Willimon’s WHY JESUS (review)

Some time ago I interviewed UMC Bishop William Willimon regarding his role as editor of the Wesley Study Bible. When I saw that he had a new book on Jesus (Why Jesus, Abindon), I immediately ordered it. Might this be a good textbook for the course I teach on Christian Formation?

It is an excellent and interesting book, indeed, written for a semi-popular audience, stripped of Christianese jargon, and full of whit. It basically raises the question: Why bother with Jesus? What was he like and what can that mean for me? Why should I take notice?

As the book is an extended meditation on Jesus’ identity, the chapters focus on different aspects of this identity:

Vagabond, Peacemaker, Storyteller, Party Person, Preacher, Magician, Home Wrecker, Savior, Sovereign, Lover, Delegator, and Body.

The chapters are quite short (usually less than 1o pp.), and include small sidebar items called “Aside to Jesus” where, creatively, Willimon makes a quick statement relevant to the topic which he addresses to Jesus himself, such as: “Aside to Jesus: You sure are easier to live with when you are spiritual than when you get physical” (p. 125, in a discussion of the physical Church as the “body of Christ” according to Paul). Also, he has a “Look It Up” section at the end of each chapter where readers can spend time in the Scripture passages that Willimon makes reference to.

Here are some of the strengths of this book:

-It is unique – so contemplative, but Willimon is always provocative, often irreverent, and an equal opportunity offender. He especially goes after cheap grace, civil religion, separating ethics and faith, and hypocrisy.

– He is self-effacing, always drawing attention to the plank in his own eye.

– His reading of the NT (and mostly the Gospels) can be very insightful

-He does well representing the current state of discussion on NT issues when they are relevant.

Here are a few drawbacks or limitations of the book

– The book overall comes across as hippie and anti-American (politically). Obviously he is going for this, and I resonate with some of it (and perhaps much of it), but it becomes a bit too repetitive for me.

– This may seem nit-picky, but he calls Jesus a magician (and titles a chapter based on this). Personally, I think that is a mistake. He may have been mistaken for one, but I think his method and result are quite different in many cases than to so-called magicians of his day. Anyway, that may be a scholarly quibble not worth much.

-His style of writing in this book, while down-to-earth and accessible, comes across as very “stream-of-consciousness,” quickly darting here and there from idea to idea and text to text. While I enjoyed reading it, I can’t summarize what I read in each chapter save the guidance of the title. Perhaps at least a nice intro and conclusion per chapter may have been helpful.

Well, I have decided not to use it in my class, but that does not mean I didn’t enjoy reading it. I am going to quote Willimon tomorrow in my sermon, and I think many Christians will find the book convicting and probing overall.