Jesus Manifesto: Len Sweet & Frank Viola


I was sent an advanced copy and asked to review the new Len Sweet and Frank Viola book, 'Jesus Manifesto', that goes on sale today.

The dust jacket commendations read like a 'whose who' from the Christian world, and there is little I can add to those luminary accolades.

Rather than a quick soundbite to recommend the book, I thought I would read it and provide a more detailed response.  

Len Sweet was the inspiration and lead teacher for my Doctor of Ministry Course whilst Frank Viola I don't know.  I have always been less than taken with Frank's previous writing seeing it as being historically and methodologically fatally flawed (for example see this critique).  And I write that not to be personal just honest about some of my interactions with these authors, before I crack the book open.

The premise of this book is bold and upfront, claiming to offer a third and forward way between the left and right of how Christians and churches are currently responding. Although it doesn't initially detail what those left and right ways are, given my own hopes for a tertium quid of Deep Church, it grabbed my attention and sympathies

That third way, is immediately offered as being the person of Jesus and suggestion that the book is 'fresh Christology', for that third way.  Plenty of Christians make the claim that all we need is a new focus on Jesus, so nothing new there, so what is the focus of their Christology that make this a real third way, and not an old way re-packaged?

In essence I heard two things with regards to that question.  Firstly that the existing church has too often had Christological heart failure, becoming about so many things other than Jesus, and that secondly many of the alternatives to traditional church are being shaped by so many things other than Jesus too.  

A Christianity centred around 'leadership' or 'worship' is just as much in danger as one focused solely around 'justice'.  There is a gentle and yet stinging critique of how we are using the language of previous cultures and now emerging cultures to shape who and what we are, instead of the language of identity in Christ.

And I think for me, that's the heart and power of this work.  It's a popular christology whose lambency wants to reveal whether it's a cultural mandate that is shaping our Christian formation (be that some kind of Church culture, or world culture) or the cannonical-linguistic.  

The authors rightly ask on page 19, what do we talk about the most?  Because that reveals what we are occupied with for our formation.  Or in other words, what mandate resources our imaginations for how we construct Christian faith and life?

And before you think that this book is about a Jesus removed from social justice and politics and culture, think again.  It seeks to show how the person of Jesus should give language and formation to those realities, not have them order who Jesus is.

So all that resonates with me, and I think is something traditional and emerging Church/Christians needs to hear.  Is relationship with Jesus, ordering the cultural, philosophical, political, and linguistic building materials of our faith, or some other mandate?

Which leads to my one criticism of the book.  For whilst the book tries to make a nod to the Church, to state that the Church is the body of Jesus, and that this relationship with Christ is to be made with others, it seems to be a cursory nod all the same.

If there is one cultural mandate that we are enmeshed in, it's that of consumer culture, of the reducing of Christianity to my relationship with Jesus, unmediated, and private.  

I'd have liked to see the Jesus manifesto deal with this most pernicious and insidious of 'social imaginaries' and mandates.  If relationship with Jesus is what orders the cultural, philosophical, political, and linguistic building of our faith, how does that take place with others.  

Without an ecclesial turn, I fear this book will remain captive to consumer culture, and continue to play into the 'just me and Jesus' motif.

But I reveal my own bias, that the third way we really need is an ecclesial turn, to knowing and following Jesus with others, and understanding how relationship with Jesus is mediate through the Church, His body, within His mission.  

But maybe that's a topic for Jesus Manifesto II.