Book Review: Dismissing Jesus by Douglas Jones

“Being a Christian should just scare the hell out of us.” -Stanley Hauerwas

Doug Jones believes that American Christianity is deeply blighted by some ideas that we have adapted from the world to serve our own sinful purposes. In fact, we’ve largely neglected the entire thrust of Jesus’ teachings: we have dismissed what Jones calls ‘the Way of the Cross,’ a sevenfold path, a primer in following Jesus beyond death.

(1) Way of Weakness: The Lord “primarily and regularly” works through human weakness, rather than power and wealth. God doesn’t exclude the wealthy, but they aren’t the focus of His reign. Moreover, the cross is a shameful death and Jesus died weakly upon it: our paths need to follow His.

(2) Way of Renunciation: The enemy of God’s work is always the spirit of “domination, selfishness, power, green, ostentation, pageantry, exceptionalism, and greatness.” The evil of this “Mammon” is not money, but un-sacrificial wealth. The Gospel is its antithesis.

(3) Way of Deliverance: The goal is not to think rightly and go to heaven, but to create a faithful, holy community on Earth. This means the mission is always to save men and women from the oppressions of Mammon in this life by doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

(4) Way of Sharing: Jesus rejected the life of “charity,” in favor of giving everything, including our every penny and our very lives, over to Christ and His service.

(5) Way of Enemy Love: The movement through the covenants of the Bible is a movement away from violence as God trains His people to forsake it in favor of overcoming evil with good. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty.” (2 Cor. 10:4)

(6) Way of the Foolishness: Faith, seeing unseen things, is inherently foolishness. The faith-full decision will seem irrational and mysterious; the way of the World will seem undeniable, rational, and effective–but we are called to faith.

(7) Way of Community: The way of the cross is for the body of believers, not loners. The way of the cross requires us to image the community of the Trinity in this world, among the scattered believers of a fractured church–no one said it was easy.

In the next chapters, Jones lays out these seven Ways in greater detail. When he’s on-message, he can be uncomfortably convicting. He raises questions here about the nature of Christian life and the “comfortable” lives many Christians lead in the West that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. I tend to agree with Dr. Peter Leithart’s foreword, to the effect that “[this] book is unsettling; frequently, it is unsettling in just the way Jesus is.” For example, this, from the passage on wealth:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” -Upton Sinclair.

It’s amazing how wrong Jesus was about the rich. Jesus said that it was very difficult for people with wealth to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23), but modern America has demonstrated clearly and overwhelmingly that this is not the case. We have churches full of the wealthiest people on Earth…(60)

In the second half of the book, Jones deals with “special blinders” to the way of the cross. He mostly attacks godless political conservatism.

If I could reduce this section of Jones’ book to its main theses, it would be these:

(a) Are you wealthy? Give it away: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on Earth…” Wealth is a blessing, and the point of that blessing is to give it away.

(b) Are you American? Escape the idolatrous “American dream” and the perception that American militarism, capitalism, or foreign policy have any tendency to be righteous.

(c) Mammon and “wrong wealth” are not just things in the Bible; they’re alive and well today. Look at our 401k accounts and BMWs.

However, Jones also seems to take issue with the doctrine of Total Depravity (ch. 10) and the penal-substitutionary view of atonement (ch. 12). His treatment of sin is brief, flippant, and unhelpful, but I couldn’t follow the logical train well enough to criticize it on a deeper level. At one point, he says “Our modern focus on personal sin distracts us from seeking first the kingdom of God.” Now, it’s true that the best way to fight sin is to do Christ’s work for Christ’s kingdom. But that doesn’t mean we will stop sinning. And God hates sin. We can’t obsess over our sin–Christ has forgiven us. But it isn’t “distracting” to search out our sin and repent of it–it’s necessary.

The last chapter of Part 2, in contrast, is clear and insightful. Entitled “Broad Way Illusions,” it deals with competing perceptions about following the Gospel: is it perishingly hard? Or is it, as Jesus said, an “easy yoke.” To the world, says Jones, it is a great burden, because we have to give up everything the world loves. But if we love Christ first and best, it is the easiest and most natural thing in the world to give up everything that keeps us from Him.

It’s overwhelming. What the Lord requires us not to believe in order to follow the way of the cross is just too much. It seems too much not just in terms of actual sacrifice but also in terms of dismissing so much “obvious” knowledge…If the way of the cross is something like what I’ve sketched and argued for, then we’re called to dismiss traditional applications of providence, sin, heaven, atonement, fundamental political axioms, handy conservative principles, cemented assumptions about property, the prosperity of the west, the benevolence and honor of U.S. military history, the simple pattern of middle class living, centuries of individualist indoctrination, and all the trillions of dollars spent in advertising and government propaganda to catechize more and more in the ways of Mammon. It would require living contrary to the testimony of thousands of well-loved theologians, politicians, economists, historians, satisfied middle class people, Christian family and friends. And each generation of Christians would have to renew that renunciation in its own era. It’s just too much. The slogan “let God be true though every man a liar” would take on unbearable social weight. (226)

Finally, in part 3, Jones talks about enacting the way of the cross, or “Being the Kingdom-Church.” Following the model of early church leaders like Basil of Caesarea, Jones wants the church to be all things to all suffering men, to truly become a hospital for the broken. But he realizes that this is antithetical to the Protestant idea of what a church is meant to be:

Most churches now don’t see themselves even moving in the direction of becoming full-orbed cities for mercy, manufacturing, farming, education, etc. Churches generally act more like think tanks, where people go for weekly inspirational encouragement. We might do some marginal mercy work, some charity, and the like, and give plenty of Bible studies. But that’s it. (p. 240)

In conclusion, Jones’ book is far from perfect. There are things he deals with in a few pages that he would need a book to really prove. Even for a limited-run edition from a small publisher, the typos are thick on the ground (especially in the first half of the book) and distracting. At one point, he cites a conservative scholar named William Russel Mead who doesn’t seem to exist–maybe he meant Walter Russell Mead?

But harping about the typos would really, REALLY miss the point. In fact, it would be somewhat like complaining about a certain translation of Romans 8 because you don’t like what the text says. I don’t agree with everything here, but I can’t deny that Jones is reading the Bible more closely, and examining his heart and middle class American preconceptions with a clearer eye, than almost any other author I’ve read. There is wisdom here, right out of God’s Word, which he quotes at every turn.

Everyone should read this book. We think we have it all under control, don’t we? Our worship services are slick and smooth, our mercy ministries run on a nice, linear schedule. But we’re not that different from the World, just better at delayed gratification. Jones wants the world to see us all as dangerous, crazy, latter-day monastics who threaten their prosperity and their exploitation of the weak. He wants us to wage holy, peaceful war. To forsake our subdivisions for real community and brotherhood. To “tithe” 10% for ourselves, and give the rest away. It sounds crazy. It is crazy. But what exactly is sane or worldly-wise about Jesus Christ? Jones reminds us that the wisdom of God is stark raving madness to the world. Maybe we should be a little more mad.

Jesus asks, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46)

How will we answer Him?

Postscript: While I was reading this book, Doug Jones, who previously went to my church, moved to Dubai to teach at a college there, gaining a foothold to begin ministry in that Muslim country. This increased my respect for him tremendously and took away my skepticism about this book, which I had been phrasing like this, “Pfft, well he’s not exactly practicing what he’s preaching.” Then I found out he was. That’s the sort of book this is. If you don’t like it, be careful: it could be your pride getting in the way.

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