Review of Jonathan Merritt’s “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined”

Merritt_JesusBetterThanYouImaginedJust hot off the press, the latest book by Religion News Service senior writer, Jonathon Merritt, entitled Jesus is Better than You Imagined is worth a read because it is a profound take on one young person’s journey through the trials and triumphs that make for a vibrant Christian life.

Unlike what the title implies, the book is not so much about Jesus as it is about Merritt’s personal, spiritual experiences as it pertains to his relationship with Jesus.

All of the chapters contain the subtitle of “encountering Jesus” in some aspect of Merritt’s spiritual life.

He encounters Jesus, for instance, in the solitude of a monastery. He encounters Jesus in creation. He encounters Jesus in the midst of the grace and forgiveness after confessing to having an illicit sexual encounter with another author.

He encounters Jesus outside of the church.  The son of a one-time Southern Baptist Convention president, Merritt admits that he had become, in his words, “tired of the mundane business of professional Christianity.”

So Merritt grasps for what faith means to him after facing the hardships of breaking away from the fishbowl that was his church life, sexual identity crises, and depression.

Jesus, he claims, is to be found in Haiti, the streets of New York, and bars.

Ultimately, he finds Jesus in a renewed faith that carries him through the hardship of uncertainty:

“Faith calls me to welcome the mysterious to rest in the uncomfortable tension of a God who is both known and unknown. This kind of faith doesn’t require an explanation for why I’m wandering in the wilderness; rather, it trusts in the God of the wilderness despite the absence of answers.”

Merritt’s book adds to the tapestry of a booming Christian memoir publishing industry in an information age that prizes the self and the discovery of how that self relates to a God whom one no longer finds in the womb of the church.

It makes for profound, honest, and moving reading although it threatens to let the self–the “I”–distract readers from the very Jesus we are supposed to imagine in a new way.

Another author, the late Henri Nouwen, may have advice here. Often confronted with the wrestling match between being a popular author and simply telling others where God is at work in the world, Nouwen surmised that all of us must be aware of how our own stories have the potential of getting in the way of God’s story.

Our very personhood threatens to hinder or, at worst, tarnish, our experience of Jesus because Jesus ends up looking more like we do rather than the first-century Jew who called all people to God’s reign on earth, a reign that is both beyond our experiences of it as well as personally intimate in our relationship to it.

Merritt’s personal story is no different.

If a memoir is to be anything, however, it is to liberate us from the preconceived notion that we have everything figured out, that we have all of the answers.

Merritt is on the right track most of the time, and I consider him to be one of the leading spokespersons for my generation. But he still walks that fine line between being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son who speaks the familiar language of evangelical conservatism, while searching for a pseudo-progressive theology that seeks to let the marginalized “Other” define God in new ways.

Merritt’s balancing act places him squarely in that classic Christian “identity crisis”, what St. John the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” We may not be in the same place as Merritt, but we will go along with him for the ride.

Original or not, Jesus is Better than You Imagined inspires growth by giving us the opportunity to live vicariously through the trials and triumphs of the author.

And, in some strange way, we read because we hope to find that transformative, life-giving Word that all of us long for, that all of us hope will help us experience–and imagine–God anew.

The legacy of the empty tomb

Jesus rose from the dead and is free from the tomb. Let's leave Him that way.

It has been a week since we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, and I am still wondering whether we have moved on to live out the Easter story beyond the graveyard.  Jesus overcame death and ascended to His Father, but in many ways we continue to keep him entombed by our very lives.

Although each of the four Gospels tell the resurrection story slightly different, they have some elements in common.  One commonality includes certain questions that the angels asked Jesus’ disciples when they came to the tomb on Easter morning.

According to Luke, an angel asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  In John’s gospel, Jesus asked, “Why do you weep?  Whom are you looking for?”

The disciples should have expected an empty tomb.  Jesus already told them that God was going to raise him on the third day.  Besides, Jesus was always on the move in his earthly ministry–“The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”–so they should have known that He was going to be on the move after his resurrection.

Jesus is still on the move.  He is not in the tomb. Nor is he some archaic historical figure that we can keep locked in a textbook.   Yet, that’s precisely how we think of Jesus sometimes.  Jesus lives and gives us abundant life, but we do not reflect that reality.  Often, our actions, words, and thoughts communicate that Jesus does not exist whatsoever.

Easter has passed, but we still find ourselves back at the tomb as if Jesus will be there.  We go back to the tomb of architecture–expecting Jesus to be encapsulated in our church structures, without any ability to move beyond those heavy, stone walls.

We entomb Jesus in our ideologies and our opinions, as if Jesus remains in the stagnate thoughts of humanity’s limited understanding of God.  We treat him like some file-folder we can pull out whenever we need Him.  Jesus makes a convenient appearance now and then when we are fighting a culture war or debate.

We entomb Jesus in our worship preferences, assuming that He is only pleased with one style of worship or another.  We assume that we find Jesus only when we sing certain hymns or sing praise-and-worship or preach the lectionary or have Mass.

We entomb Jesus in our foreign policy, always arguing that Jesus is on the side of just war and liberty.  That tomb is very important because as long as He remains there, we can ignore the myriad of verses in which Jesus talks about forgiving our enemies.

Don’t forget our tomb of domestic policies as well.  When we return to this tomb, we realize that Jesus looks like the rest of us and cares about the things that we care about:  the American Dream, a Cadillac, and an air-conditioned home filled with trinkets and appliances made in China.

Why do we look for the living among the dead?  Perhaps its because we forget that Jesus is living in the first place.  “Do not hold on to me,” Jesus told Mary Magdalene on Easter morning.

This Lord is not someone whom we can hold or control, pin down or predict.  Jesus is always on the move and breaking out of the tombs that we often establish; Jesus works in places, people, and ideas where we least expect it.

In at least two Gospels, the angels tell the women that Jesus went ahead of the disciples to Galilee.  Jesus was not at the tomb because he was alive, and he went to Ground Zero–the beginning–where all things began.

May our hearts and minds also be where Jesus is, at the source of God’s very divine purpose for humanity rather than at the tombs that we construct from our limited perspectives.