Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus For Those Who Don’t Believe*
By Tom Krattenmaker
245 pp. Convergent Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, LLC $25
Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus For Those Who Don’t Believe by Award-Winning USA Today Columnist Tom Krattenmaker is an honest assessment of one’s personal and spiritual development into, around, and out of the Christian faith.
As a person who has been a Christian all of her life (in varying degrees — those twenties were tough years), I acknowledge my biases toward Jesus. I am biased. I think He’s dope. He’s the reason I do what I do. “Christian” is a label I wear proudly and take seriously. But I also hold in tension the way Christianity has been an invasive, violent force in the world. Its doctrine and believers have used its theology to oppress marginalized people for centuries and touts itself as a moral and social ideal to be reached. Christianity has propelled itself as a money-making-machine that often capitalizes on the very people who the religion says for which we should be working. Christianity pits its own followers against each other — singles against married folk, the poor against the wealthy, the uneducated against the degreed.
Yet, I still self-identify as a Christian. And for Krattenmaker, it was those aforementioned divisions that make his affinity for Christianity non-existent.
Krattenmaker, a self-professed Secularist¹, does not believe that Jesus died and rose again in divine glory. The idea of “eternal life” is sketchy to him, and in his words, “is not convinced of the existence of God either.” He writes fluidly about the development of his faith (or the lack thereof) and intentional distancing himself from organized religion to embrace the teachings of Jesus. It seems the further away he got from religious structures the closer he got to Jesus. (Ain’t that something?)
For the average church-going, Bible believing Christian, Krattenmaker “has it wrong;” those who believe may say that there is a spiritual element in all things — and that Jesus’ redemptive work on the Cross isn’t really debatable. Our lives and testimonies attest to the work Jesus did and the natural (read: spiritual) inclination to draw away from anyone/thing that does not affirm this work cannot, in fact, be a Jesus follower.
Krattenmaker tackles this tension in the book through conversations about Evangelical Christianity, and through my own conclusions, the tension Evangelical Christians may have with this notion of being a secular Jesus follower is the removal of Jesus’ divinity in the conversation. Krattenmaker doesn’t seek to play Hacky Sack with Christian theology (including notions of free will, predestination, celestial beings, heaven, hell and the like) but intends to just focus on Jesus. His words. His teachings. I gather that this is difficult for those believers who use Jesus as veneer for less-than-Jesus-like behaviors like misinterpretation of scripture that further marginalize people (LGBTQ, minorities, the poor, etc.)
But I’ll be honest, by the time I got to the end of Krattenmaker’s book, I concluded that he was more “Christian” than many of us. He understood Jesus’ life and work in a way that was real, practical, inclusive, and challenges the world to rethink Jesus as not an icon of a larger religion, but as a person who modeled what it means to live as a person of any faith in a secular world. Krattenmaker notes that he is not trying to “pursue the historical Jesus — the historically and journalistically accurate Jesus…” but is “…interested, rather, in what we might describe as ‘face-value Jesus’, the Jesus who says and does things on the pages of thew New Testament.” (14)
Krattenmaker carefully (and might I add, faithfully) marches through the book on his quest to find this “face-value Jesus” a Jesus that is “stripped of theology, doctrine, and present-day political appropriations…” so we may see Jesus in a real, tangible way in today’s climate. Krattenmaker even tries his hand making sense of issues around race, police violence and how we “see” people. Krattenmaker, with the help of Black activist and author Lisa Sharon Harper, tries to help us muddle through how we manage our belief in Jesus and how “religion has interlaced with racial injustice and the struggle to overcome it.” Her summation (see page 172-73) is that, at Krattenmaker quotes, is “[Jesus] disrupts even the religion that is supposed to be about him. Jesus does not abide any equation that would make [B]lack people only three-fifths human… He does not abide any dynamic that would reduce them to merely the dehumanized image of a hoodie-clad gangster with a gun.”
Krattenmaker does his best to see Jesus’ best work in a modern context: sexual exploitation, personal anxiety and stress, salvation, sin, and “morality,” incarceration, and a host of other modern, “secular” concerns of our time. I recognize that his white maleness makes for careful analysis of how he positions himself as a voice of authority on topics he may or not be directly impacted by — and, while I respect the critique of the divine nature of Jesus at the bookends, I wrestle with (and push back against) the salvific work of Jesus Christ being another moment in history, some theological topic for Christian apologists to write about in the Ivory Towers of the world, or something that’s up for debate. It’s much more than that. Much, much more.
But what Krattenmaker does do well is position Jesus as a figure that all people can follow. I’ve been in touch with Krattenmaker via Twitter the last couple of months and he’s been gracious in responding to my tweets about what I’ve read in his book. I’ve decided to not debate theology and the need for a resurrected Jesus with him (you’re welcome, Tom!) because that’s really not Krattenmaker’s interest. What he is interested in is writing about and unpacking a Jesus that matters today. A Jesus that will connect with people on the ground and not in the cloud. Krattenmaker says, “I am keen for the time being to take a break from learning and debating about Jesus and who he was, cosmologically speaking, and am more interested in focusing on what he said and did and what we can learn from it, whatever our location on theological spectrum.” He wants to convince us that Jesus is, in fact, “someone worth following.” (216)
Now that’s something we can agree on.
As a public theologian, I think it is important for us to think and rethink about Jesus in ways that matter today. Not to remove the divine nature of his work or the validity of the Cross (it’ll never lose its power!) but to engage with the story, life, and words of Jesus that liberates all of us to live into the fullness of why Jesus came to do the redemptive work of the Cross in the first place.
Why will it matter for Christians to understand the state of the world through a book like Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower? Because it better equips us to understand how we can be more like Christ in our every day, secular-kinds of engagement with others. It empowers us to think about how we navigate the world “in the name of Jesus,” and forces us to deal with our own biases that do a disservice to the work of Jesus Christ.
So, I’m giving away THREE COPIES of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower!
(One for the Father, one for the Son, and one for the Holy Spirit! #churchy)
Click here to enter the giveaway! Winners will be determined after Christmas.
Want some more readings on the secular age? Check out Charles Taylor’s seminal work A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor.
On the Jesus Following Chase,
¹ A person who believes that there should be a clear separation between the world and religious matters. See Charles Taylor’s definition of “secularism” which pushes for public institutions (schools, government, etc.) to be “areligious,” having no religious affiliation of any kind at any time.
*This review and giveaway is not sponsored by Tom Krattenmaker, Convergent Books, Penguin Random House, LLC, USA Today, or any of their affiliates.