Last summer, an almost unnoticeable essay was published on the web. It was a simple and straight-forward essay trying to reframe an issue that has been complexified (is that a word?) beyond comprehension to some. Over the last year, that essay by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet has taken on a life of its own — and in its latest iteration has been released today in book form: Jesus Manifesto. I was excited to get an advance copy to read and more so when I had a chance to interview both Frank and Len about the Manifesto and what they claim in the book regarding the state of the Church. Enjoy!
Q) The essay you both wrote last year – A Jesus Manifesto for the 21st Century, which was the precursor to your new book Jesus Manifesto (Thomas Nelson) – seems to be a holistic critique against how Christianity is “being done” today, at least in North America. Can you share a little about how this project should be received with respect to this and is your book about the same thing?
A) Frank: I think it was more of a clarion call pointing out that Jesus Christ has been dethroned and devalued in many quarters of the Christian faith, being replaced by so many other things. Jesus has often been boiled down to a footnote or a stamp of approval to some other issue or topic. Our book expands what was in the original essay and seeks to re-present Christ in a fresh and powerful way, showing why He is worthy of having the preeminence in all things. Its aim is to wipe everything else off the table and glorify Jesus beyond the stratosphere. One of the endorsers of the book wrote the following, which I think answers your question pretty well:
“Gandhi once said, ‘Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.’ Maybe if we actually knew Christ, we would reflect Him more. Sweet and Viola’s Jesus Manifesto is the quintessential re-introduction.”
Len: One of the most important developmental tasks of every human being is to find their voice, and to speak out of their unique voice. One of the worst things that can happen to each of us is to lose our voice, or to speak out of other voices than our own. Frank and I are saying that the true voice of the church is Christ, and when other voices take over, the church is rendered voiceless.
I am a big fan of Wendell Berry’s writings. I think this farmer/poet/essayist is USAmerica’s greatest living poet. What makes Wendell Berry so special is that his writings are simply the land given voice. The Bible is the Spirit given voice, but the Spirit’s voice is a unique, one-of-a-kind, once-for-all-time voice. It’s not a propositional voice, but a story-telling, poetic voice that carries a unique register and timber and tone: it is the voice of Jesus the Christ. It’s time the church spoke again in its original, true voice.
Q) The subtitle of your book is “Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ” – pointing to an assumption that Christ’s sovereignty has been “lost” or “misplaced.” For me, there seems to be a bit of a difference between seeing the problem as Christ’s Supremacy and Sovereignty being “lost” and one where the is not being acknowledged. Is there difference between the two positions from your point of view?
Over 300 years ago a German pastor wrote a hymn that built around the Name above all names. I love to sing this song, although it’s seldom sung anymore, because the lyrics are posed in question and answer format. It’s an antiphonal song that comes across as a confession of faith:
Ask ye what great thing I know, that delights and stirs me so? What the high reward I win? Whose the name I glory in?
Jesus Christ, the crucified.
This is that great thing I know; this delights and stirs me so: faith in him who died to save, Him who triumphed o’er the grave:
Jesus Christ, the crucified.
*Gabriel Josipovici, The Book of God, 74
Frank: I think this is merely semantics. We are saying that the supremacy and headship of Christ has been “lost sight of” hence it must be “restored” or “brought back into view,” and more accurately, “restored as a living experience.”
There is a principle in God that He never gives anything, but that He first allows it to be lost. The Lord Jesus said that until you lose something, you can’t really have it. This appears to be a divine principle. God gives something first, then allows it to be taken away, that it may be given again. It’s the principle of death and resurrection, and it’s a recurring truth throughout the Scriptures. Ever notice all of those re- terms in the Bible: Restoration (Acts 1:6; 15:17), regeneration, restitution, recreation, rebirth, renewal, resurrection, revive, etc.
Our Lord is a God of restoration.
For this reason, church historians have used the “restoration” motif for a long time. It’s been said that God used the Reformers to restore justification by faith when it was lost sight of. God used the Holiness movement to restore personal holiness when it was lost sight of. God used the Moravians to restore missionary outreach when it was lost sight of. He used the Pentecostals to restore the power of the Spirit when it was lost sight of. Right or wrong, we feel that we are living in a day when the supremacy and headship of Jesus Christ needs to be restored in the life of the church.
Q) A central part of the argument for how we are to re-center our faith is found in the statements, “Knowing Christ is Eternal Life. And knowing him profoundly, deeply, and in reality, as well as experiencing his unsearchable riches, is the chief pursuit of our lives, as it was for the first Christians. God is not so much about fixing things that have gone wrong in our lives as finding us in our brokenness and giving us Christ.” I agree that the Christian religion has dangerously become more about things that really should be subordinate to Christ or on the periphery as a result of knowing Christ. But I wonder if defining the “chief pursuit of our lives” in the way that is being presented and/or seeing God’s purpose as restoring our fallenness still keeps us – humanity – erroneously at the center of the story, and not God. North American Christianity has surely become consumeristic, but your article individually-focused emphasis on Christ seems vulnerable to similar outcomes. Would you be willing to put these claims in the proper context according to the lens you are seeing the issues at hand?
A) Frank: My books Reimagining Church and From Eternity to Here take dead aim at the individualism, independence, and consumerism that seem to be in the drinking water of Christianity today. This is not just a Western problem; it’s quite universal as Western Christianity has spread just about everywhere.
I don’t know what version of the manifesto essay you’ve read, but there’s an entire section on how that the pursuit of Jesus Christ is not an individualistic pursuit. But rather, it’s a corporate journey (see below). We dedicate an entire chapter to this point in our book, Jesus Manifesto. Here is point 9 of the essay:
“Jesus Christ cannot be separated from his church. While Jesus is distinct from his Bride, he is not separate from her. She is in fact his very own Body in the earth. God has chosen to vest all of power, authority, and life in the living Christ. And God in Christ is only known fully in and through his church. (As Paul said, “The manifold wisdom of God – which is Christ – is known through the ekklesia.”) The Christian life, therefore, is not an individual pursuit. It’s a corporate journey. Knowing Christ and making him known is not an individual prospect. Those who insist on flying life solo will be brought to earth, with a crash. Thus Christ and his church are intimately joined and connected. What God has joined together, let no person put asunder.”
Len: The relationship of the WE and the ME is one of the most important subjects we can talk about. Like Frank, I have addressed this in a couple of books before: The Three Hardest Words to Get Right, 11 Indispensable Relationships You Can’t Live Without, and Jesus Drives Me Crazy. Part of that unique “voice” of Jesus I referenced earlier is that Jesus always is heard in surround sound (I used to say “stereo”). If you only hear one thing, it’s likely not to be Jesus (Alpha/Omega, Lamb/Lion, Prince of Peace/Sword of Truth, etc.). It’s like the body of Christ has two lungs, and two brains (left/right), and . . . The Gutenberg world majored in the ME, the I, the left-brain, partly because the book is the most anti-social technology ever invented by the human imagination. The Google word is WE or right-brain dominant. We need both brains. God gave us two brains for a reason.
Q) Separate from the actual content of your essay, it is curious that both of you as authors who embrace technology and the Internet, chose to pursue a printed book which is a commercially sold medium opposed to releasing a free, viral-friendly electronic document such as an Seth Godin idea virus. If this Manifesto is a prophetic wake up call for the Christian community at large, doesn’t this go against the movement’s objectives or potential toward mass exposure and adoption to require the purchase of a book?
A) Len: Media is not a zero sum game. How’s your “paperless office” doing? Almost every website seems to be selling books, a bookstore (even churches are bookstores through their websites, thanks partly to Amazon.com’s franchise program as well). Books will flourish even in this iPad, Kindle future, but our experiences of books and the books we keep will change. When my original publisher refused to break up the text with inserted quotes and use background images on some pages, I pulled one of my first books, Quantum Spirituality, and set up my own publishing company (Whaleprints). I also do a weekly podcast called Napkin Scribbles, am one of the “Twitter Elite,” have a top-ranked Facebook site, post a sermon a week on sermons.com—there’s always a Sunday coming for me—and am writing more books than ever before. By the way, Frank and I “posted” the Jesus Manifesto first on the web—partly inspired by the German word that is used to describe what Luther did with his 95 Theses: not “nailed” or “mailed” but “posted” on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church in 1517.
Frank: Many years ago I started self-publishing my books. For the first two years, I gave them away free of charge. When the time came that I could no longer afford to pay for them (it costs a pretty penny to print a book), we started to sell them to cover our expenses. Believe it or not, once we began to sell the books, a lot more people were interested in reading them.
Right now on my website, most of my writings are available free of charge. This includes two free eBooks at the moment. One would think that an electronic book that’s free of charge would disseminate more widely than a book sold by a publisher. The truth is, it doesn’t. Not even close. For whatever reasons, published books are read by far more people than free eBooks or give away copies. (That’s been my experience anyway, and we’ve been tracking it for years.) I don’t understand why, but it just is. I wrote about this recently on my blog in fact. And that’s why I’ve agreed to have my books published.
Thomas Nelson is the largest Christian publisher in the world right now. And they are getting behind the book in a huge way. So right or wrong, we felt it was best to go with them to get the full message of the Jesus Manifesto to as many people as possible. They have allowed us to make available free sample chapters and I suspect the same will be true for the audio version.
Q) Finally, what is the best case scenario if this call is heard properly by the Christian community? What does the hope that the both of you have after writing this book actually look like?
A) Frank: Calvin Miller (author of The Singer and many other works) wrote this just after he read the book:
Jesus Manifesto is the most powerful work on Christ I have read in recent years. The Christ of the Empty Tomb is back among us. Sweet and Viola have beckoned us to return back to Olivet and renew our souls. I was hushed by its welcome authority. I found a lump in my throat as I read through page after page of Biblical witness to the one and only, incomparable Christ in whom alone is our Salvation. You must read this book. All of us must, and then we must believe in this book, rise and advance on our culture with the truth we have lately backed away from in our faulty attempt to play fair at the cost of our God-given mission.
My hope is that this same sort of response will become so widespread that we will all drop the religious “stuff” we are chasing and fall down on our faces in the presence of the greatness of Jesus Christ, making Him central and supreme in our lives, our ministries, and our churches. In a word, my hope is that Paul’s statement in Colossians 1 will become a living, breathing reality instead of black letters on a page – “that He might have the first place in everything.” It’s one thing to parrot that sentence; it’s another to be so captured by Jesus that it becomes our biography. But this will never happen unless our eyes are opened to see His greatness. And with the Holy Spirit as our help, that’s what we are seeking to do with our book.
Len: What can I say but “Amen” to Frank.
Kenny: Thank you both for taking the time out to share some of your thoughts behind Jesus Manifesto. I’m looking forward to seeing the conversations that will undoubtedly emerge from the book release!
Jesus Manifesto: Restoring the Supremacy and Sovereignty of Jesus Christ (Thomas Nelson) releases Tuesday, June 1st and will be available on discount from Amazon.com that day.