Before I became a Christian, most of what I knew about Jesus came from pop culture. Kevin Smith’s Dogma and other assorted films, books featuring a “historical” Jesus that was merely a man, the odd glimpse of a message from the Crystal Cathedral while flipping channels hoping to find some cartoons on Sunday morning…
Which means I had no idea who Jesus was at all.
Then I became a Christian, and learned an important lesson: many professing Christians may be just as confused about who Jesus really is. Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer: For some, Jesus is essentially a spiritual guru, leading you on the journey to your best life now. Others look at him as a UFC fighter or a sort of William Wallace figure, who wants to defeat sin and kick some tail (and he’s all done defeating sin). Others still paint him as our best friend, someone who is always standing by with a warm hug and a box of Kleenex.
The reason for this is we tend to gravitate to a certain aspect of Jesus ‘ personality as we see him in Scripture, and so we emphasize (or perhaps overemphasize) those elements, leaving us with someone who is Jesus-ish: a Jesus of our own imagining. “Guided by our delicate sensibilities, we mold Jesus into a deity we can handle, conformed to our own preferences,” writes Daniel Darling in his new book, The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is (14).
But this Jesus, or rather, these Jesuses are no Jesus at all. And in this short, punchy book, Darling examines ten of the most common counterfeits while encouraging readers to look to Jesus as he is, not as we want him to be.
A simple, but effective, approach
Readers will notice right away that each chapter of The Original Jesus follows essentially the same pattern: identify and describe each counterfeit, and explain why the biblical Jesus is better than the one we’ve made up. As a result of this approach, many will quickly notice that each chapter more or less stands on its own. There’s a part of me that would have liked to see each chapter build off one another, but, honestly, I’m not sure it would change the effectiveness of what Darling has written.
And make no mistake, what he has done in this book is extremely effective. Let me give you one particularly meaningful example.
Washing off the Braveheart paint off
When I became a Christian, it was right around the time that a bunch of “no more Christian nice guy” type messages were gaining steam. Brave—er, Wild at Heart was encouraging every dude to take up caber tossing, beard growing and dragon slaying in the name of Jesus. Churches were holding UFC nights. And Mark Driscoll was being… well, Mark Driscoll. Because I grew up without a male role model at home, I wasn’t sure what to think of a lot of this. All I knew was I was being told that being kind of artsy, and enjoying a latte wasn’t God’s plan for my life. And if I didn’t start lifting weights and mainlining Redbull, a tatted-up Jesus was going to get off his white horse, and smack me with a sword.
Okay, I’m exaggerating (a little). This counterfeit came to be due to the perceived “feminization” of the church—that church was boring for men because it seemed like a place designed for ladies. And while charge, depending on who you ask, might be fair, rather than a correction, we got an overreaction. Darling writes,
The answer to a confused manhood culture is not more chestbeating and MMA but a very real picture of what a man of God looks like. Young men need to understand that courage is not defined by the size of their gun collections or by the ruggedness of their hobbies. Courage is defined by the willingness to humbly and boldly follow the risen Christ. (53)
“True masculinity models Jesus in his roles as both warrior/king and gentle shepherd/suffering servant,” he continues (54). “Like Jesus, real men find no shame in weeping over loss (John 11:35) or expressing maternal love for those in our care (Luke 13:34).”
For a guy like me, who was figuring out the whole how to “man” as I went along, it was really easy to get swept up in the hoopla of Braveheart Jesus. But it wasn’t long before I saw that this was, at best, a half truth. And I noticed it most clearly in my attitude. It didn’t make me love others more gladly. It didn’t develop in me a spirit of self-control. It didn’t challenge my tendency toward anger. If anything, it gave me an excuse to be kind of a wiener.[1. Apologies to anyone offended by this reference.]
But the way the Bible describes Jesus is the model of self-control. It’s not that he doesn’t have emotions—it’s that he knows how to express them perfectly. He was the epitome of the call we read in Paul’s epistles, to be “not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome” (1 Timothy 3:3), “not arrogant or quick tempered” (Titus 1:7), and “dignified” (1 Timothy 3:8). And these, Darling reminds us, “are character traits every man should aspire to, since they are virtues that should characterize every Christian” (57).
Poking at the Jesuses of our own preferences
I hope The Original Jesus frustrates you as you read it. Because it should. No reader should walk away from it cheering, “Yeah, he really showed them,” because if they do, they didn’t really read the book. Darling isn’t writing to rally his audience against the mythical “them”—he’s encouraging us to deal with our own tendencies to remake Jesus in our own image.
Reading this book left me reflecting on my flirtations with MMA Jesus, but also my occasional strolls down the beach with many of these myths. And through this book, Darling refocused me on the truth I already know: “The real Jesus, the Jesus of Scripture, is compelling. The only logical response is to bow the knee and worship him as Lord and King” (33). And I’m not sure you can ask for a better reading experience than that.
Title: The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is
Author: Daniel Darling
Publisher: Baker Books (2015)
Buy it at: Amazon