A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age, Glen H. Stassen (Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) $25
From my days at Fuller Theological Seminary, I so enjoyed the perspective taught and embodied by Dr. Glen Stassen. His ethics course and seminal text, Kingdom Ethics, gave useful language for budding young seminarians like myself on how the teachings from the Sermon on the Mount must infuse every part of our ethical decisions. His stories about marching with Dr. King inspired me about the value of civil disobedience and political actions today. His teachings on just peacemaking, gender roles, and the death penalty deeply guided me into the methodology of forming ethical convictions with the narrative of Scripture as a framework. And more than that, his faithfulness as an educator and a follower of Christ gave life to his teachings and proved an authentic model of deeply reflective pastoral engagement in the world through the power of the living Christ.
Though it had been years since my time with Dr. Stassen, I was eager to dive into his newest text, A Thicker Jesus and the book did not disappoint. I was immediately struck by how helpful this text would be for the field of practical theology as it matures as an academic discipline. As a academic, Stassen only wants to deepen the conversation about Christian discipleship rather than water down any convictions for the sake of accessibility. Stassen’s work serves as a robust text for defending a Christian ethic of incarnation and engagement in social inequalities. Building upon the shoulders of his major influencer, theologian and activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Stassen propones that one of the primary challenges for the Church today is to confront secularism with a costly discipleship that will provide the resources for renewal and revival. Incarnational discipleship, as defined by Stassen, will represent three spheres: a thicker interpretation of Jesus of Nazareth, the holistic sovereignty of God, and the Holy Spirit moving the church to what Stassen calls a “repentance from ideological entanglement.” I could not agree more. He looks to utilize such a formula as a model to help resolve some of the many challenges facing the Church in the 21st century. Heroes of the faith throughout Christian history, in his assessment, all share the common trait of a ‘deep and specific interpretation of the apostolic and biblical witness to Jesus Christ.’
Stassen’s work presented one unfounded argument to this reader: a proposal that constitutional democracy, covenant-based religious liberty and human rights leads to less secularism. I can affirm his conclusion that pluralistic contexts with tendencies towards strong rights advocacy have value for the weakest in society, but I struggle to see the connection with how such a framework naturally leads to a deeper civic community. I would argue that our constitutional democracy with an emphasis on civil liberties and human rights has failed to present systemic solutions to racism, discrimination, and economic inequalities. Our democratic traditions in the West may provide the freedom for such communities to be created as embodied solutions to these problems, but on the whole the Church has failed to solidify such an incarnational ethic. The faithful communities that have confronted secularism are in my estimation in the minority, and that indeed is the challenge for the Church today.
Though I may not see the complete support for all of Stassen’s approaches to secularism, I still found this work deeply thoughtful and provocative. His reflections are stirring and do provide a substantive framework for an ethic of incarnational discipleship. The strongest points reflect Bonhoeffer’s perspective on the atonement as the culmination of an incarnational ethic of the cross. Stassen’s startlingly challenges the reader that the cross must either transform us so that we have no choice but to delve into deeper participation in community as faithful presence or we are rejecting the complete picture of the gospel. Such a challenge presents itself as a faithful reading and expansion of the life and writings of Bonhoeffer. My hope would be that the Church in the 21st century would continue to view faithful communal witness as the only ethical posture appropriate for confronting secularism. Incarnational discipleship is desperately needed today in order to recover the heart of following both the Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of faith. I highly recommend A Thicker Jesus and the models contained within for any reader looking for a strong, academic case for Christian ethics of embodied discipleship.
Jen Buck is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She is an Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies and Practical Theology classes at Azusa Pacific University and Hope International University. She is also a lifelong Quaker in the pastoral recording (ordination) process. She and her husband Adam, and their three pets, live in Brea, CA.