“Zealot”: A response

Zealot coverJust (yes, belatedly) picked up Reza Aslan’s bestselling book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Not only is Reza a well-known and well-respected scholar, he’s also the brother-in-law of one of my good friends from seminary, and a connection through a couple other avenues as well.

I thought about writing a response, but several others have done so already; instead, I’ll just point you to John Ortberg’s recent response at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. You can watch/listen to the full message here.

A few snippets (emphasis mine):

Now the central claim of the book Zealot is that Jesus was just one more wannabe Messiah, that he was essentially nothing more than a product of his time, that he cried out against the cruelty of oppressive Rome and led a noble but doomed revolt, as they all were, and died on a cross, an admirable failure, another “not the Messiah” guy, and that some people might claim to believe in the resurrection by faith but that there is nothing in history or knowledge to support it.

I don’t think that’s true. I think there are a lot of problems with that particular claim that’s central to the book, but I want to focus on what I think are the two main problems with the central claim that Jesus was really nothing more than a failed political zealot. The first problem is Jesus did and said a multitude of things no zealot leader bent on military victory would ever do.

Jesus was constantly saying things like, “Bless your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” No zealot would say that. Jesus would say, “Don’t resist an evil person. If somebody strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one also.” Jesus said, “Forgive people, not just seven times but seventy times seven.” Jesus was widely known for loving his enemies. Zealots wanted to kill them.

The Jesus of the New Testament Gospels is clearly not a zealot revolutionary aiming at a military forced overthrow. That’s really clear. So what Reza has to say in his book is that virtually all the material in the Gospels got made up from scratch decades after Jesus lived by people who did not know Jesus.

There’s absolutely nothing in the book that’s new. Scholars have been talking and arguing about this kind of stuff for a long time, and books like [Richard] Bauckham’s [Jesus and the Eyewitnesses] are much more grounded (whatever you think about it) in New Testament scholarship. Part of the deal with Reza is he’s just a very good writer. His job is teaching creative writing at a university. It’s a really compelling book.

So I think a big problem with the book is the thesis that Jesus’ life and message is filled with things a zealot political figure would never say and never do. And they don’t read as made-up add-ons. They reflect a profound understanding, a coherent picture, of God and life and reality and the nature of love and the importance of forgiveness that simply took the ancient world by storm.

In this case, Reza ends up with a Jesus who is opposed to imperial oppression (that’s a good thing) and demands economic justice (that’s a good thing). It turns out that’s exactly what Reza himself admires. But there’s no particular godward, transcendent dimension to Reza’s Jesus. The thing about the “love your enemies, lose your own life, embrace the outsider” Jesus of the Gospels is that his face is so disturbingly unlike my face or your face or anybody’s face. It’s that face that has gripped the imagination of the human race for 20 centuries.

Another big problem with the thesis is … How did a dead Messiah spark an unstoppable movement?

2,000 years after Jesus, Richard Bauckham writes, “Two billion people today identify themselves as Christians … Such followers of Jesus are now more numerous and make up a greater proportion of the world’s population than ever before. It is estimated that they are increasing by some 70,000 persons every day.”

How did that happen? The only explanation that will get you from deflated followers of a crucified Messiah to courageous followers of inextinguishable courage is that they actually believed a resurrection happened, even though nobody expected it, and the best, simplest explanation why they believed Jesus actually rose from the dead is Jesus actually rose from the dead.

Again, you can watch/listen to the full message here.

RIP Dallas Willard

Gordon Cosby. Brennan Manning. Dallas Willard.

These three have passed on–“fallen asleep,” as Jesus might say–in the last couple months, and I am forever grateful for the paths they carved, the tracks they left for me to follow.

Dallas WillardDallas Willard passed away this morning at 77 years old. I don’t feel particularly adequate to articulate all the thoughts and feelings that are going on as I reflect on his life and passing. (John Ortberg wrote a great piece in memoriam here.) But overwhelming gratitude is definitely one of them.

With books like The Spirit of the Disciplines–on which I’ll be basing a discipleship class that I’m leading this month–Dallas not only changed the way I looked at life and my walk with Jesus, he helped to change the way I did life and my walk with Jesus.

I never got to meet him personally but I look forward to, one day.

Photo: Dieter Zander

Dealing with differences in relationships

Holding handsA couple weeks ago, at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in the Bay Area, John Ortberg and clinical psychologist Rick Blackmon sat down to have a conversation about relationships — marriage in particular.

I found it immensely helpful, not just for marriage but for relationships in general. Pastoring in a church that’s over 70 percent single means that there’s a lot swirling around in the dating/relationship/engaged sphere, and learning how to be in relationship in a healthy way is an important part of … well, being human!

John began by asking, “What’s the biggest obstacle to having a great marriage?” To which, Rick replied:

The biggest obstacle to having a great marriage [and, I’d say, to having a healthy relationship, period – JF], one that continues to be life-giving and close and healthy, is dealing with differences.


I can attest to that with my friends, both in the context of married life as well as in the context of interacting with others in the political realm here in DC. Because it’s not a question of whether we’ll have differences — as my counselor put it, “As long as you’re dealing with someone who isn’t you, you’ll have differences.” Instead, it’s a matter of how we deal with those differences.

“In any relationship,” said John, “sin is always inevitable but grace is always available.

Sin is always inevitable because human beings are sinful, selfish, prideful, self-righteous, unaware, and oblivious, and we hurt one another, both intentionally and unintentionally, even just by assuming that we’re always right and that the other person must therefore be wrong.

But grace is always available — the grace of God, first and foremost, and then as Christians, the grace we are called to show one another. “Forgive us what we owe, just as we have already forgiven what others owe to us,” is a paraphrase of a line from the Lord’s Prayer. We have been shown grace; and so we are called to show grace and empowered to do so by the Spirit of God living within us.

Rick also suggests a helpful tool for dealing with conflict, using the acronym CRAFT. See below for my notes (or listen to the podcast here):

  • Get back to a Conversational level
    • When we get reactive, our response moves from the cortex (calm, rational) to amygdala (bird brain, 100% self-protective, fight or flight, limited capabilities), so we often see either fast, loud, outlandish responses (fight) or complete shut down (flight).
    • Prov 29:11: “A rebel shouts in anger; a wise man holds his temper in and cools it.”
    • It can take anywhere from 20-40 minutes to calm down enough to talk, so make sure you create that space.
  • Recall what happened
    • The goal of this exercise is not to unify views on what took place, but to learn how the other person experienced that, to develop a curiosity for the other’s perspective, to cultivate empathy.
    • James 1:19: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.”
    • The first example of marital discord in the Bible was Genesis, where Adam throws Eve under the bus.
    • The sinful self always wants to blame the other; the redeemed self aims to speak the truth in love (Ephesians).
  • Apologize
    • Say “I’m sorry.” James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to one another.”
    • “It’s not possible to be in a relationship for a long time and not to wound them and be wounded by them.” – Rick
    • There are two forms of apology:
      • “Oops” or apology for impact: “I can tell that what I did hurt you so I’m sorry for that, but I’m still not sure I did anything wrong.” The more serious the offense, the less appropriate this response is, but this kind of apology is still better than nothing.
      • More heartfelt and genuine: actually owning intent, e.g. “I did this because …”, e.g. the prodigal son.
  • Forgive
    • There are two responses to being hurt and wounded by somebody:
      • Get even (the normal, natural response, certainly a bird brain response).
      • Forgive (asking for forgiveness or extending forgiveness)
        • Look one another in the eye and say, “I forgive you.”
        • Jesus said, “Forgive one another up to seventy times seven times.”
        • Paul also said, “Forgive one another.”
    • It’s actually difficult; it takes practice.
      • Especially with Christians, it can be easier to ask for forgiveness than to extend forgiveness.
      • Understand also that it takes time.
  • Talk
    • Talk about what you wish had happened instead, what you wish you had said or what your spouse/friend had said.

Some final points:

  1. Rick emphasized that conflicts often end on the same note on which they begin; that is, if it begins with a harsh tone, it’ll probably end with a harsh tone, and if it begins with a gentle tone, it’ll probably end with a gentle tone. Be aware of how you approach differences and conflict.
  2. John reminded us that growth is always possible. The alternative is stagnation and to remain trapped in sin. (And that doesn’t sound pleasant or healthy at all, does it?!)
  3. We need wisdom in dealing with conflict, but more foundationally than that, we need Jesus and we need grace. After all, true wisdom is to properly fear and reverence God — to understand who he is, who we are, and how much we need him.

Following Jesus: The stewardship of influence

[Part 1 of a blog adaptation of Sunday’s message at The District Church: “Come Follow Me”]

Jesus says, “Come, follow me …” and we have a choice to say yes or to say no, to follow Jesus or to walk away, to step into a new life or to stay where we are. There really isn’t a place of equilibrium, where we can hold Jesus at arm’s length while also trying to keep a tight grip on the reins of our lives, where we can say maybe and try to navigate the path of most convenience, the road more traveled, the more comfortable journey. John Ortberg writes:

There is danger in getting out of the boat. But there is danger in staying in it as well. If you live in the boat—whatever your boat happens to be—you will eventually die of boredom and stagnation. (If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat)

I always need to be reminded of this truth: life with God is what we were made for. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life to the full.”

We’ve just started a series at The District Church called “The Stewardship of Influence.” If you’ve been around church circles for any amount of time, you’ll often hear the word ‘stewardship’ used in the context of money—how we look after the financial resources that God has given us—or perhaps more recently, in the area of environmental stewardship—how we look after the world that God has created. But stewardship isn’t limited to those things. In Luke 12:48 (one of my favorite verses), Jesus says,

“From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”

It’s about stewardship, being responsible for what we’ve been given, being answerable to God for what resources we have, not just of money but of time and relationships and, zooming out, your life.

despicable-me-2-minionsAnd what we’re focusing on is the stewardship of influenceEveryone has influence. You may be thinking, “I’m just an intern; I don’t have much influence,” or “I’m just a student; I don’t have much influence,” or “I’m just a minion,” like in Despicable Me, “I don’t have much influence.” But everyone has influence—you may have a large circle of influence or you may have a smaller circle of influence, but everyone has it. You have influence:

  • through your friendships: what you do or say or how you’re just present in a particular situation to a friend who’s going through a rough or difficult time is influence.
  • in your families: how you react to the dysfunction in your family or how you contribute to cultivating a culture of peace in your family is influence—it’ll impact other people, whether you see it immediately or not
  • at work, wherever on the ladder you are, or at school: how you work at something, regardless of whether or not that particular spreadsheet or paper or project or admin is life-giving, is influence.

So, to define these terms:

What you have = influence.

What you do with what you have = the stewardship of influence.

And here’s the key: it’s about what you do with what you have, not what you don’t have. In those last days, Jesus isn’t going to ask you what you did what what you didn’t have; he’s going to ask you what you did with what you had.

Here in DC, it’s real easy to point out examples of people who have influence—we usually understand that as political power. It’s also real easy to point out examples of people who have not stewarded that influence well, who have abused and misused that influence: council members who’ve used public funds for their own pleasure, elected officials who have betrayed the public trust for their own gain.

But even outside the realm of politics, it’s not hard to see where influence has been misused:

  • just this week the story surfaced about the coach at Rutgers who would throw basketballs at athletes’ heads and yell slurs at them;
  • we’re still recovering from a financial crisis where some folks who were entrusted with the influence to take care of other people’s money instead took some calculated gambles that blew up;
  • there are countless celebrities who have no idea what to do with fame and use their platform and influence not to help other people but simply for self-aggrandizement and preening in the glow of others’ attention;
  • the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church, where men entrusted with the pastoral and spiritual care of souls misused that influence and abused vulnerable children.

I point these out not as an exercise of looking out there and saying, “Oh, that’s a bad example.” As Paul wrote to the church in Rome, “We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” It’s just as important–perhaps more important–to be looking at yourself and saying, “Oh, I’m tempted too:

  • I’m tempted to use my influence in my family to side with one parent against the other.
  • I’m tempted to use my influence in my workplace to whine to others and with others about our boss.
  • I’m tempted to use my influence to work my connections so that I can get ahead at the expense of others.
  • I’m tempted to use my influence over my girlfriend to get her to please me sexually.
  • I’m tempted to not use my influence over my kids to raise them in a way that talks about tough issues of life and faith and sexuality, because, man, those conversations would be awkward and tough.”

The thing is, I think, these aren’t always conscious decisions as much as they are unconscious decisions. And by that I mean that we just don’t tend to think about these things or to talk about these things.

  • When we don’t think about these things and talk about these things, then we fall back on what we’ve been conditioned to do;
  • What we’ve been conditioned to do comes from what we’ve spent the most time being around;
  • What we’ve spent the most time being around is usually TV shows where sex just happens or movies where violence is the way to solve problems or magazines or blogs or websites that tell us that we need things, that we need to live like these people and we need to dress like those people.

How much time do we spend being immersed in the word of God and the community of God and the Spirit of God, who instead challenge us to seek right relationships with everyone, to live holy lives, to defend the poor and the widow and the orphan, to be humble and loving above all, to seek the peace of the city for in that you will find your peace, to care for the least of these, to die to yourself so that you might truly live?

Jesus says that to truly live–to experience life to the full, to do life with God–we will die to ourselves–we will put others before ourselves, we will not seek our own good but we will seek God and his kingdom.

So, as people who follow Jesus, as people who call him our Lord and our King and our Teacher, we want to be good stewards of the influence we have, to use it for his purposes rather than our own: in our relationships, in our workplaces, in our homes, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our city, in our political system, and, yes, in our social networking—because we live in a world where I can put something on Twitter or on Facebook or on a blog and people half the world away whom I’ve never met may read it and be impacted by it.

From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Questions about Christianity


I’ve always been a firm believer that with faith, not all of the questions can yet be answered. I’ve also always believed that a faith that can’t withstand questions isn’t much of a faith at all.

So I’m excited that Rich Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, made a stop at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church to answer some questions about the faith, hosted by John Ortberg.

You can check out the video here and the audio here(I’ve put the time stamps next to each question, in case you want to skip forward.)

  • What does “evangelical” mean? (2:51)
  • Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? (6:15)
  • Are Mormons Christians? (9:55)
  • Can we trust the Bible? And why? (15:00)
  • How do we as Christians talk about human sexuality–divorce, same-sex attraction, etc.? (21:51)
  • How can we be people of conviction and also people of civility? (24:54)
  • How do Christians talk, especially with non-Christians, about hell? (30:34)
  • How do we think about the passages in the Bible that contain violence? (32:50)
  • What is God waiting for before he comes back? (35:25)
  • What do you see in the world that makes you hopeful? (36:50)

And if you have follow-up questions, I’ll see what I can do to answer them. 🙂