Wednesday, 13 January 2010

What Would Jesus Do?

All Christians are meant to be followers of Jesus - right? Well Ed Dobson, an evangelical pastor from Grand Rapids in the United States, set himself the task of living like Jesus for a whole year. His The Year of Living Like Jesus: My Journey of Discovering What Jesus Would Really Do (Zondervan, 2009), is the account of his lifestyle change.

Dobson's book is merely the latest in a growing genre of these journey-style books which attempt to get under the skin of various religious communities and lifestyles. A. J. Jacob's, The Year of Living Biblically (2007) was the first of these; readers of this blog will have seen my thoughts on Kevin Rouse's undercover story of a semester at Jerry Falwell's fundamentalist Liberty University in Virginia. Dobson's book is different from these since its not intended to be satirical or an expose of any kind, but rather the radical experiment of a Christian pastor as he tries to live in the twenty-first century as Jesus would have lived in the first.
The book is arranged in journal form, with twelve chapters charting Dobson's year-long experiment. What adds extra poignancy to the book is the fact that Dobson also has the degenerative motor-neurone disease, and so his attempts to live like Jesus are interwoven with the realisation that his physically capabilities are decreasing quite quickly, and that the remainder of his life can be counted in months and years rather than decades. At the outset though I should say that this is not as incisive or, for that matter, as entertaining a read as the books by Jacob's and Rouse already mentioned. I didnt laugh out loud once, as I did with those two books!!

So what did I make of it?

Well I was struck first of all by the shallowness of much that goes by the name of American evangelicalism. A very basic understanding of the conversion experience, little more than saying the sinner's prayer, a list of behavioural expectations in which not drinking any alcohol figures very highly, being vehemently pro-life, and a strong committment to Republican politics seems to be about it! Isnt this more fundamentalist than evangelical though?
Then I didn't think that Dobson had really decided what it was he was trying to do. Was he trying to live as Jesus lived or live as Jesus said? In some places he was trying to live in the same way as Jesus, so much of the book is taken up with Dobson trying to live as an orthodox Jew. There's comparatively little in the book about following Jesus' teachings, living the Sermon on the Mount, for example.
Dobson does try and experience other religious traditions, thankfully, but its all a bit random really. There's an attempt to engage with Roman Catholicism throughout, but this never really get beyond praying the Rosary over and over again. Simialrly with elements of Eastern Orthodoxy. There's not an attempt to engage with the long standing literature and ideas about living like Jesus, both Protestant and Catholic, not even Aquinas' Imitatio Christi. Even within contemporary evangelicalism there are writers attempting to explain what it means to live as Jesus said. I wish Dobson had read Dallas Williard or Richard Foster.

But there plenty of humourous moments too; working out what food is kosher and what not in such a way as not to offend his hosts at various dinner parties, his solitary retreat to the mountains around Grand Rapids which lasts only a few hours, the guilty feeling he gets as he sits in a bar drinking a beer, and the angst over voting for Barack Obama!
One final observation: is there any significance in the fact that this book and Kevin Rouse's expose of Liberty University are recommended by Rob Bell and Brian McLaren? Surely that's not a coincidence . . .

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