Friday, October 03, 2008

On worshiping the 'Big Jesus'

Mark Driscoll is an evangelical and missional sort of Christian, and one of the founders of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He is outspoken and brash in much of what he says; he isn't afraid of making hasty generalisations and seems particularly fond of false dischotomies. His rhetoric is sharp and he's not afraid of making enemies. Some have said that he has made a difference in their lives, and I have no reason to disbelieve them, but I'm not a fan of his and disagree sharply with him on a number of issues.

Last year, in the magazine 'Relevant', he was part of a seven-person panel of church leaders asked about where they see the church headed. One of the questions was as follows:

What do you see as the greatest challenge for young Christians in the next 10 years?

Mark Driscoll: There is a strong drift toward the hard theological left. Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up. I fear some are becoming more cultural than Christian, and without a big Jesus who has authority and hates sin as revealed in the Bible, we will have less and less Christians, and more and more confused, spiritually self-righteous blogger critics of Christianity.

[From:7 Big Questions; Seven Leaders on where the church is headed. 8/28/2007]

I think this has massive, serious problems with it. First, this shows a troubling tendency towards simplistic black-and-white thinking: either Jesus is a ‘limp-wrist hippie in a dress’ or ‘a pride fighter’. There is no sense that Jesus, whom we confess as being ‘fully God and fully man’ might be strong enough to genuinely elude our own neat and tidy categories. Moreover, Driscoll’s characterisation of Jesus, taken from Revelation 19, betrays a great selectivity. True, in this one passage in Revelation (although Jesus is not named, his identity seems clear from context) he is presented as wielding a sword ‘to strike down the nations’ (9.15). The sword is metaphorical – it comes ‘out of his mouth’ – but the author of Revelation thought it a fit metaphor for the act of God in Christ. This cannot be explained away and needs to be, somehow, incorporated into our language about Jesus – although in a manner that reflects this as one minor element in his overall character, since most of Scripture presents Christ otherwise.

The odd selectivity of Driscoll’s judgement can be shown in two ways. First, although he states that he can worship someone who is committed to ‘making someone bleed’ and ‘cannot worship a guy I can beat up’, he seems unaware that Revelation more often presents Jesus as the Lamb who was slain. This is purely a passive image, not that of a warrior or fighter, and relativises presenting Jesus as a warrior without reserve.

Moreover, and perhaps even more troubling to Driscoll, in the same chapter which presents Jesus as killing with a sword, presents the church, the saints, as the ‘bride’ of the lamb, who has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (19.7,8) The text makes clear that this language is just as metaphorical as Jesus as a warrior or a lamb, explaining that the linen represents the ‘righteous acts of the saints’ (19.8) Nevertheless, Driscoll and those like him who want to emphasise the (stereotypically) masculine characteristics of Jesus must explain why they pass over other images of Jesus (as slain lamb, for example).They also need to explain why they see Jesus’ stereotypically masculine characteristics as underwriting their embracing of the same, rather than, in the light of their identity as the saints of God, embracing (stereotypically) feminine characteristics. Otherwise, one seems justified in suspecting that Driscoll has simply co-opted Jesus into a project which he has arrived at by other means- to put it bluntly, idolatry.

There is also, just as troublingly, no sense that there might be a problem with allowing who one can ‘beat up’ to be a sure guide to who one may worship. It seems to me rather that (to borrow Driscoll’s polemical terms, which I do not accept) the power of the decaf-drinking ‘limp-wrist hippie’ is that he can change us, quite despite ourselves, into someone who no longer needs to worship only someone he can’t beat up, but is willing to worship God – who is both infinitely ‘bigger’ than us, yet can also, because he wants to, embrace radical vulnerability and contingency in the incarnation and cross. A God who loves the creation enough to act for its salvation, even though it is entirely his creation and has no being of its own apart from him. A God who is wrathful at our disobedience, sin and injustice, yet who has repented of and foresworn violence. A God whose power is not the simple power of force. A God who can take the humiliation of a cross and turn it into life for the world. A God whose ‘extraordinary power’ is entrusted to ‘clay jars’ such as us so that it is ‘made clear’ that the power isn’t our own. (2 Cor. 4.7) This is a gracious God whose glory and honour works itself out through honouring sinners such as ourselves with new life, making those who were his enemies adopted sons and daughters, and brothers of his only son, whom we killed. (Rom. 5) This is a God who graciously reveals himself, but loves us enough not to let us control him.

Despite all this, there is something right in what Driscoll says, although perhaps not in the way he intends: despite our best efforts otherwise, Jesus is not safe. That’s not to say that he is a violent hothead liable to be out looking to ‘make someone bleed’. It’s to say he cannot be captured and used to our purposes; he can’t be domesticated by our own expectations, whether of the ‘pithy Zen’ or the ‘big Jesus’ variety. And to the extent we insist that only one of those two varieties – or any one of the vast number of other varieties – and exclude anything else, we’ve missed out on the real Jesus.

More than that, he isn’t safe because he isn’t content to leave us alone and unchanged, either. If we dare to come to this Jesus, the real Jesus, then perhaps in the bargain we might be changed into someone who doesn’t need to beat up another but can allow the power of God to transform us into someone new – someone who, for his sake and by his word, might even be willing to suffer for the truth, or give his life on behalf of another.

(Just so that you know - and so that he knows that I know - Halden over at Inhabitatio Dei has also written on this, with much that I would endorse, but I felt the need to elaborate my own thoughts on the matter.)

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Blogger Jon said...

thanks for this excellent post Jason. I have found this machismo aspect of Driscoll's teaching troubling. Your critique is far more articulate than I could have managed.


Saturday, October 04, 2008 6:19:00 PM  
Blogger Rev R Marszalek said...

Thank you - this is helping me work through the angst I feel about his views too.
Rachel Re vis.e Re form

Saturday, October 04, 2008 10:30:00 PM  
Blogger David Rudel said...

While I'm not going to disagree with any particular point, for you raise some good ones, I believe some attention should be given to the idea of casting Jesus in any role that does not bring out his paradigm-changing, confrontational, inimitable properties.

White most of the descriptors Mark dislikes are labels of presumed weakness, they also give the idea that Jesus is not really saying anything new. If He's just playing back Zen philosophy to people, then He isn't fresh, etc.

An important point here is how our image of Christ "makes sense" to those who might be considering Him as their King. It might be the case that painting Jesus first as someone worthy of King-ship [emphasizing His strength and aggressive side] is more likely to make Him understandable to people 'on the outside.'

Focusing on His "weakness" and His ability to change us might not make any sense to someone until he or she has decided that He is someone worthy of their worship in the first place. It also does not set Him apart from others as someone Who demands my exclusive worship rather than someone I can sorta take as I like.

Sunday, October 05, 2008 5:28:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hi Everyone! Welcome.

Thanks for your encouraging remarks.

David, you brought up some particular points that I thought I might query. I agree with you entirely that Jesus is paradigm-shifting, confrontational and inimitable. But I don't see the link between that and what you said next.

If it is true that the way we portray Jesus is in a way that there is 'nothing new', then we are not dealing with the real Jesus. But equating 'nothing new' with weakness and 'challenging newness' with a (pardon the phraseology) kickass strength just doesn't follow. The point is that - as I read the Bible, anyway - part of the real strength of Jesus is that he transcends (and calls into question and judges) our convenient cultural binaries.

To put it another way, and to pick up your remarks, if the only sort of Jesus we can worship is the 'big Jesus', if the only thing culturally we find worthy of ultimate worship is someone committed to making 'someone bleed', then the problem is not the Lord, the problem is our culture.

To put it yet another way, the church has typically believed that what is needed for someone to follow Jesus, to see his real strength (as opposed to the strength of the world) is the work of the Spirit in their lives, rather than being conventionally, culturally plausible.

If we don't like the real Jesus, or the sort of people the Spirit makes us become: fine. There are all sorts of other options out there. But that's the only Jesus, and the only Spirit we get, the one we can't control, the one who is comfortable likening himself to a teacher, a mother hen, a vine, a slain lamb - and even once, a warrior on horseback.

If the argument is 'we need a rich vocabulary to designate who Jesus is, incorporating all of the Scriptural images, and taking off from them', then there is no argument from me. We need a rich and supple, creative, imaginative and faithful language to talk about Jesus, including masculine and feminine imagery, as well as much else. But if the argument is 'Jesus needs to be portrayed as conventionally powerful because that's all that we find we can ascribe worth and honour to, the only thing we can bow down to', then how is this not idolatry, remaking Jesus in the teeth of how he described himself (in a culture that would have agreed with this notion that only overwhelming conventional power is worthy of honour), in such a way to suit ourselves?

Come back at me if there is something I've been unclear about, or with which you disagree!

Thanks again for your thoughts. JF

Sunday, October 05, 2008 6:23:00 PM  
Blogger David Rudel said...

Thanks, Jason.

I'm certainly not suggesting that we only portray "one side of Jesus." That would be wrong regardless of our reasoning.

I'm just trying to find some merit in our brother Driscoll's viewpoint...and I think the merit is that non-believers might need to be shown that aspect of Jesus [the strong, confrontational, kick-ass] side before they allow the "other" side [not that there are only 2 sides...nor that these "sides" as presented are even accurate of the characteristics we each have in mind...but since I don't see either of us picking on semantics I'll use poor labels with the expectation that we know what we mean.]

So, I would agree with the "rich vocabulary" idea, though I would describe it somewhat differently, Jesus as Christ, Jesus as Lord over Heaven and Earth, Jesus as Savior [in the johannine sense of the term, which is what you are referring to in His ability to change us],Jesus as Prophet calling us to repent, Jesus as teacher explaining God's will, Jesus as judge, etc.

These are all different aspects, all important aspects. Further, all of these are clearly described in early evangelism (as opposed to aspects of Jesus that are not described in the Apostles teachings to new believers, say Jesus as High Priest, Jesus as political activist.)

But the side of Jesus that is most helpful to someone...in particular the "side" of Jesus that might make someone desire to investigate Christ differs based on audience. Jesus as Christ was the choice through most of Acts because most of Acts discusses evangelism of Jews. This doesn't mean that we never teach non-Jews "Jesus as Christ," it just might not be the first thing we say that causes them to be interested.

Remarkably, Paul spoke of Jesus as Judge when he evangelized the Athenias [Acts 17:31]. To mixed congregations Paul focused on Jesus as Christ. The "Trichotomy" method of evangelism stresses Jesus as Teacher, and I find that a perfectly acceptable method, and suitable for modern culture.

But Jesus as Johannine Savior (Acts 3:26), while every bit as important as these others, is probably most meaningful to someone who has already found Jesus intriguing or credible for another reason.

I could be wrong about that...and it wouldn't really upset things if I were, but perhaps the concern (once again trying to find defense for Mark) is that all the other ways of seeing Jesus either directly or nearly directly implies His uniqueness.

There can be only one Messiah. There can be only one Lord over Heaven and Earth. There is only One Judge, etc. There can be several Teachers, but once someone believes Jesus really understood God, one instantly has to wrestle with Christ's discussions regarding Himself. And so, perhaps the danger Mark sees in having "Jesus as person who changes you" be the first or primary aspect of Jesus you see is that it can be tempting to hold onto only that view because it side-steps some of the "hard" bits about Jesus being the "only way."

Does that make any sense? For what it's worth, I've seen this happen in my own ministry [person likes the Buddhistesqe aspect Jesus and holds onto just that aspect (which I think is a very real and important aspect of Jesus), reluctant to deal with the unsavory parts of the others.

Sunday, October 05, 2008 9:44:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hi David,
Thanks for this thoughtful response.

You're right about this not being about semantics: I'm trying to be careful about words, searching for the right ones, and querying others when they're unclear or I don't get it, but I'm not out to 'get someone'. Words fail us, and never fully say what we mean, but we keep working at it! I'm not in it to take the mickey out of anyone, just to think carefully, try to get to the truth of it - and glorify God.

A few points (among much good that you said) that I want to push back on:

(1) If you mean to say 'we need to hold forth the greatness, glory and majesty of God' alongside his mission in Christ to bring salvation, I'm right with you: amen. But if we mean 'kick-ass' in a more literal way, then I'm not so sure. This is not the way that God works, at least if the ministry, death, resurrection of Christ is anything to go on (and Christian theology generally thinks it is). This doesn't mean the complete opposite, 'Jesus, meek and mild' - I'm partly trying to get out of the binary oppositions that Mark uses (dress-wearing vs. ass-kicking). It's something other than that.

(2) About Jesus' Lordship - I think this is a good point. I wholeheartedly agree with you about there being one Lord over heaven and earth, and this being one of the key, unique features of who Jesus is. Only, 'lordship' taken as a self-evident, fully filled out term risks missing the way in which Jesus actually exercises Lordship. He teaches his disciples that the one called lord among us is to be greatest not in lording it over others but in service; this is a reflection of his own lordship, and is to be the shape of ours as well. (It's real lordship, we're just wrong about how it is supposed to look.) Part of the uniqueness of Jesus and his Lordship is that he doesn't exercise it like we do here; his lordship is the 'real' thing. Also - and I don't think I can put this strongly enough - there is nothing unique about violence or blunt force.

(3) I take the point that, in evangelism, we need to make rhetorical judgements, that is, we need to make decisions about how to present Jesus and appeal to the surrounding culture - that might mean emphasising one element over another. That said, I have two misgivings: (a) Paul (in 1 Cor) claimed that Christ seemed a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks/Gentiles. We could say that Paul didn't make the right decisions about which aspects of Christ to emphasise; or, we could say that in presenting a fuller picture of Jesus, he was willing to let people say 'no' to him. I think the latter gives a better sense of what Paul was up to. (I have preached on this text here: http://gowerstreet.blogspot.com/2005/02/blessed-failure-epiphany-4a.html) Wanting to make Jesus appealing to outsiders might be a function of wanting to be 'effective' or 'successful' and thus constructing idols.

(Now, to be straightforward, our wanting to present Jesus in a way UNappealing to outsiders or nonChristians might just as much be a function of re-making him in our own image. So there's no 'safe' place here, where we're beyond question.)

(b) My second misgiving is this: I am uneasy about presenting one vision of Jesus to attract nonChristians, and then give them another one (a 'fuller' one) after they commit. It feels too much like a bait and switch, like a 'teaser' offer some banks make. There's more integrity in giving the whole thing up front, I think, and being honest about how he troubles us, etc.,

(3) I have to confess, I haven't seen someone attracted to Jesus because of the Zenlike qualities (can't remember, at any rate), but I have met someone who became attracted to Christianity because he began to think that God was violent/ endorsed violence. That was what drew him in; he couldn't deal with more of Jesus ('turn the other cheek'), couldn't deal with what he considered the 'unsavoury' aspects.

(4) Part of my concern about what Mark says is that he has too clear an idea just what constitutes 'culture'. 'Dress-wearing Zen Jesus' = culture; 'Ass-kicking Jesus' = Christianity. (If that seems a caricature, I don't mean it to: he says he is worried some people are becoming 'more cultural than Christian - a good worry, but he gets culture wrong.) Violence is endemic, both here in Britain and in America; it is part and parcel of our culture and has been for centuries. To say that the 'big Jesus', the one with the sword, is not the 'cultural' Jesus I think really misses it. The countercultural thing is not the decaf-sipping Jesus buying shoes, nor the sword-wielding Jesus but the Jesus forswearing violence, but doing so after dark in the middle of a violent council estate, all of whose residents he knows and cares about, and many of whom most of us would write off or be scared of.

To put it another way, the dichotomy Mark sets up just contrasts two different cultural stereotypes, each of which has a grain of truth, but both of which miss massive swathes of the truth about the real Jesus. Now, of course, we don't have the luxury of stepping outside of culture altogether; we can only express the truth about Jesus in particular languages. But we do need to recognise that he is more than one or another cultural stereotype. There's more there!

(5) I'm not sure I follow you with what you said about what I said about Jesus changing you, and that being the savior from John. I had more generally the notion in mind that the Spirit works in and through us to make us more Christlike; I also had the Sermon on the Mount/Sermon on the Plain in mind.

I also must confess I am somewhat mystified about how 'Jesus as the one who changes you' could be sidestepping some of the hard bits of who Jesus is? Of course, if it is just change - any change will do - well, maybe. But we don't get to choose how the Spirit shapes us (we are gradually transformed into the image of Christ), any more than we get to choose who Jesus is. One of the hard bits of Jesus is that he might make us foreswear violence!

Anyway, thanks for the conversation! Continue to push back or query me if you'd like, I appreciate the exchange. (I will be pretty busy with non-blog stuff tomorrow and the next day and might not respond quickly.)


Sunday, October 05, 2008 11:08:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Belcher said...


First of all, it was great to see you in Rome -- I'm only sorry we didn't get a chance to chat a bit more!

Thanks for this remarkable post. I really think that what you are getting at here is exactly right. I found myself sharing your same concerns when I first read this quote from Driscoll over at Halden's site.

I think we can go at Driscoll's use of Revelation 19 even more incisively, though. What is fascinating about the Apocalypse is how the visions correspond to what John hears, but they seem so different from one another at the same time. As in most Jewish prophetic literature, the prophet first hears a word before receiving the vision -- as John says over and over in the Apocalypse, "and then I turned to see [what I heard]"! A remarkable instance of just this strange thing occurs at the very beginning, when we are first given to see the Lamb. John hears about the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and he turned, and he saw a Lamb standing as though it had been slaughtered. As the rest of the visions in the Apocalypse clearly demonstrate, what is heard is given decisive significance in the vision that comes with it, or immediately after it. In other words, the Lion of the tribe of Judah appears as the slaughtered, resurrected Lamb. It is the meaning of God's power and victory! God just is victorious, powerful, mighty as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world! This is indeed good news.

But, when we get to Revelation 19, something very similar is happening. John seems to be "riffing on" the image of the divine warrior in Isaiah 63 here. His hearers in the churches would likely have recognized the explicit reference to the "treading in the winepress" the wrath of the Lord -- but unlike in Isaiah, when John is given to see the white rider, the rider's robes are dipped in his own blood it would seem (as opposed to the blood of his enemies as is depicted so gruesomely in Isaiah)...since he has yet to enter battle (but also since there is an explicit identification of this one with the Lamb who, we are told throughout the Apocalypse, wrought redemption by the shedding of his blood). John's vision of the divine warrior, in other words, is still that of the sacrificial Lamb. The vision John is receiving isn't intended to tell us that there is no judgment or violence at the hands of God, or something -- far from it! What it intends to say, rather, is that God is victorious over the powers (over "evil" and "sin" and "death") precisely as the slaughtered Lamb, who yet remains standing before the throne, and shares the throne with the very Ancient of Days...his rule, judgment, victory is as the Lamb, and thus as one who was humiliated for our sakes.

As Craig Koester puts it, just as John hears of the Lion and sees the Lamb, so does the Isaianic divine warrior appear as one who is victorious by the power of his own blood, and the Word of his mouth (that's really what the two-edged sword means: it is sharp because it divides, because it comes to us and places a "krisis" upon us...in the double sense of that Greek term as a judgment/division).

All of this is just to say that you are right on Jason, when you say that what is at stake is not whether or not Jesus is indeed powerful, but that the way in which God exercises God's power (which is in service, in kenosis) does not operate according to the "powers" of this world -- this is, I take it, one of if not the main point of the Apocalypse to John.

I wrote a series of rather lengthy posts recently on the vision of the people of God in the Apocalypse, and part 4 deals with just this vision in chapter 19 (for any who are interested...but be warned, it is long!).

Thanks again for this really great post Jason. I hope you are well. Peace.

dave belcher

Thursday, December 04, 2008 4:54:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Belcher said...

A summing up of what I just said can be found in another reference from Craig Koester (from his Revelation and the End of All Things): "Christ can confront the nations because he suffered for the nations" (177).


dave b

Thursday, December 04, 2008 4:57:00 PM  

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