Jesus Manifesto by Leonard Sweet & Frank Viola

Jesus Manifesto is a new book co-authored by Frank Viola and Len Sweet that seeks to restore the supremacy of sovereignty of Jesus Christ so that the Church might “forge a secure path into the future.” As with many books written for the Church in the early 21st century, the authors begin by outlining the left v. right dichotomy and introducing their book – or rather the subject of their book, being the person of Christ – as the “third way”, nay “the only way.” Based on this somewhat tired framework, I wasn’t sure if I was quite ready to dive into yet another book about what the Church is meant to be, regardless of the Jesus-centred perspective that it sought to offer. They also raise two questions in the introduction that could be seen as polar opposites of one another, the first being “what is Christianity?” and the other “how are we to live as followers of Jesus Christ?” As I forged ahead into the first chapter, therefore, I wasn’t quite sure where the authors of this book were going and if I wanted to go there with them.

In the first few chapters, Viola and Sweet remind the reader of what the entirety of the Scriptures tells us about who Jesus is [emphasis on the present tense] and the reality that there is nothing worth pursuing outside of Him; the great mystery of God is “not something to be solved or analyzed … not a principle, a rule or a law”, but it is rather Christ inside us, that we have been “invited to share life with our Maker and Creator.” The third chapter offers the reader a look at what it means for us to share life with Christ, as the authors present a God-written biography on our behalf. Some might look at this as an attempt to speak for God and therefore disrespectful for irreverent, but I found it to be very moving and helped to put into perspective exactly what we as individuals within the Church are trying to do as we evoke and attempt to embody the language of discipleship in our lives.

For me, the best bits of this book revolve around the topic of Christian ethics, and what it really means to follow Jesus in the world today. in chapter 4, the authors assert that “being a follower of Jesus does not involve imitation as much as it does implantation and impartation.” In other words, disciples of Jesus are not to be concerned with specific commands and laws that must be universally obeyed; instead, we are to rely on the “presence of the indwelling Christ and Jesus-love that both restrains and releases us.” Trying to be like Christ will only lead to failure; it’s an impossible endeavor. We are not to ask “what would Jesus do?” as if there is only one possible response to any given situation. Rather, we are to ask “who is Jesus, and what is He doing through me, right now, in my present context?” The authors wisely argue that any discussion of being “like Christ” implies that we don’t really need a living Christ, only the example that he left us, which is completely false.

The fact is, Jesus was the greatest human being who ever lived, and if all we have to look forward to in life is the frustration of trying to be someone we are not, then we’ve got better ways of enjoying the interval between life and death.

But the ‘good news’ is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be ‘like’ him. He wants to share His resurrection life with us. He doesn’t want us to imitate Him; instead, Christ … wants to live in and through us.

Those who seek to follow Christ, therefore, are not meant to pledge allegiance to a strict doctrinal or ethical system, but are to embody “a passionate love for a way of living in the world that’s rooted in living by Jesus, the way, the truth and the life. Our theologies, doctrines and subjective experiences are designed to flow organically from our loving relationship to Christ, but they are never to substitute for it.

The rest of the book builds on this as the authors argue that anything we do as the Church – seeking justice, doing mercy, pursuing causes, evangelism, leadership / church programs etc. – are empty endeavors outside of the scope of seeking and embodying Christ as our first love, within the context of community.

Overall, I thought that Jesus Manifesto was a very good book, precisely because it effectively outlines the reality that Christ is very much alive and present within and among us, and that this reality is meant to inform and shape how we are to live. We need not rely on rules, principles, doctrines and theologies, but rather to simply walk with Christ.

On the flip-side, I found the book to be somewhat repetitive, which I guess is somewhat understandable because there is only so much you can really say about Jesus before coming to the point where the mystery of it all takes over. Also [and this is a minor point, but it stuck out for me], I couldn’t help but groan at a few cheesy clichés thrown into the mix, notably that we all live in our own personal “youniverse” and that “the Christian life is impossible. It’s only Him-possible.” Eek.

As I mentioned before, it’s hard to separate all of the attempts to re-frame and redefine the Christian life and the role of the Church in the world today. If there’s one thing that sets this book apart from anything I have read recently along those lines, it is the reinforcing of the point that we are not meant to go through the motions of imitating Christ; instead, we are to enter into a relationship with Him, allowing Him to inform, shape and guide us as we seek to embody the love that He has for this world.

*Note: This book was provided free of charge from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their BookSneeze book review bloggers program.

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  1. I’m with you on your “flip side” paragraph, for sure! I probably should’ve included that in my review, too.

    • Darryl Silvestri
    • May 31st, 2010

    hey ian,

    good review. it sounds like an interesting read. i’m curious if they touched on any trinitarian aspect of the Christian life?

    • Darryl,

      The authors chose to focus primarily on the person of Christ for this book, as the title would indicate. Having said that, while not explicitly laid out for the reader, implicit references to the Father and the Spirit are indeed there. For instance, to speak of Christ living ‘in us’ is obviously not a literal thing, and can only happen through the Spirit.

      It’s worth a read. I think you would find it interesting.

  2. Hey Ian,

    Thanks for visiting and posting up so I could check your review out. One thing I have to say, I always find that other bloggers write better than I do. The layout and structure – cohesion – I like.

    I know we’re on opposite sides on what we agree on with the book. I found that it limited the Trinity and the application of the Scripture(The Word of God which Christ is the Word made flesh) throughout every generation. But, we do agree that Christ is living today. Without understanding that Christ has risen, the salvation message would be nil.

    2 Timothy 3:16-17
    Hebrews 13:8

    -D(rew)

  3. Not to beat a dead horse in this area, but I followed up my husband’s post on the Jesus Manifesto with my own. It is a bit long winded, but we would love to continue the discussion with you. Here’s the link: http://ouryearinbooks.blogspot.com/2010/06/jesus-manifesto-thoughts.html

    • Drew & Leah,

      Thanks for the comments, and I appreciated reading your views on JM. It’s good to take in a variety of perspectives. I’m not saying that I loved the book, but I would expect that we would come at issues of scripture and theology from different ends of the spectrum, which is why we might see things a bit differently.

      Looking forward to reading your thoughts on other books in the future.

  4. Hi Ian. Thanks for inviting me to look at your review.

    Very quickly: we deliberately repeat certain points in the book in different ways using different images and metaphors simply to communicate “through” to various different readers. Not every image or example will hit the same person in the same way. For some of the points we repeat, we do so because they are quite easily missed.

    An example: our treatment of the Trinity in the book. For some people, this is easily missed.

    Here’s what we say about the Triune God on pages 161 and 162 (it’s repeated in different ways in other places):

    — beginning of quote

    Christians have always held to the eternal mystery that God is triune: Father, Son, and Spirit—one God, three persons, one substance. That said, our exaltation of the Lord Jesus in no way diminishes the Father or the Spirit or robs them of their glory. The question of the Trinity takes us beyond the scope of this book, but elsewhere we have discussed how the Trinitarian community is
    the basis for the church and how the shape of the church is rooted in the fellowship of the Godhead.[endnote referencing our other books that deal with the Godhead in detail.)

    From the beginning, God eternally poured all of Himself into His Son by the Spirit, and the Son eternally poured Himself into His Father by the Spirit. Immanuel Kant could not have been more wrong when he wrote dismissively of the Trinity in the eighteenth century, “The Trinity has got no relevance to practical living.” The eternal dance of divine life, love, communion, participation, and self-emptying within the triune God is central to the Christian life, to ministry, to the community of faith and the faithfulness of its mission.4 Most of all, it teaches us that just as God is not alone even when God is alone, so you are not alone even when you are alone. We don’t have to go down to the “valley of the shadow” all alone.

    It is only through Jesus Christ that we enter into this eternal dance. And it is only through Christ that we
    come to know the triune God and the loving fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit.6 As John tells us, the incarnate Son is the Father’s self-utterance and self-expression.7 As Paul tells us, the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Christ. All the fullness, the sum total, the full supply and reservoir of Godhood is concentrated in Jesus.

    For this reason Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who conceived of his life as a “witness to Jesus Christ,” said, “In Jesus Christ the reality of God entered into the reality of this world. . . . Henceforward one can speak neither of God nor of the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. All concepts of reality which do not take account of him are abstractions.”

    —end of quote

    I hope that helps. Thanks for taking the time to read and write about our book. It’s appreciated. And for any of the folks reading this, if they inclined to grab a copy, Amazon.com has it at a 45% discount for a limited time.

    Oh, I know another McLaren. But his first name starts with a “B.” Always thought it was a kewl name 🙂

    Many blessings,

    Frank

    • Frank,

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. I’m sure it has been a busy day, albeit a successful one with JM jumping up the Amazon charts. Congratulations to both you and your co-author, Len Sweet.

      Thanks also for clarifying the deliberate repetition. As I was reading, and saw that pattern emerging, it struck me that it only made sense in light of the mystery of it all, ie: there’s only so many ways we can describe Christ and life with Him apart from actually experiencing it and coming to know Him on our own.

      That quote in regards to the Triune God was helpful as well. I knew there was some content along those lines, and while others have mentioned that this seems to be a shortfall in the book, I could sense the implicit or underlying presence of all three members in your presentation.

      All the best with this new project.

      Ian

      I’m familiar with this other McLaren you mention. Your book is lined up neatly next to some of his on my bookshelf.

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