Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars: a book review

Sometimes we approach issues ready to do battle. Talk-radio warns us of a subversive liberal agenda while the rest of the media caricatures conservatives as money-grubbing, hate-mongering xenophobics.  Often faith gets co-opted in debate. Evangelicals are defined, in many eyes, by their stance on abortion and traditional marriage. Progressive Christians are  written off for their lack of theological substance. Is there a way to ‘stop taking sides’? Can we approach issues without drawing battlelines? Is it possible to listen and hear the good on all sides of an issue and still offer a critique? This is the approach that Scott Sauls commends in Jesus Outside the Lines.  He aims at approaching issues and people in ways that are generous and tolerant and with clarity and conviction.  This doesn’t mean watered-down niceness anymore than having strong beliefs means we have licenses to be jerky.

Saul’ has two parts to his book. In part one he focuses on issues that divide Christians from one another. These include Red and Blue politics, abortion and justice for the poor, personal faith versus the institutional church and our different approaches to money. Sauls can find things on both sides of these issues to affirm. I liked his chapter on money because he points to a middle way between pursuing financial blessing and feeling guilty about our enjoyment of money. I appreciate that the extremes of prosperity and poverty are to be avoided (though I still weigh sacrificial giving/living a little more).

In part two, Sauls promotes a generous response to those ‘outside the lines of Christianity.’ He argues that Christians should be quick to affirm the good in culture while still offering our critique. He gives a plea for us to emphasize both accountability for oppressors and compassion for victims. He challenges us to not write off each other as mere hypocrites but to see that we are all works in progress. Sauls gives a traditional defense of human sexuality but one that is sensitive to the LGBTQ community and the ways that they have sometimes been treated by the Christian community. He showcases how Jesus imparts hope for a brighter tomorrow and allows us to take a realistic look at the suffering of the world.  Saul also takes us beyond Self-Help culture, helping to see ourselves how God sees us (which affirms the individual without enthroning her).

This is a readable and sensitive book. I appreciated the way that Sauls navigated the cultural polarities and highlighted a third way. His opening chapter, begins with an anecdote where one of his sermons caused one person to dismiss him as a right-wing extremist while another congregant thought he was a left-wing Marxist (3). Often the way of Jesus is unsatisfying to all parties on the battlelines. But it is a better way!

Sauls does not offer an exhaustive treatment of every important issue. Nor does he name every battleline.  Two big issues that I think white, conservative evangelicals need to approach with generousity are systemic racial injustice and climate change. The past few years has highlighted ways in which our legal system treats minorities. Think Ferguson and similar tragic encounters between African Americans and police and the  ongoing problem of minority mass incarceration. The dismissal of  climate change by those on the Right and the alarmism of the Left reveals the way special interest has sometimes framed the contours of debate. Sauls can’t cover everything, but given the current significance of these issues, I wish they were handled head-on.

Sauls isn’t the first author to explore the way Jesus defies our polarities. I think of Shane Claiborne’s Jesus For President, Tony Campolo’s is Jesus a Republican or Democrat? or Sojourner magazine’s “God is Not a Republican . . .or a Democrat” campaign. But these represent attempts from progressive evangelicals to bring balance to the force. Sauls  is a conservative voice with strong convictions who has listened well to those across the aisle from him.  This book promotes a generous conversational tone with Christians who are different from us  and those outside the faith. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.

4 thoughts on “Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars: a book review

  1. I applaud the attempt. I left a liberal denomination after 30 years because I realized, well, a great many things, but primarily they were not in existence any more to the glory of God or to worship Lord Jesus Christ, but to push an agenda and pat themselves on the back. The blog written by a key leader was filled with hate and contempt for, and lies about conservatives. The PAC mentality ramped up considerably during and after Clinton and by 2008, there was even a published litany worshipping Obama, so entrenched were the politics. Those who objected either politically, or Biblically were isolated and ignored. In both the denomination and our local church there was no interest in reaching out across political lines even for those who have given their prayers, presence, gifts, service and testimony and with whom they have worshipped for years. It took us years to realize this. They have no desire to seek reconciliation.

    History has taught that churches of all types and their leaders go through periods of corruption. Jesus has a way of dealing with churches who have lost their first love.

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