interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

Not So Simply Irresistible

Stanley, Andy. Irresistible: Unleashing the New that Jesus Brought to the World. ePub edition, Zondervan, 2018.
[An installment of the “Read Me” Project]

Andy Stanley clearly has a well-defined audience in mind for Irresistible. I’m equally clearly not in it.

First, that audience is explicitly Christians, particularly church leaders but also lay people who will be “witnessing” to others, who share an “evangelical” label and probably call themselves “inerrantist,” “Bible-believing” and possibly even “literalist.” These are Christians who hang out on the other side of the schoolyard from me, metaphorically speaking.

Second, that audience mostly includes much younger people, something that seems implicit in his easy-breezy, casual writing style.

So, I was definitely reading Irresistible as an outsider. I understood that.

Nevertheless, I felt the conversational dust this book has kicked up concerns me. I may hang out with kids on the other side of the yard, but we’re still Christians; we still play most of the same games and speak a dialect of the same language. That’s certainly how it would look to someone even farther outside Stanley’s circle, someone on the other side of the schoolyard fence, perhaps, to continue with that metaphor.

cover of Irresistible by Andy Stanley

Besides which, I used to hang out over there on Stanley’s side of the turf, once. Some of Stanley’s theological rhetoric still touches a chord. I feel like I understand where he’s coming from. “You can take the girl out of the Bible belt, but you can’t take the Bible belt out of the girl.” I know I’m not the only exvangelical who has discovered this.

And finally, true confession moment, I am the kind of person who has been known to answer strangers’ overheard questions when standing in line at the movie theatre or walking through the mall. [E.g., “Where on earth is the food court?” “Oh, hello, it’s past the kiosks and right at the fountain – have a nice day!” This mortifies my family, but I insist that one person’s buttinski is another’s good neighbor.]

As an interested outsider, then, I found Irresistible worth reading, although I had a complicated response to it. What interested me most was that Stanley seems to end up near, if not precisely in, the same place that many Presbyterians end up on the matter of how to proclaim the gospel and talk about what the Christian life is all about. But to get there, he takes a route that we would avoid, for good reasons. Back to the metaphor, it’s as if he had to shinny up a drainpipe, walk along the edge of the gym roof, jump from there to the swing set, and finally do a back flip onto the playground, when it would have been a whole lot safer just to walk across the grass.

But there’s my outsider’s perspective again. Stanley and I evidently have different ideas about what constitutes theological danger.

books on bookshop shelves

As I read Irresistible, Stanley is making two sets of claims.

One set of claims is about how to proclaim the gospel to the contemporary generation in a way they can understand, and also recognize as genuine good news for them. The other set of claims is about the Biblical theology he sees supporting that proclamation.

I’m sympathetic and largely in agreement with Stanley’s claims about the proclamation of the gospel. I reject the Biblical theology he uses to justify them, however – as unnecessary, because it’s not the only one that supports his preferred gospel message, and as dangerous, because it’s too welcoming to neo-Nazis and neo-gnostics.

[Here’s my logic on that: We don’t have to be strict empiricists to believe that it always makes sense to take empirical evidence into account, and to use it to refine our account of truth. I am also enough of a pragmatist to believe that ideas that are true will generally demonstrate their veracity by having empirically positive consequences for people when put into practice. Conversely, when we amass a large body of empirical evidence that an idea has negative consequences for people when put into practice, we are justified in suspecting that it’s a bad idea, and in looking for something that works better.

And if we got that bad idea from reading the Bible, we ought to ask ourselves whether we’re reading the Bible well enough.]

Bibles on a library shelf

On the practical side, Stanley is concerned about the “nones,” the 20% or so of Americans who give their “religious affiliation” as “none.” The “nones” are the fastest-growing religious group in the United States today. He thinks all Christians should be concerned about this group. I agree.

The evidence shows that many of these “nones” are not atheist, but rather “agnostic,” or “spiritual but not religious,” or in some other way open to messages about spiritual or religious life, possibly even to invitations to spiritual practice. What they aren’t is “church people.” They may be ex-church people, who have had a “bad experience” with religion. More likely they’re post-Christian people, people whose basic understanding of reality clashes in fundamental ways with traditional Christian assumptions.

Stanley argues that a major obstacle to these people acquiring, and to maintaining, Christian faith in the face of various secular pressures is Christians’ insistence that people have to accept the truth of every narrative, and the non-contradictory status of every statement, in the entire Bible, including the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament.

The Bible carries a lot of baggage, and contemporary people have a lot of problems with some of that baggage. Even devout Christians have sincere questions and reservations about some of the things they’ll find in the Bible. (If they read enough of the Bible to find them, that is. Simply not reading the Bible is one tried-and-true way to deal with this problem, and it’s one more and more Christians have adopted these days.)

Expecting non-, post-, and ex-Christians to start, and perhaps even to stay, in a place where they affirm “everything” in the Bible in order to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ amounts to placing a stumbling block to faith in the way of these little ones. Christians should stop doing that.

Instead, Stanley argues, Christians should start by anchoring their faith in Jesus Christ in the personal testimony of the apostolic witnesses to the resurrection. Proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ from that standpoint. Embrace and demonstrate the way of life based on Jesus’ simple but challenging and counter-cultural commandment to “love one another” that follows from that faith and that gospel. And grow from there.

A church founded on that testimony, that gospel, that practice, and that experience can tolerate some reservations about the empirical or literal truth of some portions of Hebrew Scripture. It can enfold people who doubt that the walls of Jericho fell just like it says in the book of Joshua, or who have trouble with the idea that God commanded the Israelites to kill everything that moved in the city when they did.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

As an interested outside reader, I could affirm that line of reasoning. This is where many of the members of Stanley’s evangelical audience seem to part company with him, however. His practical recommendations about homiletics and mission seem to be less acceptable to book reviewers than his Biblical theology. In other words, the theology is OK but its practical implications are not.

It may be no coincidence that Stanley’s hermeneutically closer colleagues have their greatest difficulty with those practical recommendations of his that would “play nicely” with a quite different Biblical theology and hermeneutic. That compatibility may even shed some light on the real problem, from a more Biblicist perspective: that almost nothing distinguishes Stanley’s practical approach from one that has simply let inerrantism go, and has stopped holding the Bible accountable for certain kinds of “accuracy” in the first place.

Say, for instance, someone regards the Bible as the account of the faith history of the people of God, the account of these people’s encounters with God across time, an account told from a particular perspective, intelligible in the terms of the world in which it originated, composed by witnesses who are distant from us and yet still, in significant ways, alive to us. An inspired account, to be sure, although people mean different things by “inspired.” An authoritative account, although again, people mean different things by “authoritative.” An account of the same God we worship, love, and seek to obey, to be sure, although what precisely people mean by “the same” is worth taking a closer look at.

A reader like that probably won’t hold it against the Bible, or the God it reveals, that the people who wrote it described a three-story universe or a worldwide flood or thought of God as a warrior. If we were living in 1500 BCE, she might say, we would probably appreciate a God who trains our hands for battle. But now that we’re living in 2019, some of us believe we are not only free to but ought to understand that self-same God differently. That we may and ought to say, at a minimum, that we should doubt a command to kill everything that moves in a village in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan would have come from God.

Readers like this have problems, too. But one problem they don’t have is thinking that you can’t believe in Jesus AND evolutionary biology, or some other subject in the modern university curriculum. On the contrary, for readers like this, if something is true, then we can count on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be down with it. Because that’s how God is: True.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library

The problem with Irresistible from my outsider’s perspective, then, is not that Stanley recommends cutting newbie Christians some slack when it comes to their inclination to question the literal truth of some Biblical narratives. The problem is that he justifies cutting people that slack by arguing that the Old Testament is “obsolete.” The commandments of the “Mosaic law” have been “replaced” by Jesus’ new commandment to “love one another as I have loved you.” Consequently, it doesn’t really matter whether Christians embrace and affirm the Old Testament; it’s irrelevant for them. What matters for Christians is Jesus’ new and improved, superior covenant and commandment.

Stanley spends approximately half of his book arguing that the covenant made with Israel at Mt. Sinai was always temporary, destined to be replaced by a covenant sealed in and by the work of Christ. Stanley presents a reading of the Pauline epistles and, naturally, the book of Hebrews to substantiate his view that the entire New Testament supports the understanding that the old covenant with Israel has now been replaced by a new and better covenant. For instance, according to the unidentified author of Hebrews, the “new covenant is a better, superior, preferable covenant (152).”

Stanley’s story is that God’s unconditional covenant of blessing with Abraham was always scheduled to be fulfilled in Jesus’ new covenant; the legally-oriented covenant God makes with Israel at Mt. Sinai was always a temporary, conditional, reward-and-punishment arrangement destined to come to an end when a superior arrangement could be put in place. On Stanley’s reading, the divinely-planned obsolescence of the “Mosaic covenant” is affirmed throughout the New Testament. Paul tells his readers that

Believers belong to Jesus, not the old covenant. Believers are accountable to Jesus, not the old covenant. Believers take their cues from Jesus, not the old covenant. … According to Paul, Jesus followers are dead to the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments have no authority over you. None (136).

Before that, Jesus made the same point during his lifetime:

This was [Jesus’] way of saying God’s conditional, temporary covenant with Israel was coming to an end, the intended-from-the-beginning end. When God established his covenant with Israel, he set a timer. According to Jesus, the time had run out (109).

Stanley doesn’t see his claims about the relationship of new and old covenants, commandments, and scriptures as problematic. In fact, according to him, the people most affected by this replacement covenant line of thinking are totally fine with it:

… the old covenant disappeared on August 6, AD 70, the day the temple burned and the sacrificial system ended. That was the day ancient Judaism died. Orthodox Jews have been lamenting ever since. But the majority of Jews have moved on. The vast majority of modern Jews have no desire to see the temple rebuilt or the old covenant reinstituted. Most Jews consider the old covenant outdated and obsolete (153).

That’s convenient. Especially because, although here Stanley seems to equate the “old covenant” narrowly with the sacrificial cult of the Second Temple, most of the time by “old covenant” he seems to mean the commandments and ordinances of what rabbinic Jews might call halakhah, sometimes along with the entire body of Hebrew Scripture.

It’s comforting to have Stanley’s assurance that most Jews share the view that the Scriptural and relational foundation of their religion has been superseded by Christianity. This is the view that inspired the medieval figures of Ekklesia and Synagoga, and that fueled the persistent Christian claim that God had rejected the Jews.

image of a medieval sculpture of woman representing Judaism
Medieval personification of Synagoga, here as depicted on the exterior of Notre Dame de Paris. Synagoga is blindfolded – in this image by a serpent reminiscent of the tempter in Genesis 3, her crown lost, the tablets of “the law” slipping from her hand, lance broken … all symbols of her defeat by Ekklesia (the Church). This imagery illustrates an “old covenant obsolescence” reading of Christian scripture.

On the other hand, considering where the supersessionist reading of the New Testament – that is, the reading Stanley is articulating in Irresistible – has ended up historically, I question how much confidence we should have in these assurances.

Another predictable consequence of reducing all of Hebrew Scripture to the status of a historical footnote vis-à-vis Christianity is a loss of focus in two other areas where the Hebrew Scriptures have made contributions to Christian culture that would not have been made by the New Testament alone.

One is the strong affirmation of the goodness of the material creation, including the body, that is underwritten by the Hebrew Scriptures from the first chapter of Genesis on. It was always possible for the earliest Christians to deny the reality of Jesus’ physical incarnation, despite Luke’s account of the virgin birth. Docetism had its adherents, and Marcion – another non-fan of Hebrew Scripture – was also no fan of the created material world. Neo-gnosticism continues to exert its world-denying pull in our culture. Hebrew Scripture is a guardrail there.

Another is the prophetic witness to justice. Care for widows, orphans, and strangers, Amos envisioning justice rolling down like the waters, Isaiah calling out those who add house to house until there is no room for the poor – all that speaks to us from the Hebrew Bible. It’s no coincidence that Stanley hardly ever mentions justice. It’s not on his New Testament radar. Stanley himself would, I suspect, argue that love is all we need: the “one-anothering” kind of love Jesus commands. And he might be right about that, at least theoretically. But Augustine the “political pessimist,” James “if men were angels no government would be necessary” Madison, Reinhold “moral man and immoral society” Niebuhr, and I, would come back with something like this: justice is what love looks like when public policy has to be made, which it always does.

Ultimately, then, while there were some things to appreciate in Irresistible, in the end this outsider had to acknowledge that the “One Covenant of Grace from before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4) reading of the whole Bible seemed preferable to Stanley’s Replacement Covenant reading of the New Testament with the Hebrew Bible as appendix.

I care about the “nones.” But I think a more generous hermeneutic will help us reach them. And let us keep 2/3 of the Bible into the bargain.

interior of book tower in Prague Municipal Library
What are we reading now?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: