There have been few books that have challenged me more than Tom Krattenmaker’s Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe (Convergent, 2016). Krattenmaker currently works as the communications director at Yale Divinity School and is a columnist for USA Today where he writes about religion in public life. He is not a Christian. Yet he tries to live by the teachings of Jesus. He professes the sentiment of many in today’s culture: “One can sense a respect for Jesus, even a fascination with him, despite the decline of institutionalized Christianity” (13-14).
Krattenmaker is a self-proclaimed secularist. He confesses, “I do not believe Jesus died for the forgiveness of my sins…nor do I believe that it is literally and factually true that Jesus was, and is, God- which is not surprising when you realize I am not convinced of the existence of God either” (9). What he is, is a man who wants to “engage Jesus without being Christian” and wants to create a space where “interested nonreligious people [can] do something that society and the religious affiliation categories would apparently forbid [them] to do: seriously follow Jesus. That is to say, to attempt, as much as it’s possible, to act as he did, to treat other people as he did, to understand life as he did” (11).
In the book, Krattenmaker takes current issues- religious polarization, sexuality, worry, over-incarceration, racial tensions- and tries to show how Jesus speaks into each of these issues. If we follow the teachings of Jesus, he argues, then we will begin to examine these issues from a new perspective and hopefully discover a better way of being human.
What makes this book challenging is that I’ve read “Christian” books that failed to do what Krattenmaker successfully does- let the words of Jesus speak into contemporary issues. He is able to convincingly argue that Jesus’ words and actions still matter in the 21st century. He’s completely right when he says, “there is something in this figure of Jesus that is challenging, compelling and worth taking to heart” (206).
Now, being a person who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, who came to defeat sin and evil in his death and resurrection, I believe that Krattenmaker stands one or two steps short of fully understanding the message of Jesus. That being said, I believe he understands the message better than (sadly) many Christians. If others, through this book, discover the message of Jesus (even in a “secular” way), I am hopeful that as people try to live by the teachings of Jesus, and as they engage with the Bible (the place where those teachings are found) they will find themselves drawn to the God that Jesus represents.
Two weaknesses of the the book. First, there is some mild language throughout- somewhere between a PG and PG-13 rating. Second, Krattenmaker doesn’t fully answer the why question. Why would someone want to care about the plight of the incarcerated, love those unlike them, or care about what their sex life is doing to themselves and others? If this life is all there is, there is really no incentive for me to look out for anyone other than myself. Appealing to an altruistic side of humanity doesn’t work in the long term because there will always be those who will use it to gain power for themselves. Human beings are not inherently good, we are inherently selfish, greedy and violent. When left to ourselves, the result is always more Lord of the Flies than Shangri-La. But that reality is the message of Jesus. Jesus, God with us to do for us what we could not do for ourselves- namely, to save us from the sin and evil that are inside of us.
In the end, I’m glad that I read the book and if you are a pastor, minister, lay church leader then it is a must read. It will give you great insight into the mind of the many people who are interested in Jesus but simply cannot understand the contradictions that appear to lay between Jesus and the Christian church. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.