Thursday, September 08, 2005

Summer Reading Review: The Jesus I Never Knew

Book: The Jesus I Never Knew
Author: Philip Yancey
Publisher: Zondervan (Harpercollins) (1995)

One of the best depictions of the infinite nature of the Creator that I have ever read is from C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle. The last battle of Narnia is over, the stable door looks out onto the desolation of that old land, and Aslan's own are standing on the edges of eternity. They look about them, rather unsure of what to do. Suddenly, Roonwit, a centaur who had previously been killed in Narnia cries out, "Further in and higher up!" and gallops off into the West. Then, Aslan, the Great Lion, turns from the cold, dead darkness beyond the stable door, commands Peter to lock it, and, with laughter in his eyes, runs off, crying, "Come further in! Come further up!" One after another, the other characters come to echo his cry. Further up! Further in! From the limits of the finite, they run into the boundlessness of eternity. Always further up, always further in.

Sometimes I get too complacent in my walk with the Lord. It is not so much that I think that I have Him all figured out, but more that I have become comfortable with a certain level of discomfort with His unfathomable ways. So, in knowing that I can never understand Him, I spend more time on the things that I think I can understand. Because of this, I tend to hesitate before reading the genre known as "Christian Living." What more, I wonder, can I really know about Jesus?

Philip Yancey felt that there was so much that he had not known about Jesus that he needed to write a book exploring the Nazarene almost two thousand years after He "put on flesh and dwelt with us." I am so glad that he did. In reading The Jesus I Never Knew, I realized afresh that in walking with Him I have only been on the edges of eternity. This book has helped inspire me again to go "further up and further in." It is a testament to the infinite nature of God that so much wisdom is yet to be reaped two thousand years after John the Beloved was gifted with The Revelation.

To the woman at the well, Jesus identified Himself as "Living Water." No wonder, then, that reading The Jesus I Never Knew was like taking a long drink from a cool, deep well. In other words, it was refreshing. I almost do not know where to start in reviewing this book, except to say that I loved everything about it. It's been a while since I have had such unreserved admiration for words put on paper, bound and sold, but I cannot remember one thing about this book that struck a false note. Certainly, there were many moments of discomfort, of particular poignancy and application that did not sit well on my sense of self-satisfication, but I have come to expect that from any encounter I have with the Most High. He's not here to make me feel comfortable, to stroke my ego, to fatten my rounded belly of conceit -- He's here to save my sorry, sinful soul in spite of myself, through His unconquerable, unshakable, undeniable love.

If I had to pick a favorite chapter, I would probably go with Chapter 6, Beatitudes: Lucky are the Unlucky. I had the amazing privilege to attend a week-long retreat in Canada this past July with sessions led by the finest singer/songwriter of any genre, Carolyn Arends. The theme of the retreat was "What Love Looks Like," which is also the title of a song she wrote a few years ago (and if you have never heard any of Carolyn Arends' songs, please treat yourself to a to visit her site and listen to a few clips). Anyway, one of the best sessions was a discussion that she led on the Beatitudes. It ended way too quickly, but it was really an eye-opener for me.

I had not spent too much time really thinking about the Beatitudes in my previous readings of the gospels. I skimmed them with each read-through, nodding in agreement without putting much effort into comprehension. After all, the Beatitudes have almost become clichéd nowadays. Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn . . . We've heard them all a thousand times. And I who loved and cherished all that Jesus said, reading His words time and again, why had I never stopped to consider exactly what He was communicating? Certainly it was important -- Jesus never did or said anything that wasn't. Most likely, though I did not have enough inner-reflection to consider it, I was made slightly uneasy by the proclamations so boldly, yet enigmatically, put forth by Jesus.

Carolyn Arends used Chapter 6 of The Jesus I Never Knew as a springboard for discussion. In this chapter, Yancey puts forth three ideas about the applications of the Beatitudes. The first idea is that of "dangled promises." The message was "to the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the persecuted, the poor in heart," a specific assertion that "their service would not go unrecognized. They would receive ample reward" (pg. 111). "To people who are trapped in pain, in broken homes, in economic chaos, in hatred and fear, in violence -- Jesus offers a promise of a time, far longer and more substantial than this time on earth, of health and wholeness and pleasure and peace. A time of reward" (pg. 113).

The second possible application of the Beatitudes that he offers is "the great reversal." That idea that the Beatitudes also "describe the present as well as the future. They neatly contrast how to succeed in the kingdom of heaven as opposed to the kingdom of this world" (pg. 113). An interesting addition to this theme is Yancey's dwelling upon what Catholics have termed "God's preferential option for the poor." In examining this preference, he includes a list compiled by Monica Hellwig of the "advantages of being poor." The one that she listed that stopped me in mid-breath was number nine on a list of ten, which was: "When the poor have the Gospel preached to them, it sounds like good news and not like a threat or a scolding" (pg. 115). Of course, that goes hand-in-hand with number ten: "The poor can respond to the call of the Gospel with a certain abandonment and uncomplicated totality because they have so little to lose and are ready for anything" (pg 115). Too often has my own response to the Good News been tinged with guilt instead of filled with gratitude!

The third contemplated reading of the Beatitudes is that of "psycholigical reality;" Jesus "set forth a plain formula of psychological truth, the deepest level of truth that we can know on earth" (pg. 117). This idea is the one that has helped me the most in re-reading the Beatitudes. Jesus seems to be saying that those who are broken will be the ones most filled, those who are the most beaten down will be the ones most restored. Blessed are the poor in spirit -- for they are the ones who realize that the are completely dependent upon God. Blessed are those who mourn -- for they have learned not to place their hopes in the things of the world. Blessed are the meek -- for they will not get hurt by being knocked from their pedestals. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness -- for they will never hunger again once they have been filled. Blessed are the merciful -- for they will reap what they have sown. Blessed are the pure in heart -- for a divided heart will not keep them from God. Blessed are the peacemakers -- for they understand the value and necessity of reconciliation. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake -- for these are the ones who learn the holy refinement that occurs during suffering. Are these not things that believers learn to be true, over and over and over again? Isn't the first step toward the Lord the one wherein you know without a doubt that you are "poor in spirit," absolutely dependent upon grace? To me, more than anything, these describe the realities of believers -- and Jesus assures us that we are blessed to experience these realities. Not many people of faith have come through horrible, devastating life-experience without having their faith strengthened. It is not that we ask for these trials by fire, but they are part of human reality in the finite, and, in grace, we are blessed.

This paperback is now striped through with flourescent yellow. I had a field day, highlighting passages that cried out for future reference. Here is a sampling of a few that I found pertinent:

I believe God insists on such restraint [of using His mighty power for swift retribution and puppetry] because no pyrotechnic displays of omnipotence will achieve the response he desires. Although power can force obedience, only love can summon a response of love, which is the one thing God wants from us and the reason He created us. (pg. 78)

People liked being with Jesus; where He was, joy was. (pg. 89)

"Indeed," wrote C.S. Lewis, "if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he can not imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea." (pg. 111)

From the movie Ghandi:
Ghandi stops [a Presbyterian missionary running from thugs]. [He asks] "Doesn't the New Testament say if an enemy strikes you on the right cheek you should offer him the left?" [The missionary] mumbles that he thought the phrase was used metaphorically. "I'm not so sure," Ghandi replies. "I suspect He meant you must show courage -- be willing to take a blow, several blows, to show you will not strike back nor will you be turned aside. And when you do that it calls on something in human nature, something that makes his hatred decrease and his respect increase. I think Christ grasped that, and I have seen it work." (pg. 121)

Thuderously, inarguably, the Sermon on the Mount proves that before God we all stand on level ground: murderers and temper-throwers, adulterers and lusters, thieves and coveters. We are all desperate, and that is in fact the only state appropriate to a human being who wants to know God. Having fallen from the absolute Ideal, we have nowhere to land but in the safety net of absolute grace. (pg. 144)

Faith is not an insurance policy. Or, as Eddie Askew suggests, maybe it is: insurance does not prevent accidents, but rather gives a secure base from which to face their consequences. (pg. 181)

In many respects I would find an unresurrected Jesus easier to accept. Easter makes Him dangerous. Because of Easter I have to listen to His extravagant claims and can no longer pick and choose from His sayings. Moreover, Easter means He must be loose out there somewhere. Like the disciples, I never know where Jesus might turn up, how He might speak to me, what He might ask of me. As Frederick Buechner says, Easter means "we can never nail Him down, not even if the nails we use are real and the thing we nail Him to is a cross." (pg. 226)

As Søren Kierkegaard wrote, "The bird on the branch, the lily in the meadow, the stag in the forest, the fish in the sea, and countless joyful people sing: God is love! But, under all these sopranos, as if it were a sustained bass part, sounds the de profundis of the sacrificed: God is love." (pg. 268)

In one of the final chapters, Chapter 12, Ascension: A Blank Blue Sky, Yancey considers a crucial question, especially in this late age: Why don't we look more like the church Jesus described? Why does the body of Christ so little resemble Him? Yancey then goes on to offer three observations that help him "come to terms with what has transpired" in the Church since Jesus' ascension.

The first, which too often gets overlooked in our collective conciousness of having fallen short of His example, is that the Church has "brought light as well as darkness." I often shudder to think what this evil world would look like if there were not Christians out there being salt and light -- living, at least on our best days, His word and His love. Also, the most beautiful art and music that has been created by man is for His glory.

The second observation is that "Jesus takes full responsibility for the constituent parts of His body." He told His disciples, "You did not choose Me -- I have chosen you." Jesus chose "rocks" like Simon Peter who, in his "bluster, love, hot-headedness, misdirected passion, and faithless betrayal," Yancey sees as previewing "in embryo form nineteen centuries of Church history" (pg 235), and, it might be added, also previews every single believer who has dared to utter aloud the name of Jesus since the dawn of the Church Age. Which, of course, brings us to observation the third:

"The problem of the church is no different than the problem of one solitary Christian. How can an unholy assortment of men and women be the body of Christ? I answer with a different question: How can one sinful man, myself, be accepted as a child of God? One miracle makes possible the other" (pg 235-236). Truly we must be the Bride of Christ -- He sticks with us "for better or for worse, in sickness or in health," in faith or in disbelief. We fail because, on this side of the curtain at least, we cannot totally break free from sin. But, whenever the Church is willing to recognize its mistakes and fall back on its knees, it rises stronger, more holy. That is the nature of the Foundation upon which it is built, the Rejected Stone our Cornerstone.

One last bit from The Jesus I Never Knew: Philip Yancey writes, "In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back" (pg 268). The Father wants us back, and He wants us whole again -- not stuck dead in our sin or unfulfilled in a one-dimensional faith. He calls so consistently, urgently, joyously to His own: Come from the edges of eternity! Come! Further up! Further in! Books such as this invigorate the soul to answer that call.

Overall Grade: A+
Readability: A+
Subject Interest: A+
Illustrations: N/A
Recommended? Absolutely! Unreservedly! I wish I could get a copy of this book into the hands of every believer and seeker in the world. Fantastic book -- well researched, thoughtfully considered, beautifully written.
Next Up: Undomestic Goddess by Sophie Kinsella and Ten Big Ones by Janet Evanovich


Flicka Spumoni said...

Spammers need to find the love of Jesus!

Boy, you don't waste time, do you? What a thoughtful, well written, inspiring review.

I am going to pick up a copy as soon as possible. I need to go "further up and further in"!

As always, supurb!

Arielle said...

C.S. Lewis is the only author whose 'Christian' works I've wanted to read - however this book sounds intriguing. Perhaps I will be able to find a copy to read.

Morris said...

"In a nutshell, the Bible from Genesis 3 to Revelation 22 tells the story of a God reckless with desire to get His family back"

Oh man, that stood out like a beacon to me. I will definitely have to see if I can get a copy of that.

CrazyJo said...

I'll have to see if I can get a copy of this book. I've read a couple other books of Clancy's that were really good. He certainly has a lot to offer.

Serena said...

I read it many years ago and it was good. I'm sure anyone wanting to read it could get it from the library at least by inter-library loan.
Love and shalom,

narniafan123 said...

Just found some interesting stuff on the upcoming Chronicles of Narnia film. Narnia Resourcesand the wardrobe"