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The Lost Message of Jesus

Steve Chalke & Alan Mann (Zondevan; Oasis; Faithworks)

Not only has Steve Chalke become a slightly recognised TV celebrity (ref his bizarre appearances with Mister Motivator, as well as the Songs of Praise gigs), he’s also known among the Christian community as a church leader, a gifted speaker on family and teen issues, and for the impact he’s had in standing up for faith-based social action through both Oasis and the Faithworks banner.

His efforts to help politicians understand that a great deal of caring for the poor and disadvantaged takes place on account of faith-motivation are well documented and highly to be applauded.

His latest book has generated considerable keyboard-tapping, some of it unfair, and much of it ungracious, to say the least.

Good

So what’s good about this book? Well, I like the attitude that reminds us of just how radical Jesus really was. ‘If Jesus is half the revolutionary you claim, how come he’s represented by one of the most conservative, status-quo institutions on the planet?’ Chalke fairly criticises the established church for failing to represent radical, dynamic, life-changing freedom, love and grace, settling for formality, slipping into self-righteousness and arrogance.

He brings worthwhile insight into the feeding of the 5000, for instance. It’s the only miracle of Jesus (reckoning that the resurrection is the work of the Father raising the Son from death to life) that’s mentioned in all four gospels. What does the miracle teach us? Quite a lot, I think: feeding the poor not only with the word but also with bread; commending the generosity and faith of the boy; teaching the disciples about how God takes our small gifts and makes them huge, and does so at the point of distribution.

Getting Better

Yet an issue which we seem to have missed is that it’s also about the way Jesus transcended the Law: the men and women sit down together, and the bread is given to them without respect to the strict Jewish food rules – it would have been radical to make no distinction between food given to Gentiles and food given to Jews; between bread for men and bread for women; and to serve it in such a way that the purity regulations could not be observed.

Jesus was teaching far more about the breaking down of barriers than he was about his power to provide packed lunches.

The passages about Rosa Parks and Kim Phuc (the Vietnamese girl burned by napalm who forgives the people responsible for her disfigurement and the slaughter of family members) are powerful indeed.

Turning the Corner

Perhaps the most challenging elements of the book concern what he calls the Myth of Redemptive Violence, shedding light on Jesus’ teaching that we should ‘love our enemies’. This has too often been twisted by those who seek to be ‘nice’ – while I won’t act in self-defence, they say, I will fight for the freedom of my neighbour. Unfortunately, such is the violent history of Christianity, that he has to draw upon the examples of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Ghandi – none of whom is a noted evangelical, ‘properly’ born-again…

Oh Dear

And then he states his case so strongly that he is in danger of over-stating it. He wants to triple underline that the message of the cross is the love of God, sending his Son to be our Saviour; yet he does so with such aggressive, uncompromising language that he has stirred up considerable fury within those ‘more heat than light’ type of websites where the Authorised Version is quoted, often with a distinct lack of charity.

It’s the strength of the phrase he uses which has created such fierce reaction: but it’s been quoted in the least helpful way. For many years there has been discussion of the wrath of God and the love of God both shown as Christ died on the cross. Chalke is, it seems to me, a little too sweepingly dismissive of the theology of penal substitution. He reduces the wrath of God poured out on human sin, when Jesus became sin for us upon the cross, to the sound-bite ‘cosmic child-abuse’.

His argument (sadly one of the most poorly, incompletely argued in this otherwise well-written, penetrative book) is that God is love, so he wouldn’t vent hatred on his Son - as to do so undermines the teaching to love our enemies. God clearly isn’t being loving towards his Son as he rejects him, wrathfully dispensing justice against sin. I can see why he feels that penal substitution is a doctrine which appears to be paradoxical, but it’s also far too orthodoxical to be dismissed in a few brief sentences – albeit eloquent ones. He wants to remind us that the cross is a symbol of love and grace, which it certainly is. But to do so in this way (emptying it of legal status as the place where the penalty was paid) hasn’t been argued at all well.

It’s a shame, also, that this is contextually placed near his weakest illustrations – a war-time example of gracious substitution that is very definitely penal and yet is suspect in its analysis, and a whole lot of guff about Aslan, whose story reflects some of the resurrection narrative, but isn’t adequately atoning to be used when trying to back up the coach and horses he’s trying to drive through my theology.

My Error

But having looked carefully at the words inside the covers of this book (we call this reading), I can see that there is much to recommend alongside the controversy. Some (indeed, many) of the blogcritics admit that they haven’t examined or even glanced at the book (let alone buying a copy, God forbid) before launching into unloving tirades against this brother. This is, in my view, a little rude and somewhat foolish. How can I be taken seriously if I haven’t even considered at first hand the crime of which the accused is accused? At least the Evangelical Alliance statement on this issue, which is a marvellous example of Christian niceness, evenly acknowledges that there is a theological difference here (perceptive spot, boys) and calls for calm reflection, brotherly forebearance and cautious hesitation.

Conclusion

So my conclusion must be to admit the shame of having started an argument with a dear friend about the book, when all I’d done was hear about it and looked at a few reactionary blogs, when my beef is with the theology, and not with the authors, nor their work.

And yet I am convinced that the wrath of God was poured out on his Son the sin offering as the ultimate act not of hatred but of love; it wasn’t simply the Father’s idea, after all. The Son willingly stood in the gap, becoming sin for me, receiving the just reward for my sin, being the perfect sacrifice in my place. It’s all the more potent that God the Father abandoned God the Son – not just because the Father cannot welcome or accept or compromise over sin – but because the Son willingly stood up and paid the penalty on account of his love for me. God was still being loving, since Jesus was being loving, and Jesus was still God, despite becoming sin. It’s complex, it’s wonderful, it’s too involved to be dismissed as a ‘contradiction to the statement that God is love’.

Set light to Chalke & Mann as heretics? No need. Dismiss them as theological lightweights? Not appropriate, I feel. Accept everything they write wholesale without consideration? I refer the honourable gentlemen to the reply St Paul gave in Acts 17, along the lines of ‘check out everything I say against what the Bible says, to make sure that we’re all handling the truth as accurate workmen.’ Every Bible teacher with integrity would welcome his hearers digging into the word of God to ensure we’re avoiding that millstone/rope/deepest ocean combo. Capishe?