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A Review of
Boundless: What Global Expressions of Faith Teach Us about Following Jesus
Paperback: Baker Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee
Follower of Jesus or Christian? Is there a difference?
We all know somebody (or perhaps are that person) who says, “I’m not a Christian. I’m a follower of Jesus.” And in many ways, we see such a disassociation from the church as a copout, an individualistic and consumerist distancing from organized religion to distinguish oneself as the more faithful follower. I played with the distinction for a while. Ultimately I rejected it, because, the church and being a Christian is, contextually appropriate for my situation.
The same cannot be said for hundreds of people who follow Jesus in the negotiation of their local regional and religious contexts. Bryan Bishop, in Boundless: What Global Expressions of Faith Teach Us about Following Jesus, explores insider movements and seeks to discern how one negotiates a separation of the Christian identity from that of follower of Jesus.
Probably one of the most entertaining portions for Bishop’s book is the first section. Bishop, troubled by the questions above, seeks to experience the worship experience and faith of “insiders”, those who make a claim to follow Jesus, but identify with their religious context. He visits a Hindu satsang focused on Prabhu Yesu, Lord Yeshu, in India; he attends a Muslim jamaat, in Bangladesh; he befriends a former Thai Buddhist priest, named Jao, who chooses to remain Buddhist yet still call himself a follower of Jesus; and finally Bishop visits a Christ-centered powwow, where he is challenged to explore faith to Jesus among an oppressed group, marginalized within his own regional context. In each location, Bishop describes the vibrant nature of worship, the longing for appropriate expression within the religious context, and finally a furtive faith that matches or surpasses anything seen in what has typically been defined as “church.”
Yet, he is also challenged by practices and inconsistencies, and thus inlays the negotiation of “orthodoxy” in both definition and practice. Where insider movements seek to imbed in their context, they are still considered outsiders. A monotheistic allegiance for many Hindu peoples may not, be as far off base as is commonly misperceived by many educated by Western doctrines, yet the follower of Prahbu Yesu may still have difficulty with a single deity, especially at a folk level. Also, certain creeds found in many Muslim contexts make it difficult for a Muslim follower of Jesus to fully adhere to. These are just two for-instances found within Bishop’s limited experiences. Not to mention, many insider movements are outright rejected by Christians within the same context. Therefore, Bishop comes to no easy answer to the questions above.
In the second part of the book, Bishop offers four “Boundary Breaker” marks which help understand the intention of the insider movements he observed. The first mark he titles, “Put the book in its Place.” Here, Bishop draws on an authority of the use of scripture. While this authority may seem, to some, as pluralistic in some insider movements, he focuses on the inclusion and reference, and ultimately the guiding of the Bible for Jesus followers as well as for those coming to explore who this Jesus is. There are many appropriate intersections for the Bible as the Word of God to be not only acceptable, but authoritative within the religious contexts observed. This leads, then to the second marker, a “Move towards Jesus.” Perhaps orthodoxy and doctrine have capitalized on an in-or-out exclusive theology. Perhaps in previous generations, this was more contextually appropriate, but a dynamic and un-static worldview prioritizes not the in-or-out boundaries of religion, but whether one is being moved towards Jesus or away. Such a hope might be found biblically in the father who claims, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).
Another marker, Bishop calls, “Turning Pagan into Holy.” Bishop claims that much of church practices from the Early Church and on through today take pagan things and appropriate them as holy. While some believe that this might confuse things, Bishop’s purpose is to remove the sacred-secular divide to see how God can be redemptive in all areas of life, including religion. Finally, despite the process of redemption and transformation, and the incredible complexity of it all, Bishop lays forth his final marker, “Seek the Whole Truth.” He is, therefore, unwavering in the idea of Jesus as truth, nor is he in favor of letting contextualization practices deter from that truth.
Such markers are easy to place on insider movements as those “far and away.” Yet, not only are those movements very much closer to home and within our major cities, these markers are critical for Christians who find themselves in a post-Christian society. The markers above are labels to help discern sincere and appropriate followers of Christ, but they are also tools for, especially in the United States context, to evaluate our own sincerity of faith in Christ. While scripture is a tenant of most Christian churches, does our worldview more often than not cloud our reading and understanding of the Jesus set forth within? Are we continuing to establish communities that require an in-or-out allegiance, or are our churches set on moving people towards Jesus? What holy things have we turned into the profane? And finally, are we so blind as to neglect the work of the Spirit in and around the world as the Spirit negotiates contexts – ethnic, globalized, religious – to foster sincere faith in Jesus?
Bishop’s work brings forth important questions for the church at large. He is challenging enough to dispel easy answers from either the rigid traditionalist or the free-for-all Jesus wanderer. He proves his willingness to think critically, being sensitive enough to recognize where his own worldview and history influence his analysis, yet is also willing to ask the tough questions to let orthodoxy negotiate contextual practice. Boundless is a quick read and conversation starter to arouse the interest of a critical question in global “Christianity”, particularly for readers in the west who have defined orthodoxy and Christian religion for centuries.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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