THE BLOG
08/06/2014 02:32 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

'I Like Jesus -- It's His Followers I Can't Stand'

"If you follow Jesus and don't end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do."
--Terry Eagleton1

There's a gap. I'm convinced of it. A Jesus gap.

There's a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional view of the church among emerging generations. This dissatisfaction has any number of causes, which the disaffected would name as anti-institutionalism, hypocrisy, judgmentalism, etc. But there's one area of vexation that always seems to come up: the Jesus Gap.

People, especially young people, are having trouble squaring the Jesus they read about in the Gospels with the infinitely malleable Jesus they see placed on offer by popular Christianity: Jesus as personal genie, Jesus as chief security guard at the courthouse of private morality, Jesus as a cheerleader for free-market capitalism, etc. In my work with emerging generations, we often return to the same complaint: "The Jesus I read about in the Bible doesn't look like the Jesus I see in church." Whether it's Jesus as either a clearinghouse for heavenly bus passes or Jesus as Affirmer-in-Chief whose primary function revolves around endorsing middle-class American values, the Jesus of the Gospels fails to come through. This Jesus, when stripped of the layers of religious spackling used to domesticate him, is irremediably subversive.

Subversive. That appeals to me. Of course, I'd like to continue writing clinically about the religious climate shift underway at the hands of restless "young people" fed up with a tame Jesus. I'd like to make it sound as though I'm just a disinterested observer of religious trends. But the truth is that I too find myself growing dissatisfied with that tame and restricted image of Jesus. After all these years of a Jesus who I thought would help make me _ (holier? kinder? more spiritual? more self-actualized?), I've come to believe that Jesus has a more cosmic, more interesting agenda in mind than super-tuning my soul. On my way to spiritual superstardom, I've found it increasingly difficult to squeeze past the Gospels' Jesus, who stands in the middle of the road pointing to the weak, the homeless, the sick, the widowed, the displaced and unembraced. Following Jesus; I think it boils down to that, really.

I've struggled for some time with the realization that when the church fails -- as it often does -- it fails most egregiously in giving people the resources necessary for the outrageously radical act of following Jesus. My reading of Emerging/ent theology has led me to conclude that there is increasing energy around the simple idea that followers of Jesus ought to embody the revolutionary spirit found in the Gospels.

I've tried. I've put forth a valiant effort. But I can no longer envision Jesus the way I once did. I can't, for the life of me, picture Jesus saying, "Healthcare isn't a right; it's a privilege."

I can't figure out a way to get Jesus to say, "Homosexuality is a capital crime, but fleecing the poor is a misdemeanor."

I can't imagine a world in which Jesus says, "If you don't let children pray to me in school, I'll let armed gunmen come in and kill them indiscriminately."

I'm trying to track down, but as of yet have been unable to find, where Jesus says, "If you fear someone will strike you on one cheek, dial in a Predator drone."

The church has too often been asked to give religious cover to moralities that were conceived absent the theological reflection provided by the church. I find that the chasm between the revolutionary Jesus of first century Jerusalem and the domesticated Jesus of twenty-first century America grows more difficult for me to span all the time.

In the final analysis, the good news of the reign of God is not first that the well taken care of will be even more well taken care of in the next life. The good news of the reign of God is that God's reign is present wherever the homeless are sheltered, wherever the hungry are fed, wherever the rich give away their money and power in defense of the poor, wherever the forgotten ones gather to be remembered and embraced, to be told that as long as we follow God, not one of God's children will be left to die alone and unloved.

This an excerpt from my new book from Chalice Press, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World.

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  1. Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, The Terry Series (New Haven, Conn.. Yale Univesity Press, 2009). ↩