James Choung has undertaken a significant project in this little book:
- Redefining the gospel
- Providing a new napkin-size summary diagram
The challenge is worth it because James observes that a major obstacle the followers of Jesus face in speaking about Him is that the only message they have doesn’t feel like good news. In fact, most Evangelicals describe the gospel almost exclusively in terms related to heaven after they die. There is little or no relationship to the world they see everyday. No real-world benefit in the face of the profound brokenness of the world.
Not only, he says, is today’s gospel largely devoid of substantial good news, it also shares little in common with the gospel that Jesus himself preached – the one articulated in Mark 1:14-15:
After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
When’s the last time you read that in a “gospel” tract somebody handed you in the subway station?
If you didn’t get to read the whole book, or if you want to see it in action, you can watch James himself line it out with a Sharpie in a couple of 3- minute videos on YouTube. These are not to be missed. There is also a pocket-sized version from InterVarsity Press cleverly named, Based on a True Story (ha!), that you can give to friends.
THINGS I LIKED
1. It took a little getting used to it, but I ended up liking the conversation format in the first part of the book. There were two separate conversation threads and they worked in two different ways:
• Caleb’s conversations with Professor Shalandra Jones provided opportunity for his own doubts as a confused-but-engaged follower of Jesus to surface and be thoughtfully and compassionately addressed.
• Caleb’s conversations with Anna showed how these ideas could be helpful to those most skeptical about following Jesus.
2. I like his drawings. I’m a visual guy so, if you’re gonna take away my bridge illustration, you’ve gotta come back at me with something else. I’ve tried these a few times and, though I’m in no way as good as James on the videos, I’ve found them helpful. It’s also fun to draw when you’re chatting, right?
3. I like the three movements that this gospel describes and the invitation that follows.
Decision –> Transformation
Individual –> Community
Afterlife –> Mission Life
Understanding and applying those form the key difference in his invitation to embrace Christ and his revolutionary movement.
4. I liked James’s theological riffs – Seeing him put that doctorate from Fuller to work! A couple stuck in my mind. First, in the run through Genesis (p. 97-8) Shalandra’s comment that Noah must have seen that first rainbow in the midst of falling rain – something that had previously destroyed every living thing. God’s promise and sign meant he would never have to fear the rain again. The second was his comment on the coming together of heaven and earth seen in the Temple, in Jesus’ body and (finally) in the community of believers. It gave me fresh appreciation for our InterVarsity goal to foster and support witnessing communities. “Guess where earth intersects heaven?” he says, “In the community of believers – where heaven shows up on the planet.” Right on!
THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT
1. Of course most of you will be surprised to hear me say this… I was put off a little by the progressive political viewpoint assumed by the author and the characters in the story. While the dialogue is somewhat believable in the college campus setting (University of Washington in Seattle), and it may be that we’re in a time in our culture where North Americans automatically assume Jesus and his followers are all white Republicans whose political/social agenda revolves entirely around ending abortion and keeping gays from marrying, I thought James piled it on too thick. My friend Professor Bill Stuntz who died this past winter told me shortly after arriving at Harvard Law School that, though he was a center-right conservative, he “leaned to the left whenever he could.” There is certainly something to that when so many people want to line Jesus up behind their agendas. I only want to make sure we don’t exclude people because they can’t get past our rhetoric or don’t subscribe to Sojourners.
2. I know that Professor Jones highlights the centrality of Jesus death and resurrection in the the dialogue, but it felt like the power of both was insignificant compared to the role of Jesus’ followers who are, in his language, “Sent together to heal.” It would have helped to have him line out more about how his view of the Atonement – Ransom is one meaning he mentions among others – works to “Restore for better” and “Sent us to heal.” The same could be said for the Holy Spirit.
One last thing. James said that his hope (p.12) is that “this book will provide us a simple tool to share the hope that we have – one worth believing in.” He really has done this for me – now if I can get my friends on campus to learn how to draw those circles…