You know the old saw: God created humans in his own image, and we have spent ages returning the favor. How ironic that Jesus, who came to transform us, has so many followers intent on remaking him into a more congenial idol. At first we dressed him in a royal robe and placed a crown upon his head—before nailing him to a cross. Today we continue to downgrade the original Jesus into someone less threatening and demanding.
In The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is (Baker), Daniel Darling takes aim at a score of popular but fake saviors: “Guru Jesus,” “Red-Letter Jesus,” “Braveheart Jesus,” “Dr. Phil Jesus,” “Prosperity Jesus,” and more. No matter how confidently you proclaim fidelity to biblical teaching, this book will snag you with at least one of its pseudo-Christs. In his usually gentle, sometimes funny, always astute skewering of trendy myths about our Lord, Darling (vice president of communications for the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) vindicates a key insight of one of his theological heroes, John Calvin. The Genevan Reformer said that idolatry is our root sin and that the human imagination is an idol factory. Clear biblical thinking casts down our self-fabricated godlets. That’s what Darling does.
This book makes helpful reading for anyone willing to have his or her understanding of Christ critiqued and corrected. Church study groups, if they dared, would find the short, fast-paced, hard-hitting chapters great catalysts for debate. At various points I reacted with, “Hey, I really like worshiping that Jesus. I’ve been personally blessed by that Jesus. How dare you?” To which I hear Darling reply, “Gotcha!”
Anyone setting out to correct our false, self-serving conceptions of Christ has got his work cut out. The challenge is not only that lousy Christology is rampant among us. Perhaps more insidiously, the critic presumes to have captured the more correct, biblically defensible, surefire original Jesus. But should he be so certain? It’s easy enough to knock down Joel Osteen’s Prosperity Jesus, or the goofy, hairy-chested Braveheart Jesus. But Darling tends to get tangled up in his own Jesus myths when he goes after more subtle heresies like American Jesus or Post-Church Jesus. In those chapters he reveals the limits of his own Christology while correcting ours.
A favorite habit of liberal Christianity is to turn the living, lordly, resurrected Jesus into some abstracted essence or a set of propositions. By peeling away all the pious accretions of the ages, liberals in the past century attempted to go back to the original, historical, “real Jesus.” That’s the sort of reductionism Darling justifiably abhors (especially in his chapter debunking “Red-Letter Jesus”), but he’s often guilty of the same habit.
While Darling’s Jesus is clearly our divine Savior, he is not so much the Second Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit doesn’t make much of a showing in this book). It’s painfully true, as he argues, that we have attempted to cut Jesus down to size, making him into a self-help guru or enlisting him in our pet political causes. But in Darling’s telling, Christ’s work is mostly about individual salvation from our sins, leaving us unchallenged politically, economically, racially, and otherwise.
This may be a function of my Wesleyan background, but I didn’t hear enough about Jesus as teacher, master of disciples, healer, rabble-rouser, scathing critic of the rich, and lover of enemies. In short, Darling misses an opportunity to offer a picture of Jesus that’s half as rich as Scripture’s. Where’s the Jesus who said not, “Believe correct things about me,” but rather, “Follow me!”?
The church has a rich tradition, informed by Scripture, of reflecting about Jesus as God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Lord of the church, and the perfect Passover Lamb. While Darling certainly cites Scripture to make his case against false conceptions of Jesus, at times his approach seems to consist mainly of cutting and pasting. To grasp the reality of a Savior as rich and complex as the God-man Jesus, you need that deeper form of theological reflection that the church has nurtured. Scriptural citations alone are insufficient.
Darling’s finest chapter is his critique of the simplified, ripped-out-of-biblical context “Red-Letter Jesus.” But along the way Darling lapses into saying, in effect, that though Jesus is the Son of God, he is subordinate to Scripture. What about the living, active, revealing Christ now? I love the way Darling allows Scripture to keep Jesus difficult and demanding, but I can’t escape a suspicion that Darling would limit Jesus to his portrayal in Scripture, rather than worshiping Jesus as Lord even of Scripture. For all their flaws, at least some of the Jesus myths that Darling pillories emphasize his relevance here and now.
Jesus is not only the primary subject of the Bible—he is also the agent of revelation. People who met the original Jesus were forced to ask, “Who is this?” Theology didn’t just occur centuries later, as learned men distorted the obvious, self-evident Jesus. From day one, ordinary people were plunged into complex rumination because of what Jesus said and did. They weren’t simply presented with ready-made doctrinal truth.
Darling stresses that we must accept Scripture, all of it, as from Jesus. But he doesn’t give us a Jesus at work in us and through Scripture. Jesus, the church has always taught, is a speaking, revealing subject—not merely the object of a reliable historical record.
‘What About the Jesus Who Said. . . ?'
Darling seems keen on not offending his targets. In some ways this is admirable: Christian charity is a noble virtue, one that Christians themselves can easily neglect in this era of proliferating outrage. But at some point, names have to be named, and shameful teachings shamed. Who are these folks talking up a hyper-masculine Braveheart Jesus or a hyper-patriotic American Jesus? The Original Jesus would have been strengthened with more examples of wrongheaded rhetoric from specific Christian figures. Is there really someone out there preaching that “Jesus is my buddy”?
Darling is well within his rights to attack “Left-Wing Jesus,” but where is his chapter on “Right-Wing Jesus”? Hard pressed to find any Scripture explicitly affirming capitalism, private property rights, and personal freedom, he tends to fall back on asserting conventional conservative political wisdom. (To be fair, Darling does touch upon conservative misrepresentations in chapters on “American Jesus” and “Prosperity Jesus.”)
But perhaps fending off these charges of over- and under-emphasis just goes with the territory. There is a plague of fake Jesuses stalking the land, and I commend Darling for confronting them head-on. But it’s worth repeating: Anyone claiming to possess the real, scripturally certified Jesus leaves himself open to fellow believers who are quick to counter, with no less biblical warrant, “But what about the Jesus who said . . . ?”
Will Willimon is a retired Methodist bishop and professor of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School.
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