Interview with author Brad Jesak
Brad: I think of it this way: millions of thoughtful folks right now are not concerned with becoming ministers or theologians. Many have also abandoned the local church. But they do care about who or what ‘God’ is. They have suspicions that the God often portrayed by Christendom may, in some ways, be as suspect as the God of radical Islam. Even the ‘New Atheists’ are citing the Bible and asking tough questions about the so-called ‘toxic texts’ that describe divinely sanctioned genocide, justification of slavery, oppression of women and a wrathful God who tortures unbelievers forever. On the other hand, many of the same people very much like and respect the person of Jesus. So they instinctively know that something doesn’t fit. They have questions—good, hard questions. This book attempts to engage those challenges head-on in a way that is accessible to any thoughtful layperson. And if all else fails, readers can contact me directly with their questions.
Q: As a book about God, how accessible is it to ‘normal folks’?
Brad: In trying to present my case to normal folks, I try to use real-life illustrations from my twenty years as a pastor. If I use an unusual term, I define it right on that page in a ‘call-out’ and in a glossary at the back of the book. We’ve also included study questions at the end of each chapter that are practical and suitable for individual reflection or small group discussion. Any thoughtful reader should be able to track with me, but they will also be stretched beyond the shallow slogans and inherited clichés that have left us flat. The book would be suitable for an introductory course in theology (with a bit of a scholarly appendix), but between my experience as a pastor and some very good editors, we’ve tried to ensure that we reach our main target audience: laypeople whose challenging questions we take seriously.
Q: What was your inspiration for the title, A More Christlike God – more Christlike than what?
Brad: ‘More Christlike’ than any God we’ve imagined! Everyone—all of us, Christian or not, including atheists—carry images of ‘God’ in our minds. Whether we love and worship that ‘God’ or despise and reject him (or her or it), I believe human conceptions of God are incomplete, distorted and can even be dangerous. This is especially troubling when we see fundamentalists of all stripes emulating a violent god of their own making. It’s true: we become like the god we worship. Christians are not immune to this. How is it that our portrayals of God are so often utterly un-Christlike? In this book, I continually return to the New Testament claim that Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God” and “the exact representation” of who God is. In other words, if you want to know what God is like—exactly like—look at Jesus. He is the face of who God truly is.
Q: If we look at Jesus, what are we meant to see? How does Jesus show us what God is like?
Brad: Christianity has historically proclaimed that Jesus Christ was and is God in the flesh (God with skin)—God with us. Jesus said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the [God the] Father.” To see Jesus was to behold ‘the Lord of glory.’ The great and glorious irony is that in this first century Jewish man, the vision of God Almighty comes into its clearest focus on the Cross. On Good Friday, Jesus unveiled God as ‘cruciform,’ which means ‘Cross-shaped.’ In other words, something about Jesus’ Passion (his suffering and death) says more about God than anything else – it trumps every other image of God that religion has conceived. In the book, I define the meaning of the Cross as the revelation that God is by nature “self-giving, radically forgiving, co-suffering love.” This is what it means for God to be both Christlike and cruciform. Jesus shows us a God who, by nature, empties himself into the world as redeeming love and infinite mercy.
Q: Yes, it’s pretty clear that Jesus talked about a God of love and grace. But what about God’s justice and wrath? Where’s the balance?
Brad: I would say that if God is love, then we don’t balance God’s love with anything. God’s cruciform love is who God is – everything else that we say about God must be seen through that lens.
In A More Christlike God, we look carefully at the word ‘wrath’ and how that relates to God and his ways in the world. The Bible shows us that our ideas about wrath have developed through the centuries. Early on, people took wrath very literally, defining it as God’s personal anger and violent reactions against sin. God’s wrath was a direct intervention against evildoers.
There are two problems with that old idea. First, if God is a ‘Mighty Smiter,’ he doesn’t seem very good at it. He should have struck down tyrants like Hitler before the Holocaust! And why doesn’t he just smite ISIS or Boko Haram? But an even bigger objection is that such a wrathful God doesn’t seem very Christlike. Jesus revealed a Father of radical grace rather than a vengeful despot. Wrath, in writers like the Apostle Paul, is not seen the retribution of an angry God, but rather, as the built-in consequences of our own sin. It’s “the wages of sin” that kill us—not God! It’s not that Jesus had to save us from the wrath of an angry God. Instead, Paul says that on the Cross, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.”
In that sense, Paul unwraths our image of God. And he shows us how through Jesus, God unwrathed us from sin and death. How? By becoming one of us, God overcame wrath (sin’s devastating consequences) through self-giving, cruciform love. To me, that’s A More Beautiful Gospel, which was the reason for the book’s subtitle.
Q: So a more Christlike God leads to a more beautiful gospel. That sounds good, but is it faithful to Scripture?
Brad:I am completely convinced of this for many reasons. First, I believe with all my heart that God is exactly like Jesus, since Jesus is God the Son. That’s basic orthodox theology. Second, I am convinced that the gospel—the good news of Jesus—is more beautiful than we have imagined or allowed. Specifically, the ‘beautiful gospel’ proclaims a God of eternal grace, enduring mercy and infinite love. It holds up the Cross and resurrection of Christ in his infinite power. Whereas religion always attempts to water this down with just a little wrath, just a little punishment, just a little vengeance, Christ came to say a decisive, “No” to retributive religion and “Yes” to super-abundant grace!
Q: The climax of the book is about this ‘more beautiful gospel.’ You mention ‘the gospel in chairs.’ What is that?
Brad: This is the dramatic (literally) conclusion of the book. A few years ago, Fr. Anthony Karbo composed a presentation using two chairs to compare and contrast two ways the gospel has been presented. The first version shows a very conditional gospel: if you turn to God, he will turn to you. The second version walks us through the story of Jesus, showing us how God in Christ is always towards us and in pursuit of us, even and especially when we have turned from him. In recent years, Brian Zahnd and I have reworked and renamed the script ‘The Beautiful Gospel.’ We share it wherever we go and train others share it in the hopes of triggering what we jokingly call ‘the Chair Revival.’ For the first time, this book presents ‘The Beautiful Gospel’ in written form. Honestly, that chapter alone makes the book worth reading.