A Thicker Jesus (Glen Stassen) -- A Review

A THICKER JESUS: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age.  By Glen Harold Stassen. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2012.  Xi +265 pp.
            What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus in a secular age?  In what ways does the teachings and the life of Jesus form one’s identity as a Christian and as human being living in the public square?  In other words, does being a follower of Jesus have ethical implications in this secular and pluralistic age?  It is said by many that the Christian faith is being challenged by secular ideologies, if so then how do we respond?  Do we pull inward or do we, as the recently elected Pope suggests, take the risk of going out into the streets, where accidents can happen?  Pope Francis noted that if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that’s sick because it’s self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former.”  The vision that is expressed in A Thicker Jesus authored by Fuller Theological Seminary ethics professor Glen Stassen, resonates well with what Pope Francis suggests is the proper road for the church to take.

That self-referential church that’s closed in on itself seems to be one that is grounded in a rather thin or superficial vision of Jesus.  This Jesus has little influence on daily life and decision making.  The Sermon on the Mount is seen as nothing more than an idealistic vision that has no earthly value.  Such a Jesus and such a church, however, are of little value to this world. 

Stassen attempts in this book to analyze our situation and propose a form of incarnational discipleship that addresses the challenge of the moment.  He offers us an ethical vision that can form our identity in a way that enables Christians to live faithfully in this secular environment.  He doesn’t offer us a way of escape, but rather the means for humble but transformative engagement with the public square.  Stassen comes to this task from the perspective of a Baptist Free Church Christian.  Teaching at Fuller means that he has connections within the evangelical community as well.  He also has a unique understanding of the political world.  He is, after all, the son of Harold Stassen, a Progressive Republican politician who served as Governor of Minnesota from 1939-1943, and ran for the Republican nomination for President twelve times.    

Stassen’s intention is to offer a historically-tested Christian ethical framework.  He engages in the conversation through the lens of a historical drama, using the Biblical story, as well as figures such as Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Dorothy Day.  He uses the words historical drama rather than narrative, because this isn’t mere story – it is history, it is realistic rather than idealistic.  The ethical understandings he seeks to propose and explore are tested in the context of the Christian response to Hitler (Bonhoeffer and Barth), East Germany, and the Civil Rights movement.  The point is looking to those persons who remained faithful in difficult times.   
The book is divided into two parts, the first of which develops his understanding of incarnational discipleship in four chapters.  Part two takes this perspective into the real world, asking the question of how an incarnational discipleship will enable Christians to meet the seven challenges of Charles Taylor’s Secular Age:  Democracy, Science, Individualism, Sin, The Cross, Love, and War. 

The kind of incarnational discipleship Stassen proposes has three dimensions.  First it’s grounded in a thick, historically embodied and realistic understanding of Jesus.  Second it offers a holistic understanding of Jesus’ sovereignty over all areas of life and creation – there is no separation between private and public spheres, Jesus should be seen as shaping all aspects of life.  And third he offers a strong call for repentance from our captivity ideologies such as nationalism, racism, and greed.  The key to the development of this form of discipleship is one’s willingness to look closely at Jesus teachings, including the Sermon on the Mount, so that we might live out from them.  As the book progresses, Stassen makes it clear that an idealistic interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount isn’t a faithful reading and undermines its importance for life in the present.  Jesus isn’t an idealist – he addresses real human issues, and if we’re to be his followers we need to look these issues in this light.   

The seven chapters that detail each of Taylor’s challenges are insightful and challenging.  Regarding democracy, for instance, Stassen notes the Puritan roots of American Democracy (especially in its Free Church forms), which leads to a vision of constitutional democracy with checks and balances to protect minorities.  Stassen notes that the Dissenting tradition in England called for both religious freedom and civil freedom.  Turning to the work of my own mentor, James Bradley, Stassen notes that church/state union tends to lead to silence on ethical and justice matters.  Religion in this case becomes a tool of the State, and the Dissenters offered an important challenge to this reality.

Many Christians see science as a challenge, but Stassen, who has an undergraduate degree in the sciences, offers an alternative vision, suggesting that there is room even in modern science for multiple causation, and thus room for God.  Science needn’t be a barrier to discipleship.  Perhaps a more serious challenge is the modern embrace of individualism, especially as envisioned by Ayn Rand.  Unfortunately, religion, including Christianity, has given rise to the kind of cynicism that leads to an embrace of individualism.  Perhaps the key to understanding our place in this secularized world is a new appreciation for the idea of sin.  Deism and liberal optimism is often unprepared for the dark realities of life.  There is need for checks and balances on our individual freedoms. 

Regarding Sin, Stassen turns to Dietrich Bonhoeffer for guidance, especially Bonhoeffer’s early book Creation and Fall, in which Bonhoeffer points out six dimensions of sin, which begins with our human tendency to replace God with ourselves as the source of knowledge and ends in our tendency to “abdicate responsibility and blame others.  Stassen writes that we can learn from Adam that “our claims to be on God’s side are usually self-deception in the service of self-aggrandizement” (p. 132).  Realism requires that we recognize our corporate solidarity, our complicity in the darkness of our world – something that was lacking, in Bonhoeffer’s mind, in his German context as Hitler gained control of the country.

Stassen offers an important exposition of atonement theory – what he calls an “incarnational theory” that moves away from penal substitution, but is more than simply a moral example or sign of love.  It is a sign of Jesus’ non-violent confrontation with the powers that be so as to reveal their injustice and provide a way beyond this mode of existence.  This leads to the question of divine love, as seen expressed in the Sermon on the Mount.  In the chapter on love, Stassen helpfully notes how Bonhoeffer tried in his Ethics, which remained incomplete, to deal with the more idealistic vision of Discipleship, which focused on renunciation without public engagement.  Unfortunately the chapter on the sermon and politics remains unwritten.  Still, there are signs of what Bonhoeffer was trying to do as he moved from an unreachable idealism to a prophetic realism.  The call of love is not to nonresistance toward evil, but to resist nonviolently – as seen in the way of Jesus. 

In the final chapter, Stassen takes up the issue of War, which has been a nagging issue for religion in general.  One reason why secularism has emerged is the involvement of religion in war.  The Enlightenment embrace of secularism was brought on in large part as a reaction to the Thirty Years War that pitted Catholic and Protestant powers.  By reducing the power of religion, it was thought that War would cease.  An alternative vision offers religious liberty as a framework for addressing war.  What Stassen does here is offer not a defense of pacifism, but a rather detailed description of Religious Peacemaking, which emerges from an incarnational understanding of discipleship.  The idea here is that disciple leads to transforming initiatives, such as that exemplified in Martin Luther King’s leadership of the Civil Rights Movement.  Stassen writes that “incarnational discipleship is about repenting for ideologies that replace loyalty to the way of Christ,” and Jesus offers us a way toward a ministry of peacemaking.

The way forward does not lie in accommodating secularism or retreating into the safety of the church walls, but rather going forth into the world as disciples of Jesus, seeking to live into his vision for humanity.  This vision is not easily accomplished.  It challenges our ideologies, our nationalistic loyalties and desire for self-determination.  But it is a way that seeks to be faithful to the vision laid out for Christians by Jesus.  It also offers a coherent ethic and draws us out of our individualism into community. 

I found Stassen’s book to be not only helpful, but challenging. It is well written, insightful, and open but committed to the way of Jesus.  The author calls us to leave behind a passiveness toward the world, to a true and faithful engagement with the public square.  As one who seeks to be present in the public square, and is willing to face the accidents that come when we go into the streets, Stassen offers us wise guidance.  


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