When I worked at World Vision, a colleague of mine used to say, “We have the Jesus everybody loves.” This is the compassionate Jesus who reconciles and heals, and surprisingly he is someone our culture still knows quite well. “Despite decades of culture-war battles over Christianity in politics, [Jesus] remains remarkably unscathed in the public imagination,” writes USA Today columnist Tom Krattenmaker in his new book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.
Krattenmaker, whose previous book is The Evangelicals You Don’t Know, writes, “One can sense a respect for Jesus, even a fascination with him, despite the decline of institutionalized Christianity.” As a self-professed secular liberal who doesn’t believe in God or the miraculous, he still believes Jesus is the answer to many of today’s problems, from sex to mass incarceration, violence to meaninglessness.
That’s what makes his book interesting in a moment of Christian decline. What is attractive about Jesus to someone who doesn’t really believe in him? And further, What might convince this new kind of Jesus follower to confess saving faith in Christ?
Krattenmaker begins with the pointlessness of modern life without faith. He describes a “quiet crisis” among nonbelievers. While many religious people expect the loss of God to lead to a lack of morals and widespread degeneracy, the non-religious experience, Krattenmaker says, is more banal. “To use a term from the philosopher Charles Taylor,” he writes, “it’s in the ‘flatness’ that we experience as people who perceive and experience no supernatural charge in our world and surroundings. Something subtle, something difficult to pin down, is missing from a life restricted to the material world of me, here, and now.”
This is what atheists are trying to recover, in many cases giving up on disproving God, Krattenmaker says. “The leading representatives of nonbelief are spending…more time pursuing what Americans have traditionally derived from their participating in churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions: community; shared experiences of service, joy, wonder, and compassion; a means to cope with anxiety and loss; a basis for being and doing good.”
For these things, Krattenmaker argues, secular folks ought to take a second look at Jesus’ teachings. Krattenmaker starts with sex: “Sex is broken.” Men objectify women, often leading to their abuse and exploitation. For the porn-addicted, virtual sex leads to self-hate and a further debasement of real-life women. By the end of his chapter, Krattenmaker has made a pretty good argument—though he wouldn’t say so himself—for a return to the older morals. We need Jesus, Krattenmaker says, to help us see each other as human beings.
Without Jesus, our individualistic society has us suffering—physically and emotionally—from the lack of community. We measure our own worth by the title on our business cards and what our salary allows us to buy. “I have come to see that following Jesus can save us from a life of trivial pursuits, from a life lived in vain, from a life that misses the point,” Krattenmaker writes.