Sunday, September 8, 2013

Jesus > Religion {A Review}

First, just to be on the up and up, yes, I did receive a free advanced PDF copy of the book as part of being selected to join the street team in preparation for its launch coming next month, but that in no way affected what I am about to tell you.  I have been anxiously awaiting this book for months, and I know that I would still be writing this post even if I had had to wait until next month to read it.  Just to make that clear.  All thoughts that follow are 100% my own genuine excitement.

Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough

Jefferson "Jeff" Bethke is not a pastor, or a theologian, or a Bible professor.  He doesn't have a degree to make him "qualified" to write a book like this.  He makes it explicitly clear from the start that he is just a regular, messed up, twenty-something guy from Washington who accidentally got famous from a poem he put on YouTube, and he's taking advantage of a platform and an opportunity he's been given to tell anyone who will listen to him about Jesus.  As he writes in his introduction, A crooked stick can still draw a straight line, and a messed-up dude like me can still write about an awesome God.  I've tasted grace and can't help but tell others about it.  That's one of the first things that attracted me to Jeff; he doesn't try to make you think he's anything bigger or greater than he is, and he earnestly doesn't want the attention he gets to be about anything other than the God that he serves.  Jeff fills this book with personal stories on his journey of coming to know Jesus, letting every reader know that he sees himself on the same level as you.  As for that line in his introduction, it jumped out at me because it reassured me that I can also take advantage of the (much smaller) platform that God has given me to tell my story of how God saved me to show people how good God really is.

What fascinated me the most after reading this book about Jeff's writing is that even though a lot of it does seem geared towards unbelievers and those who don't know Christ, there were still so many lines that hit me right in the heart.  I've been told over and over again that I overthink things, that I always try too hard, and that's a piece of me that runs over into my relationship with God.  I often catch myself worrying that the mistake I made this time was too big, getting mad at myself for failing God again, wishing that I could just get it right this time and be like those Christians I see who seem to just have it all together.  Thanks to Jeff for giving me one good figurative smack in the face:  his book reminded me, and should remind all believers, that none of us have it all together.  Jesus wasn't about celebrating with the good ones.  In fact, he called the religious people whores!  Jesus was about teaching the most broken people in his society that there was enough grace to cover their brokenness.  There is always enough grace.  I particularly loved when Jeff referenced the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well.  The first person who learned that he was the messiah was a prostitute, a Samaritan, and a woman, three things that kept everyone else in Jesus' world from even speaking to her, yet he showed her favor and privilege and grace.  There is grace for her, and there is grace for me, too.

One of the biggest reasons that I would love to thank Jeff for taking the time to be this vulnerable and write this book is because, even though he doesn't know it, he touched on old wounds I've held from my youth and my hometown church.  For new readers who find this, I was kicked out of  my hometown (a very small town, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone) church at the age of 14 because people believed that I was faking my medical issues, particularly my seizure disorder, for attention.  That was pretty much the beginning of a downward spiral into depression for me, running as far away from God as I could.  It took me years to realize that even though Jesus loves the church (the final chapter in the book is even titled "Why Jesus Loves the Church (And You Should Too)), Jesus is not the same as the people in the church.  He is so much better!  People are broken; Jesus is whole and perfect.  Not only did Jeff's words on the people in churches help me to gain a new perspective on what happened back then, they changed my perspective on the wonderful church family that I have now.  No matter how much I love them, or any Christian brothers and sisters in my life, they will inevitably fail me at some point.  That doesn't mean they don't love me; it means they're just as human as I am.

Over and over again, Jeff reminds us that God is out to woo us, that that is why the Bible calls believers the bride of Christ.  We are loved so passionately and so deeply by our Creator that he'll chase us down to win our hearts!  I know that's exactly what happened with me the night I got baptized.  Love like this, it's unavoidable.  It's all-consuming.  It truly is life-changing.  Jeff says that the Bible is God's love letter to us, and I absolutely ADORE that.  Who doesn't want to receive a love letter?!  And who better to receive it from than the One who loves you more than anyone else ever possibly could?

But here's what I quite possibly loved the most about this book and Jeff's heart displayed throughout it: he doesn't spend the entire book simply focusing on how much God loves us.  He gets dirty, and radical, and calls out American Christianity as a whole for being too clean, too safe, for watering down what the Gospel is really about.  As he writes in Chapter 1, titled "Will The Real Jesus Please Stand Up?" (emphasis mine):  We've lost the real Jesus, or at least exchanged him for a newer, safer, sanitized, ineffectual one.  We've created a Christian subculture that comes with its own set of customs, rules, rituals, paradigms, and products that are nowhere near the rugged revolutionary faith of biblical Christianity.  In our subculture, Jesus would have never been crucified - he's too nice.  Ouch.  

In fact, in my opinion, Chapter 1 is probably the grittiest, most radical chapter of the book, and I love it!  Jeff gets to the heart of the matter right from the start.  Later on in the same chapter, he tells us what the real Jesus is like: He isn't safe.  His words, his life, and his cross completely destroy the notion of him being safe.  His grace is dangerous, ferocious, violent, and uncontrollable.  It can't be tamed.  I LOVE that.  As a young woman, I can tell you that that's the kind of love I've always yearned for; it's exactly the love I spent my whole childhood searching for, unwilling to admit that it was waiting for me in the place that I was most terrified to go.  Jeff calls each reader out, almost daring them to figure out what it is they truly believe.  Towards the end of the first chapter is the perfect example of this:  When Jesus comes back the second time, he isn't coming to sprinkle love dust on everyone.  He's coming to make war on sin and rebellion.  Do you believe in that Jesus?  I don't know about you, but reading that definitely made me do a double take.

There's one more major way that Jeff and his book really helped me and touched me.  For about the past year now, I have been on a journey of dealing with constant, severe pain that no doctor has been able to understand, let alone cure.  And as I've stated on this blog, recently, I went through a period where I really did grapple with God and my faith, wondering where exactly He is in all of this.  I get self-righteous enough sometimes that I think this kind of life isn't what I "deserve" as a Christian.  But Jeff spelled it out for me - God does have a great plan for my life, but that doesn't mean it's going to be pretty.  He writes that people like to use verses like Isaiah 40:31 and Jeremiah 29:11 as "proof" that God wants good things for them, but they forget that those verses were written at a time when most Christians were enemies of the state, and some were fed to animals in gladiator games.  He writes (also in Chapter 1), So the next time you quote those verses [Isaiah 40:31 and Jeremiah 29:11], remind yourself that they were just as true for the people having their flesh ripped apart by lions as they are for you.  Would you be down with God if that was his plan for your welfare?  This being what my life looks like right now does not in any way change the fact that God loved me enough to die for me.

I sent out this message on my Twitter minutes after I finished reading this book this past Thursday, and I still believe it with my whole heart.  This book could change my generation.  It is known that we are the most "un-churched" generation in history.  We are fleeing the church in droves, angry at prejudice that we find.  Jeff reaches out to the people who have been burned by the church, or who are hostile towards the church, and lets them know that he gets it.  With this book, Jeff displays in 200 pages the lesson it took me so many years to figure out on my own: Jesus loves the church, but the people in churches are not Jesus, and sometimes, they're not even true examples of Christianity.  If I thought I could convince him to read it, I would give this book to my best friend Matt, who is not a believer, because I truly believe that it could help him to understand why I love Jesus, why I call myself a Christian, and that not all Christians are the same as the image he has in his head.  If enough young people read this book, I think that American Christianity could radically change over the coming years, that you would find a generation totally on fire for Christ instead of a generation full of people who think Jesus is for the "good kids."  I want to tell everyone I can about this book because, like Jeff says, Jesus is SO much greater than religion.  And the world needs to know that.

Jesus > Religion: Why He is So Much Better than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough by Jefferson "Jeff" Bethke releases on October 7, 2013.  You can pre-order it on Amazon here or at Barnes & Noble here.

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