[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0664264166″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/51VZmiKJnLL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]To A Church Gone Astray
A Review of
Not Your White Jesus:
Following a Radical, Refugee Messiah
Sheri Faye Rosendahl
Paperback: WJK Books, 2018
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
The American church has rarely been so much its own branch of Christianity as it has become recently. In her debut book Not Your White Jesus, Sheri Faye Rosendahl addresses where it has gone wrong and how we can emphasize the teachings of Jesus to return to a faith that, in practice, looks more like him. To be clear, she goes after not all Americans, but the visible white, conservative version that makes political noise and votes as a block. We need her message now, and her anger and frustration brings a needed spark to a conversation that too often turns toward either anonymous internet shouting or dry contemplation. Unfortunately, the book contains a mix of necessary insight and unhelpful wandering.
Rosendahl uses the first half of the book to diagnose the problem and to look at “how we can go about truly being the change we need in this world” (17). She cuts to the heart of the problem quickly: “the version of Christianity dominating the U.S. religious landscape has failed to fulfill its basic self-proclaimed purpose. It has white-washed Jesus, dressing him in a $3,000 suit…with an American flag tie…as he campaigns for capitalism and gun rights” (6). As the church has turned toward a nationalist vision deeply influenced by the broader culture, it has become something else. Rosendahl explains that the “American Church always felt like a place to be hurt, not a place for the hurting” (4). The church has gone astray.
The error comes, she argues, from the American church ignoring the Jesus of the Bible and instead following what she calls “White-Jesus,” a figure that does more to match mainstream white US culture than it does scripture. It’s an effective image, but its one that Rosendahl doesn’t fully develop or counter. The source of her ire, pretty clearly, are Christian representatives like Franklin Graham and comfortable Christians who voted for Trump in 2016 (and continue to rail against illegal immigrants, refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings, etc.). She could dig into these issues with more specificity to add weight to her argument. Her chapter on humility is particularly perplexing. She does little to explain the White-Jesus church’s lack of humility (maybe believing it to be apparent), even while much of the chapter reads like a humble-brag or, more explicitly, bragging on her husband. What could be an insightful point for transformation becomes an odd slog.
Throughout this stretch, she forges authenticity through flippant and irreverent speech, whether calling Jesus “J” or a “badass,” throwing in oddly snarky sarcasm, the occasional scatology, or even peppering her text with some y’all’s. She likely intends to stay casual; the book, after all, isn’t an academic treatise, but a regular person’s response to the failings of the American church. It carries the flavor of blog language, though, and a familiarity that doesn’t quite work.
In the second half of the book, Rosendahl finds sharper focus in targeting specific issues. In doing so, she better contrasts the teachings of Jesus with the behavior of the American church, whether talking about racism, nationalism, misogyny, or more. Her chapter on immigration shows her at her finest. She blends her relaxed style, personal experiences, and biblical insight. Using a metaphor that sets the world as a high school cafeteria (and revisits Mean Girls), she quickly moves on to Matthew 25. Her analysis works, and it’s strengthened by stories from her time in Syria. Putting a contemporary face on the Biblical story, and supporting it with an easy-to-understand metaphorical frame, Rosendahl makes a compelling case for rethinking the American church’s approach to immigration and refugees.
Unfortunately, even the second half of the book suffers from her adherence to a strict red-letter reading of scripture. Rosendahl is explicitly a Red Letter Christian, but she presents only a simplified version of that tradition here. At their best, Red Letter Christians see Jesus as the most clear revelation of God, and use that starting point to facilitate understanding the rest of the Bible. Rosendahl, though, offers the intro version: she uses only the Jesus stories and dismisses everything else, ignoring the high view of the Bible that many of the Red Letter Christians share. When she deals with topics more likely to be controversial – LGBTQ+ issues, particularly – she could strengthen her case by engaging with Paul or other relevant passages.
As it is, she writes with the glee and enthusiasm of a new convert, but also with a skittering impulse. The nature of the book doesn’t allow her to pursue any given topic with great depth, but she scoots over difficult ideas with a basic sense that since Jesus loved everyone, so should we (the same sort of error that makes 1 John 4:8,16 such oddly used verses). Because she couples that approach with a flippant style, Rosendahl takes some odd detours while missing full engagement. She claims that Christianity didn’t exist until “a few hundred years” after the death of Jesus (50). That point ignores both the complications of of the 1st century (including the Jewish origins of the faith) as well as the Bible’s own use of “the Way” to describe those following Jesus. With such an interpretive movement, Rosendahl can avoid any writing outside the gospels. Similarly, she suggests that Jesus death came when “the religious elite then got super pissed and went to conspire to kill Jesus because they have serious anger issues” (93). It’s meant to be funny, but it contorts complicated issues. As much as she writes against White-Jesus and the American church, without biblical or historical context, she does little to give proper perspective to her brown-skinned, Palestinian messiah’s roots, a line of thinking that would deepen the work presented here.
What Rosendahl misses in all this is the gospel’s transformative power. She mistakes the inclusivity of Jesus’s life and ministry for a lack of discernment. Here – as can happen as we start to engage in the intellectually and emotionally challenging work of engaging and offering hospitality to the dreaded Other – the ruling principle is simply to love everyone no matter what. It’s an idea that’s true as far as it goes, but it’s only half of Jesus’s message. In Rosendahl’s vision, there’s no sin (in others or in us). Therefore, there can be no grace. What Rosendahl finds isn’t a world transformed by the love of Christ, but one that abandons any sense of the scandalous victory of the cross in favor of an easy sense of good-feeling (though not necessarily toward those she disagrees with). We don’t need to be right enough, or angry enough, or friendly enough. We need to be changed. With a fuller picture of the work of Christ, our social justice work can become part of a broader picture of restoration, whether in traveling to aid refugees or thinking through how we vote. The Red Letter Movement often finds an imitation of Jesus to be foundational in political work, but in the context of a bigger gospel vision, and more of that influence would highlight the value of Rosendahl’s thinking.
Rosendahl tackles issues vital to the contemporary church, but the book reads as much as an introduction for her as it does from her. This first book reads like its author is still finding her way. The movements she makes are largely sound and important, though still better considered by predecessors like Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, and Jim Wallis (or younger thinkers like Jon Huckins). Rosendahl strikes accurately and energetically at the issues corrupting the American church, but Not Your White Jesus isn’t as potent or rewarding as it could be, a missed opportunity in the central conversation of this era.