I've known Brad Jersak for about ten years, and I've long been struck by his ability to deploy the tools of a scholar to distill the most profound ideas from a given theological topic or problem. Added to this, Jersak is a master at domesticating academic jargon for a lay audience and exhibiting the flexibility and sensitivity of a pastor when applying the insights he has taken a great deal of time and energy to carefully glean. His latest book, A More Christlike God: A More Beautiful Gospel (CWR Press, 2015), reflects this balance wonderfully and is a must-read for Christians who know deep down--nearly imperceptible yet incessantly prodding--that something is wrong with the vengeful, violent, uncompromising god about whom they've been taught their whole lives.
I was privileged enough to interview Brad about his book and the thought process that went into writing this important and highly accessible offering on Christology and what God is like.
1. Briefly, what is your book about and what's the main point you're trying to convey?
Thanks Andrew. My book is about the urgent need to revisit and reform the toxic images of God that stunt spiritual growth, drive the modern culture wars and incite religious violence. It's demonstrable that Christians, too, slip into very un-Christlike images of God, distortions of the Father whom Jesus revealed. In A More Christlike God, I argue that Jesus Christ reveals our God as neither retributive nor coercive, but rather 'kenotic' (i.e. self-giving) and 'cruciform' (i.e. cross-shaped). That is, on the Cross, we see the nature of God Incarnate as self-sacrificing, co-suffering, all-embracing love. Seeing Jesus as the perfect image of the invisible God leads to A More Beautiful Gospel (our subtitle).
2. What prompted you to write this book and for whom did you write it?
The book emerged from a growing need to challenge and offer alternatives to a prevailing view of God as retributive (or 'monster-god,' to cite Brian Zahnd, who wrote the foreword)--a God unlike Jesus to whom many in the Evangelical tradition still cling, or from whom they are attempting to flee. Many 'nones' (unaffiliated folks) have joined the exodus from that God and the churches where he's preached. Others are on the verge. Yet many 'ex-churched' believers still cling to the hope that God is kinder and more merciful than they've been taught. When they awaken to the beauty of the Christlike God who loves them, I see fresh faith in their eyes. "If God is like that," they tell me, "I would love him!" Well, he is like that--like Jesus--and this is very good news!
3. What have you found to be the most stubborn obstacle to accepting a more Christlike God among some Christians?
A mistaken belief that to be faithful--people truly want to be faithful--means reading the Bible through inherited theological systems and literalist lenses, so that the God they read about is so angry with sin and must pour out his wrath. That God is someone we must be saved from ... so the gospel for them is that Jesus has done this. Saved us from God by taking our punishment. This fairly recent (500 years old) theory of the atonement has actually become the gospel that most Western Christians now take for granted. When you believe that's the gospel, then a more Christlike God can actually sound like losing one's faith. In A More Christlike God, I ask whether this is really what the Bible and the early church taught about Jesus Christ and his gospel (they didn't) and if not, what their vision of God and his saving work really entailed. Even when it's the best news ever, that indoctrination is extremely tough to leave behind, especially if it's how you first came to faith. But I'm saying, you're not abandoning the faith--the author of our faith now wants to fulfill and perfect our faith with a Christ-centered conception of the divine.
4. What have you discovered is the most effective way--a method or maybe an overlooked passage from the Scriptures or set of ideas--of convincing folks to embrace a more Christlike God?
Probably a presentation I do, called 'The Beautiful Gospel' (originally composed by Fr. Anthony Carbo, under the title 'Gospel in Chairs'). It contrasts the retributive version of the gospel--the God who turns from sinners until his wrath is satisfied and they repent--with the restorative version of the gospel--the God who is always towards us in love and has saved us from Satan, sin and death. The former is familiar to listeners--sin as law-breaking that needs to be punished; God as the Judge and Jesus as the Advocate. The latter is more ancient, more biblical and more beautiful--sin as a fatal disease that needs deep-level healing; God-in-Christ as the great Physician, reconciling the world to himself through unfailing love and radical forgiveness. I think it works for people because they need only compare the two versions. Which is closer to the actual Gospel story of Jesus' life, death and resurrection? The God who is too holy to look on sinners (like the Pharisees!) ... or the God who welcomes sinners and loves on them as they are (like Jesus)? After seeing 'The Beautiful Gospel,' some ask why no one had ever told them this great news? Others insist, "I knew it! I knew something was 'off' about a god who needs his pound of flesh and tortures his own son. This second way ... this is what I've always believed."
5. You devote space to the voices of several Church fathers and Saints -- Why did you choose to incorporate these voices and what do you think this adds to the book?
I make space for the voices of the early Church fathers and saints because they stand closer to the original apostolic faith than you or I, or our Protestant predecessors, such as Luther or Calvin. They were faithful in receiving, remembering and delivering to us 'the faith once delivered'--the original gospel that Christ passed through his apostles. These are the men and women who first understood the Incarnation as God in the flesh, perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ. They were the first to articulate our cherished beliefs around the doctrine of the Trinity, the full deity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of Christ's Incarnation, death and resurrection. They were the ones who generated the great creeds and drew together the apostolic witness in a New Testament. I think it's arrogance to ignore their testimony, especially when their vision of the Christlike God was still a fresh memory, unclouded by later political battles and agendas, such as the Great Schism [in 1054 CE] or the Protestant Reformation. What they have to offer is gold, so I wanted to share what I found in their mines!
6. Writing a book is always a meandering process -- How did your thought process change or otherwise shift focus from your initial idea for the book?
Well, for one, it doubled in length! I kept needing to clarify and illustrate key points, which led from 175 pages to over 340. Now some of that is that I added call-outs, personal or group study questions after each chapter, a glossary of terms and an appendix of other Christlike voices (ancient and recent) ... hopefully all these will serve the readers well.
Overall, I stayed the course of the initial idea for the book. However, nine weeks of intensive post-doctoral research at the University of Nottingham under Dr. Conor Cunningham, along with interviews with Kallistos Ware (Oxford) and Andrew Louth (Durham), led to a deeper understanding of the Incarnation and how the early church developed it. Distilling that research confirmed my convictions, but also clarified them in ways that required some adjustments to my theology and my book.
7. What was the most unexpected thing you learned or discovered when writing the book?
Early on--still in the research stage--I saw this idea of kenosis, usually translated as Christ 'emptying' himself to take the form of a servant (Phil. 2:7) ... I saw that the Incarnation was not a departure from deity (since Jesus never ceased to be fully God), but a self-giving humility that is the quintessential revelation of what deity is. As my friend Roger Mitchell says, Christ was not merely an emperor in heaven who temporarily disguised himself as a self-giving servant--no! On the Cross most of all, Christ reveals God as he truly is, has always been and ever will be: self-giving love! I especially saw this in John's Gospel, where the glory of God is supremely revealed when he ascends and is enthroned on the Cross! Thus, the Lamb slain tells us more--more than any other vision or conception we dream up--about who God is and what he is like. He's Christlike! Who knew?