Book Notes: Jesus Mean and Wild

Christianity Today managing editor Mark Galli’s lively, challenging book Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God explores the many gospel passages where Jesus breaks out of the sentimental “meek and mild” model that we mistake for love. Every era has its characteristic blind spots about Scripture, such as the Victorian missionaries’ connection to an imperialism that clashed with Christian ethics. Ours is believing that love and judgment are opposed. If Jesus is love, we conclude he must have been ever-patient, ever-kind, undemanding, never criticizing sinners. To his credit, Galli recognizes that unskillful shame-based religious leaders and communities bear some of the blame for this over-correction.

In a succession of chapters exploring passages from Mark’s gospel where Jesus is anything but “nice,” Galli shows how the qualities of Jesus’ love that seem so fearsome — impatience, harsh criticism, radical ethical demands — are really the qualities that make his love life-transforming and effective against evil. Galli is a dialectical and dynamic thinker, holding opposite principles in tension rather than exalting one over the other, in a way that seems faithful to the multifaceted nature of Jesus in the Bible. He reasons clearly, while recognizing the inability of theological reasoning alone to show us how to balance competing values in any given situation.

As this book reminds us, an advantage of faith over secular philosophy is that we need not (in fact, should not) solve these problems on our own. We are not adrift between the Scylla of rigid legalism and the Charybdis of ethical chaos. We can ask God for personal guidance in applying the complex messages of the Bible to our lives. Galli writes, “Prayer is a mysterious, unfathomable, intense conversation with the Father, who will not give us formulas and principles but will give us himself.”

In prayer, Jesus discovered how to give of himself more selflessly than most of us can imagine doing, yet also to move on from towns where there were many invalids still to be healed, so that he could follow his call to ministry elsewhere. The Jesus of the gospels is neither heartless nor a doormat, but we might become either one if we turn one polarity of his character into an abstract rule — if we want to be right, for certain and by our own power, rather than to be led by the Spirit.

The discussion of prayer is a small part of Galli’s book, but it made a big impression on me. It helped me see what Christians mean when they talk about letting the Holy Spirit open the words of Scripture to you. I had been reading the Bible as an ordinary book and trying to perceive with my intellect whether it was divinely inspired. In other words, there was only one person in the conversation, me. The only alternative I could see was “believing” the propositions I thought I found there, whether they made sense to me or not. However, this just seemed like another one-sided conversation, only the speaker was the anonymous writer of the Bible pasage. What gave another mortal such authority over my conscience? Now, I’m hoping to discover a third way, one that begins with listening to God, and letting go of some of my fears of “getting it wrong” due to my lack of Christian education. (Of course, I’d have to make time to read the Bible first…how many months do I have left on that New Year’s resolution?)

From the edgy typeface and crown-of-thorns motif on the cover, I suspect that Galli’s book is especially aimed at Christian men (perhaps the same ones who bought John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart) who find the rosy-cheeked blond Jesus of modern devotional art to be just a little too passive, too unheroic, too…girly-man. Is the evangelical anxiety about homosexuality (nearly always male homosexuality, though conservative magazines occasionally run nutty articles about rampant lesbianism among high school soccer players) partly due to Christian men’s feeling that their religion is already dangerously emasculating? Galli has done his male readers a service by depicting a Jesus who uses authority and aggression in the service of love, who is unpredictable, who takes risks and asks us to do the same.

The passage I quote below, from a chapter titled “The Joy of Unfulfilled Desire,” particularly spoke to issues I’m confronting as I write my novel. So much of sexual sin arises from a misplaced desire for transcendence, seeking to exceed or submerge the self in the other. While lust leads to idolatry and commodification when it’s separated from an unselfish commitment to the beloved in her full personhood, the false freedom of promiscuity nonetheless points to the truth that something of the soul’s longing is left over even in the most fulfilling marriages. Without meaning to, I’ve gotten one of my fictional characters into such a predicament that even his boyfriend’s unselfish love can’t save him: he needs the gospel, good and hard. And I, in the so-called real world, am looking for a church where he’ll get it.

But now back to Galli. Reflecting on why Jesus masked his messages in parables, he writes:

The gospel has an element of mystery, no matter who is at the receiving end. For those with hardened hearts, the mystery remains impenetrable. For those who seek out Jesus for an explanation, some of the mystery is removed — and at the same time, more mystery is encountered….(p.103)

That our questions will remain unanswered and our longings unfulfilled is precisely the glorious nature of heaven. We are finite beings who are limited in knowledge, in space, and by time….But here is where we differ from the rest of the created order: God has placed eternity in our hearts (Eccles. 3:11)….(p.104)

This eternity in our hearts often frustrates us to such a degree that we take shortcuts to bridge the gap between our longing and its fulfillment. This is one way to define original sin. Adam and Eve felt they could not live with finite knowledge, and so they reached out for the knowledge of good and evil by eating of the very tree that God forbade. And with that one act, they became aware even more acutely of the gap between the eternity in their hearts and the finiteness of their nature. This in turn made them want all the more to close that gap prematurely….

All sins are in one sense an attempt to fulfill a genuine, righteous longing, but in a way that is inappropriate. Augustine talks about this in his Confessions: “The soul commits fornication when she is turned from thee, and seeks apart from thee what she cannot find pure and untainted until she returns to thee.” He then goes on to ask what the godly thing was he desired when he infamously stole a pear from a farmer’s field. He finally concludes that he was seeking freedom “to rebel against thy law…so that, even as a captive, I might produce a sort of counterfeit liberty.”

As material beings, we want to enjoy the material blessings of this earth. We also long for sexual intimacy. We want to be respected and honored. Most of all, we want to know and be known by our Creator and to please him. But there are inappropriate ways to satisfy righteous longings, and since the time of Moses these inappropriate means have been given names: adultery, coveting, idolatry, and so forth.

But — and this is crucial — it isn’t as if there is a righteous way to find complete fulfillment of any of our holy longings. To be sure, marriage is a wonderful place to attain a degree of sexual intimacy. Honesty and hard work are the divinely appointed means for earning and enjoying material blessings. Authentic worship of the invisible God is the path to a deeper relationship with him. Yes, God will give to those who seek, knock, and ask; he will fulfill our longings for wisdom and love — but only up to a point.

To be human is to be finite and to have eternity placed in our hearts, which means we know that we will forever exist as finite beings, with infinity — that is, perfect fulfillment of all our longings — just out of reach.

There is only one being for whom all longings have been completely fulfilled (so to speak), so much so that we say he is a being who has no needs. We are decidedly not that being, and we never will be. We will always, forever even in the kingdom, long for more.

Yet — and this is also crucial — this is not a frustrated longing, but an infatuated longing. When a young man and woman fall in love, they have found another person who suddenly fascinates them. This woman is the first person I think of when I wake up and the last person I think of before going to sleep. I relish every minute I spend with her. I ask her all sorts of questions about her life, her interests, her passions. The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know, and my fascination becomes even more intense. When we fall out of love — out of this giddy, wonderful period — it’s partly because we run out of energy to be continually fascinated. And we become bored and selfish and a host of other things. But the experience returns now and then throughout marriage, and it is this experience that reflects, I believe, the type of experience we’ll have with God for eternity: an endless falling in love, an endless fascination, an endless pursuing of the mystery of God — and the fact that we are never fully satisfied is precisely one reason we’ll find the kingdom of heaven such a joy. (pp.104-06)

This is good news to me as an artist: I couldn’t enjoy a heaven without creativity, where every satisfaction was already complete. Or a heaven without sadness, perhaps not the horror of depression but the pleasant sadness of a rainy day, the darkness of fear and danger that is the flip side of desire. Christian art would be much better if it were less afraid of what Henry Vaughan called the “deep and dazzling darkness” of God, the absence He gives us so that our hearts will be stirred to seek Him.

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