“Have We Radically Misunderstood
What it Means to Follow Jesus?”
A review of
The Gospel According to Jesus:
A Faith that Restores All Things.
By Chris Seay.
Reviewed by Adam Ellis.
The Gospel According to Jesus:
A Faith that Restores All Things.
Hardback: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]
As much as you can be a “fan” of someone like Chris Seay and his work, I am one. I really enjoy his easy, almost conversational writing style. I’m impressed with his ability to exegete theological meaning from various touchpoints of pop-culture, from the Enron scandal to the epic television series “LOST.” The theology that drives his work (both writing and speaking) somehow comes across as equal parts ancient wisdom and fresh insight. He almost always manages to be challenging without being condescending; crazy-smart, yet humble and accessible. In light of all of this, and given the fact that one of my favorite theological soapboxes has to do with the fact that the Gospel many Christians proclaim seems to have very little to do with anything Jesus said or did (besides dying), it would be an understatement to say that I approached Seay’s new book, “The Gospel According to Jesus” with interest.
What if we who seek to follow Jesus have radically misunderstood some of the most basic aspects of what it means to do so? Would it get your attention if someone could make a solidly persuasive argument that this is the case? If so, Seay will have you from the first chapter. Using research that he apparently commissioned from the Barna Research Group, and solid research regarding the Biblical text and the original languages in which it was written, he makes a solid case that the majority of Western Christians may well be working with a deep misunderstanding of the Biblical concept of “righteousness.” Worse yet, how many of us actually define the concept may often put us at odds with Jesus’s actual agenda.
Seay goes on to ask the question “What is the Gospel?” This comes as no surprise, as the reader was tipped off by the title of the book. However, whereas the title of Seay’s book “The Gospel According to LOST” implies that what will follow is a “teasing out” of Christian themes from a popular TV series, the similar title “The Gospel According to Jesus” implies something altogether different. The implication is that we may have gotten the Gospel wrong in the first place. This is a risky argument to make (but important and necessary if he’s right), and I applaud Seay for having the courage to take it on. He does a good job of making the necessary connections to the concept of the “Kingdom of God” as well as to the Roman Empire’s concept of “gospel”, which Jesus and his followers seemed to be trying to subvert. He references a diverse group of Christian thinkers from Martin Luther to D.A. Carson to Lesslie Newbigin. So far, so good. However, Seay does something here that I find incredibly odd. In a book called “The Gospel According to Jesus”, he writes a chapter titled “What is the Gospel?” and roots his definition almost entirely in the book of Romans. In this chapter, the only Biblical references come from the writings of Paul. References to Jesus are mostly made by way of other Christian thinkers. To be clear, I appreciate what Seay does with Paul’s writings here. I think he does a great job of wrestling them free from the interpretive lenses that many of us normally read them through without knowing it. Seay skillfully re-appropriates Paul’s words as being qualified by the words and life of Jesus (rather than the other way around). He just doesn’t spend any time in this chapter on Jesus’s actual words regarding the Gospel. In my opinion, part of the reason a book on the “Gospel According to Jesus” is timely and necessary is because Christians so often root their entire definition of the gospel in the writings of Paul, essentially proposing a Gospel about Jesus rather than the Gospel of Jesus. I essentially agree with Seay’s conclusions here, I just found the choice to root this chapter’s entire Biblical case in the writings of Paul to be confusing.
After he’s defined the problem of contemporary Western Christianity and wrestled through definitions of “righteousness” and “the gospel” that are at odds with the definitions ascribed to by many in today’s church, Seay applies himself to the task of exploring what it would look like for Christians and churches to live out the implications of this Gospel while pursuing this righteousness. What does it mean for us to bear or reflect the Image of God? How does the Way of Jesus call us to view other people who are unlike us? What does it look like to live as one who lives in the reality of Grace, and how does that reality affect how we view, interact with, and value others? Is it possible that we unwittingly involve ourselves in various subtle forms of idolatry that subverts and co-opts our devotion to Jesus towards their own ends? What is the trajectory of the Gospel of Jesus, and where is the story we find ourselves in actually going? Seay rightly roots his eschatology here in the concept of Shalom and harmony restored. He then ends his book with “The Ten Commandments of a Shalom Life”, which is essentially a helpful discussion of ten particular Spiritual disciplines to aid in the formation of those who would believe the Gospel he has articulated.
Seay ends almost every chapter with a prayer and an interview (often with multiple Christian leaders and thinkers). The prayers function as a helpful way of summarizing and internalizing the message of each chapter. The interviews are a bit uneven and make the book feel choppy in places. Some are profoundly relevant and helpful (notably those with Gabe Lyons, Alan Hirsch and Shane Claiborne). Others, like those with Mark Batterson fall flat and feel at times like filler. Also, the diversity of scholars and thinkers that Seay references throughout the book is impressive. For example, references to D.A. Carson and John MacArthur are not typical in Seay’s writing (and not my personal preference), but I wonder if they may be included to help validate the book’s message to a wider audience that might be tempted to discount it otherwise.
On the whole, I highly recommend this book. It’s a must for church leaders, who honestly need to be wrestling with the questions Seay raises. I’d also recommend it to those who are already trying to follow the Way of Jesus. They may well find new vitality and direction for their faith. I’d also honestly like to get this book into the hands of those who have found Christianity to be less than compelling, because I think they might find that while the “Christianity” they rejected may have been worth rejecting, it also may not have been the Way of Jesus in the first place.
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