So, who IS this man? (a book review)

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I was recently asked to read and review John Ortberg’s new book, Who Is This Man? After the last Christian book I was asked to review, I was kind of squeamish to pick this one up. But I actually had a relatively enjoyable experience reading it.

At this point in my life and in my faith, I didn’t learn much from it. It didn’t challenge me much. To be honest, I think my time would have been better spent reading feminist theology or Stephen King. But I didn’t hate it. Perhaps, readers, you are at a different place in your faith journey and this book would be helpful for you. I’ll give you my thoughts on the book and you can decide if it’s worth your time (and $22.99).

First, I’ll talk about Ortberg’s premise. The book is described as “a powerful testament to the impact that Jesus had on human history, human condition, and our understanding of the obligations of one human being to another.” I don’t feel Ortberg did a good job of defending this premise, honestly. Part of that likely has to do with the fact that Christians are actually rather terrible at following Jesus’ teachings. He also seems like he wants to make a distinction between Jesus’ impact on the world and Christianity’s impact on the world, which I’m not sure is possible. Furthermore, in defending his premise, Ortberg also sometimes fails to consider other possible sources besides or in addition to Jesus for areas of impact on humanity. For instance, he writes an entire chapter on women’s rights without once mentioning the feminist movement–and you KNOW how I feel about THAT, readers. Often, his view of history is over-simplified in an attempt to prove his point.

He also reveals a substantial amount of Western bias in trying to support the premise of his book. Often, when he talks about Jesus’ impact on the world, he means Jesus’ impact on Western society. For instance, he claims that Jesus has had an unparalleled impact on the art world–something that may be true of Western art, but is not quite so obvious when you consider the impact that other religions have had on art in other parts of the world.

I believe his book would have been far more effective if he framed it differently. Ortberg doesn’t sufficiently support his main thesis, which makes the whole book come across as weak and shallow.

I won’t throw the baby out with the bath-water (forgive the cliche. This head-cold is impeding on my creativity), though. If this book had come to me 5 years ago, it might have changed my life (instead, Shane Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution did the job). It gave me a sliver of hope that the evangelical church is progressing. That more and more people are leaving behind legalistic, exclusive, fear-based institutional Christianity and trying to figure out what it means to be more like Christ.

The Good:

One chapter was entitled “The Collapse of Dignity.” I found it interesting, considering the fact that the last book I reviewed was all about how Christian women need to act more dignified. Ortberg discusses Jesus’ subversion of power structures: “A revolution was starting–a slow, quiet movement that began at the bottom of society and would undermine the pretensions of the Herods…Men who wear purple robes and glittering crowns and gaudy titles begin to look ridiculous…and yet the figure of the child born in a manger seems only to grow in stature.” Those without “dignity” according to society are first in the Kingdom of God. Ortberg repeats this theme through the book.

Ortberg includes a chapter entitled “What Does a Woman Want?” The first time I read the chapter title, I got a little squeamish. Christian men bring that question a lot, and then they try to answer it (presumably without ever actually SPEAKING TO a woman about what she wants). See  Donald Miller, Corey Copeland, etc., etc., etc. But, I actually thought Ortberg did a good job for the most part (I actually have a blog post coming up concerning a part of this chapter, so look for that). His answer to the question “What Does a Woman Want?” is pretty simple: “Jesus was doing something very subversive. He was treating a woman like someone who had her own identity.” 

He constantly critiques the church for failing to live up to Jesus’ teachings, especially the Christian tendency to “other” people from different religions: “How often have attempts to ‘side’ with Jesus caused people to belittle the teachings of other religions to try to make Jesus look more superior? We caricature the teachings of Islam or Buddhism without taking the time to give them a fair hearing in the name of Christianity. In doing so, we place ourselves against the One we claim to support.” 

He calls out anti-intellectualism and the anti-science movement so prevalent within the church: “To love God with all my mind means following truth ruthlessly wherever it leads.”

He critiques the idea of hell: “[Teachings on the afterlife] were often used–as they have been ever since–to manipulate people to become or remain Christians out of self-centered fear. Origen said that ‘literal terrors of hell were false but should be publicized in order to scare simpler believers.”

A few additional criticisms:

Ortberg hints at Calvinist theology in several places (talk of election, total human depravity, substitutionary atonement, etc.). This is always sure to make me uncomfortable. Maybe those who have a better, and less oppressive understanding of Calvinism won’t have a problem with this, though.

He has a chapter called The Truly Old-Fashioned Marriage, which was probably my least favorite part of the book. He states that “sexual intimacy is reserved for married people, period.” and he discusses how sex outside of marriage makes everyone’s lives more complicated (using Naomi Wolf to “prove” his point, which has got to say something about Wolf’s brand of feminism, but I digress). I don’t agree with his point and I get frustrated when Christians simplify the issue of premarital sex to “Don’t do it. Period.” But he avoids shaming those who have had premarital sex, and doesn’t treat it as the sin to end all sins, so there’s that. He also calls out the sexual double standard and the Christian tendency to blame women for male lust, which I appreciated.

He doesn’t directly address same-sex marriage, but throughout the chapter mentioned above he describes marriage as “between a man and a woman.” This felt like a deliberate move on his part. I could be wrong.

Overall, the book presented a positive alternative to the Religious Right brand of evangelicalism. I might recommend it to anyone who is just leaving this version of Christianity and would like to rediscover the  Jesus of the Bible. I’d probably recommend N.T. Wright, Rob Bell, or Rosemary Reuther first, though.

If you’d like to check out Who Is This Man?, you can buy it on Amazon. If you buy it, let me know what you think! 


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