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Stan Guthrie

Taste and See

The unpredictable impact of Jesus.

When Jesus said we will know a tree by its fruit, he was referring to individual morality (see Matt. 7:15-20; Luke 6:43-45). Good trees produce good fruit, evil trees produce evil fruit, and never the twain shall meet. Yet given the charge by the late Christopher Hitchens and other New Atheists that "religion poisons everything"—that religion, including and especially Christianity, is a bad tree—Christians are right to search for and highlight the good fruit that drops from the tree of Christian faith and nourishes not just individuals but also whole societies.

Christianity, its defenders never tire of asserting, has given the world such good fruit as political freedom, education, the uplift of women, concern for the poor and disabled, and so on. Is there room on the shelf for yet another volume on the good fruits that have fallen from the Christian tree? John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, thinks so, and Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus is the result. Ortberg seems to be targeting the friendly outsider, whom Anthony Burgess once described—in a review of the work of C. S. Lewis—as "the half-convinced, … the good man who would like to be a Christian but finds his intellect getting in the way."

In differentiating his book from some of its worthy predecessors, Ortberg draws a thought-provoking contrast between the expectations of a neutral observer at the dismal conclusion of Jesus' three years of public ministry and the outsized, global impact of the Carpenter from Nazareth today. "Normally when someone dies, their impact on the world immediately begins to recede," Ortberg writes in his opening chapter, yet "Jesus inverted this normal human trajectory, as he did so many others. Jesus' impact was greater a hundred years after his death than during his life; it was greater still after five hundred years; after a thousand years his legacy laid the foundation for much of Europe; after two thousand years he has more followers in more places than ever."

And Ortberg continues to draw effective contrasts: ancient views on human disposability vs. Jesus' teaching about the dignity and worth of the individual; ancient views on loving one's friends and hating one's enemies vs. Christ's command to love your enemies; the Roman belief that religion must serve the state vs. the Lord's recognition of two realms, for God and Caesar; the prevailing pagan view of marriage as mainly a social arrangement for the rich vs. Jesus' statement that marriage is primarily a God thing; and so on.

Ortberg fleshes out these insightful contrasts in chapters on Jesus' transforming influence on human dignity, art, marriage, treatment of enemies, and his incomparable example of humility. (His conjectural exposition of the Lord's parallel treatment of the Jews and the pagans in the Decapolis on "the other side" of the lake in Mark 6 and 8 is fascinating.) He especially shines when describing how Jesus overturns—as at the money-changers' tables—the world's perceptions about greatness. Speaking of Christ's self-giving love, Ortberg mentions an extra-biblical Jewish story of some disciples who "love their rabbi so much that they try to wash his feet. But there are no stories of a higher-status person washing the feet of a lower-status person. We never read of a rabbi washing his disciples' feet. Except this rabbi, who by the way said he was the Messiah." Who Is This Man? is sprinkled with such sparkling vignettes. Ortberg's pithy explanations of the ancient world move the text along briskly.

In contrasting the teachings of Christ with the ancient mindset, however, sometimes Ortberg seems to give short shrift to the Lord's Jewish outlook and heritage. The author, for example, contrasts the rampant, outward-focused religious hypocrisy of the ancient world with the demand by Jesus that people clean both the inside and outside of their religious cup—that our good-looking fruit cannot be rotten to the core. Yet Jesus' demand for inner righteousness quite properly reflects the prior call of Israel and Judah's prophets for religious integrity:

I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
I will not look upon them.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Amos 5:21-24, ESV

Jesus, after all, came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it. Occasionally, in a worthy attempt to present the Lord as sui generis, Ortberg's portrayal could be seen as disconnecting him from his Jewish roots. Perhaps a few more overt tips of Ortberg's cap to the Jewish tree would put the fruit of Jesus in better context.

A few more quibbles about this readable, engrossing, work: Ortberg says next to nothing about the church's various black eyes—its pogroms, Crusades, witch trials, and the like. That's why I believe this book is geared toward the friendly outsider who might slip into a pew at Menlo Park Presbyterian—not toward a hypercritical New Atheist. The book also has a few more typos than I would like, and its informal and occasionally confusing use of sources produced in me a minor sense of frustration. When an author is citing "evidence that demands a verdict," it is crucial to make the sources of that evidence as accessible as possible.

I was glad that Pastor Ortberg closed Who Is This Man? with a call to the reader to "put what Jesus said to the test. Run an experiment. We all learn how to live from somebody: our parents, our peers, favorite writers, our appetites, our boss, or a vague combination of these. Try learning how to live from Jesus. Come and see. Whatever your ideas about religion might be, you can try being a student of Jesus. And that's a very good place to start."

In other words, taste the fruit.

Stan Guthrie is an editor at large for Christianity Today magazine and author of A Concise Guide to Bible Prophecy, coming this summer from Baker Books.

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