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Church Leadership Book Interview: Alan Hirsch

Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost have written a new book, Rejesus: A Wild Messiah for a Missional Church, in which they call the church to "reconfigure itself," and "recalibrate its mission, around the example and teaching of the radical rabbi from Nazareth."

Alan is a good friend and I am grateful he took the time to answer some questions here and come around the blog today to interact.

Here is our interview:

In simple terms, what problem(s) is ReJesus addressing?

We are addressing what we call 'the subversion of Christianity'; the process by which we remove the defining presence and influence of Jesus for His church, our discipleship, and mission. reJesus is about exactly that...re-Jesus-ing the church! Putting Jesus back into the most basic equation and seeing what happens!

In the past the church has sought and experienced "reformation" (the church's work to bring itself more in line with the expressed will and ways of God) and "revival" (God's work in leading his people to live more in line with his expressed will and ways). How does you call to "ReJesus" the church look similar to and/or different from what has happened throughout the history of the church?

In many ways we believe that both the renewal, as well as revival, of the church and its mission are directly related to the more elemental task of reJesusing the church. Instead of simply reforming the church and its theology, we prefer to use the term 'refounding' the church: and we suggest that we must do this by recovering the definitive role that Jesus plays in shaping church, discipleship, and mission. The fact is Ed, that we so easily remove the influence and role of Jesus from our midst. We do find it hard to live with a Lord, humans tend to prefer our own ways and agendas to that of a demanding Lord/King.

So in ReJesus, are you saying something new, or something old?

Well, actually it is ancient...primal really. Whatever we can say about Christianity, it has everything to do with Christ. Jesus is the Founder and the Gospels are our most foundational stories. We are simply renovating ancient truths. H. Richard Niebuhr was right to note that "The great Christian revolutions came not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when someone takes radically something that was always there."

All of this will sound risky to many readers. Is it? How? Can you tell them why it's worth it?

Oh too right. it is risky! Particularly if we insist on clinging to our middleclass penchant for safety and security, and consumerist addiction to comfort and convenience. I believe that the closer we get to Jesus, the more 'dangerous' he is to us. We prefer to keep him at arms length and engage him from the relative safety of objective theology. Why is it worth it? Because without Jesus we have no legitimacy, or in fact do we actually have Christianity, because Christianity minus Christ equals Religion. And hey! Who wants a religion? Is it worth it? It is our eternal destiny to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom.8:29.) We cannot escape it. It is our joy, our salvation, our freedom. All else is just messing with the fringes of the faith.

Why is it that keeping Christ at the center of our confessional identity can be so much easier than remaining Christocentric in our person, practices and piety?

Because simple confession, like theology, as important as it is to our integrity, is not enough for us to truly 'know' God. I would argue that to truly know God we must supplement intellectual knowledge with that type of knowledge that can only come from engaging our hearts (our passion, feelings, our capacity for love) as well as our actions (obedience and action). We spend the good part of a chapter on this aspect of what we call "Hebraic epistemology". This is what it means to take the Shema seriously. And Jesus himself puts this at the center of a missional discipleship. "One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, "Of all the commandments, which is the most important?" "The most important one" answered Jesus, "is this: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. 'The second is this: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." (Mark 12:28-31 NIV) The mind is simply not enough to know and love God as we must.

In the book you make a biblical argument for experiencing and living under the Lordship of a sent and sending God. A God that is immanent, close and accessible through Jesus Christ. Is there a place for seeing and worshipping the God who is also seen as transcendent, holy and "other?"

Of course! God's transcendence is vital to a Christian understanding of God. But you are right in noticing that we have chosen to focus on the primacy and centrality of God Jesus as He is revealed in and through the Incarnation. We believe strongly that whatever ideas of God we might entertain; they must first be interpreted through the lens of Jesus--whatever that might entail. We call this fact that Jesus reveals God to us, 'The Christlike God" because we know through his life that God is indeed like Jesus--he says if you have seen him you have seen the Father...he and the Father are one!! Sure we know God through Scripture as well as nature...but the most distilled, and central, knowledge of God must be gleaned from the life, teaching, ministry of Jesus as revealed in Scripture. This is what makes us distinctly Christ-ian. This has massive implications for us, especially for our understanding of God, but it does not exhaust the extent of the revelation we find in Jesus, because not only does Jesus redefine our concept of God but also he shows us the perfect expression of humanity as God intended it. In other words, he models for us what a true human being should be like. Therefore, focusing our discipleship on Jesus forces us to take seriously the implications of following him, of becoming like him. It sets the agenda for our spirituality. It acknowledges that Jesus as our model, our teacher, and our guide is normative for the Christian life. He is the standard by which we measure ourselves, the quality of our discipleship, and therefore our spirituality

You have done much to skewer cultural conditioned views of Jesus ("bearded lady Jesus" was my favorite). But, when I read the book I wanted to ask something that is both a question and a compliment-- the Jesus you described looked a lot like you, Alan-- a wandering teacher calling for change, a wild man with a powerful message, focused on the Kingdom of God, and with a Hebrew worldview. How culturally conditioned do you think your view of Jesus might be?

None of us is free from trying to make Jesus like us on a good day! Actually that's what we are trying to 'skewer' it debunking the stereotypes of Jesus. Actually I am a strong believer in ongoing validity of the second commandment--we should not make any images of God. Every time we attempt to image God, be it mental or metal, we limit him and thereby seek to control him. We must always allow Jesus to be beyond any stereotype that we might wish to make of him. As you say, a lot of the book is iconoclastic. It's a bit of fun at our own expense really. But hey, thanks for the compliment!

While everyone can benefit from reading this book, who needs to read it (for whom is it most critical)?

We hope that the book is accessible to all thoughtful Christians. It is certainly geared towards a missional audience. But I do think it will appeal mostly to people engaged leadership and formal ministry.

As pastors seek to bring about the change you call for in the book, what are the top areas they should focus on?

Recovering Jesus in thought, imagination, action of the church. Radicalizing the church by recovering the ethos, teachings, lifestyle of the Founder. And to do this they will have to take discipleship in the Way of Jesus seriously. I can't think of anything more foundational and important to the life and mission of the church.

What other books, resources would you recommend to those who are convicted that such things need to change?

You know, I love Soren Kierkegaard, but he is probably too complex for most people to read directly. A good introduction or two on his thinking is good medicine. For instance he saw it as his life's task Soren Kierkegaard, when he said, rather cheekily, "My mission is to introduce Christianity into Christendom." Dietrich Bonheoffer's work and thinking is timeless. I loved Stanley Hauerwas' commentary on Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary) and Jacques Ellul's work in The Subversion of Christianity, and The Presence of the Kingdom, is really excellent. Also, Debs and I are working on a book on missional discipleship--published early '10. In many ways it will be a guide to outworking what it means to take Jesus seriously. And then of course there is your work on breaking the discipleship code.

Alan will be around today to dialogue about the book. Feel free to post questions and comments below.

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Church Leadership Book Interview: Alan Hirsch