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.
Jesus, he argues, saves us from our culture of violence in which we send too many people to prison—especially men from certain neighborhoods and of certain skin colors. Jesus encourages us to work for justice for all people who are left behind in America today: minorities, women, the poor, immigrants. Jesus can heal our divisive political culture in which beating opponents is more important than building a flourishing society.
In making these points, Krattenmaker sounds much like a Christian. He’s right, this is how Jesus would respond to the particular brokenness in our world. The challenge for non-believers, Krattenmaker admits, is not merely seeing the truth of Jesus’ way but actually following it. How do you follow Jesus when you’re free to pick and choose among his teachings with no accountability or support from a community?
“I am likely to bend my understanding of Jesus, my putative ‘leader,’ into the most shallow, convenient, and distorted shapes,” Krattenmaker says. To prevent that, he has joined the monthly meetings of the local humanist community, and he encourages readers to form their own communities and support groups. Alain de Botton, the founder of London’s School of Life and author of Religion for Atheists, attempts something similar. There’s no need to debate whether religion is true, he argues, when so much of it is good for us. So, let’s just take the bits we like.
A Similar Challenge
This, I suspect, will always be the difference between following Jesus as leader rather than Lord. But before I go too far pointing out the speck in Krattenmaker’s eye, his temptation is also our own, at least in our consumerist church environment. Among Christians, behaviors like tithing, volunteering, or helping neighbors are predicted more by membership in a small group than by beliefs, prayer, church attendance, or religious experiences, and something like 40-65 percent of Christians don’t attend a small group.
In other words, the secular Jesus follower and the believing one have a similar challenge: It is easier to accept the teachings of Jesus than to live them. Which suggests that you can’t separate the “Jesus everybody loves” from the Jesus who is actually worshiped and obeyed, as Lord and Savior, in communities of believers. The one who says, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34).
I began reading Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower looking for possible answers to the particular challenge churches face today as they work at appealing to an increasingly secular population. But Jesus’ teachings, beautiful as they are even to non-believers, don’t take us far enough. “We don’t speak great things,” said the early Christian apologist Marcus Felix, “we live them.” Krattenmaker does a great job applying the wisdom of Jesus to a secular culture, but for those who believe in and desire others to be drawn to the beautiful person of Jesus, the teachings of the Word of God need to be incarnated in the body of Christ.
Rob Moll is CT editor at large. He is the author of What Your Body Knows About God: How We Are Designed to Connect, Serve and Thrive (InterVarsity Press).