A note: Some time ago, I stumbled upon a website called Viral Bloggers, hosted by The Ooze webzine. Basically, they send you free books to read and review…. and there is no bigger sucker for “free” and “books” than I am. :) Read on for my first VB review:
What is the Gospel? If you’ve been a Christian for a while, then it’s very likely you can look no further than the verse everyone knows: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only son…” It’s “good news” that leads to much discussion and many conclusions, and in his book The Naked Gospel, pastor Andrew Farley defines it as such: Jesus plus nothing. The subtitle “The Truth You May Never Hear in Church” sounds provocative enough, but in the end, though he makes some good points and got me thinking, this new “naked” gospel is a lot more complicated than it seems.
The Gospel of Misery?
Farley sets up his premise with his own life: a recovering hyper-legalist, he describes a time where being a Christian meant working hard for Jesus, even to the point where he couldn’t sleep at night until he had shared the gospel with just one person. Though his case was definitely extreme, his “Obsessive-Christianity Disorder” turned into a joy-stealer, a Gospel boiled down to “Would you like to become a Christian and be miserable like me?” (p 23)
The Naked Gospel isn’t about this story though; Farley dedicates one chapter to a whirlwind tour of his Christian life, concluding, “Hope began with grasping an important distinction between two operating systems — one Old and one New.” (p 24) What follows is a presentation of the Gospel that brought him freedom. Drawing most of his argument from the book of Hebrews, he lays a dividing line between the Old Covenant (Old Testament plus the time frame of Jesus’ teachings) and the New (anything after Jesus’ death and resurrection) and explains what that means for today’s Christian life.
Old Things Passed Away…
Farley’s book gives a lot to digest, and some of the ideas are a little tougher than others. The heart of his message is to abandon the Law, the Old way, and reorient our thinking toward a gospel of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection and nothing else. Which is great. Kind of.
The entire book’s argument hinges on a dividing line of Old and New established at Jesus’ death… not his birth. There is something to be said for this perspective that views Jesus’ teaching as under the Law, but the implications don’t always line up. By this thinking, teachings like the Sermon on the Mount are rendered messages of despair, to show people how they could never measure up to the Law. In other words: “Peter, James, John, and Paul wrote epistles about life under the New Covenant. Years earlier, Jesus was teaching hopelessness under the Old. The audience wasn’t the same. The covenant wasn’t the same. And the teachings aren’t the same.” (p 86)
In a way, it makes sense — Jesus raised the bar so high to show people the futility of reducing religion to a set of rules — but the dismissive tone of paragraphs like this is unsettling and confusing. If the Gospel is Jesus plus nothing, then why disregard his teachings as for another time and another audience? The epistles count, but the gospels don’t? Though this is the good news that rescued a legalist, for me it raised way more questions than it answered.
In Conclusion… nah, just kidding.
Don’t misunderstand… I do like fresh perspectives on truth I thought I knew. But somehow, it’s hard to pinpoint just how I feel about this book. One one hand, I appreciate the message of grace vs. works and absolutely agree that grace governs the lives of Christ’s followers, that our attempts to reach and grasp for God’s favor always fall short to the mystery of his love. This idea revolutionized my faith a number of years ago when I read Brennan Manning’s classic The Ragamuffin Gospel and informs it all the time. But I also prefer a more holistic look at the Bible, at the intricacies of Law and Grace, Old and New. Throw out one or the other, and you’re left with an extreme on either side.
If the “naked gospel” really is Jesus plus nothing, then shouldn’t we consider His own words regarding the past? “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Matt 5:17) Or was the Law fulfilled in His death, the accomplishment mentioned in the next verse? “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” (Matt 5:18) Did I just indirectly accuse the author of proof-texting with proof-texting of my own?
Ahhhhh, it makes my head hurt to think about it! This is why I read lots of memoirs. It’s so much less of a headache to read about the messiness of life without expecting answers. :)
Overall, this is a finely tuned argument with plenty of good ideas. Abstract concepts are broken down into logical pieces and fit together, Farley’s point is clear, and if you’re feeling caught in an endless cycle of trying to figure out how to please God and live right, then it could be the fresh approach you need. But as with any teaching/theological sort of book, read with both open mind and discerning eye.
As for me…. The Naked Gospel didn’t quite do it. If anything, it makes me want to re-visit The Ragamuffin Gospel, a classic I would recommend instead for burnt-out believers in need of grace.
Review copy provided by The Ooze Viral Bloggers
For more info, visit The Naked Gospel booksite: http://www.thenakedgospel.com/