Outlandish (Derek Penwell) -- A Review

OUTLANDISH: An Unlikely Messiah, A Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize. By Derek Penwell. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2019. Xviii + 158 pages.




Who was Jesus? That is a question that has been asked in every age, and differing answers are offered in every age. The famous quests for the historical Jesus in recent centuries have often given us pictures that are more reflective of who we are than who the Jesus who lived in the first century might have been.  Nevertheless, since Jesus remains one of the most influential figures in history, we must continue asking the question, recognizing that some answers are better than others and that any answer we give is at best an approximate one. It is with that caveat about the challenges of searching for the historical Jesus that I approach Derek Penwell's book Outlandish.

The subtitle of the book is revealing. It suggests that the Jesus we will meet in this book is, first of all, an “unlikely Messiah.” Jesus probably wasn’t what most of his contemporaries were expecting. His ministry was rather messy, but it brought to the fore a call to mobilize for a revolutionary work. The last phrase in the title might be the most telling, for this is a call for Christians to emulate Jesus by mobilizing for social justice. If you want to know the true trajectory of the book, you might want to start by reading the final chapter: "What Do We Do?" This chapter makes sense of what has gone before. Of course, the author left that chapter to the end for a reason, so you might want to start at the beginning and move toward the conclusion, which involves the "call to mobilize."

As I noted above our pictures of Jesus do reflect our own understandings of the Christian faith. I think that is reflected in the way this book is written. By saying this I don’t mean to diminish the message of the book, but simply to take note of what I believe to be the underlying vision of the author. After all, we all have a point of view—a bias.

Before I get to the meat of the book, I need to introduce the author. I’ve known Derek for some time. He is a clergy colleague within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), serving as pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church in Louisville. In that position, Derek has engaged in community activism around a number of important issues from LGBT inclusion to immigrant rights. That commitment comes out in the book. Derek is a pastor and an activist, but he is also a scholar, having earned a Ph.D. in the Humanities from the University of Louisville. All of this is brought together in this, his second book (the first was titled The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World).

Derek's purpose in writing the book, at least as I read it, is to help us understand that Jesus' project was deeply political. By that he means, Jesus took up a prophetic ministry on behalf of the marginalized. In so doing, he incurred the wrath of both the religious establishment and the political establishment. While these two were intertwined, the religious establishment was Jewish, and the political establishment was Roman. The two parties collaborated for their own reasons, but they did so at the expense of the poor and marginalized. Thus, when Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, he was offering a political program. The problem is that Jesus wasn't a very accomplished messiah. He had the opportunity to lead a revolt, but for whatever reason chose not to do so.

Jesus, as Derek introduces him to us, wasn't all that good of a teacher (his audience was often left puzzled). He wasn't a great judge of character (look at who he surrounded himself with). In other words, if we emulate Jesus, we won't find a model of success. We will instead find one who pushed all the wrong buttons and ended up being crucified by the Romans, who saw him as a political threat. In presenting this vision, Derek draws on people like Richard Horsley, Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan. At points, I resonated with the presentation. At other points, I was left with concerns and questions. Over time I've become sensitive to the way Jews are portrayed both in the Gospels and in our readings of the texts. One group that has too often been mischaracterized is the Pharisees. At points, Derek drifted toward portrayals of them as being uptight and legalistic. There is some truth here, but I think there is a need for a more nuanced presentation—perhaps more dialogue with an interpreter such as Amy Jill Levine would be helpful.

Where Derek and I might differ at points isn't so much the political side, but the religious side of the conversation. While Jesus was a prophetic leader, who could have led a revolt had he so desired, I see more of the spiritual elements in the life and message of Jesus than Derek seemed to offer the reader in this presentation. Again, in part, this is due to the purpose of the book, which becomes clear in the end. He has a political aim here.

For some readers, chapter seven will prove challenging. Here Derek deals with the resurrection. He's already made it clear that Jesus didn't die for our sins (penal substitutionary atonement). But what about the resurrection? He notes that many make the physical resurrection the center of the faith—a la Paul—but he suggests that the Enlightenment project has called the traditional view into question. The current liberal view is that the resurrection is to be understood metaphorically rather than bodily. Derek seems to locate himself within this camp, but he doesn’t want to make this the sticking point if it takes away from his broader purpose. So, though I'm a bodily resurrection person (I have my reasons, which I think enhance the justice message, but that's for a different posting), I believe Derek is correct when he says that "the theological meaning of the resurrection precedes questions of historicity" (p. 119). We should ask what the message of the resurrection is. According to Derek the message of the resurrection is "God's big 'no' to the powers and principalities." That is, the resurrection is an act of judgment on those powers and principalities that have resisted God's realm and thus God's vision of justice. With that, Derek suggests that the church "is the embodiment of the resurrection." If the church, as it so often has, fails to embody the resurrection then it is under the judgment of God (as Martin Luther King revealed in his "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." All of this is revealed in the resurrection.

When we arrive at the final chapter of the book, we discover what drives Derek’s presentation. The chapter is titled “What do we do?” In this chapter, Derek reveals what he believes are the primary implications of Jesus’ ministry. In his mind, Jesus’ ministry was not only political in nature, but it was also subversive. More specifically, he pictures the Jesus movement as being a movement of resistance. With that in mind, he suggests that those who might take up the cause of the kingdom of God, need to understand that joining up poses dangers. In fact, it could get you killed or at the very least arrested.

So, what do I make of the book? Although written for a general audience and not for scholars, this is a challenging read. For one thing, it is written with wit that can be biting (but then Jesus was known for his biting humor). But, the subject is a difficult one. Many have been led to believe Jesus was meek and mild. What many know of Jesus involves two moments in his life—his birth and his resurrection (Christmas and Easter). This book takes place mainly in the time in between birth and resurrection. In addition, I will admit that as a writer, I am much more sedate! Derek likes to push buttons—witness the book’s title and the chapter titles. Consider but one of the chapter titles: “What a Horrible Messiah.” The point that Derek wants to make is that justice in this world is needed and that the followers of Jesus need to pursue justice, for this is the heart of the kingdom. Derek doesn’t want anyone to go away from reading the book without understanding that message. I might say it differently—maybe I’m more theologically "orthodox" than Derek, but on the question of whether the gospel has political implications, I think we're in agreement. So you want to be a follower of the outlandish messiah named Jesus? Are you ready for what that involves?

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