Q & R: Reading A Generous Orthodoxy

A group of people are reading A Generous Orthodoxy and sending me questions via Twitter. Here are replies to the first few questions:

  1. Has there been a point where you had to stop asking questions and just had to believe and live your faith?

What a great question. Here’s something that became clearer to me in the years after writing A Generous Orthodoxy: faith and beliefs are two separate things. Faith is an attitude of trust or confidence in God. Beliefs are ideas or concepts I hold. For a long time, I didn’t see that there was a difference between having faith in God and having faith in my beliefs about God. So if I believed, for example, that God created the earth in 7 24-hour days, and then I had reasons to question that belief, I thought I was questioning God. Or if I believed that God predestined some people to heaven and some to hell, and then I questioned that belief, I felt I was losing faith in God.


Now I realize that losing faith in a belief is not such a big deal, and in fact, in order to be faithful to God, I may have to question my beliefs. But I can only do that because I have a deeper faith in God …  faith in God as One who wants me to be honest, faith in God as one who gave me a mind and doesn’t want me to hide it under a bushel, so to speak. If I’m afraid to question a belief, it could signal that I don’t trust God to be as kind or understanding as an ordinary human being would be. Oddly, then, being rigid about beliefs can signal a weak or unhealthy kind of faith!

So I haven’t stopped asking questions. I seem somewhat incapable of that (except, perhaps, in the middle of a stomach virus or toothache when I’m just trying to survive!). But I’ve learned to have a deeper trust in God that only grew stronger when I had to move some beliefs from the “I believe” to “I don’t know” or even “I don’t think so any more” category. In other words, when your faith in God goes deeper than beliefs (or to put it differently, when you trust in God and not your own understanding, including your own understanding of God), the questions about beliefs aren’t so earth shattering or terrifying any more.

I address this issue of faith versus beliefs in more detail in my most recent book, The Great Spiritual Migration.


2. Have you encountered any more “Jesuses” since writing the book?

Another amazing question. Sadly, there is another I’ve encountered. It’s the “American Nationalist Jesus,” or the “Nuclear Jesus” who is happy to torture or kill anyone who interferes with American Exceptionalism (or some other political ideal). I wouldn’t put it on the list, since I think it has no redeeming factors and is an ugly and dangerous distortion. Some people think this is the Jesus of Revelation 19:11, ff. I wrote about why I think this is a terrible distortion in the book I wrote after A Generous OrthodoxyThe Secret Message of Jesus (Chapter 19). I addressed it again in even more detail in A New Kind of Christianity, which I’ll quote at some length here:


Jesus can be a victim of identity theft, and people can say and do things with and in his name that he would never, ever do. Nobody has helped me see this more clearly than one of my most loyal and dedicated critics.

He was being interviewed a couple years back about some of my friends and me, whom he described as “some emergent types.” He claimed that my friends and I 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.

Quite a way with words! The mischaracterization of my friends and me was nothing, though, compared to the mischaracterization of Jesus that came shortly thereafter:

In Revelation, Jesus is a prize fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.

What would cause this intelligent and articulate fellow to caricature the view of Jesus I and many others share as “the hippie, diaper, halo Christ”? And far more shocking, what would cause him to characterize Jesus as a prize-fighter, armed with a sword, intent on harming, killing, inflicting violence, drawing blood?…

… the passage in question isn’t telling us Jesus is a prizefighter with a commitment to make somebody bleed. Nor is it claiming that the Jesus of the gospels was a fake-me-out Jesus pretending to be a peace-and-love guy, when really he was planning to come back and act like a proper Caesar, brutal, willing to torture, and determined to conquer with crushing violence … more of a slash-and-burn guy. Nor is it informing us that even God has to use violence to impose the divine will in the end.

Instead, this image of Jesus as a conqueror reassures believers that the peaceful Jesus who entered Jerusalem on a donkey that day wasn’t actually weak and defeated; he was in fact every bit as powerful as a Caesar on a steed. His message of forgiveness and reconciliation – conveyed as a sword coming out of his mouth (not in his hand, as my loyal critic asserted) – will in the end prove far more powerful than Caesar’s swords and spears. And the blood on his robe – that’s not the blood of his enemies. It’s his own blood, because the battle hasn’t even begun yet, and Revelation has already shown us Jesus standing “as a lamb, as if slain” (5:6). And it may also recall the blood of the peaceful martyrs too (6:9-11), since in attacking them, violent forces were also attacking Jesus, the Prince of Peace who taught them the way of peace.

To repeat: Revelation is not portraying Jesus returning to earth in the future, having repented of his naïve gospel ways and having converted to Caesar’s “realistic” Greco-Roman ways instead. He hasn’t gotten discouraged about Caesar seeming to get the upper hand after his resurrection, and now on that basis concluded that it’s best to live by the sword after all (Matthew 26:52). Jesus hasn’t abandoned the way of peace (Luke 19:42) and concluded the way of Pilate is better, mandating that his disciples should fight after all (John 18:36). He hasn’t had second thoughts about all that talk about forgiveness (Matthew 18:22), and concluded that on the 78th offense (or 491st, depending on interpretation), you should pull out your sword and hack off your offender’s head rather than turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). 

He hasn’t given up on that “love your enemy” stuff (Matthew 5:44) and judged it naïve and foolish after all (1 Corinthians 1:25), concluding instead that God’s strength is made manifest not in weakness but in crushing domination (2 Corinthians 12:9). He hasn’t had a change of heart, concluding that the weapons he needs are physical after all (2 Corinthians 10:3-4), or that the enemies of the kingdom are flesh and blood after all (Ephesians 6:12), which would mean that the way to glory isn’t actually by dying on the cross (Philippians 2:8-9) but rather by nailing others on it.

He hasn’t sold the humble donkey (Luke 19:28 ff) on E-Bay and purchased chariots, war-horses, tanks, landmines, and B-1’s instead (Zechariah 9:9-10). He hasn’t climbed back to the top of the temple and decided he made a mistake the first time (Matthew 4:1-10), or concluded that from now on he’d be smarter to follow Peter’s Greco-Roman strategies “of men” (Matthew 16:23). He hasn’t decided that the message of the cross is a little too foolish after all (1 Corinthians 1:18), or that Christ killing his foes is way more exciting than that lame, absurd “hippie” gospel of “Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

He hasn’t decided that my loyal critic was right, that nobody can be expected to worship a king they can beat up (Matthew 27:27). He hasn’t decided that a tattoo down his leg would look a whole lot tougher and macho than scars in his hands, feet, and side (John 20:27). He hasn’t decided to defect to the Greco-Roman narrative, since the majority of people who claim adherence to the religion that bears his name seem to frame their lives by it rather than by his good news of the kingdom of God.

The one I believe to be the real Jesus – the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the Jesus of the Acts and Epistles and Revelation too (wisely interpreted) – cannot be understood and must not be trimmed to fit within the Greco-Roman framing story: he can only be crucified upon its violent right angles. Jesus matters precisely because he provides us a living alternative to the confining Greco-Roman narrative in which our world and our religions live, move, and have their being too much of the time. That’s what Revelation actually tells us: that the humble man of peace is Lord. It confesses, in the midst of persecution and martyrdom, that the poor unarmed Galilean riding on the donkey, hailed by the poor and hopeful, is the one to trust. It invites us to pledge allegiance to the one who rules by his own example of service and suffering rather than by making examples of others.

Revelation celebrates, not the love of power, but the power of love.


Sorry to go on and on about this, but your question got me thinking about how dangerous and increasingly common this violent mischaracterization of Jesus is.


3. Were your encounters with the different Jesuses a result of losing faith or of seeking something more?

Actually, they were a result of getting to know Christians from different traditions. I grew up fundamentalist/Evangelical, so I only had access to the portraits of Jesus they painted until I developed relationships with Christians from other traditions … Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Pentecostal, Anabaptist, Liberationist/Black, etc.