I’ve come to find the preface of books to often be their most fascinating and revealing piece of content. Never has this been anymore true than with the first publication by Doug Jones in many years, “Dismissing Jesus: How We Evade the Way of the Cross“.
From the preface:
Ten years ago I would have dismissed this book rather quickly, after reading just a few paragraphs. I would have thought it missed the importance of beauty and joy and laughter, in the way I narrowly conceived them then.
Twenty years ago I would have dismissed this book with just a glance at the table of contents and back cover, for what I would have judged as a minimizing of the power of doctrine. It would not have meshed with my assumption of a worldview through which every answer clicks out automatically.
Thirty years ago, if I even would have picked up this book, I would have quickly denounced it as Marxist crap masquerading as Christian faith, completely hopeless and dangerous, lying about the whole gospel.
I can’t see any way I could have broken through to my earlier selves. They had barricaded themselves too well.
“Persuasion is a terribly strange thing.” he continues. “It’s astounding we are ever persuaded of anything new.” But that, as astounding as it may be, is what has happened to Doug. He believe many things very strongly and wrote about them in books and journals and magazines throughout the 1990s and 2000s. He taught them to students for years at a classical Christian college. But slowly things changed and he become increasingly uncomfortable. He pushed for some change amongst his friends and colleagues and found little room to maneuver. But instead of creating stink and schism within his church, he quietly stepped down from his responsibilities as a professor and elder and, for the sake of unity, shut down his blog and other writings as well. This new book is the first thing of his to see the light of day in quite a few years.
The forward for the book is written by Peter Leithart, but again, here we find clues that what follows is going to be interesting. Though supporting and encouraging the work of his friend, Leithart makes an open disclaimer (with a list) that there is much in the book he is unpersuaded by.
So what on earth is in here? The short answer is that the book is a critique of rich intellectual Christians who want to live the American dream and have their main contribution to the world be the writing of theological commentary and keeping a well-groomed lawn. (Jones counts himself firmly among these ranks. The book is openly a self-criticism of sorts.) Is the book (like most Christian writing) long on diagnosis and short on cure? Yes, as you might suspect. He does take a stab at it for about three chapters at the end. The short answer is that we should spend more of our money and energy on helping the poor and spend NONE of it propping up worldly institutions of Mammon, especially banks, politicians, and envy-generating marketers). After scripture, of which there is a tremendous amount, especially from the Sermon on the Mount, the most often quoted source is Bonhoeffer. That should tell you something.
I don’t intend this post to be a proper concise review of the book. I would like to walk through it and highlight a few of my favorite passages, occasionally adding a few comments or clarifications.
For what it’s worth, I am particularly persuaded (or maybe softened is a better word), by up-front humility as well as a meta or outside view of the material itself. On the first page, we get both:
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 have taught and pastored and misled many sincere Christians – congregants, students, my family – for decades, preaching cheap grace and missing the weightier matters of the law. “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:33). “Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:27).
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) Bonhoeffer commented on the rich young ruler’s strategy: “Keep on posing questions, and you will escape the necessity of obedience.”
Why read on, then? Why read a book by the spiritually blind? Maybe, because I am not alone. I suspect you, like me, are a rich young ruler. Most of us in the West are. It’s our most common shape. At least, Jesus “looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). Maybe there’s hope for us.
Jones spends the first half of the book defining “The Way of the Cross”. It is the way of “weakness, renunciation, deliverance, sharing, enemy-love, foolishness, and community.”
The way of weakness is opposite the way of fame and relevance. It is to follow Jesus’ model, the way of the bondservant, the way of the rich becoming poor to raise others. He said he didn’t bring a universal message for everyone. His kingdom wasn’t going to focus on those who were “first” in the eyes of the world. He didn’t come to serve the so-called healthy and righteous. Jesus come to focus on the weak. The rich and powerful might come along, too, though it would be very difficult for them to be happy in his kingdom on earth (Matt 19:23)
Jones pushes back against capitalism early by quoting its greatest prophets and allowing them to sound ridiculously religious:
“Money is, with property, considered as the vital principle of the body politic; as that which sustains its life and motion and enables it to perform it most essential functions”. – Alexander Hamilton
“Money is the root of most progress, the ascent of money has been essential to the ascent of man. Financial innovation has been an indispensable factor in man’s advance from wretched subsistence to the giddy heights of material prosperity that so many people know today.” – Niall Ferguson
“Free-market capitalism, based on private property and peaceful exchange, is the SOURCE of civilization and human progress.” – Thomas DiLorenzo
Jones points out that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t serve God and mammon. What we see today in the world is the rule of mammon. Conservatives in the church often risk their lives to defend it too and it’s brutal karma. The way people’s attention hangs on the Dow index or the actions of the Federal Reserve looks remarkably like devotion to a deity. And we criticize all of this, yes, but not nearly enough. Our own mortgage is still a given of course.
Jones kicks off the next chapter by putting some of the insight from Leithart’s groundbreaking Against Christianity to good use.
Almost every aspect of modern Christianity assumes that the faith is first and foremost a set of ideas to be believed. That’s it. Sure, we encourage some marginal action on the side, but that’s not truly important, not central. Our worship is primarily about explaining and singing ideas, our schools focus on transferring ideas, our evangelism spreads ideas, our apologetic tries to persuade others of ideas, community means chatting with people who share our ideas, our entry into heaven requires holding the right ideas in our heads. In centuries past, this strange obsession with ideas simply went by the name of Gnosticism – the ancient heresy that ideas and intellect are more important than bodies and people and actually doing something. We even have a safe, approved word to hide our new Gnosticism – “worldview.”
Many Christian traditions have spent the last few decades fine-tuning what it means to have a Christian worldview. It seems to be all we’re good at. Notice that viewing can take place at a nice, safe distance. You don’t need to be involved or get your hands dirty. It would just be awkward to call it a Christian wordsmell or worldtouch. Those would require closeness and bodies. We just want a Christian set of ideas, and sight has long served as the favorite sense of Gnostics throughout history.
Question for you. Think about what you are DOING right now in your life. Now, think about all those same things you were DOING about 4 years ago before you watched The Truth Project or some other kind of “worldview” curriculum with your small group at church. Has anything changed? Explain. Maybe it has and The Truth Project is, in many respects, not too shabby. What is the answer to this question though? This is just an example. Maybe you went through The Alpha Course or read a bunch of old stuff by Francis Schaffer, which is what my parents did in their time. Adjust this question accordingly.
Here is another question, an experiment really. This time from Jones:
What if, as a thought experiment, we weren’t allowed to talk about ideas? What if we were only allowed to act without words A famous slogan, apparently misattributes to St. Francis, but still very much on target, puts it this way: “Preach the gospel, and sometimes use words.” Imagine going further and living with an actual constraint against words in our ministries. Imagine we could only evangelize by actions… this highlights how deep our Gnosticism is. Most of us would be completely lost. Nothing we do is geared for serious action. Interestingly, Jesus actually came close to a constrain like this. He said, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Here, we find reasons not to dismiss the story of the rich young ruler:
Most of us dismiss the Rich Young Ruler by assuming he had a rather unique and unhealthy, over-obsession with wealth that was quite peculiar to him. We deny that he represented a class of people, us. We say his equal in modern times might be the super-right, far above us, who have ten cars and a champagne sense of entitlement. Whoever this peculiar, radically unique Rich Young Ruler was, he wasn’t us, no way. He was a freak. And anyone who suggests otherwise must be full of envy and very ungrateful, yeah.
The fact is that all the twists and turns about the Rich Young Ruler aren’t in the text. The Rich Young Ruler is common, not unique. As Berdyaev would say, he was simply part of the normal vacuum of Mammon that we wealthy always incarnate. And Jesus’s command itself wasn’t unique to this one man. Elsewhere Jesus spoke quite universally to his followers: “whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple” (Luke 14:35)
Later, Jones takes on the libertarian sacredness of modern “private property” saying that nothing even close exists in the Levitical law provided by God. There is no justification for calling “theft” all taxation or redistribution of wealth.
The next chapter is a lengthy criticism of the Christian endorsement of war and violence. He draws from early church fathers and leaves contemporary voices like Yoder and Hauerwas out of the discussion (for now). Jones sticks to argument from scripture whenever possible. I suspect that he is well aware that mentioning the “wrong” name in a footnote will get him quickly dismissed without engagement.
Jones’s soteriology is still firmly Reformed, but he is fed up with some of its side-effects.
Part of “the broad way that leads to destruction” throughout church history has been to assume that the Christian gospel is mainly about using this mental thing called faith, i.e., intellectual assent to certain truths, as the key to getting individuals into heaven, one by one. This is the majority of Reformation traditions. It’s the view that Bonhoeffer complained about as “cheap grace.” We got to this notion largely by a simplistic, reductionist reading of the apostle Paul’s contrast between faith and works. If “works” means doing things, and that’s bad, then “faith” must mean thinking things, and that’s what Paul wanted. Just believe your way into heaven.
This drives me nuts too. The phrase “saving knowledge of Jesus Christ” should be banned from all gospel preaching. It gets my vote for worst evangelical idiom of all time.
Later, he uses Randy Alcorn’s popular book on heaven as an example of this kind of thinking, especially prominent in America.
How does Alcorn assure us that we’ll make it into heaven? He first warns us that “religious activities alone” will not get us into heaven. No, his preferred answer is purely intellectual: “Make the conscious decision to accept Christ’s sacrificial death on your behalf.” Ooooh. It’s not mere belief, no. It’s a special “conscious” decision. That capture so much of modern evangelicalism.
With this view, discipleship can be completely minimized. Later he points out how Abraham’s faith was made manifest when he raised the knife to kill Isaac. The act was the essence of his faith. Just believing it in his head made nothing happen. This faith (with action or not) is not what saves us (again, that is God’s work), but it is what our lived faith looks like. Invisible faith is non-faith Jones contents.
In his final definition chapter, he tackles the idea of “community”, specifically pushing back against Modern and Reformation focus on the individual.
Jones kicks off the next main section of his book with a quiz where you try to guess whether a series of quotes can be attributes to Puritan theologian Thomas Watson or one of the pagan Stoics. It’s not an easy test. The point of the chapter is to point out the trouble with using “providence” as a catch-all category for explaining everything and dismissing the idea that we should do anything about it. Lots of suffering in the world? Oh well. God wills it. Whatev. Don’t get involved.
In the next chapter, (10), Jones argues that we over-emphasize personal sin, to the nearly complete exclusion of corporate and community evils. We spend so much time preaching against lust that there is never enough time left on the clock to talk about anything else.
Sometimes I wonder if we can even see communal and corporate sin anymore. When you ask American conservative evangelicals about social sins the only examples we keep coming back to time and again are abortion and homosexuality. those are huge and serious issues. But we should wonder just a bit about why we so easily default to those sins… they are safe targets because they are not generally out sins but belong to other groups… Jesus, too, was surrounded by cultures of abortion and homosexuality, ye he never mentions them. Why did he seemingly “ignore” these issues and focus instead on the powers of Mammon? Why can we only care or see individualistic acts?
In chapter 12, Jones puts in a major plug for the Christus Victor theory of the atonement, contra penal substitutionary atonement. This is sure to make some his Reformed brethren to completely flip out. (See the ridiculous book-length back and forth between John Piper and N.T. Wright a couple of years ago.) I am personally quite sympathetic to this view as well since I was introduced to it in the work of Robert Webber a few years ago. I must point out that it also makes a lot more sense to Africans where legal courtroom talk is a very ineffective analogy. Now it’s not that substitutionary atonement is true and other theories aren’t. Jones isn’t abandoning his Reformed faith, he is just recognizing that it emphasizes some things to the exclusion of some other good things. He wants to get those good things back. So do I. It’s undeniable that Christus Victor was the default position for the first couple of centuries of the church. That alone should make it worth more of our consideration.
The next chapter is on how neither the modern political left nor right is particularly Christian.
Capitalism and socialism are both incarnations of Mammon. Like the perfect sucker, the Christian church rode the rails as far away from Marxism as possible, spending the next century debating doctrine and missing the weightier matters of the kingdom, while the poor were enslaved and slaughtered around the world.
Jones goes on to trace the history of the Cold War and how the church’s close alignment with political conservatism fostered the idea that is was absolutely fine to be super-rich while the invisible hand of the market ensured that the poor were always screwed hard. At least it wasn’t communism. Go us.
Next, the chapter on private property is one of the better ones in the book.
As Christians, one of our first questions about property should be to think about how property would function within the life of the Trinity. Does the Trinity speak of its properly like John Locke or Ayn Rand do? Does the Trinity speak of gripping “its hard-earned money” the way political conservatives do? Does the Trinity bureaucratize property the way violent socialists collectives did? Does the Trinity hold property in common privately?
It’s common for Christian conservatives to invoke the principle that “taxation is theft” and “the heart of the welfare state is theft.” This simply begs the question. It assumes an individualist view of property rights. Yes, if individualism is true, and the individual alone has an absolute claim on property, then taxation is theft. But then, so is God’s demand for the tithe and his gleaning laws. But, if God owns all our money, and we’re merely stewards of his property, we can’t automatically blurt “theft” when any transfers are required. We have to ask other questions first, about God’s use of his own property, delegated authorities, etc. If, let’s say, we have a crazy community that denies “that any of the things he possessed was his own” (Acts 4:32), then it’s harder and more complicated to generate a simplistic charge of theft.
“Only a capitalist system saved the suffering American settlers” writes Thomas DiLorenzo. But why? What was so magical about private property? The typical answer is that it avoided the free riding problem. Private property required “each individual himself bore the full consequences of any reductions in output” and each individual had “an incentive to increase his effort because he directly benefitted from his own labor.” In short, we say, self-interest trumped self-denial, and there’s no way of ever changing that. Humans must be polytheists forever. Christ can’t transform self-interest. Of course not.
Jones’s retelling of the story of the Plymouth colony is particularly damning.
Why were medieval monks able to sustain collective living for centuries but the Pilgrims only for the blink of an eye? The Pilgrims failed at collective living not because of the dictates of some unitarian, impersonal economics laws about self-interest. Their failure was much simpler than that. They lacked the habits and virtues of self-denial… these people were spiritual basket-cases, not Christian heroes. William Bradford had the gall to conclude, “Let none argue that this is due to human failing.” Seriously? Mammon was already deep in their bones.
Continuing on the mammon thread…
It seems that all the wicked rich people have disappeared from the face of the earth. What a relief. This is a tremendous development in the history of the world. They vanished a couple hundred years ago, and they won’t be back. As capitalist cheerleader John Schneider explained, “The truth is that in modern market economies the main way that people acquire wealth is not by taking it away from someone else, but by taking part in its CREATION. This is fundamentally different from the way wealth was acquired in the ancient world – and for the most part, it is what businesses and corporations do.” Yes, in the bad, old world, the Lord used his prophets to harangue the rich constantly. But those were the bad old days when people acquired wealth simply by “taking it away from someone else.” Now things are different. We think we’d be able to spot gross economic injustice easily, but what majority in the history of the world has ever been able to do that? Economic injustice always seems to turn invisible in the eyes of those responsible for it.
Jones goes on to define capitalism as something much closer to socialism and elite control that we usually realize or at least assume on paper. His position is that the “free market” is good, but that modern capitalism is not really the free market at all.
In chapter 17, Jones openly denounces our irrational and unchristian reverence for the U.S. military. If he made the Calvinists (of which he is one of course) mad a few chapters back, now he’s out going to makes some folks in the armed forces hot under the collar as well. Except that he uses numerous quotes from ex-soldiers and generals to back up his claims that there is often not anything honorable about most of America’s involvement in foreign affairs from Nicaragua to Iraq and beyond. He tells many stories, but this is a particularly good example:
In 1998, John Maresca, vice president of Unocal oil, testified before congress and called for pipeline that would transport oil southward through Afghanistan for 1040 miles to the Pakistan coast. Such a pipeline would cost about $2.5 billion and carry about 1 million barrels of oil per day. But there was a problem. Afghanistan was not friendly to this move. Marescal said, “Without peaceful settlement of the conflicts in the region, cross-border oil and gas pipelines are not likely to be built… The U.S. Government should us its influence to help find solution to all the regions conflicts. U.S. assistance in developing these new economies will be crucial to business success.” The George W. Bush administration developed war plans to invade Afghanistan long before the 9/11 attacks. On October 7, 2001, the U.S. bombing commenced. Coincidentally, the first U.S. Special Ambassador to Afghanistan was John J. Maresca, the vice president of Unocal. Four months after the bombing, Afghanistan and Pakistan signed an agreement for a new pipeline.
I have discussed this sort of thing on many occasions with a friend of mine in town who is writing his doctoral dissertation on the Persion Gulf War. He has become a bit of an expert on middle-east policy in the process. At the end of the day, why does the U.S. go to war? The answer is usually: Because some rich guys want us to. Seriously! I shouldn’t even need to say that there is absolutely zero that is Christ-like about that. Our soldiers may be strong and brave but I cannot declare this sort of service to be automatically sacred and good. The reason he brings all of this up is that our steadfast enthusiasm for war in conservative circles prevents us from considering many of who Jesus cared about the most. It’s an obstacle in the way of the cross.
Now, after all that, what are supposed to do? Jones doesn’t give a direct answer, but does devote three chapters to some suggested paths one might take to disrupt our service to mammon and follow this “way of the cross” that he has articulated.
He first looks at the example of a city set up in the late 4th century by Basil of Caesarea that had many of the best features of communal living and mercy ministries that we would want to have today – early hospitals, residences for the poor, and small factories and workshops. Jones argues that the CHURCH is the one who should be doing this sort of work, not individuals on one hand or state governments and corporations on the other hand. They each have their own place, but this sort of thing should be the church’s job. We have bungled these efforts in the past by making them either too small (and dependent on a handful of individuals) or too big and in bed with big power and big money. The Church, that is the local church, not the parachurch, needs to be at the heart of these ministries and communities to make them fly.
He looks briefly at several projects in the last few decades that are sometimes referred to as the “new monasticism”. While a lot of people are probably familiar with Shane Claiborne’s best-selling book on all of this from a few years ago, Jones mentions other communities that you probably haven’t heard of unless you have taken a much closer look at the movement. He doesn’t get into specifics in the space provided, but seems to think this sort of setup is a big step in the right direction. I would only add that I would like to see more kids – lots of kids – growing up spiritually healthy in these sorts of settings. I’m not interested in young twenty-somethings doing something cool for just a while. I want to see the whole age spectrum in these church/living models.
As alluded to earlier, he advises that Christian leaders need to bite the bullet and encourage their congregations to get out of the business of supporting the U.S. military’s activity overseas. (The same goes for the British army.) We have kingdom work to do and can’t be bothered to spend precious years shooting at the empire’s enemies.
Finally, Jones ends with a nudge in the direction of a more contemplative form of Christian devotion. This means, among other things, quiet prayer and meditation on the scriptures, praying the psalms, meals together, and most of the other things that Bonhoeffer advocated in Life Together. It means less cultivation of institutions, less envy of neighbors, and less media visibility. Does that sound a bit vague? Tough. It’s a challenging topic to discuss.
So why is this book different or better than some other works that point out the same problems and recommend some of the same answers? Jones writes from thoroughly within the Reformed tradition. He is coming from (and staying firmly in) what can be described as the neo-Calvinist evangelical movement in America. He’s draws on Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, but he’s not even close to swimming the Tiber to Rome. He is definitely no liberal, not even close. He’s not with the “emerging” church. He’s not an Anabaptist, again, not even close, despite being accused of becoming one on several occasions. In short, he is Reformed but always reforming. This book is going to be the most valuable and communicative to people in a similar situation themselves. I would count myself largely in that category.
I’ve tried to point out some of what I thought were the best parts of the book. Does it have any substantial weaknesses? Indeed. Some of the chapters are very strong and others a bit more flimsy and their points haphazardly argued. Some critics are going to be unhappy with how short some sections are and demand more footnotes. Others may think the piles of scriptural examples go on for far too long as they yearn for more statistics to prove the point. They will be disappointed. It’s mostly bible rather than stories or studies.
One negative reviewer on the review site Goodreads criticized Doug’s exegesis for lacking mastery of the original languages. This is perhaps a problem, but (and I’m going to expose myself to criticism for this one), I think that the holy scriptures, the gospels in particular, are fundamentally built, designed, and intended by God for vernacular translation. What that means is that being a Greek or Hebrew scholar is not necessary for a legitimate exegesis. In short, I think that tearing apart the original text is overrated. Those who would dismiss Jones’s message because he perhaps stretches some texts about Mammon a bit far are missing the larger message – to their own detriment.
Overall, I think the book is a great place to start, especially in the way Jones deals with issues peculiar to conservative evangelicism in America. If you grew up in a baptist church, your homeschool or Christian school textbook had you reading a fair amount of Jonathan Edwards, and you’ve never even considered NOT voting for the latest Republican presidential candidate, then this book is definitely for you. Take a break from what your reading now and hit this instead. Like visiting an orphanage in Guatemala or Uganda, it might throw a monkey wrench in your “worldview”.