Can Jesus Get His Religion Back?

I’m a bookseller so I see a lot of titles come and go. Some that I have high hopes for prove to be disappointing; others turn out even better than promised. Jesus Brand Spirituality The fabulous and generous new book by Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality, definitely falls in the second category.

I unpacked it the day I was heading off to sell books at a conference of pastors in southeastern Pennsylvania. Once I got there, all I could do was hold it up, babble about it, and read whoever walked by a quotation from the blurb on the back cover about a guy who had left the Christian faith but wondered, after having read the book, whether he would have left the church if his pastor sounded anything like this.

Although Wilson is part of the charismatic Vineyard movement, and Thomas Nelson is a clearly evangelical publisher, the audience at this gathering was mostly left-leaning mainline church pastors. Yet I was sure they would resonate with the way in which the author sounds out a deep fidelity to Christ and the complexities of the best of the Christian tradition while distancing himself from fundamentalism, the Religious Right, and all kinds of simplistic or sloganeering religiosity. I read them the first sentence, where Wilson declares: “Jesus wants His religion back,” and told them his open-minded thoughtfulness reminded me of the sorts of ministries I gather they are about.

The book, happily, is not just another critique of the shallowness of evangelical certitudes or the meanness of some of the Religious Right or yet another call to be open and in conversation as we emerge into new ideas. It is a thoughtful, mature, and deeply engaging study of the ways in which we can approach Jesus, how to make sense of life in light of his ways. It talks about how the best of four streams within Christianity can unite to help create a passionate, faithful and yet grace-filled, life-giving spirituality. (Wilson’s four dimensions, by the way, are the active, the contemplative, the biblical, and the communal.) Wilson himself is very widely read, strewing out great and interesting footnotes. (Where does a Vineyard pastor buy this stuff, commonplace here at Hearts & Minds but rare in most evangelical stores?) He is obviously really smart and a clear, inspired writer. He tells good stories, some moving, some understated, gentle.

Jesus Brand Spirituality is ideal for mainline Protestants who want to make sure their liberal theology doesn’t go off the tracks, who want to stay close to Jesus and the earliest biblical truths, even if they are not quite where more traditionalist conservatives stand. It is equally helpful for anyone committed to historic Christian orthodoxy but who may sense that the recent cultural conflict, dogmatism, moralism, and overlays of the evangelical subculture may have obscured some of the clearest elements of the faith. And–please don’t miss this–it is also a fabulous read for anyone who is a skeptic or seeker; at times, it seems like it is written precisely for those who just are willing to get “one step closer to knowing.”

Yes, that’s a U2 song title, and Wilson wisely cites it. The book offers a beautiful invitation. Join the journey; find out more about our connectedness–to God, to one another, indeed, to all created things. The book is something of a pilgrimage, to be read and considered as we take new steps toward Christ and into Christ’s Kingdom. Join this ecumenically minded evangelical (the only Vineyard pastor to have been had hands laid upon him by a bishop and assistant to Pope John Paul II) who himself has a degree in science and is passionate about how faith and the best contemporary thinking not only can coexist but feed each other into deeper and complementary ways of living out vibrant, authentic, and solid Christian spirituality. No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, or with which denomination or tradition you stand, I am confident this book will challenge, stretch, inspire, and bless you. The excellent discussion questions will be useful for book clubs and have obviously been crafted with great sensitivity for the cynic, skeptic, or searcher.

As wordsmith and publishing whiz Phyllis Tickle, a spiritual genius herself, puts it in her Foreword:

The faith we Christians claim has been so dented and chipped and discolored by the centuries, so institutionalized and codified and doctrinalized, so written upon and then so overwritten into palimpsest, that there are few Christians who still can discern the contours of the original. There are fewer still who know, and can persuasively teach, that Christianity was only and always just the container, the wrapping paper being used in shipment through the centuries of time. It is the Jesus beyond dent or chip or discoloring that is the beauty.

For those that might wonder about the title, Wilson plays with the “brand” language a bit but is aware that it can be seen as a cheesy capitulation to consumerism. Don’t be put off, but read his opening words:

I realize that the word brand can be used in a negative sense, as shorthand for the crass attempt to “sell” Jesus in a consumer culture. But there are two positive senses in which Jesus is a kind of a brand. First, like a brand-name product, Jesus has a distinct as opposed to a generic identity. Jesus brand spirituality is not a generic spirituality concerned with processes that can support any number of outcomes. It’s about forming certain kinds of persons, capable of certain kinds of deeds, creating a certain kind of world: persons, deeds, and a world infused by love, properly understood.

Wilson further notes that copyright infringement of brands is commonplace, and that it is the duty of the brand owner to exercise proprietary rights. Throughout church history there have been those who have infringed upon the Jesus way, distorting it for other purposes. “We can only hope,” Wilson writes, “that Jesus will continue to challenge every effort to hijack his brand, because he is, and always will be, the main attraction.”

The claim is true: Jesus Wants His Religion Back. May this book help it be so.

Byron Borger is owner of Hearts & Minds bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania.