Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Jesus In The Margins

[From time to time, I will write brief reviews of books I have recently read. This is my first attempt at writing a book review (other than a few I did in seminary for grades). If it is cumbersome, or unhelpful, forgive me. I will try to do better next time. I promise.]

This morning, on my (usually) weekly stop for breakfast at a nearby diner, I read Rick McKinley’s book Jesus in the Margins: Finding God in Places We Ignore. I picked it up from a book table at a recent conference for $5.00. I figured it was worth $5 for kindling if nothing else.

McKinley is the lead pastor at Imago Dei Community Church in Portland, Oregon. I recently heard him speak, and so reading the book brought certain images to my mind of the author. Those who have not heard him or seen him will not have that experience. It helped me to understand the manner of writing. You can listen to him speak at his church website. McKinley is a part of the Acts 29 Network, a peer group for church planting. Now, on to the book …

The book itself is an interesting read. It is just under 200 pages, but I read it over breakfast and about ten cups of coffee. (If there is a long break in this article, it’s only because I had to run downstairs … again). It was a little less than an hour and a half of reading, which is pretty light reading and easy to follow. You can read an excerpt from it here.

The Table of Contents

  1. Postcards From the Journey
  2. Jesus the Illegitimate Child
  3. Jesus the Church Misfit
  4. Redemption: So What?
  5. Cosmic Questions
  6. Untamed Love
  7. Father of Mine
  8. Becoming the Child
  9. Relocation
  10. Dying in the Desert of Self
  11. What If My Chute Doesn’t Open?
  12. Postcards from Further Down the Road

Some Thoughts About the Contents

For the author, the “margins” are the places out of the mainstream of society, but ironically where most of us have found ourselves at one time or another, struggling to find identity, meaning, and purpose, while at the same time feeling threatened by our inner unknown self that would bring rejection if people really knew us. The “postcards” (beginning and end) are first person accounts of people from “the margins:” sexually abused, broken homes, successful but empty business man, religiously confused, etc. and much of his writing deals with these kinds of situations.

Jesus is presented as the Redeemer who came into the margins of life, rather than into mainstream respectable society in order to redeem those in the margins.

Rather than appearing as the fabulous halftime performer on Super Bowl Sunday, Jesus comes into the world as an infant, the weakest of the weak, completely unnoticed by most of the outside world. What’s more, he shows up in the womb of an unwed teenage mom. This story has scandal written all over it (pp. 30-31).

Throughout the book, Jesus is shown to be the answer to the marginalized of society, those whom society has labeled according to family, economics, behavior, experiences, etc. Jesus is presented as the one who gives us real identity and meaning because we are considered perfect through Christ.

McKinley asserts that the church has too often made Jesus into a cultural icon, “a blond and blue-eyed cultural icon who comes around with a smile at Christmas and Easter to bless our lives and make us feel better. Or like a statue on a distant pedestal, where he’s crowned with halos and surrounded by angels. That Jesus remains far removed from o0ur hearts because we can’t connect to a Savior who doesn’t understand our life or know the nitty-gritty margins where we live” (p. 39). Chapter 3 is devoted to “Jesus the Church Misfit,” the friend of sinners who “goes to [Matthew’s] party, breaking yet another religious rule, but he doesn’t care. He’s always interested in the Levis of the world who are ignorant enough to throw a kegger for God. That’s who Jesus has come to love” (p. 54).

A constant theme through this book is “[reimagining] what life could be if we lived it in him, with his life in us” (p. 61). He returns to this theme often.

McKinley is not soft on sin. He says, “It is part of us and we can’t shake it. It shows up in our actions, our thoughts, and our attitudes. At its core, sin is our desire to run our lives any way we want” (p. 65). He says, “Dismissing our sin as a small, insignificant part of life that is not functioning well will only result in our own destruction” (p. 66). He speaks often of the emptiness that comes from pursuing pleasure in our own cisterns, rather than at God’s fountains (pp. 71ff.). He says, “Our culture is full of cheap prostitutes that promise to relieve our emptiness” (p. 74). He reminds us that “Jesus invites us out of the margins to discover the meaning of life in relationship with him” (p. 80; he cites John 7:37-38).

Throughout the book, he is big on redemption and love in Christ. He says “Jesus doesn’t see the world as you and I see it; he understands that our although our pain is very real, it is not more real than his love. Nor is pain more powerful than his love” (p. 95). He is clear that Jesus died for our sins and that we are viewed as righteous because of what Christ did for us, and that we are saved by faith (pp. 59ff.) He reminds us that “the love of Jesus doesn’t come to make us fit into American culture [I would add or any other kind of culture of subculture]; it’s here to make us fit into heaven … Jesus isn’t really concerned with moving us into a new economic strata or a different social structure … Jesus isn’t so much concerned about removing you from the margins as he is about helping you understand that you don’t have to be named by the margins of this society. He says you’re named by God” (p. 38).

He raises obstacles that people in the margins have, such as feeling as if they are unlovable, being fatherless and not understanding what God is like as a father, being hurt by trusting someone who let you down, feeling like they have to conform to fit in and therefore not being authentic. He deals with these obstacles in a clear way that the reader can understand, even if they have not experienced the obstacle in their own life.

He concludes, “As Jesus to reimagine life daily and hangout in his presence, he is simply asking you to pay attention, to believe in and respond to what he is telling you. Simple, but astounding. The beauty of redemption from sin to relationship is ours to experience daily” (p. 176).

A Few Closing Observations

I enjoyed this book. No doubt, some won’t like his “common man” style. It may seem cheap and chessy to some. This is not a theological treatise. It is plain talk about life. There is a lot of transparency that comes through because Rick is not writing from the ivory tower with all the answers and no experience. He has been where he talks about, being saved as a twenty-something, from a background of partying. (He claims he was voted “most likely to die with a beer in his hand.”)

But he writes in a way that people who have been there (and even those who haven’t) will understand. The meaning of Christ’ love and redemption rings through clearly.

He talks about lot about meaning and purpose in life, but he does so in a way that ties it back to our relationship with Christ. Don’t read this book looking for a systematic theology of sin. Sin is there, as is the answer. But this book is about the relationship that we can have with Christ through his love and redemption. It is about leaving the past and self, and coming to Christ. This is a pretty naked observation of the life lived by more than we probably care to admit.

At first read, this book seems heavy on self, and how we feel about ourselves and the experiences we have had in life. No doubt, this will strike some as overly humanistic, and man-centered. And perhaps it could be read that way. Overall, I did not sense that. The author was committed to dealing with people where they are at, not where we might like them to be after years of spiritual growth. People do come from hurting backgrounds, marginalized by society, and in need of love and compassion along with the gospel. To give the gospel without love and compassion is as inadequate as giving love and compassion without the gospel. But remember sometimes spoonfuls are easier to digest than truckloads.

A main critique I might offer is that I wish Rick had spent more time demonstrating that the marginalized in life are there precisely because of the effects of sin, that sin destroys life. My theological background allows me to read that in, but I am not sure the inexperienced reader would find that as clear. People are hurting in life because of the curse of sin. Every single personal problem is rooted in the sin nature and the deadly and hurtful consequences of our sin, both in our own lives and the lives of others. I think Rick believes that; I just wish he had made it clearer.

If you get a chance to read this book, I would urge you to take the time to read it. Reading it should give us more insight into the lives of the “not so clean” in society. Hopefully it will give us more passion to reach them, not for our particular sub-culture, but for the gospel of Christ.

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