Book 1 – Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism

Carl Medearis is a guy who can frustrate – even make you angry – the first time you meet him. He did that to me when he came to stay in our home and join us for some conversations a few years ago in Cambridge.

It always seemed to me and some of my friends that he was being a little cagy. He wouldn’t answer questions. Kept saying that he didn’t know – even if we asked him basic questions from theology 101. It was annoying – especially in the shadow of the Philosophy Department and Harvard Divinity School.

But Carl’s annoying, cagy way stuck, and what happened in our InterVarsity staff team and the lives of a bunch of grad students was profound. So I’m glad he finally wrote it down.

In truth, Carl isn’t really cagy – he is being completely direct and clear. And the one thing he wants to be most clear about is Jesus. Period. Jesus is all he wants to know and all he wants to talk about. Many of the things that people like Christians and missionaries (both banned words by the way) want to talk about are a distraction and a barrier to…  well…  loving God and loving others.

THINGS I LIKED (and this will be my format for future comments during this reading project):

1. Carl quotes Paul (p. 30) from 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 and this is the text that guides his witness.  Actually, Carl would say that Jesus guides it – this merely explains how. He knows nothing but Jesus and him crucified. The rest sort of follows and he invites the rest of us to join him in doing the same…

2. Knowing nothing but Jesus means his followers don’t need to defend Christendom, its history or its reasons. If it is really all about Jesus, then taking on and defending the religious history of the West (p. 48-55) doesn’t help. Carl tells us not to do it.

3. The tendency to draw a circle that defines insiders & outsiders and to try to persuade people to come inside by thinking the way I do isn’t helpful and it isn’t the way Jesus rolled. Carl opts instead (p. 90) for the invitation Jesus made to his disciples in John 6:60-64 to have him inside us – not everybody liked that idea, even in Jesus’ day!

4. I really like Carl’s stories – if you want to hear more, click on our HGSCF website and scroll down to the talk he gave in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard in 2005. Imagine forming a discussion group on the Gospels (p. 92) and naming it “What the Hell?” I laughed out loud. On the other hand, his story about following Jesus (Isa) to Basra (p. 132 ff.) left me shaken at the hardness of my own heart.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Given his simple focus on knowing nothing but Jesus and speaking only of him I was left wondering how then to make sense of the whole Biblical narrative. Of course, if I ask Carl he might just say, “Gee, I don’t know. But, speaking of Jesus…”

2. Carl’s context in Colorado Springs differs significantly from Cambridge. I understand his interest in drinking coffee and working at Poor Richard’s Bookstore downtown. I tend to agree that this is where Jesus would be hanging out and drinking his double espresso. The question I have is, where is he hanging out here in Cambridge where we all swim in a strange brew that mixes power with fear, academic achievement with posturing and does it all in a manner that my friend Dave Schmelzer calls Grim Drivenness? It isn’t a new question or an academic one for many of us. Where is he and what would it mean to know nothing but Jesus here. Does the way of Jesus look different in Harvard Yard?

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About Jeff Barneson

Husband to Tara Edelschick Dad to Zachary, Ezra & Nafisa Keeper of Bees Campus Chaplain Bicycle Racer Coffee Drinker Follower of Jesus View all posts by Jeff Barneson

12 responses to “Book 1 – Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism

  • Charlie Clauss

    I’m reminded of a blog post by Scot McKnight were he looked at following Jesus in the light of folk like Shane Clainborn (sp?). On the one hand we need to be shaken; on the other hand we need to be faithful in the context we are _actually_ in.

  • Chris

    I would think that you’d have to take 1Cor 1+2 together in context; seems that Paul is contrasting human wisdom and God’s power/the Spirit’s power/Jesus Christ and him crucified/the testimony about God. Then I’d want to look into the historical situation.

    I would think that Acts 17:16-34 and the whole Mars Hill talk would be far more applicable, where Paul demonstrates that he applies points of similarity between Christianity and philosophers, he employs Socrates’ footsteps, style, and even address — i.e., something familiar to the philosophers. He presents the Gospel message wrapped in things that the philosophers would be familiar with. He builds a bridge between the Christian world and the philosophers’ worlds, borrowing John Stott’s phrase. This is how Paul embodies that he is all things to all men.

  • Cindi

    Interesting review, Jeff. I like your format. It echoes my new motto: “Provide a gentle invitation for sincere consideration,” and promotes a conversation instead of drawing a line in the sand, so to speak, like many book reflections might do. Thanks. And the comments are just as engaging. I’ll share this with my thoughtful friends who value big questions as much as right answers.

  • Ryan Andrew Moore

    While I must not claim great insight not having read the book, I agree with Chris’ view of our engagement to society.

    I also wonder what Medearis’ answer would be to this question: What was Christ’s mission? “To know nothing but myself and myself crucified?” (My point being that this view could be taken in many different ways depending on what you mean by “know Christ crucified”)

    Again, haven’t read the book, maybe shouldn’t comment, but my only hesitation would be that getting too tied into this type of motto of “Christ is it and nothing else” could be an easy way to fall back into “here’s the only answer and it’s my answer, take it or leave it.”

    Thanks for the post, hoping to follow along this summer! Greetings from Mexico.

  • Mike Lage

    Jeff, thanks for the book recommendation and the insightful commentary.

    What I loved:
    -How Medearis boils everything down to the bottom line: Jesus.
    -How he points out that everyone, at their core, is attracted to Jesus. So, let’s talk about Him and not all the other stuff
    -The book makes me want to follow Jesus more, not doctrine, not commandments, just the perfect person of Christ.

    The question I have:
    -How do we talk about Jesus without omitting things He said that might offend people?

    A phenomenal, thought provoking, heart pounding book – I already bought a copy for someone.

  • David Heitmeyer

    Jeff covered the main things that struck me as I read the book:
    – the singular focus on Jesus
    – side-stepping getting drawn into defending Western Christendom
    – being reminded to think in terms of a “centered set” (who is oriented towards Christ) instead of a “bounded set” (who is inside or outside)
    – and saving the best for the last, the stories Medearis tells.

    Through these stories, the approach of knowing “nothing but Jesus and Him crucified,” which at first sounded overly simplistic, took on an elegant simplicity for me.

    As I first read about the approach of speaking only of Jesus, I thought of politicians (and others) who always and only return to their “talking points” regardless of the question (thoughtful or not) posed to them. This appears evasive and is often annoying. While the conversations that Meadearis relates in his stories clearly show that being singularly focused on Jesus does not have to be like this, I can certainly imagine myself coming across like this — I will need some practice.

    I also firmly believe that some individuals really need to have some of their philosophical questions addressed in some manner before they are able to have ears to listen about Jesus. As a former atheist, I know it was important for me to hear some reasonable philosophical arguments from followers of Jesus about the existence of God. These did not convince me of the existence of God, but I did realize that my arguments weren’t any better than theirs — and this brought me to a point that I could begin to read about Jesus in the Gospels.

    So, I guess, yes, it really is all about Jesus.

    Thanks for a great and thought-provoking book to start off this reading list!

  • Carl Medearis

    Author here. Funny, I never wanted to be “an author” and still fight such a label. Just isn’t me…. But since this is my third book and I’m almost done with my fourth, well….

    To Jeff and the others who posted here who read the book, let me give a couple thoughts/comments:

    1. I think your observations were all spot on. I can even frustrate myself. And…to be totally honestly, sometimes I don’t answer people just to annoy them. It’s not that I’m all that spiritual – I sort of like pissing certain people off. When they’re as arrogant as I am – well, I just don’t like that so I purposely don’t answer.

    2. Another thing in that line – who cares what I think anyway! Just because i write and speak does NOT make me an expert on anything. People should disagree and then I’ll probably admit they’re right.

    3. On the point that we should focus on nothing but Jesus…. I find it interesting and sometimes disturbing that so many evangelical bible believing types find this point hard to swallow. I often get “Yeah, but what about the other stuff” sort of push backs.

    Huh? What other stuff is there besides Jesus. Jesus plus anything else is off the mark. He’s everything. The problem is that it’s sometimes easier to talk about evolution or church or Augustine’s doctrine of original sin or the problem of pain or…than – Jesus.

    Do we believe Jesus addressed those questions? If so, we can stick to him. The huge advantage that gives us is that we can “blame” our answers on Jesus rather than our own thinking.

    Remember that Paul was really really smart. A premier thinker/theologian. And it was he who said that he would decide to know nothing else but Jesus. That choice to nothing know is harder when you know a lot (thus one of my advantages over some of you).

    Driving through Kansas now on my way to a wedding….more later.
    carl

  • genepierce208

    I read the book and loved its strategy toward hostile/skeptical cross cultural conversations with Muslims and (increasingly “un-born again”) North Americans.

    Two questions for after we establish Jesus, not the church or intellectual understanding of the gospel/theology, as the message.

    One: When do we “defend the faith”, especially when someone is sincerely looking for apologetic responses to their questions? Sometimes “I don’t know” doesn’t work.

    Two: Do we give up the good that people of faith are doing and have done as an expression of Jesus, e.g., hospitals, orphanages, etc.? I know the colonial / westernization guilt stuff, but a few things are worth talking about eventually.

    Looking forward to more after you survive Kansas.

  • Dave Schmelzer

    Okay, I haven’t finished the book yet, but, at this rate, by the time I do your blog will be onto book #42.

    Carl’s “focus on Jesus” message has been a really helpful part of the brew of whatever our church has learned being in Cambridge, and–so far–that comes across in all its winsomeness here. With some others, my favorite thing thus far has been his bracing tour through church history where he–maybe as boldly as I’ve ever seen–cuts “Christianity” off at the knees. Carl, this has got to have gotten you at least some angry letters, but I really appreciate your clarity and boldness here.

    As to your point, Jeff, I do feel as though Carl’s context and our context in Cambridge are different. For instance, we see as much conversion growth as most people I’m aware of, but I can’t remember ever using the word “evangelism” in public. It would be as jarring for us as “missionary” would be for Carl. Everyone of our folks who’ve heard Carl speak utterly loves him, so he personally works great in our context. But his explanation of what he does nonetheless does require some interpreting in our world.

  • Carl Medearis

    Carl here again – we survived both Kansas and Missouri, but just barely….hotter than Rob Bell’s hell…

    Seems there are three good points/issues coming up in the discussion:

    1. Context. That’s totally true.I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the Northwest and the Northeast – as my good friend Dave said. And it is a relatively unique context inside of the USA. I’ve also spent a good deal of time in Boulder Colorado – which is similar, but not exact. Here’s what I’d say about the principles in the book in relation to context – it’s all about context.

    What’s interesting is that those reading the book who live in more of a Bible Belt area, think the book is written for you guys. Basically the book is who you guys are and is a huge challenge to those in more conservative areas. Even though some of the stories are from Colorado Springs (really just one of them), the rest has to do with post-Christian culture. No?

    2. To Gene’s question – when do we defend the faith? I may be hung up on the word “defend.” It makes me think of “defensive” which is never a helpful posture.

    I think we “explain” the faith and/or answer questions whenever they’re real. We spend a lot of time answering trick questions. Jesus was never tricked into answering the wrong question. He answered the real question. For instance – “Why is there so much suffering in the world if your God is so good?” That’s probably not a question about the theology of pain and original sin (which is often how we answer it). It may be about the person’s individual struggle with pain.

    We do explain and answer when the question is real. “I don’t know” isn’t a cop-out or sneaky. it should only be used when you feel like you really don’t know. Not knowing is not bad – that’s my point.

    3. Of course we don’t give up the good things that have been done even in the name of the most traditional and at times silly forms of Christendom. Actually a LOT has been done in that name that is wonderful. So we don’t ignore it, we just acknowledge that it’s secondary to the main thing – Jesus.

    More?

    carl

  • Kyle Highful

    There is sort of a paradox in the Bible it seems to me. On the one hand, we are to know nothing but Christ, and we are not to set much store by the wisdom of this world, but rather embrace the foolishness of God. On the other hand, Paul and others seem to have a lot to say, much of it in confusing detail, and the writer of Hebrews admonishes us to progress from milk to solid food. I have seen the same paradox in the Presbyterian tradition. On the one hand, we are reminded often that the Gospel is not something for new Christians and unbelievers; rather, we all need to remind ourselves, and be reminded, of the Gospel on a regular basis. On the other hand, the Reformed tradition has generated a large amount of very serious theology. I don’t know what the answer to the paradox is, but perhaps it is that the Good News( / Atonement) is itself multi-faceted and unfathomably rich. To advance in theological/dogmatic knowledge is not to move beyond the Gospel to higher truths, but rather to explore the abundance of what we have already believed, to grow in knowledge of the One we already trust.

  • John Murphy

    First, I base my observations on Mr. Medearis’ previous book “Jesus, Muslims, and Christians,” and an article I read somewhere by Mr. Medearis entitled something like “Why I don’t evangelize,” rather than this particular book (which I have not read). I loved his other book and think very highly of Mr. Medearis after hearing his experiences from Iraq/Lebanon, and yes, I liked the book.

    While I think I understand why Mr. Medearis says he does not “evangelize,” this seems more like a red herring to me for what Mr. Medearis certainly does is evangelize. One presumes that he is not satisfied if someone concludes after talking with Mr. Medearis that Christ was certainly a great guy and goes on with his life unchanged still in his sins, never to change, but at least now he likes Jesus. Carl is speaking of a different type of evangelism, but evangelism is what it is, call it what you will.

    I sometimes wonder if “I speak only about Jesus” might be code words for, “I really want to avoid the difficult issues.” I’m not SURE of that, but as I read Mr. Medearis other book I found myself wondering if that weren’t the case. As long as Mr. Medearis will fully engage with the Christ who told his crowd to learn a lesson from the men who died when the tower fell on them because “repent or you will likewise perish,” then I’m onboard.

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