Books Read: September 2003 Archives

The Jesus I Never Knew, II


In Matthew, Chapter 16, Jesus asks His disciples a question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They came up with various answers, at which point Jesus asked a more pointed question, “But who do you say that I am?” This is the question that all Christians must answer for themselves, who do we think Jesus is?

Phillip Yancy’s book, The Jesus I Never Knew, is his attempt to answer this question for himself. Yancy came to realize, after a considerable period of uncertainty about who Jesus was, that his picture of Jesus arose from several misconceptions that he had had since his youth. He realized that each of these partial images, which he held more or less in sequence, represented only one facet of the real Jesus. He realized that Jesus was not the Jesus of his Sunday school, a “Mister Rogers” type, who was nice and lovable and made no demands on His children. He also saw that Jesus was not the “cosmic Jesus” who ruled the world with a terrible sovereignty. He saw, too that Jesus was not someone one could come to know thorough intense intellectual study. Yancy came to see that each image, alone, was an inadequate representation of Jesus. It was clear to Yancy that Jesus was, in fact, a living human person, and one who had had a major impact on the history of the world, Jesus in His time was a controversial and threatening figure in His time – who would crucify Mister Rogers?

Thus he began Yancy’s search for the “real” Jesus, his attempt to answer Jesus question, “But who do you say that I am?” Yancy does this by looking at three aspects of Jesus life, Who He Was, Why He Came, and What He Left Behind, in the three major sections of the book. In this framework, Yancy looks at Jesus the man, Jesus the Messiah, at the meaning of Jesus Ascension and Jesus’ Kingdom on earth.

The first section explores who Jesus was as a human being who walked the earth. Here Yancy gives the reader a picture of what it was like to live in Jesus' time and what it might have been like to be around Him. He gives a fairly good historical portrait of the culture and political situation in 1st century Palestine. In explaining Jesus' Jewish roots, Yancy gives one of the best short summaries of the various religious factions existing at the time that I have read. He tells us who the Essenes, the Zealots, the Phariasee, etc were and where they might have stood in relation to Jesus' ministry. Developing a deeper historical understanding of Jesus' time is highly useful to anyone, whether Protestant or Catholic; Jesus came to earth in a particular place and in a particular time and many references in Scripture become clearer as we have a clearer understanding of Jesus' historical context.

Yancy also does a fairly good job in his chapter dealing with how he, Yancy, might have reacted to Jesus, had he lived in that time and place. I believe this chapter helpful to anyone wishing to know the real Jesus since it is so easy for us to develop a false, or unclear, notion of who Jesus was. He was not someone who came to us on human terms, He was not just a divine Mister Rogers, neither was He someone who came to bring the wrath of God. As Yancy points out, Jesus, in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays down an impossible standard for human conduct, but He also came bearing infinite mercy. It is an error, for example, to separate the impossible standard from the infinite mercy, which is what we humans so often tend to do, favoring either one side or the other. If we did not have the high standard, we would have no need for the mercy.

The value in Yancy's book, lies in the first major section, here he provides the reader with a basic, well researched, background of Jesus life and times. It allows us a better historical background with which to answer for ourselves the question Jesus asked, "Who do you say that I am?" However, once Yancy leaves the question of the person of Jesus, the historical reality, and tries to deal with what, in effect, is the question of the Church, problems arise. As the book progresses through the other two major sections, the focus becomes more problematical, especially for Catholics; here he comes to conclusions apparently not supported by objective research. I believe the heart of the problem here is Yancy’s stunted misconception, not of Jesus, but of the Church, but more on this in another post.

The Jesus I Never Knew

| | Comments (3)

A month or so ago, Steven of Flos Carmeli, did a series of posts on one of Phillip Yancy's books and it got me thinking, as his posts often do. As I think I have written in a previous post, for a period of several years now I have not read many books by Protestant authors. This aversion began about 6 months before I came into the Church and continued until about the last year or so. At the beginning of this period I refused to read anything by any Protestant author, including even C. S. Lewis, and I would read anything by anyone claiming the label Catholic, even William Kiensley (sp?), writer of the dreadful Fr. Kessler mysteries.

But Steven's post caught my attention and I began to question if I shouldn’t change my mind about reading Protestant writers. I wondered if I was missing something. So I began a book by Phillip Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew. I see Steven has recently posted a comment to the effect that except for the one book of Yancy's that he did his series on, the rest of books were not worth reading. To some degree I agree with this and I hope that this is the first in a series of three or four posts that explains my reasoning. This post likely should be the third or fourth post in the series but I'd really like to explore this topic and so it comes first.

First I would say that there are parts of this book that I would recommend all Christians read. I will explain this in later posts, but Yancy is a good writer and the first section especially of The Jesus I Never Knew is well worth reading. I have serious doubts about most of the rest of the book because, once he has finished the first section about who Jesus was he seems to fall into a pattern of making unsubstantiated statements about the faith that are really nothing more than conjecture or personal reactions.

For example, when Yancy treats of the relationship between the Church and state he seems to get carried away with himself. The root of his problem is one common, almost endemic to those of the Protestant faith -- a totally inadequate understanding of the Church. The passage I am referring to reads as follows:

"I grew up in a church that proudly displayed the 'Christian flag’ next to the Stars and Stripes, and we would pledge allegiance to both. People would apply to the United States passages from the Old Testament that were obviously intended for a time when God worked through a visible kingdom on earth, the nation of Israel. For example, I often heard this verse quoted as a formula for national revival: 'If my people, who are called by name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.' The principle may apply in a general way, of course, but the specific national promise was given as part of God's covenant relationship with the ancient Hebrews; its occasion was the dedication of Solomon's temple, God's dwelling place on earth. Have we any reason to assume God has a similar covenant arrangement with the U.S.?"

God does not have a covenant relationship with the U.S., but he does have a covenant relationship with the New Israel, the Church. But even so, can He be pleased at the way things are going with the popular culture in the U.S.? Is it not possible that, at some point, God may show His displeasure with this culture? Because such a statement in Scripture was made in the context of an Old Testament event does not mean it is less applicable and only applies "in principle." God still has a "visible Kingdom" on earth and He is still working through it, He still has a covenant relationship with the Church. Failing to understand this, or to deny it, leaves one open to all sorts of error. In this case, Yancy seems to deny that the Church has any role in modern society and that conversion must properly me limited to a "me and Jesus" relationship and nothing more.

This passage, and others like it, shows a faulty understanding of what the Church is. It is true, as Yancy points out, that the Church should not try to usurp functions and powers that are relative to the state, but it does have a responsibility to be "the salt of the earth." There are many today who have only been exposed to the idea that there is nothing other than what we see on this earth, that there is no truth, and that it is improper to impose one's "values" on another. They have no idea that there is anything other than today because the Church has allowed herself to be put in the position of being just one among many lifestyle choices. Unless this is changed, the Church will have failed in her duty to bring conversion to the culture in which She finds herself.

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