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Thursday, December 6, 2012

"A Thicker Jesus" (Glen Harold Stassen)

TITLE: A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age
AUTHOR: Glen Harold Stassen
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012, (160 pages).

How do we explain the convictions and the passions of living for Christ in people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dr Martin Luther King Jr? What is that quality of faith in these brave men of faith that can continue to be manifested in our contemporary secular age? The answer: Be thick for Jesus. More specifically, be thick with "Incarnational discipleship" that comes through in integrity, courage, and "perspicacity," or penetrating discernment, that holds strong even in changing times.  Here is what Stassen has to say about Incarnational Discipleship that is manifested in these people.

  1. "They all wrote with a thick, historically-embodied, realistic understanding of Jesus Christ as revealing God’s character and thus providing norms for guiding our lives. They did not reduce Jesus to a thin principle or high ideal or only doctrinal affirmation without solid grounding in his actual history."
  2. "They all wrote with a holistic understanding of the Lord-ship of Christ or sovereignty of God throughout all of life and all of creation. They opposed a two-kingdoms or body-soul or temporal-eternal dualism that blocks God’s guidance in Christ from applying to a secular realm."
  3. "They all wrote with a strong call for repentance from captivity to ideologies such as nationalism, racism, and greed. And their actions, their actual practices, fit their written theological ethics."

Facing adversity, these characteristics will stand well the test of trials and tough times. It stands against iron-fisted authoritarianism that radicals both secular and religious groups force on people. It stands against godless secularism that threatens to wipe out the standing of religious faith. It stands against wanton materialism, consumerism, and individualism. This book offers the Incarnational Discipleship way that is anchored in tradition, practiced in humility, and tested by faith. By looking at the historical drama in the Bible, one sees how the biblical characters and some famous Christian leaders respond to the worldliness of their age. By bringing together some of the well known public figures and martyrs of the faith, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Stassen studies their lives to find out what makes them tick, in particular, what is in their heart that makes them accomplish things far beyond themselves. Two questions are used in this quest.
  1. How are we to find out the faithful and solid identity for faith and ethics?
  2. How can that identity be a compass for us in this rapidly changing culture and secular age?
Stassen then probes the three dimensions of "Incarnational Discipleship" that have guided these heroes of faith. They are all based on the WWII Confessing Church's Barmen Declaration. Jesus is not a thin principle to be studied in the heads, but a thick personal faith that is to be lived out in all of life.
  1. Holistic sovereignty of God and Lordship of Christ through all of life
  2. Thicker Jesus: God revealed incarnationally, embodied historically, realistically, in Jesus of Nazareth thickly interpreted 
  3. Holy Spirit independent from all powers and authorities, calling us to repentance from ideological entanglement.
There is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who lead the Confessing Church against the liberal German Church, and against the evil Hitler regime. Through his writings and teachings, he lives an example of costly grace. The French André Trocmé valiantly protected 3500 Jews from German persecution, at their great personal risk. Through powerful love, Dr Martin Luther King Jr led the civil rights movement against racism and of non-violent protests. Then there is Dorothy Day whose Catholic Worker Movement is instrumental in providing works of mercy to the poor, the needy, and many. She too has been influenced heavily by the Sermon on the Mount. Through covenant, community, common good, and human rights, the Lordship of Christ reigns supreme in the lives of these people. 

Before Incarnational Discipleship can spring forth, it needs to be disentangled from the dichotomy of high ideals and reality. When people suspect that theory cannot lead to practice, and when idealism is not realistic, people tend to give up any idea of Incarnational Discipleship. The key is to interpret Jesus according to His time, not according to our idealism. What the author is trying to say that much of the world's label of idealism on good things, tend to be distorted. This means the Christian faith must take the battle to the secular front. The four ways that the author aims to use are Christocentric, multi-varied approaches, communities, and fruitful living.
  1. Incarnational Discipleship is possible, as it witnesses to the person and work of Jesus.
  2. Incarnational Discipleship can generate dimensions of answers and solutions to remedy secularism within Christian traditions
  3. Incarnational Discipleship happens within communities
  4. Incarnational Discipleship produces the fruit of the Spirit.
Stassen decides to adopt Charles Taylor's observed model of secularism for three reasons. Firstly, it is historical and inductive which aids in understanding the historical development of secularism. Secondly, Taylor's work is highly respected and credible. Thirdly, Taylor has diagnosed multiple causes for any one single outcome. From here, Stassen identifies seven major challenges that ID will need to overcome or address.
  1. Democracy: The origin of democracy is a faith-based Puritan movement, not secularism. Moreover, democracy is pragmatic traditionalism, which means it is essential that religion has a voice in public debates. Ironically, in the United States, the more the religious liberty, the less the secularism. The point is that democracy eventually is an invitation to all to become a community.
  2. Modern Science: Taylor sees the influence of Enlightenment Deism that has contributed to the rise of secularism. God is sovereign over all of life. The dynamic nature of particles and the indeterminacy of physics are clues that command an openness to God. Chief of all, science is evidence that life is a gift. 
  3. Individualism: Withdrawn from intimacy with others, people buffer themselves in, with self-contained purposes, and self-interests, we become lesser people. 
  4. Sin: Violence, injustice, uncaring, and evil highlight the dark side of human nature. This leads to deceptive ideologies. How do we avoid participating in things sinful and evil?
  5. The Cross: This is about compassionate confrontation and presence. In the Cross, we take our stand. The cause of secularism is because people fail to see the significance of the cross in the light of good and evil, and how through the Cross, healing can flow. Instead, through ID, the Cross can be understood as one that brings forgiven relationships, presence, participation, community living.
  6. Love: The Sermon on the Mount is practical and realistic, and not some ideal. The pattern throughout the Sermon on the Mount is that the commands are transformative, not imposed upon. These initiatives that transform are brought about by the Holy Spirit.
  7. War: Just peacemaking aims to reduce war even though they may not prevent them. Nonviolent resistance has its powerful success too. Take the Arab Spring. The other extreme is the violence at Gaza, which has not yielded much peace at all. 
Concluding Thoughts

At the heart of the war between secularism and religion, between people of faith and people of mere secular philosophies, is a tussle for control over certain basic quest for living. Is there a right or wrong way to live on this earth? How do one who is convicted about his beliefs interact, support, or oppose practices that are either moral, amoral, or immoral? The origin of human rights contain three sets of rights.
  1. religious and civil liberties
  2. life and justice
  3. human dignity in community
The Sermon on the Mount seeks to preserve all of these. The Incarnational Discipleship model seeks to uphold these. The ID model reflects very much the Person of the Triune God. The Father is Creator and Ruler of all. The Son is embodied and incarnated among us. The Spirit is working through and through, leading and guiding all to a restored relationship with God and to one another. The big motivation in Stassen's model is that it is POSSIBLE and REALISTIC to put these into practice. Secularism has distorted life so much that the seven major challenges as pointed out by Charles Taylor, are proving to be formidable. ID can overcome all of them. Stassen's work can be a little heavy going as it dives deep into philosophical engagement at times. I must say that the examples are rich. The testimonies of the heroes of faith who have overcome the challenges will encourage modern believers to do the same. With God's help, we can do it, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This book makes the practice of Sermon on the Mount even more vital in our secular age. What Christians need to fear is not the rising secularism in a pluralistic age. In a culture that increasingly favours "spirituality" over "religion" or "secularism" over "faith," the task for Christians is not to shrink back in fear. Incarnational Discipleship points the way believers and faithful men and women of God can do something about. If there is any fear, it will be the total disregard or ignorance of the things mentioned in Incarnational Discipleship. Readers who heed the steps shared in this book would have taken a step in the same direction as the martyrs and prophets of old, who themselves fought the hard and harsh battles for faith. We need to fight the same battles for our generation, even the next.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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