‘Jesus A Theography’ by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola: a book review

English: Icon of Jesus Christ

English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think it is only right to warn you not to read this book just prior to going to bed – here’s why:

I was very happy to receive my copy of Jesus a Theography from Amazon. I had pre-ordered it months before and was glad that it finally had arrived. I had read a previous collaboration by Sweet and Viola called Jesus Manifesto, an important book about restoring Christ to supremacy and sovereignty in the church, and I wanted to compare the two books. So, as is my habit, I set aside a half an hour to read before going to bed, and Jesus a Theography was the book of choice. Mistake. By the time I got to page 8 in the first chapter my heart was pounding so hard that I had to get up, go for a walk, pray, think, write and try to settle myself down. It was as though the book were digitalis, a medicine used to stimulate the heart.

How did this happen? Well, I was clearly unprepared for the power of the premise upon which Jesus a Theography is based, that being that Jesus is the subject of all scripture, not just the prophecies of the Old Testament, and 90% of the New Testament (which, by the way, the authors call The First and The Second Testaments). Viola and Sweet are not only referring to the typical Messianic texts and psalms in their book. Their intention is to show ”how the Jesus story recapitulates and replays major biblical dramas and narratives of the Hebrew scriptures,” and that, “ Jesus repeats, embodies, fulfills and completes the story of Israel in Himself.”  That is a thrilling point of view, and the cause of my pounding heart, I believe.  It is also one that requires scrupulous scholarship to present well. The authors state in the introduction, “..we are not writing this book for scholars but for the general Christian population. At the same time, we have provided endnotes for the benefit of scholars, academicians, and curious minds who wish to see the sources that have influenced some of our conclusions and delve into them deeper.” I appreciate all those endnotes, as I am among the curious. I also truly enjoyed the Appendix which lists The Post-Apostolic Witnesses, those who, in their body of work, have come to the same conclusion about Jesus and the scriptures as Sweet and Viola. These are old friends such as Justin Martyr, Augustine, Chrysostom, Wesley, Bonhoeffer, and Mears; and current teachers, preachers, philosophers and writers are also listed, including N.T. Wright, J.I. Packer, Eugene Peterson, John Piper and Norman Geisler, and many others.

More than the research and resources that support this book, I love the sheer beauty of the story of Christ Jesus as it appears in the pages of Jesus a Theography.  The book takes us from Christ Before Time to The Return of the King, featuring events of Christ’s life told with so much power and glory that there were times I had to cover my eyes and say with David, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, I can’t take it in.”  Psalm 139:6

So, you are warned: be prepared to deal with a fully awakened and pounding heart when you read Jesus A Theography. But what a happy warning! For one whose heart has perhaps grown somewhat  slow and sluggish in a relationship with Christ, a little digitalis in the form of a book may be just exactly what the Great Physician ordered.

A Surprise Lenten Book

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic

Jesus from the Deesis Mosaic (Photo credit: jakebouma)

We are now well into Lent, a time when Christians reflect on the life of Christ, especially His final days on earth, when He suffered and died on the cross for sinners. Lent is also a time for followers of Jesus to do some introspection, and humbly ask the Holy Spirit to help us sift through our attitudes and actions, and ‘put to death’ the areas of our life that muddy-up the beauty of “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” I have a couple of favorites books which I read during this season, and I was not expecting to use an additional book to help me learn humility this Lent, but one came my way as a gift. It is called Viral, Dr. Leonard Sweet’s latest release, published by WaterBrook Press.

I have to admit that Leonard Sweet is one of my favorite authors. He is shamelessly in love with Jesus Christ and His church, and is constantly seeking ways to bring the two closer together. He is also an academician with a sense of humor; a semiotics expert who carries Windex with him, and a guy who, especially in this digitally driven century, is surely one of the “men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel -read ‘the church’- should do.” (l Chronicles 12:32).

Being aware of these things about Dr Sweet made me pay attention to the sub-title of Viral, which is “How Social Networking is Poised to Ignite Revival.” The word ‘revivalis not one that is very familiar to the church of the 21st century. A Guttenberger ( according to Dr. Sweet, “those who arrived from the twentieth century bringing with them influences and assumptions launched long before in the fifteenth century… They are the product of the movable-type technology perfected by Johannes Guttenberg in the 1400’s.”) is going to notice that word ‘revival’ and recall the history of its meaning more readily than a Googler will. (A Googler is from the “digitized, globalized group that spends much of its life getting to know one another in a virtual world.”) So why is the word ‘revival ‘on the cover of this book? And why am I using Viral as part of my Lenten devotions?

I am using Viral for devotions because I caught a glimpse of my resistant, stiff-necked self in Dr Sweet’s book. Thereafter it didn’t take long for my lessons in humility to start, and a time of reflection to begin. As I read about the differences between Guttenbergers and Googlers in Viral, Dr Sweet pointed out how the Guttenberg culture, the culture to which Dr Sweet himself belongs, lost its way in the proclamation of the gospel. Becoming proficient in the skill of using the printed word, Guttenbergers became entranced with the words themselves, the systems developed, the numbers of churches built and the dollars raised as a result. In doing all these things we became distracted and forgot about our relationship with the One who loves us so; our love affair with Jesus wasn’t #1 on our list anymore. The greater our success, the more we Guttenbergers did. We recorded our events and accomplishments so we could teach other Guttenbergers how to do the things which we had done. Much good was accomplished in the name of Christ, but we forgot about the personal side of our relationship with Him. The more we used our skills at developing programs and putting by-laws in place, the further away we wandered from the Lover of our Soul, and the less we were able to establish relationships with those who were in need of Him. Our journey away from Jesus took a while, but eventually we managed to get totally absorbed in our forms, proclamations and propositions. Then out of nowhere came the Google generation, the “relationships are us” tribe, who believe that being connected to others is the only way to travel through life. Think this is a coincidence? Or is this God’s way of saying it’s time for a sweeping change? I believe this is an important question that Dr Sweet poses in Viral, and one that caused me to reflect … a lot.

Ouch. It hurts to see these faults of Guttenbergers – my faults. And what happens now? It’s pretty obvious that the digital world is expanding daily, and the Google generation with it. What should my response be? Resist? Complain? Run for the hills? Lent is a time of repentance, so repenting is probably the best place to start.  Perhaps then we can turn away from our faults and toward some very good news, which is, Dr Sweet says, that the Googlers have been designed and equipped by God to see life in an amazingly new way. And, God has put before them the wonderful possibility of being involved in a great revival by using the viral speed and power of social networking to spread the word about the greatest relationship out there, the relationship with Jesus Christ. They can, if they chose,  share the astonishing story of the One who is so concerned about us that He gave up His life for our sakes. Once Googlers know the authentic love of Jesus, they will not be shy about inviting all in their group to ‘friend’ Him, and learn more about Him, says Dr Sweet. The possibilities of this type of Christ-sharing are endless, just as the variety of apps for our digital devices is endless, and the potential results are mind-boggling.

I am very thankful to the person who sent me this book, and I now think I understand why the word ‘revival’ is on the cover. I have finished reading Viral, but am keeping it close by throughout the rest of Lent. It is a reminder that change is hard, but that the Creator God is always changing things up – doing new things. Where would any of us be if God had not done the phenomenal new thing of raising Christ from the dead?  That was the most amazing revival ever, don’t you think?

Favorite summer book of 2011

Walking the famous labyrinth on floor of Chart...

Image via Wikipedia

In
architecture, a labyrinth is a construction consisting of a path that spirals
inward; they are often inlaid in the tiled floor of a church, or in a garden
space. They are a type of puzzle, sometimes called a maze. Some have many paths
that lead to the center, but ultimately there is only one true path and one
true center. Labyrinths are places of discovery – both internal and external
discovery. To my mind, a book written in a ‘labyrinthine’ style would be a
composition that is a mystery, or a puzzle, which combines spiraling, kaleidoscopic
plot lines created to bring the reader a sense of adventure, tension,
involvement and internal and external discovery. The Seraph Seal, by Lori Wagner and Leonard Sweet, is just such a
book, and is my favorite book of the summer of 2011.

This is a
book about end times, centered on the figures of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse
– and there the comparisons to all the other end times books stops. Seraph Seal does not fit the pattern of
other end time stories, and that is one of the things I truly appreciate about this
exciting and suspenseful book. Here’s why: I think our generation has done
exactly what the generations who waited for the Lord’s first arrival did – we have
decided that Jesus must return in a tightly specific way because of our
interpretation of the scriptures. Who were the ones who completely missed
Christ’s humble birth? It was those who knew the scriptures backward and
forward, and should have been the first to recognize Him. The Seraph Seal made
me think differently about Christ’s second coming. I had to take a serious look
at the way I put God’s Word in a strangle-hold of my own interpretation. That
was a moment of internal discovery for me.

As in his
non-fiction, Dr. Sweet has made good use of the information in our present age
to help us imagine the future. Technologies, social networking, imperiled
earth, air, fire and water, and a non or anti-Christian culture in America and
the world ring too true to be comfortable. In fact, my only criticism of the
book is that it is so dark. I don’t know whose idea it was, Dr Sweet’s or Ms
Wagner’s, to include the character Seraphim in the book, but I am very thankful
for the beautiful image and levity that the hymn singing bird brings to the story!

Another
valuable discovery, an external one this time,  was that as much as I want a ‘new heaven and a
new earth’ to appear (Rev 21:1), I cannot expect anything new to come
painlessly. It was hard to read page after page of destruction described as the
old earth fell away in The Seraph Seal. And yet, there must be some kind of
tearing down of the old to have anything new appear. It made me pay closer
attention the first two words of the five word prayer that John the Revelator
exclaims at the conclusion of the book of Revelation, “Even so, come Lord
Jesus.”

I loved the
ending of the Seraph Seal, too. It was surprising, imaginative and hopeful:
like the well being we feel when a mystery has been solved, or when we have
walked successfully through a labyrinth.