwise we risk being read by the wrong story.
Are the Gospels enough?
Frost and Hirsch even go so far as to suggest - albeit tongue-in-cheek - that if all we had were the Gospels, we would have an ‘adequate expression of Christianity’ (167). Paul is regarded merely as an interpreter of the Jesus of the Gospels, and there is no mention here of the Old Testament at all. They are so bent on defining a Jesus-shaped pattern of discipleship and community that the big narrative that makes sense of Jesus, and with which Jesus so persistently engages, is disregarded. The lifestyle and teaching of Jesus cannot be properly understood in isolation from Israel’s story as it is told in the Old Testament; nor can we understand the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father without registering the apocalyptic encounter with pagan imperialism that is so prominent in Paul’s christology.
The irony of this is heightened by the fact that Frost and Hirsch are quite anxious to call people back to Hebraic ways of thinking and a Hebraic worldview - Jacques Ellul is used to good effect. This is a good point, but it is developed only in philosophical or epistemological terms. We are encouraged to think like Jews rather than like Greeks, but we are almost actively discouraged from reading Jesus within the Jewish narrative that defined the Hebraic worldview in the first place.
Another concern I have - also a consequence, I think, of the failure to interpret Jesus firmly within a narrative-historical framework - is that the ‘new creation’ theme is almost entirely absent. Jesus is the wild and passionate messiah who introduces or inaugurates the kingdom of God - not as a moment of eschatological intervention in the course of Israel’s history but as a reified, quasi-mystical condition. There is, I believe, some point to the view that the church is currently facing an ‘eschatological’ challenge similar to that faced by the early church, and for that reason I think that the radical Jesus missiology of Frost and Hirsch has some real value: it teaches us how to re-engage as marginal communities. But if we are going to grasp the full scope of the church’s vocation, we have to keep in view the ‘new creation’ motif - and then somehow make sense of how that relates to the kingdom of God (on this see We have to go back, but not to square one).
I do not think that replicating little Jesuses is either practically or theologically an adequate response to the challenge facing the church after modernism, after Christendom, and ahead of whatever global catastrophe might await us in decades to come (see ‘Global warming, storm warnings, and the future of the church’). A narrative theology suggests to us that the lifestyle and teaching of Jesus cannot be wrenched from its historical and eschatological setting without doing serious damage to it. Following the human Jesus - the Jesus specifically described in the Gospels - makes sense only under exceptional eschatological circumstances. There is a ‘perfection’ about the Jesus of the Gospels, but it is narratively defined: he embodies Israel’s perfect response to the crisis of judgment and restoration. To make him into an ideal of perfect humanity under all conditions is to cram far too much meaning into the rather small suitcase of the Gospel story.
The participatio Christi (a central theological motif in the book) in the New Testament refers to a quite literal participation in the sufferings and resurrection of Jesus: his disciples were to take up their own crosses, expose themselves to the same imperial violence, and follow him, for the sake of the future of the people of God. There are times when Christians throughout the ages have been called to walk the same path, but I do not think that it can be taken as a universal model of discipleship. That’s where I think the omission of the ‘new creation’ theme becomes significant.
Frost and Hirsch argue that by refocusing on Jesus as the human image of God they are restoring christology to the church as a whole. They complain that for too long ‘Christology has been the province of academic and professional Christians, who seem far more concerned with an examination of how the divine and human are related in Jesus’ person than they are in the details of his life or the content of his teaching and vision’ (13). That may once have been true, but in recent years scholarship has been extremely interested in the life of the Jewish Jesus and the manner in which that life is locked into the story of Israel as its destiny is worked out in a hostile pagan and imperial world. Yes, christology needs to be restored to the church, but not a christology prised away from its narrative-historical matrix. If the church is going to take responsibility for its christology, it needs to learn to tell the whole story.
I admit that I read the book with the wrong expectations. I was expecting a book about Jesus (Re: Jesus) rather than a book about re-Jesusing the church. Still, I think the basic concern stands. If we are going to construct a missional programme on the premise that we should all be ‘little Jesuses’, I think we have to look much more carefully at who Jesus was and at the story in which the Bible situates him.
But I would then ask whether, in light of the whole narrative, it is not Jesus but Paul whom we should be imitating. Jesus proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God to Israel; Paul proclaimed the Lordship of the risen Christ and the beginning of a new creation in the pagan world, as a challenge to the culturally dominant gods, in defiance of the oppressive and violent hegemony of Rome. That seems to me a much closer - and missiologically more fruitful - narrative match for the church today.