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.

Seeking Commitment in a “No Strings Attached” Society

Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman in "No Strings Attached"

In the film, No Strings Attached, friends Emma (Natalie Portman) and Adam (Ashton Kutcher) hook up in what is commonly called a “friends with benefits” relationship (Beware: spoilers ahead!).  Basically, a friend with benefits is one that offers sexual intimacy without any obligations or commitments.

In the film, Emma is the high-powered professional who sets boundaries for the relationship; it doesn’t take long for Adam to push those boundaries to win her sole attention.  Predictably, it gets messy from there.

One would think that such casual relationships only happen in Hollywood.  Sex sells, and partnering Kutcher and Portman is a sure cash cow.  Unfortunately, there are many young adults that engage in these types of relationships every day.

Nearly six out of every ten young adults are sexually active; at least a third have had friends with benefits.  Even Christian teens are susceptible because many young churchgoers do not consider some forms of sexual intimacy sex.  After the Saturday night party is all said and done, they believe that they can still come to church as virgins.

Unfortunately, this fad is not a new concept.  It existed during biblical times within the confines of Roman and Greek (among other pagan) religious systems.  Whenever a man (women were not as “free” as their male counterparts) desired a casual, sexual encounter, they visited the nearest Roman temple.  There, they would find temple prostitutes who ensured a blissful experience good enough for gods and mortals alike.  If you happened to live in Corinth, you had your pick of a thousand prostitutes.

I hate to compare friends with benefits with prostitutes, but the underlying issues are the same.  When a person engages in a casual sexual relationship, he or she is exploiting that friend’s sexuality for one’s own selfish pleasure.  Exploitation is a prostitute’s calling card.

Friends with benefits might “promise” relationships with very little commitment, and no commitment means no emotional roller-coaster ride.  Yet, God has designed us to be people of commitment.  One way or another, we will desire to fulfill our spiritual needs with the stability that only a long-term commitment can provide, so having friends with benefits actually increases the chance of getting on that roller coaster.

The irony of No Strings Attached is that Adam does end up falling in love with Emma.  The more he spends time with her, the more he wants to commit his life to her.  But Emma refuses for most of the movie, and a slapstick tug-of-war follows.  Just goes to show that having friends with benefits is not beneficial at all.  The idea that two people can meet casually without feeling severe emotional side effects is a delusion.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminded his audience that their bodies were not their own.  A Christian’s body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit.” It is a vessel that Christ “bought at a price” when he died on the cross (1 Cor. 6:1-20).

This is not some abstract theological concept; it is a foundational conviction: Our bodies–and sexuality itself–is reserved for the one person whom God intends for us to marry.

My feeling is that the friends with benefits mentality throughout our culture is a root cause for so much emotional turmoil amongst our teens and young adults.  It reminds us that churches have to continue to battle against this rising tide of sexual promiscuity.

To echo one youth leader who spoke at a conference in Atlanta last month, we need to promote abstinence, convince young people that “Modest is hotest,” and encourage them to maintain physical, mental, and emotional purity, which is the best way to safeguard against destructive entanglements.  God’s way provides all the real benefits.