Book Review: The Jesus I Never Knew, by Philip Yancey
I was glad to see on the back of Philip Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew an endorsement by a man who has been one of the most influential authors in my Christian life. J.I. Packer writes of the book, “Yancey’s flair for honest, vivid, well-informed down-to-earthness gives piercing power to these broodings on the gospel facts about Jesus Christ. In a day when novel ideas about Jesus are all the rage, Yancey’s pages offer major help for seeing the Savior as he really was.” After reading the book, though, I must respectfully, though sadly, disagree with Dr. Packer’s assessment of Yancey’s book. This is indeed a day when novel ideas about Jesus are frequent and fashionable, but far from correcting those errors, this book only serves to make them even more acute.
Yancey describes his goal in The Jesus I Never Knew as “going back” through all the obfuscating traditions of Christianity to recreate Jesus as he really was. The book is neatly packaged into three sections. Part One, “Who He Was,” has chapters on Yancey’s preconceptions, Christ’s birth, background, and temptation, and Yancey’s profile of what personality traits the Incarnate Word must have had (more on that later). Part Two, “Why He Came,” contains an analysis of the Sermon on the Mount, a chapter on Christ’s mission of grace, and one each on Christ’s miracles, death, and resurrection. The final part of the book, “What He Left Behind,” includes chapters on the ascension, Christian political activism, and the difference Christ can make in the world.
Yancey makes the grandiose and hackneyed claim in The Jesus I Never Knew that he is doing something new and daring. He is, he claims, attempting to go straight to the source, to see Jesus as He was before being dirtied up by all the traditions of the church (though one is puzzled by his inordinate reliance on fifteen movies about the life of Jesus to make his case). “I felt like an art restorer stretched out on the scaffolding of the Sistine Chapel,” he writes, “swabbing away the grime of history with a moistened Q-Tip,” (p.25). The covers of his two latest books (this one and What’s So Amazing about Grace) capture this sentiment. On both, the concealing façade is being torn or wiped away to reveal some hidden truth. Yancey is, as it were, our guide, leading us into a secret knowledge that has been previously known only to God. What strikes me as ironic, though, as I read this book is that there is nothing new here at all. Yancey’s Jesus is not novel or shocking. He is not revolutionary or scandalous. He is just, well, sort of cosmopolitan. Sophisticated. Cultured. Well-groomed for the twenty-first century. This Jesus is tailor-made for our chic, well-pressed society. He embraces all the right causes, from women’s rights (p.154) to sensitivity training for men (p.158) to improved handicapped access (p.174). This Jesus is even savvy enough to know that He must turn away in blushed but knowing disgust from the Christian Right (chapter thirteen). What is so novel or scandalous about that? Yancey has created a Jesus that could slide slick as caviar into any cocktail party in all of polite society.
That is a theme, really, in Yancey’s writings. He seems bent on reducing Jesus to the most comfortable, non-threatening, hello-kitty-like figure that he can. Jesus is always nice, always accepting, and always non-judgmental (except, of course, to those judgmental and intolerant Pharisees who deserve to be judged back). He gives “playful nicknames” to his disciples (p.86)—what, as in “Peter”? “The rock”? There is nothing playful about that. Yancey delights in pointing out the softer side of Jesus. I suppose it will make us feel better about ourselves to realize that Jesus, too, struggled with loneliness and dependency issues (p.99). I guess we are to take some comfort in knowing that Jesus can help us “break out of restrictive stereotypes of masculinity.” (p.88) Even when Jesus commands a storm at a word to cease, Yancey sees as most profound in that story that “God is vulnerable. . . . Jesus had, after all, fallen asleep from sheer fatigue.” (p. 91)
Let me say from the beginning that I would never presume to diminish in any way the truth of Christ’s full humanity. That Christ was fully human is something that is clearly taught in Scripture, and it is a good thing for the church to be reminded, as Hebrews does, that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” But after reading Yancey’s books, I am convinced that this desire to portray Jesus as weak and vulnerable stems from an entire worldview about the nature of goodness and strength. I have read two of Yancey’s books, and from all that I can gather from them, it seems to me that Yancey is so determined to depict Jesus as weak and vulnerable precisely because he defines goodness itself in terms of those things. Goodness is defined by that which is nice and weak and non-judgmental. Strength and power and the willingness to judge, on the other hand, are the very picture of what is unacceptable. “Power,” he writes, “no matter how well-intentioned, tends to cause suffering,” (p. 205). Therefore, a loving Jesus must be a powerless and vulnerable Jesus. Only an intolerant and judgmental Jesus would be strong. That Yancey thinks in these terms is starkly and sadly evident in His understanding of the Old Testament.
First, a small historical excursus: In the second century after the birth of Christ, a heretic named Marcion decided that the God of the New Testament was the loving, forgiving God of Jesus Christ. By contrast, the God of the Old Testament was a malicious and judging tyrant who was bent on making His people miserable. As a result of this belief, Marcion discarded the Old Testament as rubbish and ultimately did the same with much of the New Testament, all in an attempt to sever any connection of Jesus with that malevolent God of Israel.
Try as I might, I have not been able to put much distance between Philip Yancey and Marcion. It is clear from this book that Yancey believes Jesus to have come to earth in order to correct the hard and unsavory edges of the Old Testament. The Old Testament, he writes, was the epitome of “father-love,” which Yancey defines as provisional, conditional, “bestowing approval as the child meets certain standards of behavior.” Jesus, on the other hand, brought to the world unconditional “mother-love,” to balance this less-than-desirable father-love of the Old Testament (p.158). “The Old Testament,” he says, “underscores the vast gulf between God and humanity. God is supreme, omnipotent, transcendent, and any limited contact with him puts human beings at risk,” (p.265) But now, of course, we can rest easy, since all such awkwardness has been put away with the New Testament. “In short,” Yancey writes, “Jesus moved the emphasis from God’s holiness (exclusive) to God’s mercy (inclusive).” What a convenient conclusion to draw, since our culture prides itself so much on being inclusive and excluding nobody! Once again, Jesus is presented as a paragon of postmodern sophistication. But is that really the picture that the Bible paints of God the Father and God the Son?—the one as the unapproachable, exclusive, “father-loving” judge, the other as the motherly, inclusive, mitigating factor in the Godhead? I don’t think so. The story of the Bible from start to finish is of God’s passion for His holiness and His grace to His people. Again and again, the refrain runs through the Old Testament, “Yet I looked on them with pity and did not destroy them or put an end to them.” What was it that prevented God from destroying Israel? Was it their innocence? No, it was God’s grace, even in the Old Testament. In fact, at the very giving of the Law to Moses in Exodus 34, God reveals Himself as “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness . . .” (Ex. 34:6) From the very beginning, God has unequivocally identified Himself by His grace. The continuity continues in the New Testament. When does Jesus ever move the emphasis away from God’s holiness? As far as I can tell, He doesn’t. On the contrary, in John 8 where Jesus forgives the adulterous woman, He tells her in no uncertain terms, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus does not in the least diminish the magnitude of God’s holiness. Finally, there is no dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments. They both testify to one God, loving and holy, gracious and righteous, merciful and just. Yancey, then, betrays either misunderstanding or irresponsibility in pitting the two testaments of God’s Word against one another.
God’s goodness, to Yancey it seems, is defined by His willingness to give up that awkward omnipotence, that transcendence and “father-love” of the Old Testament and trade it in for the more sophisticated weakness, vulnerability, and “mother-love” of the New. And the cross? As far as one can tell from Yancey’s books, it had nothing to do with sin or judgment or atonement. Instead, the great value of the cross, to Yancey, is that “God himself had chosen the way of weakness. The cross redefines God as One who was willing to relinquish power for the sake of love. . . . Power, no matter how well intentioned, tends to cause suffering. Love, being vulnerable, absorbs it. In a point of convergence on a hill called Calvary, God renounced the one for the sake of the other,” (p.205). No other statement in the book uncovers so clearly Yancey’s mindset. I must protest, though, that Yancey’s description is not at all what we see the New Testament saying about the cross. The cross is not a picture of God relinquishing either power or love. Both are a part of His very nature. The cross was the place where that divine nature in all its complexity irrevocably effected the salvation of God’s people, where righteous power and merciful love were finally and eternally reconciled with one another. It is unclear to me why Yancey is so insistent that power and strength are always bad. Power is evil, he seems to believe, even in the hands of God. Did God really have to renounce His power lest it corrupt even Him? It is a common move in our society to recoil against authority, and Yancey here articulates that sentiment par excellence, denying that even God Himself could have power without causing suffering.
Yancey seems to believe that the highest value in the universe is the ability of human beings to do whatever they want, even when what they want is to frustrate the plans of God. Human freedom is sacrosanct and untouchable. Yancey makes no argument for the proposition. He doesn’t interact with the biblical texts that might seem to curtail human freedom. He simply asserts it as the one unassailable premise in his definition of the universe and then swirls the rest of the biblical testimony subserviently around it. He writes a chapter, for example, on how the temptation of Christ happened for “one purpose: to let human beings choose freely for themselves what to do with him,” (p.76). He concludes another chapter with the statement that “the Son of God himself emitted a cry of helplessness in the face of human freedom,” (p.160). It squares well, doesn’t it, with Yancey’s picture of a God who must lay aside His omnipotence in order to be loving. But what is one to do with biblical texts like Job 42:2, “No plan of yours can be thwarted.” Or Daniel 4:35, “He does what he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back His hand.” Or Jeremiah 10:22, “I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is not his own; it is not for man to direct his steps.” Those passages and countless others in the Bible seem altogether lost on Philip Yancey. It would be hard to escape the conclusion that his idea of perfection is for God to lay down His sovereignty so that human beings can pick it back up.
Something must be said finally about Yancey’s tendency to insert completely irrelevant asides about social issues into his books. He seems absolutely determined to make himself and his writings acceptable to the social establishment in America. Both of the books I have read are preoccupied with making sure that everyone realizes that good Mr. Yancey stands on the right side of all the hot issues—racism, homosexuality, women’s issues, AIDS, the holocaust. I don’t begrudge him the right to have those stances. On some of them, I’m sure, we stand on the same side of the line. Yet I do believe that it is wrong and deceitful for Philip Yancey to use entirely unrelated parts of the biblical narrative to further his agenda. Far from helping us to “see the Savior as he really was,” as Packer says, I believe this practice by Yancey does nothing but obscure the reality of Jesus in favor of advancing his own favorite issues.
For example, on page 195, he is talking about Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane and notes that the apostles fell asleep. His conclusion from that? “Perhaps if women had been included in the Last Supper, Jesus would not have spent those hours alone.” So even Jesus, now, gets scolded as an unsophisticated, uncouth chauvinist because He didn’t properly invite women to the Last Supper! And it served Him right, I guess, to have all his drunken, uncaring, stereotypical male friends fall asleep on Him. That is cheap egalitarianism, and a detestable coddling of feminism at the expense of Scripture.
In another example of this, p.203, he quotes Paul in Colossians 2, saying that Jesus “disarmed the powers and authorities . . .” Surprisingly in one sense, I guess, but not in another, this verse makes Yancey think of “individuals in our own time who disarm the powers. The racist sheriffs who locked Martin Luther King, Jr. in jail cells, the Soviets who deported Solzhenitsyn,” and on and on and on. Let me clear this up for anyone else who missed Paul’s point. The apostle was saying in that passage that the “disarming of the powers” was a good thing that Christ did! Nothing could be clearer, and nothing could be a more irrelevant and unwarranted use of that Scripture than Yancey’s use of it to position himself on social issues.
Perhaps there is, as Packer says in his endorsement, a “down-to-earthness” about the book. Yancey certainly seems determined to make Jesus the poster-boy for every politically correct issue on the planet. But what about redemption? What about salvation and sin and justice? Yancey writes as if he has no category for those kinds of questions. The Jesus I see in the Gospels is not the chic, sophisticated, cock-tail party Renaissance man of Yancey’s mind. He was not star-struck, as Yancey seems to be, with being on the fashionable side of every social issue. On the contrary, the Jesus I see in the gospels set His face resolutely to do one thing—save His people from their sins by taking on Himself the righteous wrath of His loving Father.