In A More Christlike God Bradley Jersak takes us on a journey that effectively brings together what a number of Christian authors have been saying for some time now. He does it in a manner that is faithful to Scripture, though not strictly faithful to various popular interpretations of Scripture. He also does it in a clear and engaging way. It’s not light reading, but it is easy to read and understand.
Those who want to object to any of the things he says should not be able to say they don’t get it. He is so clear that any misrepresentation of his arguments will almost certainly have to be willful. It will be interesting indeed to see the critical response to this challenging work. Critics there will be, but none who can honestly say they misunderstand him.
What I hope to do in this review is present an impression of the text that is as faithful as possible to what I hear the author saying. In so doing, I hope this review will encourage you to read/study the book for yourself and make up your own mind. It is set up in a way that could even be used for group study, with questions at the end of each chapter, a helpful glossary and some guidance regarding other literature in a similar vein.
Parts I and II, Chapters 1 to 8 – Don’t miss the Bill Maher quote early on. It will cause your head to nod in recognition, eyes to roll or blood pressure to shoot upward, depending. The author’s interview with Jess will cause some to throw the book across the room. Pick it up later, and read on. It will provoke. “Do we ourselves need hell to keep our envy of sinners at bay?” “Were these questions a sign of heresy or sanity?” Miss, under no circumstances, the Revivalist-Pharisee-Santa.
Don’t skip over the politics “Genuine freedom is a gift of Christ’s sacrificial love, not the vacuous promises of grandiose political movements or sabre rattling politicians.” Enjoy clever wordplay “Freedom can ‘make babies’, but only love raises them!” Be amazed at what is still controversial in Christian theology “Love is not merely one of God’s attributes. Love is who God is in his very nature.” Consider an old/new view of the scope of redemption. “We cannot allow that the sacrifice of Golgotha has proved powerless to redeem the world and conquer hell. Otherwise we should say: creation is a failure, and Redemption is also a failure.” Quote from Father Alexandr Turnisev.
Throughout the book enjoy pages of long supporting quotes from Scripture and a refreshing reticence to ‘proof text’. And, especially in the final chapter, see some prime examples of how proof texting can lead to misleading results that can be quite harmful. Actually, this theme of looking a larger swaths of Scripture readings as opposed to short proof-texts is an important part of the ethos of this work. One of my favourite quotes: “The Cross reveals God’s person (who he is) but also his kingdom (how he reigns).”
Get ready for lively, hopefully loving, debate in response to declarations like “…. if consent comes with an ultimatum tied to a deadline — if lack of surrender is threatened with eternal conscious torment — then the offer is devoid of real love.” Think about God’s sovereignty, and divine action as well “Yes! Christ does reign — he reigns in heaven and in the world, even over secondary causes. There is no question that he reigns; the question is, how does he reign?”
Consider weighty issues such as the meaning of how we are the ‘image of God’. “What if the image we carry is that of omnipotence laid down?” Consider how simple and easy Adam and Eve’s obedience (and ours) could be, and marvel at how we never can pull it off (on our own). “We are not even called to do anything! We are simply asked to refrain from something while being filled with innumerable delights.” (Gen 2:16). Wondering if we can save ourselves? “I am not suggesting that we were partners in Christ’s foundational work of salvation. Christ was the only human partner who, because he is also divine, could provide for the redemption of all.” …….. “Our participation is mutual but not equal. He is the Gift-giver and we are the recipients. He is the Saviour and we are the saved. He is the Lover — we, the beloved.”
What about prayer? A short but very powerful section gets to the heart of the matter. Here’s what I took away from this part. Praying “Thy will be done” doesn’t mean that we think God may do nothing regarding the matter. It does mean that we are not going to dictate what he will do, while fully expecting him to actually carry out his will in the matter. It especially means that we stand ready to be the vessel through which his will in this specific case will be realized. And a quote that captures the central theme of the book (as seen from the first eight chapters). “If God’s consent allows necessity (the secondary causes of natural law and human freedom) to work — to our joy and sorrow — God’s grace participates (by the Holy Spirit) in the world wherever willing partners (first and most of all Jesus Christ) actively mediate his reign of love and care into the world. The Incarnation is God’s supreme act of grace — of participation, partnering, sharing — in the world afflicted by secondary causes.”
Chapter 9 – This is the most challenging, and one of the most important chapters. It’s about how to think in a Christlike manner in the face of all the things that go wrong in this life. It particularly focuses on the horrible, suffering-causing things that cannot be explained by pointing to evil people or systems. Why does nature hurt us – from gravity to tsunamis, to fire to disease, and so much more. Why doesn’t God just fix it?
Jersak refuses to try to answer this in a way that can be satisfactory without faith. In fact, he rejects all attempts to develop theodicies accessible to pure reason, calling them worse than unhelpful. His foundation for this, as it is throughout the book, is the Cross of Jesus Christ. The divine suffering there, he argues, included every imaginable suffering humanity has ever experienced. We cannot suffer anything that the crucified Lord hasn’t already suffered, and is not presently suffering. As the events of Good Friday reveal, God himself refused to save himself from taking on all of the suffering of the cosmos. So, in fact, he did do something about it, and is doing something about it. This includes, perhaps especially includes, the suffering we may feel when we can’t possibly believe any of this, and dismiss it as drivel. And when we reject God, when we turn our face away and suffer the consequences, is that just us acting in our unique, ornery way?
Are there spiritual actors that play a role as well? Here’s where Jersak may make some progressive and liberal Christians squirm a bit. He recognizes the reality of evil, outside of humanity. In no way does he downplay the sin inside humanity, but he is open to the abundant scriptural witness of the spiritual nature of evil. These two paragraphs are an inadequate representation of this fine chapter, and a bit from a chapter to come.
Like many other parts of the book, there are statements that jar, long-standing ideas severely challenged and more. But there is healing here too. Careful rereading, meditation, prayer will be required of the reader, but the honesty with which this toughest of all subjects is approached will be visible to all. If I may make a recommendation, read both this chapter and Greg Boyd’s “Is God to Blame?”
Part III Chapters 10 to 14 – If we ignore or even defy gravity we unfailingly encounter serious consequences. We don’t suffer the wrath of gravity, but we do suffer. We could say that we suffered the wrath of gravity, and if we did everyone would know what we meant. It’s like that with lots of things in this cosmos that is given space and allowed to be and to become by an almighty God. So argues Brad Jersak in this last section entitled Unwrathing God.
But many believe that God is not like gravity, to which Jersak answers, of course, God is not (only) like gravity. That’s a metaphor like any metaphor, only as useful as far as it goes. Coming to grips with what’s missing in this metaphor is the main challenge of this section. Jersak argues that God knows, intimately, the nature of his cosmos. So, he knows human nature as well. He knows we often do try to defy reality. We act as if there are no material limits, we act as if nature doesn’t matter except as our servant, just to give two instances. But mostly we all are far too prone to act toward others as if what matters most is me, my tribe, my ‘race’ my country my ideas, my theology.
This person to person rebellion against the reality of God’s cosmos is one of the most damaging aspects of our turning our face away from God. But then, and here Jersak is adamant, God never turns his face away from us! In fact, he turns toward us so much that he lets us abuse his good creation at will, he lets us abuse each other, even violently, and, when we try to explain all of this mess, he lets us abuse his good name in the most ugly ways imaginable. How does Jersak know this? Where’s the evidence? He points to the Cross and what happened (and still happens) there.
Conservative and post-conservative Christians need not worry, the real Resurrection is central to his argument, but, as he helpfully quips, “But honestly, even if Hitler had been resurrected fifty times, I would still not love and worship him!” Jersak places his faith in the one who rose from the dead, because of what he did, and accomplished before he rose from the dead. The Resurrection is the proof, through faith, that such faith is not misplaced.
Atonement does not escape the radar, nor are the ‘atonement wars’ entertained (too much). It’s too complex and contested to go into here, I just want to report that it’s there. But, I will yield to the temptation to relate three telling quotes: On punishment: “When we see sin as a fatal disease that produces ugly symptoms and a sure death-warrant, we see how useless punishment is as a cure.” On appeasement: “God the Judge is not awaiting appeasement from God the sacrifice. On substitution: “Did Jesus ‘take a bullet for us’? Yes! ….. (but) God is not the one holding the smoking gun. We are.”
Do read the book. It is a mighty challenge to us all. To followers of Christ, it will challenge the way we practice our faith, think our theologies and read/interpret the Bible. To seekers (that is everyone), it offers a view of God, creation, people, sin and redemption that is most likely quite different from what you have heard, and perhaps grew up with — different but, for many, it will also strike a strong familiar chord, with some different jargon and angles.
As an effective summary, the final chapter takes all of what came before and distills it into a very inviting presentation of the gospel – literally the old, old story, the restorative gospel. If you read no other part of the book, read this. Compare it with other versions you have heard. See what you think.
Special thanks to Dr. Bev Mitchell for his helpful review of this outstanding new book.