Have evangelicals diluted Jesus’ radical message?

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Benjamin Corey says American evangelicals have diluted the radical message of Jesus. - Image courtesy of James Shepard (http://bit.ly/1wg1bwS)

Benjamin Corey says American evangelicals have diluted the radical message of Jesus. – Image courtesy of James Shepard (http://bit.ly/1wg1bwS)

Imagine Jesus wearing a baseball cap, attending the Republican National Convention, celebrating American Independence Day, and advocating for another war in the Middle East. According to blogger Benjamin Corey, author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message, this is the Jesus that conservative American evangelicals have created. As a result, many worship a domesticated Jesus and have diluted his radical good news.

Here, we discuss what it means to be “set apart,” the idolatry of certainty, and whether he’s just making the same old liberal arguments we’ve been hearing for decades.

RNS: Many evangelicals work to be “set apart” from culture, staying true to the fundamentalist roots of some denominations. But you say evangelicalism, has fallen prey to syncretism—the blending of culture with religion so that it’s difficult to distinguish them. Where do you see this?

BC: Over time, I’ve noticed syncretism in a variety of ways within our own culture—such as our cultural focus on individualism, justification of violence, and our often narrow Western understandings of justice. The big picture concern however is this: following Jesus has become something that fits snugly into an American evangelical worldview, both theologically and politically. Unfortunately, as I argue in Undiluted, any time following Jesus becomes comfortable, and any time Jesus seems to agree with our entire worldview, it’s a good sign that we have adapted our concept of Jesus to our culture and that we’d bode well to return to the roots of his message and start over.

Cover image courtesy of Destiny Image Publishers

Cover image courtesy of Destiny Image Publishers

RNS: You share about leaving fundamentalism/conservative evangelicalism and moving into a faith that you describe as being oriented on a more radical Jesus. Isn’t this just liberalization?

BC: Not at all, and I think this is part of the problem with a modern evangelical worldview. We have become so sure, so confident in our theological and political rightness that any straying from the company line is dubbed “liberalization” and immediately discounted. But [tweetable]the liberal vs. conservative paradigm is a false choice when we’re talking about following Jesus.[/tweetable] Jesus claimed that his kingdom was “not of this world”; he did not come to push a conservative agenda or a liberal agenda—he came to present a radically different way of living that no human worldview could ever duplicate. In a world of false binary options, [tweetable]Jesus is the one in the middle inviting us into a “third way” of living.[/tweetable]

RNS: In Undiluted, you write that forgiveness isn’t something designed to be a gift to the offender, but rather is something designed to set ourselves free. Is this a human-centered view? Where’s God in that?

BC: I would argue that this concept is the most God-centered approach to forgiveness. By freely forgiving our enemies and those who have wounded us, we are free to live without the destructive bitterness that unforgiveness creates. In Greek, forgiveness actually means “to send away” and is the mechanism by which we turn people and situations over to God—recognizing that it is his job, and only his job, to deal with them appropriately. Withholding forgiveness is the human-centered approach, because we’re basically telling God that we’re better at his job than he is.

RNS: You write that it’s not the exclusive nature of Jesus, but his inclusivity, that offends our sense of justice. Why then do people get so uptight with “Jesus is the only way” assertions?

BC: I’m an orthodox Christian, so I believe that Jesus is the only way we can be reconciled to God—that’s definitely a line that would certainly be offensive. The people I see more often offended, however—both in Jesus’ time and ours—are the religious elite who simply can’t stomach that Jesus is always busy throwing the doors open and inviting in the outsiders. Jesus on multiple occasions tells stories that tend to place outsiders above the people who thought they were safe insiders, even at one point saying that they are “entering the Kingdom ahead of you!” The message of Jesus resonates with an outcast who wants to have a seat at the table but is infuriating to the religious who think they’re too good to sit next to them.

RNS: You write about Jesus being so popular that he couldn’t go anywhere without getting swarmed by a crowd, but doesn’t the Bible also say he was hated and despised?

BC: It’s both / and situation. Yes, the prophet Isaiah predicted the Messiah would be “despised and rejected,” which he was— mostly by the religious power holders. Too often I fear, we take this “rejected” aspect and embrace it for ourselves, thinking that if we’re expressing our faith in an abrasive way that we’re somehow “like Jesus”. Unfortunately, this isn’t accurate—the book of Mark tells us that when it came to regular people, Jesus was so popular that he couldn’t go anywhere without being swarmed by a large crowd. Certainly, Jesus wouldn’t have consistently attracted crowds if he was always obnoxious. So when it comes to outsiders, [tweetable]the way we live and express our faith should make Jesus attractive, not repulsive.[/tweetable]

RNS: You argue that the way Jesus typically taught his disciples shows that instead of the idolatry of certainty, he wants to invite us to live out our faith in a sea of tension. Explain.

BC: The Gospels will report that there were times when Jesus taught in nothing but parables, and that this did not make understanding easier for people—it was actually quite frustrating. At one point, his disciples practically high-five each other and say, “finally, you’re not speaking in parables anymore!” As much as we’d like him to be, [tweetable]Jesus isn’t always as black and white and the rest of scripture isn’t always, either[/tweetable]. I think this had a divine intent: when we reach a point of absolute certainty our hope and faith ends up placed in our own confidence. Jesus wants to leave us in tension because it forces us to keep following, to keep seeking, and to stay humble.

  • Frank

    I’ll pass.

  • Eric

    Yes. Next question?

  • Good interview! I completely agree that we must “return to the roots of his message and start over.” We are missing huge chunks of wisdom.

  • Karl Kroger

    Excellent interview. I think Corey makes a number of excellent points…I love Corey’s take on forgiveness being for us, and yet it’s ultimately about giving things to God–vs us playing god by not forgiving.

    I think the biggest problem in American Christianity today also has the potential to be our greatest hope: freeing civil religion from what it means to follow the crucified and resurrected Christ. Then again, you already know that. Lead on Merritt, Corey, Turner, Hunt, Evans, Bessey, Zahnd!

  • Karla

    Many have created a god/idol to suit themselves so they don’t have to
    change which is idolatry and no idolater will enter heaven! Many read
    books about the Bible instead of reading the Bible. Ephesians 5;18 says
    don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says all drunkards go to hell yet
    many don’t know because most people only want to talk about abortion
    and/or gay marriage so they don’t have to face their own sin. The wine
    that Jesus made was new wine/diluted and the Bible says don’t get drunk
    on strong wine so people who get drunk with wine are also wrong! Jesus
    said many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! We must follow!
    It deosn’t matter how spiritual people are if they aren’t Biblical they are
    still lost/headed for hell. If you say you love Jesus and then don’t follow
    the Bible/religion no Truth is in you! Being mean/sharp tongues,gambling,
    gossip,pride,greed,coveting,jealousy,premartial sex,getting drunk are all
    rampid in church cause they barely ever get confronted. It’s not enough
    to believe in Jesus. We all must Repent then follow Him/the Bible/Jesus!

  • Eric

    So, I guess we should thank you for providing an illustration of Corey’s point?

  • Fran

    The major theme of Jesus’ ministry was:

    “From that time Jesus began to teach and to say Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17)

    As a matter of fact, it is a major theme of the entire Bible, and it was prophecied by the prophet Daniel that:

    “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom; which shall never be destroyed; and the kingdom shall not be left to other people but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms and it shall stand forever.” (Daniel 2:44)

    God’s kingdom or heavenly government will soon put an end to all corrupt human governments. It will rule with righteousness, love and justice (Isaiah 11:1-9) and will put an end to all wicked ones who make life unbearable on earth (Psalm 37:10,11).

    And the cherry on the top 😀 is that it will put an end to all sickness, disease, old age and death (Revelation 21:1-4).

    Yes, there will be radical changes brought to the earth and mankind on it, all for the BEST that life has to offer, through the major theme of Jesus’ ministry: God’s kingdom!! 😀

  • Byron

    I echo Eric’s observation.

  • Byron

    Nothing new here to those outside of evangelicalism, but a needed voice and viewpoint.

    Congratulations to Corey for writing the book.

    I pray that it bears fruit.

  • dude

    Agreed. Christ’s forgiveness does make religious types nervous.

  • Karla

    Jesus forgives only if we Repent! Two guys were next to Jesus on the Cross
    and only one guy went to heaven! Why? Only one guy Repented! Cheap
    Grace is no Grace at all and many people are deceived because bad mouthin
    religion backfired. Man shall perish because of their lack of knowledge and we
    see it everywhere with people claiming to be Christian yet their lifestyle has not
    changed/they don’t live out the Bible because preachers/people don’t preach the Truth. Jesus said you are one of Mine only if you continue in My teachings
    and follow Me so people need to open up their Bible and read/follow the Truth.

  • John

    I agree with the appeal to move away from some level of certainty, which can become wrongly applied to our faith, and living with more tension. Yet, there are many things on which we are to take a certain stand, and we see these throughout the biblical story. Perhaps he goes into more detail about this in the book, but helping people navigate and understand the tension between certainty and mystery is difficult and often it is the details that trip people up. A good point for sure, but easier said than done.

  • Frank

    Sure if the point meant anything. But it does not.

  • Most of the people I have met that actually read their Bibles and go to church do a much better job of separating culture from doctrine than everyone else who only reads articles about the Bible and Christians online. I agree that too often we mix our culture with the teachings in the Bible, but quite frankly, the author is arguing against a strawman. I know of no Bible-reading Evangelical who is comfortable with picturing Jesus as adhering with every single stereotype of the Republican party or conservatives. Most think that both political parties have problems, but, many do agree that the Republican party isn’t as far off base as the Democrats. They tend to choose the lesser of the two evils.

  • It makes them nervous because they are the ones who understand that not everyone receives Christ’s forgiveness. That’s pretty clear for pretty much anyone who reads the Bible and believes that any of it is literal.

  • Reading the Bible with get you closer to the “roots of his message” than reading this guy’s book.

  • Fran


    Good point there… In politics, it’s usually choosing the lesser of two evils.

    That’s why I don’t vote, since I choose God’s kingdom or heavenly government (Daniel 2:44; Matthew 4:17) as the only hope for mankind worldwide; and its rule is righteous, loving and just (Isaiah 11:1-9), not evil at all. 😀

  • samuel Johnston

    “BC: I’m an orthodox Christian, so I believe that Jesus is the only way we can be reconciled to God—that’s definitely a line that would certainly be offensive.”
    This sort of exclusive, intolerant nonsense, begs the question “Why did God create all those (fill in the blank) anyway? He must be some monster to create most of humanity just to feed the fires of Hell!
    That is certainly contrary to any notion of justice or mercy. Free will (choose Jesus or Hell) is not much better. Really guys, how can you bring yourselves to say this nonsense? Any God with respect would disown you all.

  • After reading Mr. Merritt’s comments, I felt like I was experiencing a not so subtle game of dodge ball.

    PC Waggs

  • Diogene

    @ Karla, the governor at the wedding feast declared Jesus wine to be the ‘best’ unlikely if it was a mere palatable dilution of wine and water, the Bible both condemns and advises the consumption of wine; in context this must refer to wine with some measure of alcohol content. Paul advises us not to judge one another in matters of food and drink, again undoubtedly a reference to wine. I enjoy a moderate amount of alcohol as both healthful and a pallative. Alcohol can clearly be a problem, so I don’t drink around believers it might offend, or around those who struggle with alcohol issues. Drunkenness; clearly a sin, particularly because it opens the door to other sins. We may disagree on the issue of moderate consumption, but in general I applaud your fervency and stern calls to repentance.

  • Diogenes

    Can’t find anything wrong in his arguments, but I would be more comfortable with a greater degree of specificity and less ambiguity with regard to practical matters of the faith. I would like context for his definition of radicalization.

  • Karla

    Diogene-Thank you for your honesty and all the feedback. I appreciate it.
    Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk on wine for it’s debauchery but be
    filled with the Spirit. The wine that Jesus made was new wine and diluted
    plus the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine so the wine Jesus made
    was not strong/extremely diluted but I appreciate the honest feedback and
    that you don’t get drunk. I always tell people not to drink at all because
    most people can’t just have one or two drinks. God bless.

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  • Tim McCoy

    I pray for the day a non-dualistic way of thinking prevails.

  • DoctorGee

    It would seem to be a given that there are a LOT of people who refer to themselves as “Compassionate Christians”, yet adopt questionably non-compassionate stances that are in direct contradictions to Jesus’ teachings concerning helping the poor, etc.

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