Thursday, 12 February 2009

Michael Jensen's book 'You'

It's good at many things, but 'You' is 'Useless' when it comes to telling a non-Christian how to become a Christian.

If you were looking for that, you need to click here. It's John Stott's Basic Christianity, a book that lacks modern theological and cultural savvy, but will help you if you want to know what a Christian is, and how to become one.


pcraig said...

Is it that Michael Jensen's book tries and fails, or that it's about something different?

(I read this post and got the impression that you think only evangelistic books are worthwhile.)

Gordon Cheng said...


I'm not sure that your question is answerable, or if it is, why it matters.

However, my current book that I pulled off a pile sitting right next to me, and consisting of the book, and my toilet bag, is Netherland by Joseph O'Neill.

It is about cricket in New York, or at least, the first four to eight pages of it are, and involve a gun as well.

I consider it a worthwhile book, and I am about to test whether it is by going and reading it some more.

Mark said...

What are some of the 'many things' that 'it's good at'?

Gordon Cheng said...


It's elegantly written.

It makes interesting observations.

It says things that are unexpected without being ridiculous.

It is intelligent.

Luke said...

Does it do a good job of talking well about a theology of identity?

Lucy C said...

I haven't read Michael's book. But I don't understand your comment.
You say "'You' is 'Useless' when it comes to telling a non-Christian how to become a Christian." and then you say "[You]will help you if you want to know what a Christian is, and how to become one.".
Are you contradicting yourself or is there some clever pun here that is beyond me?

Steve Carlisle said...

Does You try to do that?

isnt it an Christian anthropology with the follow up being "HIM" which is taking the christological step?

Gordon Cheng said...

Lucy, I've edited the post to make it a bit clearer. The book that will help, and to which I was referring, is John Stott's Basic Christianity. My apologies if the initial post was confusing.

Luke, the book is full of fascinating and stimulating observations that are relevant to our humanity and thus our identity, although they won't all gain immediate acceptance. So it is not a bad book in terms of your question.

However there are some surprising and to my mind fatal flaws that mean the book won't help us with some really quite fundamental questions of who 'you' are.

The book treads extremely lightly over questions such as the nature of sin as rebellion against God, the consequent wrath of God against sin, and the threat of future eternal and conscious punishment for those who continue to rebel.

So on the one hand it's clear from reading the book that those who believe as Mike believes are in Christ, joined to him in his death and resurrection and awaiting a glorious new creation. That's good.

But what's less clear—and this lack of clarity stems directly from the light and loose treatment of the idea of divine wrath and judgement and human culpability—is that a substantial proportion of humanity remain 'in Adam'and therefore subject to continuing wrath and judgement despite the work of Christ on the cross.

Indeed although I have been trying to read 'You' carefully, I remain unclear as to whether or not the door remains open to universal salvation of each and every human being. (Not that I believe that Mike himself is a universalist, but at this point I have to separate author from text).

Another note that is oddly muted for a book about human identity (or even as a popular introduction to the subject) is a clear statement about the nature of the cross. Again, it's possible to find some aspects of the meaning of the cross reasonably well highlighted. And those who believe orthodox beliefs about what Jesus' death means won't find any nasty surprises.

So it's good to see that the cross is spoken of; somewhat disappointing to see how superficially it is treated.

You could argue quite reasonably that it is a book about human identity, not about the cross. The counter argument, is that we discover our true identity revealed only at the foot of the cross, as we discover the full extent of God's wrath and horror against our wickedness. Consequently any Christian book concerning identity, that doesn't clearly and centrally explain how the cross satisfies divine anger and justice, contains a fatal imbalance.

More to be said of course, and 'You' says some of them, but it's the bits that are skipped over lightly that are the most disturbing for having been skipped.

Gordon Cheng said...

Steve: well, sure, it is not about Christology.

But what I'm pointing out is the consequence of de-emphasizing certain cross-ly truths for our view of anthropology.

One of the most basic things about our humanity is that we are either in Adam or in Christ (Romans 5:12-21"). Post-fall and post-resurrection, this cleavage is so fundamental to human identity that you really need to make a fairly major point of it to set the context of discussion with any clarity. Otherwise you have a tent without tentpegs.

Emma said...

Gordon, I do not understand at all your response to pcraig. You say a book is useless at doing a particular thing, yet when someone asks if the book is trying to do that very thing, you say you don't know why it matters.

It matters because of your original post/point/accusation.

If you said, "Genesis is useless at explaining scientifically how the world was made" (as if that is what you wanted Genesis to do), and if I responded by asking, "Is Genesis even trying to explain scientifically how the world was made?", and if you replied with "I'm not sure that your question is answerable, or if it is, why it matters", I would wonder why you bothered to raise the matter in the first place.

Gordon Cheng said...

Emma, fair point and apologies to pcraig for not giving a more expansive answer to the question. Rereading what I said, I managed to confuse even me. So that is bad.

'You' does give a rationale for why it's been written on page 12, where Mike says "The point of this book is to ask what the Bible has said about You, and to compare it to some of the current alternative views of You.

I think in the comments above I've offered some ways in which I think the book achieves this, and ways in which it hasn't.

Whether it is evangelistic or not, that is another question, and that is what I find almost impossible to answer in a straightforward way—hence my answer to pcraig, which was as you have pointed out, not helpfully worded.

There are indications that it is written with evangelistic intent. So on page 13, Mike says:

The Bible claims that Jesus will return to rule the world...this is your cue: what are you going to do? How are you going to respond?

So that, to me, sounds evangelistic in intent. There is, at this early point of the book, every hint that the reader is going to be called upon to cross the line from rebel against God, to justified and redeemed servant of God. And to be sure, those hints are expanded upon in many and fascinating ways in the rest of the book.

But that is precisely what makes the book frustrating and confusing, for my money. If the 'You' who happens to be reading a book is a non-Christian, then it is not clear by the end of the book whether any response at all is required, in the deep sense of repenting, fleeing from the righteous anger of God and finding justifying mercy in his son Jesus. The line between 'Adam' and 'Christ' that is there in Rom 5:12-21 is faint indeed within what Mike has written. But I will stop there, because I am now repeating myself.

Gordon Cheng said...

Actually, the thought has occurred to me more than once that the book may be written specifically and only for a Christian audience.

If so, any complaint by me or anyone, really, that it is not evangelistic sounds rather silly. I also helps explain why, in chapters entitled (in succession)'deep trouble', 'death', and 'what next?' there is not a single mention of hell or a judgement that continues beyond our deaths.

The omissions are still puzzling if the book is written with a Christian reader in mind, but less so.

On the other hand, Mike has given no explicit indication that the book should be labelled as being for Christians only. You started life as a blog, and given the nature of the internet, that suggests it's there for anybody who wants to read it.

Emma said...

What about Peter Jensen's The Future of Jesus? Do you think it's evangelistic, and if so, do you think it is "clear by the end of the book whether any response at all is required, in the deep sense of repenting, fleeing from the righteous anger of God and finding justifying mercy in his son Jesus"? Do you think The Future of Jesus tells a non-Christian how to become a Christian?

Tony Payne said...

Cheng! In my office! Oh hang on, I can't do that any more.

I'll have to resort to flaying you with wet lettuce here instead.

Four brief comments:

1. Would it be possible to replace the word 'YOU' in your post, and in almost all of the discussion that follows, with 'Gordon Cheng's Blog'?

I think it would, by which I mean that your blog is unfailingly interesting, intelligent, well-written, thought-provoking, profoundly Christian and a great help to many people. You do what you do very well, and we're all the richer for it. But if I was wanting to direct a non-Christian to a place where they could simply and clearly learn how to become a Christian, I hope you won't be offended if I say that I would not send them to your blog. Mind you, if by reading your blog someone became interested in Christianity, and wanted to know more, John Stott's 'Basic Christianity' would be an excellent next step.

2. This is why I was very glad to publish 'YOU' at Matthias Media. It's a fine book, with many excellent qualities (including those you mention), and it will be useful as a ministry tool -- both for Christian young people to ponder how their identities are shaped in Christ, and for non-Christians to be challeneged both about the failure of a godless worldview to explain human experience, and about the coherence and explanatory power of the Christian alternative.

Is it too much to ask that we appreciate and utilise it for what it is, rather than criticising it for what it isn't?

3. Just a clarification: Michael's book didn't start life as a blog. The early drafts were in the form of chapters on various topics -- we then had the idea of working back through the material via the blog to sharpen it and get comments.

4. Thanks for the publicity, Chengster!


Anonymous said...

Tony and Emma. I think that Gordon has some *really* valid criticisms.

The chapters on the future implied that everyone finds their future in Christ (ie. resurrection) and said nothing about what happens to those outside of Christ.

Even if it is a mistake, I think this is very dangerous.

Tony Payne said...

Dear Anonymous

Sorry, but you need much more than silences and inferrences if you want the criticism to be valid, let alone the book to be 'very dangerous' (extraordinary statement!).

In my experience, implication is often in the mind of the beholder.


Anonymous said...

Did I say that the *book* was very dangerous?

I do think it is dangerous to imply that all people find their future in Christ and not to talk about any future for those who are not Christian. I think it is especially dangerous in our current climate.

Gordon Cheng said...

Thanks for the discussion everybody. I'm going to bow out of it just at the moment; it seems to me the basic outline of the issues is clear and I'm not really wanting to stir pots more than they've already been stirred.

Others can keep talking if you want to do that (or not if you don't), I'll try to let the comments through moderation as promptly as I can.

Mark Baddeley said...

I want to add my agreement to Tony Payne's comments. Arguments from silence need to be done very, very carefully, and with a fair degree of caution.

In general, arguments from silence are best offered in terms of a writer's/preacher's body of work as a whole, instead of focusing on a particular work and expecting everything there.

In particular, given that in our circles many of us subscribe to the view that 'balance' in teaching occurs over the course of person's teaching as a whole and that each individual piece of preaching/teaching should be 'unbalanced,' as that seems more like the Bible itself, these kind of criticisms seem very wide of the mark.

If Michael consistently produces material that softpedals judgement, sin, and the fate of the non-elect, then I think criticisms could and should be made. But, like Tony, take You for what it is.

The criticisms applied to Michael's book here would condemn much that was written by the early church fathers. With the notable, and quite late, anomoly of Augstine, they rarely made God's wrath central to their anthropology, nor did they focus much attention on the fate of the non-elect. Nonetheless the Reformers considered the early church fathers anything but dangerous.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gordon Cheng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gordon Cheng said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gordon Cheng said...

Okely doke.

I'm deleting comments as requested by the parties concerned.

The discussion is going on offline, and that seems a wise way to handle things for the time.

In my view the discussion is a fair one to have and I'm pleased that the people most concerned are in conversation, but it's a conversation best not hosted on this blog at this time.

With all good wishes and prayers to those who have contributed to the discussion so far.