Book Review: Jesus Outside the Lines
Title: Jesus Outside the Lines
Author: Scott Sauls
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Disclaimer: Happily I was provided a free copy of Jesus Outside the Lines via Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my free and unbiased review of the book. Joyfully, I present to you my review–free of additives, preservatives, and sugary marshmallow shapes. Just my undiluted opinion, free of charge, here at Typepad and around the web at such places as GoodReads, Amazon, and elsewhere. Thanks for reading.
I noticed a couple of times in the book that Saul's quotes people with whom we might have a difference of opinion or two. In the introduction, he quotes as a source of authority Chris Stedman who happens to be a chaplain, at Harvard, and an atheist. There's a part of me that kind of cheers that Sauls finds something in common with Stedman, but there's another part of me that shudders because in quoting Stedman as an authority, early on in the book, he is allowing Stedman to set the agenda for the book. Maybe that's a good thing; I'm not sure. To be sure, he also quotes from Tim Keller and Tim Kreider and Jesus and Dostoyevsky and dozens of others. Slowly he builds his case that we should all be able to talk to one another peacefully even though we may disagree with one another on about every conceivable subject. So:
Is it possible to profoundly disagree with someone and love that person deeply at the same time? Is it possible to hold deep convictions and simultaneously embrace those who reject your deep convictions? (xxv)
Do you want to be known for the people, places, and things that you are for instead of the people, places, and things you are against? Do you want to overcome the tension of wanting to be true to your beliefs and engage the culture? Are you ready to move away from polarizing conversations and toward Jesus and your neighbor? (xxvii)
This is the thesis of the book and the rest of the book explores this thesis with, surprisingly, some depth. And not surprisingly, he begins by discussing politics. I was prepared to roll my eyes frequently but early on he wrote this, "…when it comes to kings and kingdoms, Jesus sides with himself" (5). I agree. Then he ends with this thought concerning you and me: "Seek first the kingdom of God…, and all these things will be added to you" (19). I have engaged enough political debates on blogs and FB to know where my buttons are and I am able to simply avoid those conversations.
This might be key to all of our understanding of loving people and disagreeing with them. When I see a thought I disagree with, I assume first that it is just that: a thought. In other words, I try to remember that on the other side of the thought there is a person that I love or who may love me. IF I cannot handle the thought, I don't engage it because I prefer to remain in love and in friendship with the person who wrote it. It takes a lot of work, but learning not to be bothered by other people's ideas is a huge step in maturity. Learning how to peacefully disagree is another step in the journey. Learning how to see people instead of mere thoughts is Jesus. Being able to laugh with others, learn from others, listen to others, and love them deeply is probably something close to divinity.
Sauls frequently confronts the reader with the idea that Christians haven't always been the most gracious, kind, and loving people on earth when it comes to our disagreements with those who hold to a different worldview. We have tended to get all worked up, start campaigns, or believe, naively, that the only way to win a conversation is to elect a certain politician who will make our point of view law. That'll show 'em! I think Sauls does a fairly good job of helping us bridge that massive gulf between what we believe and how we treat others because of those beliefs. He tackles some fairly significant topics along the way towards peace–because ultimately, Sauls is playing the role of the peacemaker in this book–such as abortion, money, sexuality, church, poverty, and suffering. At times his thoughts are deep and at other times his thoughts are a little confusing; at times his exegesis is spot on and at other times it is a bit sketchy; and at times his voice is clear and prophetic and other times he really needed a better editor.
With all that being said, the book grew on me. I started out with my typical skepticism and by the time I got to the end I was in a fair amount of agreement with him. The book is subtitled: A way forward for those who are tired of taking sides. No one should get this book and attempt to read it with the expectation that Sauls is going to lay out a step by step set of instructions for this 'way forward.' Instead, he is going to tell us some stories, talk to us about Jesus, point out where our flawed definitions of Bible things have caused us to see things with eyes fixed on the wrong thing. The book is going to cause the reader to stop and listen to Jesus and to 'examine the self.' Maybe all of us would do well to pause each day and examine ourselves or ask God to do a deep search of our souls and see if there be in us any unrighteous thoughts or way. The Spirit searches all things. Maybe we should invite the Spirit in for some housecleaning.
Interestingly, the following quote sort of summed up the book for me: "If Christianity has something to significant to contribute to the question of suffering and evil, it is that Christianity is incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is" (153-154). I have two thoughts, one negative and one positive. First, the negative, 'if' is a big word. I think I understand his point, but I also think that given the nature of our our faith (cruciform), 'if' is a bit too squishy. Here I believe his sentiment should have been a little more concrete and affirming. Second, the positive, if his point is true, and I think it is, then we (christians) are, and should continue to be, incredibly realistic about how messed up the world is. Let's live in hope that God has redeemed this world, but also let us be incredibly real about the hope we have in Jesus precisely because of the suffering he endured.
So this, which I think is Sauls' point: let's be honest. Let's stop acting like the world is so easily divided into 'us and them' or 'we and they' or 'me and you.' All have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God. Problem in the church is that we simply forget this because we come to church on Sundays. We seem to forget that we, too, were 'once like them' (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-12; Ephesians 2:11-22). If there should be any compassion, it should flow from this idea that we were once like those with whom we so often disagree. And if there is compassion and mercy it should not come from arrogance or hypocrisy or condescension, but from compassion, weeping, and grace. I think a large part of the problem with the church is that we have forgotten to remember…many things.
I came away from this book reminded to be sober in my thinking about others–especially those with whom I have philosophical or theological differences. I came away reminded that even though Sauls nicely divides the world in binaries, that the world is not so easily categorized as black and white.
Sauls does a good job balancing the book between self-deprecating stories and faith-hero stories–but he is never the subject of the faith-hero stories. He quotes all the standard folks we would expect to see in an Evangelical publication: Lewis, Chesterton, Volf, Lamott, and more. He quotes plenty of Scripture; although, at times it was mere prooftexting. I prefer larger quotes with more context and a little deeper exegesis, but it doesn't kill the book that he does not do things this way. The notes are all at the end of the book, there is no index, and there are no references. He ends the book by again quoting a lengthy swath of ideas from an atheist. I'm not sure how I feel about that, even the thoughts might be helpful, yet it does fall right in line with the theme of his book.
All in all, this was a helpful book and as I noted above, Sauls words and style grew on me as the pages were turned. There is a lot to think about in this book and he certainly makes us pause for a draft of reality as it relates to our own faith in Jesus and how we go about treating other people in the world. Get to know people. Step away from stereotypes. Listen to their words and engage thoughtfully. But always bear in mind that there is a person speaking to us and we may not know all there is to know just by reading a FB update or Tweet. Talk to people, not ideas; dislike ideas, not people.
Maybe we should do two things. First, join Jesus outside the lines already drawn and, second, stop drawing new lines.