Sunday, February 14, 2010

Jesus Freak -- Review

JESUS FREAK: Feeding, Healing, Raising the Dead.  By Sara Miles.  San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2010.  xx + 171 pp.

    Back in the day – way back in the 1970s when I came to faith (that meant converting from my Episcopalianism to real Christianity) there was a “Jesus movement,” which was sort of counter cultural.  Partisans, often called Jesus Freaks, had long hair, played rock and roll (like Larry Norman), and in a sense made Jesus sort of cool and accessible.  Depending on your perspective the term Jesus Freak was either a term of disparagement or a badge of honor.   Essentially they were Christian hippies – they were counter cultural, but instead of the drugs and the sex, they got high on Jesus!  

    Sara Miles has picked up on this old term and applies it to herself in her latest book – which carries the title Jesus Freak.   There are some similarities between the earlier expression of the Jesus Freak identity, but  Sara’s expression of this counter cultural movement of faith is a bit different from that earlier rendition, especially in its theological orientation and social mores.  Those earlier Jesus Freaks might be counter cultural in their dress and music, but their theology tended to be a form of conservative pentecostalism/dispensationalism.   Her theology, while at times naive and literalistic can also be very liberal.  She doesn’t spend much time thinking about critical theories of biblical interpretation or wrestle with theological perspectives.  Hers is a faith in action, one that would appeal to a Harvey Cox (Future of Faith, Harper One, 2009).  

    Jesus Freak is one of those books that barrels full speed ahead, moving from one story to the next.   It’s essentially a spiritual memoir (presumably following up on Miles’ earlier book Take This Bread, which I’ve not read).   Miles is founding director of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church’s Food Pantry, and now the Director of Ministry at the San Francisco based Episcopal church, a church that is itself counter cultural.  At least, it’s not your typical Episcopal Church – such as the one I grew up in forty years or so ago!        

    For Sara Miles, to be a “Jesus Freak” is to “live as if you – and everyone around you – were Jesus, and filled with his power.”  For her, this means not only taking Jesus’ teachings literally, but it requires that one head out the front door and act upon these teachings. 

    It’s actually pretty straightforward, Jesus says.  Heal the Sick.  Cast out demons.  Cleanse the lepers.  You give the people something to eat.  You have the authority to forgive sins. Raise the dead (p. ix). 

With this sense of purpose, Miles organizes her book around six themes that reflect Jesus’ own calling and ministry: Come and See (embracing the wrong kind of people), Feeding, Healing, Forgiving, Raising the Dead, Follow Me.     In the course of a journey with Miles, we encounter all manner of people – those who are homeless, mentally ill, alcoholics, and recovering drug addicts.  We meet people who are gay and straight, Anglo and people of color.  She writes with a sense of passion for ministry to those on the margins – the kind of people she ministers to and with at the Pantry at St. Gregory’s. 

    The point of the book is that since Jesus was known for embracing the wrong kind of people, so should those who are his followers.  Miles, whose Christian experience has been formed by the innovative and counter-cultural St. Gregory’s, can be  very critical of the institutional church and clergy.  Consider this diatribe:

    I didn’t have the energy to listen to interminable reports in church-speak from inarticulate clergy, or to the annoying church bureaucrat who tended to lecture us on process (p. 43).

In some ways she expresses some of my own feelings, especially after a long and agonizing church meeting, and yet it is somewhat over the top and condescending, especially since this attitude tends to color much of her commentary on clergy and churches.  But then, I am a pastor of a traditional mainline church that has existed for more than eight decades, a church in a city very different from San Francisco, and a church that exists in a way that is very different from St. Gregory of Nyssa.  Now, I celebrate the ministry of churches like St. Gregory of Nyssa, but it’s important to remember that all churches are not St. Gregories!        

    Although I might find some of what she says over the top, what I appreciate in the book is the author’s passion for her faith and for the people she serves (with), people who tend to be left to the side by the church (and by my own ministry).  There is in this presentation both a commitment to a very literalized sense of the Christian faith – at least when Jesus’ life and ministry are in mind – but there is also an openness to other faith traditions.  Indeed, there is an openness to the syncretism of a Catholic/Candomble practicioner, who had been influential in her life.  Hers is a faith that is open to the work of God in new and surprising ways. 

    As she puts it in the book’s closing paragraphs:

    But Jesus is real, and so, praise God, are we.  Every single thing the resurrected Jesus does on earth he does through our bodies.  You’re fed, you’re healed, you’re forgiven, you’re pronounced clean.  You are loved, and you’re raised from the dead.

    Go and do likewise (p. 166)

Go and do likewise -- yes, to do so may require that one be willing to be considered a Jesus Freak!


Mystical Seeker said...

I attended her church a handful of times, two of those times when Sara Miles did the preaching. I don't know if she has had any schooling in theology since her conversion, but I didn't really feel the the sermons I heard were necessarily all that theological (one that I recall was focused on the future of the congregation). I admire her enthusiasm (which probably comes with the territory of being a convert) and her commitment to feeding the hungry, but that being said, as much as I wanted to like St. Gregory's, the services there never worked for me.

I think I was initially attracted to the dancing and other creative elements which seemed counter-cultural in theory, but in practice these innovations were really variations on what was no so much counter-cultural as instead very High Church. Maybe it's my Protestant upbringing, but High Church never struck me as very inclusive or counter-cultural, and it is hard for an outsider to figure out all the rules. It bothered me, for example, that no program was handed out before the service, which really was problematic for visitors who had no idea what was going to happen. The elaborate physical rituals that you are more or less forced to participate in, with a capella chanting and so forth, just seemed too much for me.

I so wanted to like St. Gregory's but after about four visits I gave up on it. Not my cup of tea. I think it is interesting that that particular church had such a profound affect on her. I am sure they do great work in the community, and I am sure she plays an important role in that. But I just don't see it as a counter-cultural church.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Mystical Seeker -- I think you have caught something of the book. There is great enthusiasm for doing and serving, not much theology (and no I don't think that she has had much training, in fact there is a bit of the disdain of it).

St. Gregory's is as I understand it -- and you have confirmed -- is Episcopal with a Byzantine liturgy that has been embellished with modern accouterments.

I expect its a bit of an acquired taste! Thanks for the report.

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