David Wells, J. Philip Newell, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Jesus Brand Spirituality

We sold books for several days last week with a great gang of friends, pastors of the Penn SE Conference of the United Church of Christ and I promised them this shout-out.  They are a caring group, kind to me, and fun to be with.  They buy a wide variety of books and although obviously deeply rooted in the ecumenical and mainline denominational context, it is always interesting, even a bit surprising, to see what sells.  The very first customer asked about the brand new release by Gordon-Conwell scholar David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant: Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in a Postmodern World (Eerdmans; $25) which looks to be a readable finalization of his remarkable, thorough, serious and culturally-conservative series that began with No Place for Truth and moved to the stunning God in the Wasteland then Losing Our Virtue and concluded—or so we thought—with Above All Earthly Pow’rs, his important, if somber, socio-theological critique of postmodernity’s influence on Christian thinking and living.

The second person, as I recall, bought the new Joyce Rupp book on prayer; the mystical Catholic nun was their speaker last year. It is simply called Prayer and is part of a new series published by Orbis ($10.)  Everywhere we go, you should know, we sell books about spiritual formation, monastic practices, Sabbath and contemplative prayer. 

 Several folks got the brand new J. Philip Newell Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation (Jossey-Bass; $19.95.)  We here at BookNotes, of course, love much of celtic spirituality–thank God for it’s affirmation of creation and the cosmic scope of redemption— and read Newell’s stuff joyfully.  I fret about his harsh critique of traditional views of the cross, though, and his quirky appreciation of Palagius, although plead ignorance on the veracity of his perspective.  Some of my UCC pals my senior know much about this and I am glad for good conversations.

The biggest seller was a newly translated edition of the old Heidelberg Catechism, freshly
Heidleburg Catechism.jpg rendered by Lancaster Seminary theologian and all around genius, Lee Barrett III.  Lee has written a very useful introduction, a long chapter explaining why even modern mainline churches ought to pay attention to the role of catechisms and confessional traditions.  It is fine stuff, thoughtful and solid, and, while I’m no linguist, it is said that this is a vast improvement upon the older translations, which were based on odd German editions.   Thanks to the UCCs and their Pilgrim Press for releasing this little gem…

One of the books I announced to them, that had just arrived here that very day, is a book that I’ve long awaited.  My good friend and Nelson sales rep assured me it would be one I’d appreciate.  Wordsmith, publishing whiz and spiritual genius herself, Phyllis Tickle, wrote an absolutely stunning introduction, noting that the sheer beauty of the core of this book—Jesus Himself—moved her to tears.  When it finally arrived, all I could do was hold it up, babble about it and read them a quote from the back about a guy who left the Christian faith, but wondered, after having read the book, if he would have left the church if his pastor sounded anything like this.

jesus brand spirituality.jpgI refer to the fabulous and generous new book by Ken Wilson, entitled Jesus Brand Spirituality (Nelson; $19.99)  I was sure these mostly liberal UCC leaders would resonate with the way in which this charismatic (from the Ann Arbor Vineyard) pastor sounded out a deep fidelity to Christ and the complexities of the best of the Christian tradition, and within various sorts of Christian churches, while distancing himself from fundamentalism, the religious right, and all kinds of simplistic or sloganeering religiousity. I read them the first sentence, where Wilson declares, “Jesus wants His religion back” and told them his open-minded thoughtfulness reminded me of the sorts of ministries I gather they are about.

The book, happily, is not just another (nowadays fairly common) critique of the shallowness of evangelical certitudes or the meanness of some of the religious right or yet another call to be open and in conversation as we emerge into new ideas.  It is a thoughtful and deeply engaging and mature study of the ways in which we can approach Jesus, how to make sense of life in light of His ways, about how the best of four streams within Christianity can unite to help create a passionate, faithful and yet grace-filled, life-giving spirituality.  (The four dimensions are, by the way, the  active, the contemplative, the Biblical and the communal.) Wilson himself is very widely read, with great and interesting footnotes (where does a Vineyard pastor buy these kinds of books, commonplace stuff here at H&M but rare in most evangelical stores?)  He is obviously really smart and a clear, inspired writer. He tells good stories, some moving, some understated, gentle.  I can see why Tickle–a woman with a good eye for good words if ever there was one—raved so about it. 

Jesus Brand Spirituality is ideal for any mainline person who wants to make sure their liberal theology doesn’t go off the tracks, who wants to stay close to Jesus and the earliest Biblical truths, even if they are not quite where the more traditionalist conservatives are.  It is equally helpful for anyone committed to historic Christian orthodoxy, but who may sense that the recent cultural conflict, dogmatism, moralism and overlays of the evangelical subculture may have obscured some of the clearest elements of the faith.  And—please don’t miss this–it is also a fabulous read for anyone who is a skeptic or seeker; at times, it seems like it is written precisely for those who just are willing to get “one step closer to knowing.”

 Yes, it is a U2 song title, and Wilson wisely cites it.  This book really is a beautiful invitation.  Join the journey, find out more about our connectedness, to God, one another and, indeed, all created things.  The book is nearly a pilgrimage, to be read and considered as we take new steps toward Christ and into Christ’s Kingdom.  Join this ecumenically-minded evangelical pastor (the only Vineyard pastor to have been had hands laid upon him by a bishop and assistant to Pope John Paul II) who himself has a degree in science and is passionate about how faith and the best contemporary thinking can not only co-exist, but feed each other into deeper and complimentary ways of living out vibrant, authentic and solid Christian spirituality.  No matter where you are on your spiritual journey, or with what denomination or tradition you stand, I am confident this is a book that will challenge, stretch, inspire and bless you.  The excellent discussion questions will be very useful for book clubs and they are obviously created with great sensitivity for the cynic, skeptic or searcher.

As Tickle puts it in the foreword,

The faith we Christians claim has been so dented and chipped and discolored by the centuries, so institutionalized and codified an
d doctrinalized, so written upon and then so overwritten into palimpsest, that there are few Christian who still can discern the contours of the original.  There are fewer still who know, and can persuasively teach, that Christianity was only and always just the container, the wrapping paper being used in shipment through the centuries of time.  It is the Jesus beyond dent or chip or discoloring that is the beauty.

For those that might wonder about the title, Wilson plays with the “brand” language a bit but is aware that it can been seen as a crass capitulation to consumerism (the very stuff David Wells rails against.)  Don’t be put off by it as he isn’t cheesy or crass and it isn’t really a substantial aspect of his thought.

In the beginning, he does write,

I realize that the word brand can be used in a negative sense, as shorthand for the crass attempt to “sell” Jesus in a consumer culture.  But there are two positive senses in which Jesus is a kind of a brand.  First, like a brand-name product, Jesus has a distinct as opposed to a generic identity.  Jesus brand spirituality is not a generic spirituality concerned with processes that can support any number of outcomes.  It’s about forming certain kinds of persons, capable of certain kinds of deeds, creating a certain kind of world: persons, deeds, and a world infused by love, properly understood.

No, this isn’t a feel-good, universalist call to generic spirituality; it is a call to the Biblical Christ and His church and the specific story of His redemptive plan in the world.  This “love, properly understood” is the subject of one whole chapter, and it is very, very good stuff.  There is so much good here, it is hard to describe in a simple post like this.
Here is an interview with him, and a video, too, which is pretty great.   Here is his blog, onestepcloser.

Wilson notes that copyright infringement of brands is commonplace, and it
is the duty of the real brand owner to do exercise proprietary
rights. Throughout church history there have been those who have infringed upon the Jesus way, distorted it for other purposes.  “We can only hope,” Wilson writes, “that Jesus will continue
to challenge every effort to hijack his brand, because he is, and
always will be, the main attraction.”

We are pleased to announce this good new book to you, a book that seems similar, yet a cut above, many that are raising these kinds of questions these days.  We think it is truly useful, and truly enjoyable.  Jesus Brand Spirituality is a beautiful book, and the claim is true: Jesus Wants His Religion Back.  May this book help it be so.

Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back  Ken Wilson (Nelson) $19.99


Jesus Brand Spirituality
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3 thoughts on “David Wells, J. Philip Newell, the Heidelberg Catechism, and Jesus Brand Spirituality

  1. Greetings,
    I’m Jason, and I’m one of the founders of an online book club service called Booksprouts.com. It’s free and we created it as a space to create book clubs, and to read and discuss books online.
    It’s pretty new and we are letting people who know who may be interested in book clubs.
    You’re welcome to give it a try, and comments and suggestions both good or bad are much appreciated!
    Community Manager

  2. Byron-
    I am glad you enjoyed Jesus Brand Spirituality, It is a very worthy book in a day when that can rarely be said. I agree with you that some of what he has to say has already been said, but it is still a worthy read, because he says it so well. And he does take the conversation further in a few chapters and it is here where the book truly shines. Much love to you and the Hearts and Minds crew!

  3. Damon,
    Thanks again for helping us see the worth of this really great new book. The interview with him that I linked to is cool, too—a fascinating cite loaded with interesting interviews, reviews and such.
    Say, we just got The Trouble With Paris in today (we had the DVD a few weeks ago.) I can’t wait to see this light-hearted critique of our plastic culture and the problems with hype. Thanks for telling us about that, too. Hearts & Minds wouldn’t be quite as interesting without you around to help us out.

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