Keith Giles is an Anabaptist in the house church movement. His new book, Jesus Untangled is an attempt to disentangle Jesus from the political Right. He doesn’t advocate for wedding Jesus to the Left either. The problem with American Christianity is that Jesus is so enmeshed with nationalism that we fail to see Jesus on his own terms. In 186 pages, Giles offers his diagnostic of American Christianity and offers a solution: the recovery of Jesus as the central component of Christianity. The implication is that following Jesus chastens our nationalism, empire building, militarism, and violence.
Like others in the Anabaptist tradition, Gile harkens back to the early Christian community—the days before Constantine. He demonstrates how the early church saw a strong division between Church and the State, and how since Constantine (or around his time) we increasingly entangled political influence with Jesus message:
What we see when we looks back at the Christian church in the first 300 years of history is a uniformity of conviction that Church and State were opposite realms and that being a citizen of Christ’s Kingdom was to be uninvolved in the affairs of the kingdom of this world. They embraced this idea by living under a clear set of values that brought them in a near-constant conflict with the world around them. The pagans couldn’t help but notice how different the Christians were. Those Christians couldn’t help but stand out from the crowd by the way they lived theif lives in stark contrast to those around them (55).
In the pages that follow, Giles challenges the wisdom of Christian political involvement, war, and American nationalism. He points to the bankruptcy of looking to politics as a solution to what ails the American soul. Giles calls the question on whether or not we are a ‘Christian nation’ and exposes the real politick behind many of our political and transnational dealings.
Let me say up front that I am sympathetic to Giles conclusions. I am a peace loving Evangelical who doesn’t have much use for the way the Christian faith is often co-opted by politics (usually the Republican party). I am deeply disturbed by Christians who say they love and follow Jesus and yet demonize and dehumanize enemies of the state (so as to justify killing them). Stanley Hauerwas’s axiom is apt, “The first task of the church is to let the world know it is the world” (or alternatively, “the first task of the church is to be the church). The gospel is not the American dream and does not inhabit the same spiritual space. In these pages, Giles describes the distinction between faith and politics and urges Christians to not conform to the ways of the world.
Nevertheless, despite my sympathy with Giles message, I found myself reacting a little bit. I think he is guilty of overstating things to make a point. For example. he describes his reading of Scripture as “Jesus-centric,” over against a ‘flat reading of scripture’ of everyone else. The Jesus-centric are all about Jesus mission in the world. The flat Bibe readers argue that all scripture is equally authoritative, downgrade Jesus’ message of the kingdom *emphasizing instead grace and forgiveness (36-37). Giles argues that an emphasis on the whole Bible allows for the justification of torture, war, militarism, violence and nationalism (37). An emphasis on Jesus does not. Giles argues that a Jesus-centric approach by necessity marginalizes Old Testament texts.
I certainly agree with the Jesus-centric approach. Jesus the Word of God made flesh and the key to understanding the Bible—God’s written world. However, I think a number of his opponents (Reformed Evangelicals, Arminians, etc.) also try to read all scripture Christocentricty (there are a few thenomists out there but they’re kind of nuts). I personally don’t know any thoughtful Christian that argues for the flat Bible reading he describes. While I am sympathetic to Giles’s readings, I think categorizing all Evangelicals who disagree with him as ‘flat bible readers’, does not win any sympathy from the opposition.
However, I applaud Giles’s commitment to the nonviolent ethic of Jesus and his sensitivity to the way Christ gets coopted in political discourse. This is a timely book. President Trump (who was elected with overwhelming white, evangelical support) just started bombing Syria. This is the time for Christians to press into what it means to follow Jesus (who’s answer to human violence was to suffer a cross). When America goes to war, Christians ought to ask, “who would Jesus bomb?” Giles (and the Anabaptists before him) point out us to the love ethic of Jesus and asks us to live for Christ’s kingdom (not the American one). I give this book four stars.
Note: I received this book from Speakeasy in exchange for my honest review