Before we get into the book review, it’s important to flesh out some of the history between myself and the author, Pastor Judah Smith. This historical explanation should help in providing some additional understandings as to my motivations and resulting conclusions, as well as make for interesting reading. My ‘relationship’ with the author goes back several years and can easily be broken into 5 distinct time frames, and though we’ve never met in person, we’ve had our share of intersecting actions.
2003: My High School youth group heads north to Toronto, Canada to attend the Fresh Wind conference for the 2nd time. I am not in attendance as my Aunt has the nerve to schedule her wedding that same weekend. Upon reuniting with my friends they regale me with stories of this hilarious and super cool youth pastor from the far northern territory of Seattle. Over a summer mission trip to northern Canada (I’m detecting a theme) our endless hours in the van are filled with the many voices of Pastor Judah and I begin to feel like I was there hearing him in conference with all my peers. Our youth pastor has some interactions with Pastor Judah, flies out to see the mythical man, and meets Third Day instead, my friends consider the Generation Interns program, things are getting closer.
2008: The summer after my Freshman year in college a family vacation brings me to Seattle, my brother and I catch a bus to the U-District (though we didn’t really know that was a thing) to hear Pastor Judah (I call him PJ, we’re just that close) speak during one of their Wednesday night services. It was awesome, everything that I’d been dreaming of for all those years. I wanted to hang around after and meet the man behind the voice, but he spoke for what seemed like forever and we had to catch a bus, which we ended up chasing for 3 blocks down The Ave. Welcome to Seattle.
2009-2010: PJ makes some snarky comment about the midwest on Twitter, I call him on his crap, he starts following me.
2012: Grad school beckons and upon moving to Seattle I make the trip across the river for a Saturday night service, all the time thinking, perhaps tonights’ the night, perhaps tonight’s the night. Judah didn’t preach.
2013: PJ tweets an offer to join the Jesus Is ____ Street Team, since I’ve already pre-ordered the book I figure it would be nice to get an advance copy.
Now that I’ve firmly established the lightly stalkerish backstory, we can move on to the purpose of this post, a review of literature. This is a long post, it’s a bit wandery in places and would probably feel more at home in the Claremont Review of Books or The Public Discourse than on Amazon or Goodreads. It’s really more of my thoughts on the material, intersections I picked up on, and questions/suggestions I had after reading. Hopefully some bits and pieces of it will be helpful to some people, I’m not trying to rewrite the book or rephrase the author’s conclusions, merely using it as a stepping stone for additional contemplation and reflection.
DISCLAIMER: As I mentioned earlier, I was given a pre-release copy of the book in exchange for helping spread the word on the Tweet-machine and its ilk, and for writing a review. They did mention writing an ‘honest’ review (I think I have that in email form somewhere) and I’m assuming they’re not nearly as litigious as Tesla Motors so I feel pretty safe giving a truthful review of the book; however, if you feel my journalistic integrity may be affected by said goodies, well that’s ok.
The first thing you’ll notice upon receiving this book, is the brightly colored cover, slightly reminiscent of a cross between The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family title slides, it’s really groovy. Next, you’ll wade through 4 pages of glowing reviews that hint at the fact that this may be the greatest book of our generation, if not the greatest, then possibly the penultimate in greatness. To me, it was a little off putting, I like Judah as much as the next guy, but the sheer number of superlatives is a little unsettling.
Once more through the breach, dear friends….
Jesus Is…. Is there a more loaded phrase in the English language? For centuries people have been struggling to understand who this Jesus character is, and why he matters in our day-to-day lives. In this book, the author, Judah Smith, works at a high level of abstraction. He avoids dry theology, he moves beyond the issues of the historical Jesus, or the geo-political underpinnings of a new world order and presents a Jesus personal, real, and immediate. The person of Jesus, not the idea of him, a Jesus for you and me, a Jesus for the real and now; and it’s funny, this Jesus kind of looks like somebody I’d want to hang out with.
Jesus Is Your Friend
Jesus is not your accuser. He’s not your prosecutor. He’s not your judge. He’s your friend and your rescuer.
- pg. 12
Let’s be honest, everyone knows that this Jesus guy is supposed to be super holy and righteous, and of course, a fundamental facet of our nature is that we not hence, disconnected from this holy son of God.Even though a passing glance at the bible renders this logical train of thought into the structural consistency of Swiss Cheese, it’s utterly pervasive through our culture. Why would a holy God suffer my sin and want to hang around with me? Judah’s answer: Because he loves you, and to him, you’re worth pursuing and loving.
“I have loved you,” says the Lord.
- Malachi 1:2a (ESV)
In the first section we see Jesus doing all the things ‘good christians’ would never be caught dead doing, he’s hanging out with professional sinners, being in community with them, ministering to them, and most of all, refraining from condemning them. And that’s the message especially for those in the Church, if God himself doesn’t condemn people, where do we get off doing so? Where is it our place to condemn and marginalize and put up barriers that keep people from experiencing the transformative grace and love of Jesus Christ?
As Judah makes (partially) clear (we’ll get to that later), this is not to say that sin isn’t a big deal, that somehow we’re good enough on our own to win the affections of God. His point here is that sin is between us and God, and he alone can tall people to account for their choices and actions.
…in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his [Jesus] righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
- Romans 3:25-26 (ESV)
For now, God has chosen to look past our sin in order that we might be drawn into his perfect love and grace and from there, allow his glorious majesty to do a good work within in order to bring us to perfection.
…“go and sin no more.” That wasn’t a threat. It was a declaration of freedom. He wasn’t interested in condemning her past. He wanted to rescue her future.
Jesus Is Grace
God offers us something that’s too good to be true— unearned, unmerited, total forgiveness—and we stand there, stiff and uncomfortable, waiting for the embrace to stop so we can get back to the business of earning our way into heaven.
We need to embrace grace. We need to learn how to hug back.
- pg. 36
We all screw up, we all have sinned and fallen short of the greatness we have been called into. For a humanistic world which operates off a utilitarian mindset of, you get what you earn and you are what you produce, failure can be a final state. Here’s the beauty of Jesus and the ‘salvation story’, it doesn’t work the same way.
Judah recounts, in his own special way, the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of redemption and forgiveness, the story of a father humiliating himself because he could not bear being separated from his son even a moment longer. That is the God we serve.
…He could bear the misery of Israel no longer.
- Judges 10:16 (NASB)
… it is a poor thing to come to Him as a last resort, to offer up ‘our own’ when it is no longer worth keeping. If God were proud He would hardly have us on such terms: but He is not proud, He stoops to conquer, He will have us even through we have shown that we prefer everything else to Him, and come to Him because there is ‘nothing better’ now to be had.
- C. S. Lewis – The Problem of Pain (Ch. 6 ‘Human Pain)
And the beautiful thing is, it’s not by our own power that we come, God comes to us and meets us in our pain, filth, and sickness, because that’s just the kind of God he is.
We can take all our education, our information, our resources, and our giftings, and we can plan out how we are going to find God and convince him to take us in; but even with all our planning and plotting and preparation, the best we’ll ever get is still a “long way off.”
- pg. 44
Jesus Is The Point
That wasn’t God’s intent when he gave them the law—it was just human nature.
- pg. 88
Life looks grey sometimes (especially for those of us who live in Seattle), it’s full of pain, full of sadness, and that tedious boredom that always creeps in and ruins an otherwise good week. So what are we to do? The simple answer is that since the world came out of chaos and randomness, with no coherent vision or motivation, there really isn’t any inherent purpose and meaning to life, thus we make it what we want and do as we please. Unfortunately, we all know how that’s turned out so far.
If chance be the Father of all flesh,
Disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
And when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.
- Steven Turner – Poems: Steve Turner
Yet, that answer doesn’t sit well with us humans, we believe, deep down in the bedrock of our souls, that we are meant for something. That we were created for a purpose. That all this pain and suffering is not merely the out workings of some cosmic equation, that there’s meaning somewhere, somehow. And we struggle to find that meaning, and our purpose by whatever means necessary. And yet, there is really only one way to find that purpose and meaning. In a personal, loving God, unchanging:
I believe in one God,
loved, desired by all creation,
who moves the turning Heavens,
- Dante – The Divine Comedy § Paradiso
He is the word existing beyond time,
both source and final purpose,
bringing to wholeness all that is made.
- Eucharistic Prayer 5
Judah hammers this point home with the story of Solomon, he had everything, and still it wasn’t enough, there was nothing on earth he didn’t have access to, and still he found himself in the depths of dispair. Then here comes Christ, claiming to give us hope and a future, purpose and destiny. Not in an abstract theoretical way, but in a real, personal way, a way that hit us where we live and work, a way that punches through the drudgery and monotony and says, I have made you, I have loved you, and I will use you for great things.
I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.
- Jeremiah 29:11 (The Message)
Jesus is the point of life.
- pg. 113
Jesus Is Happy
Desiring happiness, peace, and joy is not wrong. But how we pursue them is important.
- pg. 119
Jesus is, Happy. Yes he is. As I was reading this section I kept thinking about one of my favorite quotes from G.K Chesterton regarding the nature of Jesus:
I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.
- G.K Chesterton – Orthodoxy
Something too great for us to understand, the mirth and joy of Christ. People do indeed have this idea that following Christ involves giving up all of the good things in life and perhaps even moving into a monastery somewhere and subsisting on solely bread and water. To those people I say, even monasteries brew beer.
…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
- John 10:10 (ESV)
When The Lord created the earth he called it good (טוב) (tôwb) meaning, among many other things, delicious, desirable, agreeable. God made the earth, and he liked it, he liked it very much. The world is good, and we’re not exempt from enjoying it. Christianity is not a droll, boring faith for those who are pathologically averse to pleasure; it is not a dead orthodoxy inspiring a sort of abstraction from reality. It is a real, vibrant, enjoyable life chasing after the one who makes it all worthwhile. We are in the world, and we experience the world in real ways.
The gospel is not bad news. It’s not threatening news. It’s not hellfire-and-brimstone news. It’s good news. Great news. Over-the-moon news. You cannot separate joy from the gospel. Joy is built into the very definition of the gospel. They are literally the same word.
- pg. 122
Jesus Is Here
He loved you when you hated him, and he loves you now.
- pg. 156
We do not serve an absent God, we do not serve a divine entity who showed up for the opening credits, then jetted off to his next fixer-up project.
With creation, God does not abandon his creatures to themselves. He not only gives them beings and existence, but also, and at every moment, upholds and sustains them in being, enables them to act and brings them to their final end. Recognizing thus utter dependence with respect to the Creator is a source of wisdom and freedom, of joy, and confidence.
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church – The Profession of Faith § 301
Our God is not dead, we have not killed him with our unbelief, we do not summon him with rigid patterns of observation, or risk his selfish wrath when we act contrary to his will. Nor do we follow a God who has no idea what on earth we’re going through.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
- Hebrews 4:15 (ESV)
Our God is both fully God and fully Man. He is, Homoousios, of same substance with the Father and yet, still fully man. He knows us, he loves us, he is there for us, and he pursues us.
I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
- Francis Thompson – The Hound of Heaven
Jesus brings life out of death. He brings hope out of sorrow. He turns our mourning into joy. Jesus is there for us when we need him most—whether we know it or not and whether we appreciate it or not.
Jesus will never leave us. He will never abandon us. He will never give up on us.
Jesus is always here.
- pg. 163
Jesus Is Alive
Jesus gives us a new way to be human.
- pg. 191
For centuries man has been searching for the solution to all man’s ills. And they’ve developed a good many theories and promises, and yet, here we are still in the midst of suffering, still facing pain, still tainted with sin.
The end to man’s ills is not found in man, but in something else. We cannot unmake ourselves, we cannot reconstitute into something better, something cleaner, something less rotten, it’s not possible. That’s where God comes in, he comes to bring us new life, a new birth, something that is fundamentally different from what we have, and in that, we find true freedom and redemption.
A few years ago, I was reading Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams and in one chapter they discussed the different between Spanish and English theory of economics, for the Spanish there existed a finite amount of wealth in the world, for the English wealth could be generated by continual process improvement. From one system you have empire and conquest, from the other you have commerce and industry. Everyday we strive to ‘get ahead’, to be better then others, to ‘get what’s mine.’ We’re all Spanish at heart.
…man strives for glory, lest no glory be had.
- H. Richard Niebuhr - ‘The Responsible Self’ (Ch. 5)
Then in comes God, and he changes everything. He promises to get rid of our old selves and fill us with his perfect self. He promises to take all that striving, and redeem us from it. To get ride of the reason why we struggle in the first place.
all the pain that you have known
all the violence in your soul
all the wrong things you have done
I will take from you when I come
all mistakes made in distress
all your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss
I will give you tenderness
- The Opiate Mass – This is to Mother You
Not only has he come to redeem our future, but to cleanse us of our past. As the afore mentioned Neibuhr noticed, we respond to people primarily based on how we’ve interacted with them in the past, which is to say, our sin always goes with us. It’s forever tainting the way to look at people, and the way they respond to us. That’s why Christ’s sacrifice is so important, he took all our sin upon us, all our past mistakes and failures and did away with them.
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
- 2 Corinthians 5:17 (ESV)
A new creation, one without the stains of old, one without the primal strivings for success and power, something washed in the blood of the perfect sacrifice. We are not chained to what we’ve done, we’re empowered to fully embrace our future.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.
- John 8:36 (ESV)
Jesus gave me a new way to be human. At the core of my being, I am holy, righteous, godly, compassionate, generous, loving, and sensitive. I have a new nature, and it mirrors the God who created me.
- pg. 196
Overall, I thought this was an excellent book, Judah has a fresh, light writing style that moves quickly through topics and refrains from getting bogged down, or overly wordy (something the author of this post cannot claim). That being said, there were a few things I was a little less thrilled with.
The question I kept coming back to was, who is this book for? The author would probably claim: for everyone. While that response works great if you’re inventing the internet, it works less well when writing a book. In my humple opinion there are 3 basic intended audiences; people outside the Church and curious about this Jesus guy, people familiar with God, but probably burned by the Church at some point, and long time believers who probably have a less then stellar track record when it comes to withholding judgement (I count myself in the latter). Based on those three groups I think the author did a pretty good job with his content optimization for the first two groups. The material is fresh (though not particularly novel or groundbreaking), the language is up to date, and the topics hit home right where people live and feel. If you’re wondering if the Church is more then laws and rules, this book is for you. If you’re feeling dry and empty trying to achieve happiness on your own, this book is for you. That being said, for long time Christians it’s a more difficult sell. While it’s true we should be continually revisiting the simple truths of the bible, the fact is, the book stops short. While it preaches compassion and mercy, it gives few answers on how to do so. At what points does looking past sin become, not considering it sin at all? Where do we draw the line between being in the world, and being of the world? Is there even a line at all? Perhaps these are simple questions that other readers won’t be bothered by, but they matter to me. I struggle to find the balance between justice and mercy, to live my life in a way that calls people to a higher standard of morality and holiness and that meets them where they are and loves them; because in all honesty, I’m not any better. I was looking for some answers, I was hoping for some Godly guidance, and largely came up empty handed, which was disappointing, but not wholly unexpected, it’s probably just beyond the scope of the book.
The second issue I had was with largely with this phrase:
God reveals himself in Jesus.
- pg. 110
Let me be clear, I don’t have a problem with this because it’s not true, because it absolutely is, but I have an aversion to this type of thinking, that Jesus is our image of God (especially with the implication that’s the only way we see God) because I think a lot of people have a really bad image of Jesus. To many Jesus is really more akin to the foil of Jesus that John P. Meier describes:
A tweedy poetaster who spent his time spinning out parables and Japanese koans, a literary aesthete who toyed with 1st century deconstructionism, or a bland Jesus who simply told people to look at the lilies of the field….
- John P. Meier
He’s more a good teacher and less a divine being. Which is completely false, Jesus the very nature of God, he is ‘God with skin on’, and we need to clear that this is a two way street, it’s not the love of Jesus and the divinity of God as two separate but intersecting spheres, it’s both, together, triune and single. This is a subtlety that escapes many people and has lead to some pretty wacky theology, and we here in the United States have done a pretty spectacular job of creating our own Christ. Stephen Prothero, in discussing this ‘American revolution’ writes:
The third stage in this revolution fulfilled the promis of Jefferson’s vision for Jesus, liberating him from Christianity itself… It came to fruition in the midst of the post-1965 immigration boom, as Hindus and Buddhists boldly adopted Jesus as one of their own, unbinding him (at least for their purposes) from the Christian tradition… Americans of all religious persuassians (and none) felt free to embrace whichever Jesus fulfilled their wishes.
- Stephen Prothero – American Jesus (Introduction)
Perhaps this is simply myself reading with a sensitivity born out of the culture I’m living in, and I in no way want to accuse Pastor Judah of having a faulty theological basis, but at times it seems as if this book’s Jesus would just simply take an ‘anything goes’ stance with regards to our sin; while the author attempts to claim this isn’t an indictment of morality or law, I don’t think he makes the case very well and I fear the undertones may be lost on our post-modern culture.
Those notes aside, I enjoyed my time reading the book, there were parts where I was in awe (again) over the mercy and grace of God, struck anew by the compassion of Christ, and convicted over the ways I’ve treated people in the past with regards to their choices and lifestyles. It was, overall an encouraging book that I would definitely recommend for people to read. If you’re looking to better understand Jesus, or to come to grasp with grace and mercy, or simply wanting to be reminded of the infinite mercies of our creator, this book is for you.
In concluding, I had a few notes that I wanted to share:
- Pg. 5. – Zacchaues definitely had some swagger, though I’m not sure it if was hip-hop swagger, or Godfather swagger. Personally, I picture him in a tracksuit, rocking the gold bling with an un-godly amount of chest hair spilling from his open shirt; thought that’s probably more of a stylistic choice.
- Pg. 44 – Great imagery, reminds me of Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son.
- Pg. 88 – I am convinced that Saint John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, is actually 5:30 in the morning.
- Pg. 118 – I would like to add some additional proverbs:
- The Right Reverend Leo Tolstoy: Happy Families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. (I thought we needed some culture up in here).
- Brother Nicholas Robison: Sometimes families cause you to miss out on incredible sermons presented at youth conferences in Canada.
- Based on the Collected Watchings of the Throne by Saints Kayne of West, and Jay a’ Z, we know that families at times, make you get an education, and let you cook crack in the kitchen. Literally, life and death.
So those are my thoughts, thanks for reading. I look forward to your comments, suggestions, condemnations, indignations, and in a perfect world, warm baked cookies mailed to my apartment, but I’ll settle for simpler things.