I consider Tom a friend but actually we’ve never met in person. Our paths “crossed” when I was a college pastor in Orange County, California. He had written an interesting article on evangelical Millennials serving the needs of the world and I had just taken a college group from our church to help New Orleans rebuild post-Katrina. That began an email and Facebook friendship and we have stayed in contact here and there albeit at a distance. I’ve read his two previous books, so before Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower was released, I told Tom I would read it and offer my thoughts. My confession is I’m one of those evangelical pastors.
The book fits with Tom’s view of the world – someone who is secular and a skeptic of any religious faith of his own but the kind of bridgebuilder the Christian community should embrace. Rather than disparaging evangelicals, Tom is known for locating common ground emphasizing what shines brightly about modern day Christianity contrasted with how it’s often publicly portrayed. In many ways, Tom’s book digs a bit deeper into the question of, “Can a person be good without God?”.
The chapters move seamlessly through the ethics of Jesus and why he thinks Jesus’ take is still revolutionary yet grounded in a reality that many people dismiss far too quickly. Adroitly moving through topics like inclusion, narcissism, consumerism, dissatisfaction, criminal justice, racism, forgiveness, and sex, Tom writes to convince his readers that what Jesus taught two thousand years ago is not confined to some sectarian religious fundamentalism. In fact, my sense in reading the book is that Tom is arguing for his stance not only on the basis of pragmatics (it works and it makes sense) but also on the basis of moral realism.
The title itself is fascinating as if he had Augustine in mind. His confessions are interspersed through the chapters as someone who is being honest with his readers and with himself. How a person who holds to a secular view of life follows Jesus in how to live life is filled with wonderful tension and Tom communicates this well. I would recommend Tom’s book to evangelicals solely on the basis of breaking down the barriers with those who are typically “excluded” (to use Miroslav Volf’s language) from our faith community. We can sit at the table with others even with charitable disagreements to focus on creating dialogue and even working together for common causes. If you don’t think there are common causes, you had better read the book (and your Bible).
Now to what I think is challenging. Let me state it in the most charitable way possible. As much as I found myself emphatically saying, “Yes” over and over as I was reading the book, there is one piece that seems problematic to me. It seems difficult in my thinking to separate Jesus’ ethics from his person. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City, wrote in his book Making Sense of God, “What is surprising is not only that [Jesus’] claims were so self-centered but also that his character and his actions were so completely un-self-centered.” (p.236).
Tom’s book covers well the un-self-centered character of Jesus that as an ethic lived out seems consistent with reality and adds to a personal sense of flourishing. But it’s the “self-centered” claims that don’t bear as much weight in Tom’s mind. In other words, the ethics of Jesus are taken literally but the claims about himself are treated with more liberty. This splitting of Jesus seems problematic to me because it raises questions about the unity of the total person, in this case Jesus. It’s hard to accept Jesus’ ethics at face value without treating as serious the personal claims he made about himself, leaving him only in the category of “model”.
I absolutely think the book is well worth your time reading and it will give you plenty to think about and discuss with your friends. Despite my question, I loved reading the book so much so that Tom and I can continue this conversation in our own WTF (you have to read the book) over a good beer if we meet one day. This is one of the great values of the book – as we find ourselves living during a time in history where people converse by shouting at and over each other (my tribe included) Tom’s book is just the opposite. It forces us in humility to drop the pretensions, not push away from the table and simply mock the “other side”, choosing instead to have a conversation. In doing so my hope is that it helps us to forge friendships with people holding diverse views with mutual respect. Bravo Tom!