"Jesus wants his religion back…so it can be for the world again"
So begins this expertly written book by Ken Wilson, a pastor, practitioner and pilgrim to engage those drawn to the fascinating figure buried in the messy field of religion. Jesus Brand Spirituality is for those disillusioned by the current swirl of cultural conflict, moralism, and religious meanness that amounts to a form of trademark infringement on the movement that bears his name.
Combining candor, curiosity and rare insight, the author explores four dimensions of the spirituality Jesus left in his wake--active, contemplative, biblical, and communal. Practical, engaging and compelling, this fresh illumination of an ancient path is both moving and thought provoking. Phyllis Tickle, founding editor of the Religion Department at Publisher's weekly calls Wilson "one of America's most gifted evangelicals, a thoughtful, unflinching pastor for thinking Christians; but he has outdone even his own reputation here. Candid, confessional, and full of stories, these conversational chapters from a man enthralled with Jesus are shot through with the passion and the realism of an eternally-vital romance."
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About the Author
Ken Wilson is senior pastor of a Vineyard Church in Michigan. Active in national evangelical environmental initiatives, his church is noted for serving the poor and exploring contemplative prayer disciplines, serving as online host to The Divine Hours.
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JESUS BRAND SPIRITUALITY
HE WANTS HIS RELIGION BACK
By KEN WILSON Thomas Nelson
Copyright © 2008
All right reserved.
Chapter One RECLAIMING THE PILGRIMS' PATH
Jesus wants his religion back. And he wants it back from the orthodox, the Bible-believing, and the defenders of faith as much as from anyone else. So it can be for the world again.
I've been in the God business for more than thirty years. Never have I seen or personally experienced such angst over what it means to be associated with Jesus of Nazareth. If my fascination with Jesus had started today rather than so many years ago, I wonder what I would do with it. How would I begin to pursue faith today? I'll tell you what would put me off. I'd be repelled by the witch's brew of politics, cultural conflict, moralism, and religious meanness that seems so closely connected with those who count themselves the special friends of Jesus. It's a crowd that makes me nervous. Beneath all the talk of moral values and high principles, I don't think I could get over the hissing sound.
I would be deterred by the impression that the more people organize their lives around Jesus, the more likely they are to become defensive, prickly, and dogmatic about their beliefs. I'd have to stuff my questions, curb my curiosity, and be willing to get with the program. I'd have to mindlessly accept some package deal agreed on by the gatekeepers of orthodoxy-virgin birth, heaven and hell, Jesus as the only way, the Bible as the unquestioned Word of God-where would it stop?
Rather than wander onto that landscape, I think I'd keep my interest in Jesus to myself. I might watch one of those public broadcasting specials that turn up every Easter, but I'd avoid anything that would pull me in too deep, for fear of the alligators in the swamp of contemporary religion. Jesus, I'm afraid, would remain unexplored territory.
Perhaps you have a fully formed "Christian identity." You've invested too much of your life in the pursuit of Jesus to back out now. But something's gnawing at you that you can't quite put into words. It's not that you're having a crisis of faith so much as it feels like faith itself is in crisis. The faith that has worked for you isn't working for your son, your daughter, or other loved ones. And you can't imagine it working for them. That is, you can't imagine them jumping through all the hoops to participate in the form of faith you find yourself in.
I have a friend who is an oceanographer. There's a rhapsodic quality to his engagement with the ocean. Because he's a scientist, it seems to him patently ridiculous to embrace a religion on good authority before he can prove its worthiness for himself. So does the thought of becoming a Christian when those most vocally claiming the label are least likely to care about the earth-the one that gives him the mystical shivers.
Yet my oceanographer friend is drawn to Jesus of Nazareth. He speaks openly of his admiration for Charles Darwin and Jesus-Darwin for helping us see the profound relationship among all living things; Jesus for teaching us to love our enemies and thus giving us a way to be united with each other. But where does my friend go from here with his inclination toward Jesus when so much associated with the name of Jesus is repugnant to him?
Jesus is a presence distinct from the religion that represents him. We are drawn to him (or not) for reasons that defy easy explanation. But being drawn to Jesus doesn't necessarily mean buying the package of faith as defined by those with the biggest bullhorns. It may be the most subtle of inclinations. Something in us leans in his direction. Are we being pulled? That's for each of us to decide. What's important is the movement-the leaning toward as if to listen, to object, to surrender, to question, to help. That's the quivering nerve of what makes Jesus a movement maker: he moves people.
Maybe it's time to adjust some of the conventional assumptions about Christian faith. Maybe the starting point is as basic as people in motion, moving toward Jesus.
AN ALTERNATIVE VIEW
Let's do a little thought experiment. What if we set aside all the politics, programs, pathways, and perspectives that have shaped the current forms of Christian faith? What if we stripped off the defining labels for now-orthodox, secular, progressive, conservative, liberal-duly noting them as touching on important issues, but not our present concern?
For the purpose of our experiment, let's think of Jesus as the magnetic presence buried beneath the movements that represent him. He is the attractor who is obscured as much as he is revealed by the labels that define us in relation to him. Let's imagine ourselves in relation to Jesus-all of us who feel drawn to Jesus in some way-as being neither on the outside of faith looking in, nor on the inside looking out, nor at one of the stages of a predetermined four-stage linear progression of belief.
Instead, let's imagine ourselves at various points in relation to an imagined center, like pilgrims coming from the north, south, east, and west and every point in between to a holy city. Only we aren't pilgrims in search of a city so much as pilgrims in search of an influence, Jesus of Nazareth. Some of us are here, others there. Some are running, walking, milling about, traveling in groups or singly, doubting or believing-but all of us are within range of his attractive pull. Because we come from different points of origin, we take many paths to our destination. The closer we get to the center, the more our paths converge. But for now, the only concern each of us shares is this: how can we take "one step closer to knowing," one step closer to that center we're longing for?
THE PILGRIMS' PATH: EARTHY, MYSTICAL, CURIOUS
"Jesus brand spirituality" is the phrase I'm using to describe a path that such a pilgrim might take from wherever he or she happens to be now, toward that imagined center. It is stripped down, like the itinerant wonder-worker from Nazareth: earthy as he was, keeping company with the people of the land and concerned to make this world a better one; mystical, engaging this life with wide-eyed wonder and eager for intimacy with the divine; and curious, prone to question and to explore reality even if it meant offending religious sensibilities.
Jesus brand spirituality is a way of living that Jesus modeled as a fellow pilgrim. He forged a path we can follow.
I realize 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 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.
Second, the term brand also implies that his is a spirituality over which Jesus exercises proprietary rights. It shouldn't be surprising that a brand as powerful as Jesus' would be subject to trademark infringement. This has happened repeatedly over the centuries. The Roman Empire saw in the Jesus movement a potentially unifying force for the empire and infringed on the brand. Political agendas from the left and the right throughout history have gained ascendancy by infringing on the Jesus brand.
I'm the product of the Jesus Movement, a spiritual awakening fueled by baby boomers in the anti-institutional, countercultural phenomenon of the 1960s and early 1970s. Many of us were antiwar, ecologically minded, and eager to forge a new spiritual path radically centered on the person of Jesus. By the 1980s and 1990s, those caught up in the Jesus Movement had cycled through periods of wild revivalism, experiments in communal living that attempted to create strong social bonds by an act of sheer collective will, and eventually an undiscerning alliance with conservative politics. I know from painful experience what it means to misrepresent the Jesus brand.
In trademark law, the owner of a brand has a responsibility to challenge infringement efforts. We can only hope Jesus will continue to challenge every effort to hijack his brand, because he is, and always will be, the main attraction.
SPIRITUALITY: A SUBSET OF MESSY RELIGION
Spirituality is a word that gets used and abused with abandon. It's a subset of that messy business, religion. The Latin root of the word religion has to do with tying together, as in making connections; the lig- of religion appears in ligament, a form of connective tissue.
I use the word religion without apology, though it has fallen out of favor lately. I think our attempt to jettison the word is, not to put too fine a point on it, folly. We try to load all the things we don't like about religion onto the word itself, thinking that by dumping the word we can dump all its negative associations along with it. I think it would be wiser of us simply to accept the fact that life is messy, as is the human condition, as is anything touching on them.
As a context for understanding Jesus brand spirituality, let's locate it within the broader enterprise called religion. Phyllis Tickle, author, lecturer, and founding religion editor for Publishers Weekly, describes religion as a rope that connects us to realities beyond, if very much around us. The rope has three cords: spirituality, morality, and corporeality.
Corporeality refers to the bodily, tangible, material things that constitute any religion, from the human institutions it generates to the physical rituals and symbols used to the deeds done in its name, for better or worse. It is the literal stuff of religion. This is the part of religion we'd just as soon didn't exist. It's the part we try to deny when we say, "I'm spiritual, but not religious." We might just as well say, "I'm mind but not body."
This strand is the messiest part of religion. It's what grabs the headlines, such as EPISCOPAL CHURCH DIVIDES OVER LATEST CONTROVERSY, and we all roll our eyes. It's only messy because it involves us as we are, connecting us as it does to the physical, material world. We can try to cut this limb off the tree of religion, but we should keep in mind that it's the limb we're sitting on when we wield the chain saw. Still, it's worth remembering that the mess associated with this part of religion is a mess of our own and not of God's making.
Morality refers to the answer any religion offers to the question, "How should we then live?" This includes abortion, gay marriage, and gender issues-many of our hot-button moral concerns. Morality has become a wedge word since the self-righteous majority started using it to promote their particular version, a version that conveniently leaves out concern for the poor and justice for the oppressed. But the fact that we count this use of morality as "bad" reveals the fact that we can't avoid it. Religion is about truth and beauty and ultimate realities like good and evil. Even though we often get it wrong, morality is an inescapable concern of religion.
Which brings us to spirituality, something intertwined with morality and corporeality, but also, thankfully, something we can distinguish from these. Spirituality is about living a life informed and infused by spirit, however spirit is understood. To adapt a use of Stephen Hawking's phrase, spirituality is "the fire in the equations" of religion. Of the three cords that constitute religion-corporeality, morality, and spirituality-spirituality has most to do with the connection itself between the human and the divine. If corporeality is the copper wire of an electrical circuit and morality a switch that directs it, then spirituality is the electrons inexplicably exciting each other as the current pulses through the wire.
The three cords of the religion rope are held together by a casing, like the clear plastic casing that holds the strands of a rope together and keeps the water out. The casing of any religion is the story it tells about the way the world works. Once upon a time, God made himself a world, and he loved the world so much that ... Everything else about religion makes sense only in the context of the story it tells about the world. The story is the forest of religion; everything else is trees. There's room for us in any religion only if there's a place for us in the story it tells.
Any religion will be judged by the story it tells about the world and our place in it. Stories either hold together or fall apart. They either strike us as true or not. They either help us make sense of reality or they don't.
Jesus brand spirituality is but one cord among the connections Jesus came to make between us and God, between us and other human beings, between us and all living things. It informs issues of morality and corporeality, but it is distinct from both, so the issues pertaining to these cords will be largely ignored here. Perhaps we could all use a rest from them anyway. If spirituality is the fire in the equations of religion, then we could all use the added warmth and light when the time comes to face these thorny questions.
After all the jostling and debating and advocating and thrashing about that comes with the concerns of religion, there comes a moment of truth when we sit by ourselves alone in a room and wonder whether God exists; we wonder what difference his existence might make and whether and how we might reach out to God or discover that God is reaching out to us. This is the purview of spirituality.
A FOUR-DIMENSIONAL ORIENTATION FOR PILGRIMAGE
What is the best way to describe what Jesus brand spirituality looks like in practical terms so we can find our way on this path? If we all started from the same place, we could describe the path as an engineer might. We could consider the four steps of a clearly defined linear progression. That makes for a good membership class in church, but it rarely meets us where we find ourselves, which is all over the map. We don't all start from the same point of origin. We each have a different religious history; we each have different impressions of Jesus that draw or repel us at different times. The next step closer to knowing that awaits you is not likely to be the next step closer to knowing that awaits me.
I hope instead to provide an orientation that you can use to form a bigger picture of the spirituality Jesus offers and from which you can discern, as long as you find it useful, the answer to the pilgrims' question, "Which way do I go to take one step closer to knowing, one step closer to the center?"
This orientation is organized around four dimensions of spirituality. By "dimensions," I mean aspects of reality, as in the four dimensions of the space-time fabric: length, width, height, and time. But the four dimensions I've selected to describe Jesus brand spirituality are active, contemplative, biblical, and communal.
I'll describe these dimensions one at a time, but the sequence is not important. These four dimensions of spirituality are as interdependent as the four space-time dimensions. We separate them to examine them, but as soon as we're done, they reconnect. We must resist the temptation to force-fit these into a preordered path: "First, we take the active step, then the contemplative," and so on. It doesn't work like that. Depending on where we find ourselves on this pilgrimage, we may be drawn to one dimension or the other first or next. But as we move forward into one dimension of Jesus brand spirituality, our understanding of all the others will be affected because they are four dimensions of one reality.
Excerpted from JESUS BRAND SPIRITUALITY by KEN WILSON Copyright © 2008 by Ken Wilson. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Reclaiming the Pilgrims' Path 1
You Are Here 17
Repairing the World 41
Healing Along the Way 61
Mystically Wired 89
Prayer Means Going Somewhere 107
A Story Runs Through It 131
The Book Jesus Transformed 145
Everything about God Is Relational 177
All You Need Is Love, Properly Understood 193
Pilgrims' Parting 205
Afterword: What It Always Comes Down To 213
About the Author 221
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Jesus Brand Spirituality is the kind of book you wish you'd read when you were sixteen years old, about the time you dumped the whole religion thing. I know I wish I had. The book is written by a pastor who clearly understands the issues people have with organized religion, and Christianity in particular. If only every Evangelical Christian communicated in such a sympathetic, understanding way. The world would be a better place.