“Recovering What Has Been Lost
in the Industrialization of Christianity”
A review of
The King Jesus Gospel:
The Original Good News Revisited
by Scot McKnight.
Review by Chris Smith.
One of the major problems of the modern, industrial era is that of reduction. In pursuit of efficiency, complex objects are reduced to basic essential parts. A chair, for instance, is typically no longer the attentive handiwork of a craftsman as it was in ages past, but rather a set of mass-produced parts of the cheapest materials possible hastily assembled in a factory somewhere. Foods also have been reduced to prepared substances that can be popped into the microwave; eating has been reduced to the acquisition of basic nutrients. And Western Christianity is not immune to similar sorts of reduction: God’s reconciliation of all creation is reduced to saving souls; evangelism is reduced to persuading people to assent to a particular convictional statement.
John Pattison and I are in the process of writing a book on Slow Church, and in a similar fashion to the Slow Food movement, we are pleading with churches to slow down and beginning recovering what has been lost in the industrialization of Christianity. Fortunately, we are not alone in this task, there are many other writers and theologians who are moving in a similar direction. Scot McKnight’s excellent new book, The King Jesus Gospel, is one such work that redirects the church away from greatly reduced modern forms of Christianity toward a richer and fuller life of faith in Christ. The basic task of the book is to explore the question: “What is the gospel?” McKnight is on the right track with this question, as there are all kinds of reduced and even false gospels out there today. In fact, when we here at Englewood Christian Church started our Sunday night conversation almost fifteen years ago, one of the first questions that we – believing ourselves to be evangelicals – had to tackle together as we began sorting out our convictions was this very question of what the gospel is. We spent a long time wrestling with this question, and although we made some progress toward a shared understanding, we still struggle to imagine how our understanding of the gospel gets lived and worked out in our life together. I take our struggles with this question as good evidence of the need for a book like The King Jesus Gospel.
McKnight notes in the book’s introduction that: “I believe we are focused on the wrong thing. Most of evangelism today is obsessed with getting someone to make a decision; the apostles, however, were obsessed with making disciples” (18, emphasis McKnight’s). McKnight is rightly critical of the way that the concept has been individualized and reduced to justification by faith, which leads to the above idea of the gospel as decision. The bulk of the book therefore, focuses on sorting out many of the misconceptions that have arisen around the gospel, and returning to the New Testament texts to explore how the concept of gospel is used there. McKnight is a renowned New Testament scholar and he excels at pointing us to the biblical text and guiding us through a re-examination of what the gospel means there.
So what is the gospel as McKnight sees the New Testament proclaiming it? First of all, he is adamant that the gospel rooted in a story, and that: “[there] is no way to reduce [the gospel] to four points, and there is also no way to sketch the gospel in a minute or two” (148). McKnight is to be commended here for letting the gospel stand as part of the story of God’s reconciliation of the fallen creation. McKnight is also clear that although there is a level of complexity to the gospel that should not be reduced, it is also not incomprehensible. He there provides four key facets of the gospel but emphasizes that the gospel should not be reduced to these elements. First, the “saving Story of Jesus” is the completion of the story of Israel. Secondly, “the gospel centers on the lordship of Jesus.” Third, gospeling (a word that McKnight uses frequently to emphasize his opposition to the ways in which evangelism is typically understood today) invites a response. Finally, the gospel “saves and redeems.”
The King Jesus Gospel is a much needed book, one that challenges prevailing misconceptions of our faith. I won’t rehash McKnight’s development of the above definition of the gospel, but allow me to make a few observations. First, McKnight has often in the past referred to himself as an Anabaptist, and I was never quite sure what he meant by as that as he, to my knowledge, does not have any obvious academic or church connection with churches of the Anabaptist tradition, nor has he been particularly vocal on the political or social issues – e.g., non-violence, separation of church and state, simplicity of lifestyle, etc. – that have historically been characteristic of Anabaptism. After reading this book, however, I think I have a stronger sense of what he might mean. McKnight argues here for the importance of adult conversion and discipleship, in contrast to both the tradition of infant baptism and the evangelical tradition that focuses on the decision to follow Christ and minimizes the role of discipleship. At the same time he emphasizes the personal role in conversion and discipleship, he also keeps that in tension with a strongly ecclesiological understanding of God’s work in the world. These facets of his work were drawn out in a way in this new book that his claims to be an Anabaptist began to make more sense, in ways that they hadn’t in his previous books.
I particularly appreciate how McKnight locates the gospel within the whole scriptural story, in which Jesus is the completion of Israel, and the church is the embodiment of Christ in the world. The church is a meaningful community in McKnight’s account, not just a collection of saved individuals. Overall, I find McKnight’s theological account very compelling, but my one tiny disappointment with the book was that I would have loved to see the book’s final chapter – on “Creating a Gospel Culture” – fleshed out more fully, offering readers more substantial reflection on what it means for us to embody the gospel together in our local church communities. Indeed, this is a topic that is ripe for a follow-up book, either for McKnight or, recognizing that he is primarily a New Testament scholar and not an ethicist, perhaps someone else. McKnight’s gestures in the this final chapter are, I believe, in the right direction – becoming people of the story, immersing ourselves in the story of Jesus, becoming people of the church’s story, developing counter-stories, and embracing the biblical story – but they are broad and general enough that they beg to be clarified. If, as McKnight rightly argues throughout the book, the people of God are essential to the gospel, the gospel can never remain in the realm of the conceptual, but must be embodied in a people. Given the ubiquitous individualism of Western culture, and its prevalence over multiple centuries, the idea of being a people, let alone a people who embody the good news of Jesus, is not one that comes easily for most Westerners, and would certainly merit more exploration than McKnight as able to give it here.
McKnight, as in his previous books, is aware that his audience is largely evangelical and is very sensitive to communicate accordingly. Even as he challenges some of the most basic convictions of evangelicalism, he does so in a way that evangelicals can understand, particularly in his unwavering reliance on the biblical texts. The King Jesus Gospel is one of the most important books released this year, and I pray that its message would be heard and that through it God would transform our churches into communities that more fully embody the hope and the reconciliation of the gospel of Jesus.