Book Review: Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower

I just want to get one thing out of the way before I get into this review. The publisher appears to have chosen “the Nazi font” for the cover. I see this cover, and I just cannot help but think of that weird skinhead kid that seems to go to every junior high, clutching his copy of Mein Kampf and wondering why nobody would hang out with him.

I just want to get one thing out of the way before I get into this review. The publisher appears to have chosen “the Nazi font” for the cover. I see this cover, and I just cannot help but think of that weird skinhead kid that seems to go to every junior high, clutching his copy of Mein Kampf and wondering why nobody would hang out with him.

The Mississippi Humanist Association received a review copy of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe, in the mail a few days ago. They asked me to review it. So, I did. I’m nice like that.

It’s by Tom Krattenmaker, who frequently writes for USA Today. His article titles should give you a hint of an idea of who we’re dealing with, here: “What Evangelicals can Learn from Superman,” “Dear Liberals: Where’s the Tolerance?” “Can Atheists be Elected?” and “Jesus Teaches us to love even Donald Trump.”

Don’t let that influence your opinion too much, dear reader, but do let it sink in just a bit.

Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Additional Long Subtitle starts off with a metaphor that Krattenmaker returns to a few times in the book - that of climbing a mountain. The climbers in his metaphor are on a line with an anchor, and Krattenmaker says that anchor needs to HOLD, or else we’ll all go flying into the abyss. Of course, the “something heavy” that we need to anchor ourselves to is Jesus.

I know it’s just the introductory metaphor, but, let’s take a pause here. Krattenmaker seems to profoundly misunderstand modernity and rock climbing.

He writes about ”...a postmodern zeitgeist that tells us there is no fixed line or immovable anchor, that there is no ultimate truth.”

As an aside - the anchor, really? If you’re going to try and use a non-Christian metaphor, why not pick one? That may be far more difficult than I imagine, though - I assume at this point, everything has been a Christian metaphor at this point. We are, after all, awash with the religion.

The misunderstanding of the postmodern zeitgeist is a common one: to lament that nothing means anything anymore, and therefore, without ultimate truth, we’re all lost, and nothing has any meaning.

Yet to choose - that is the point of the shift: An equally honest interpretation would say that almost anything or perhaps, even everything, could be just as stable an anchor as a prophet from two thousand years ago.

There’s a lot of good anchors out there, and no mountain climber would ever use just one anchor. That’s a really bad idea, in fact.

I don't mean to get bogged down with the introduction. It just struck me as particularly off. The rest of the book is uneven, and at times it is interesting and actually quite good.

“Good?” You may ask. “Why, you don’t often use such a word, Jerome? It’s not very descriptive, is it?”

It fits in this case. As does the word “uneven.”

Krattenmaker’s central premise is this - that the modern secular world doesn’t listen to The Jesus, and this causes problems.

It’s a familiar refrain, one I’ve heard before. But it’s not the point he painstakingly lays out in the book. The point that I get from reading Confessions is this:

1: Modern Christians are not following Jesus.

2: This is the cause of their problems.

3: That secular America isn’t following Jesus.

4: This transgression is the reason that secular America hasn’t become a shining City on the Hill, leading the way for Christian America to Come to Jesus!

Of all his points, Krattenmaker makes the first point best. It’s a point that seems a bit counter-intuitive, it's not the point he sets out to make, but this does appear to be the case, and he makes that case quite well.

The second point is dubious at best. I’m not so sure that stripping down the religion to a more fundamental form would help the churches of the world, but I’ll not argue the point here.

The third point, that secular America isn’t following Jesus? Yeah, sure. I’ll buy that. I don’t think it causes too many problems, either.

The fourth point, though, the point he seems to be making throughout the book, is unspoken and doesn’t seem to follow. It’s a point he doesn’t set out to make - and it's the point that becomes the central issue for the book.

Let’s take a step back. Krattenmaker is in Portland. His Christian friends are journalists and authors. His “Preachers on the Street” are paragons of liberal sensibility, they are the not-so-proverbial “Fighting Young Priests who can speak to the young!”

Allow me to prove how cool and modern I am with a comic strip from 1971.

That is an issue. Krattenmaker’s world is not mine. It is not, I suspect, the nation most Americans live in. It may be the milieu in which most professing atheists and nonbelievers live - urbane, unbelieving, progressive, and whiter than the paper the book is written on.

But my world is not that way. This feeds into the second point Krattenmaker makes - that the problems of Christian America are caused by their inability to follow the Jesus.

That may be the case where he's from. But it's not the case here. That’s not to say that there’s nothing here to learn. Confessions of a Secular has some good chapters. Krattenmaker makes his points.

An early chapter on violence - titled “Killer Instinct” - is on that list. The New Testament Jesus wasn’t original in his thinking, but he was correct - violence builds on violence. Krattenmaker shows us that Christ is correct here - thatpeaceful resolutions can come from the surprising and radical move to initiate nonviolence rather than violence. In a particularly moving section, he points out the small cruelties and that are part and parcel for the American way of life, he shows how toughness and machismo cause suffering down the road.

But cruelty and toughness and a lack of empathy - the author fails to show this as the work of a secular society. Every point made in the book seems better suited to a churchgoer.  Little in the book feels as though it is addressed to me - except when Krattenmaker does so cheaply, bluntly, in disjointed segments that make me feel as though the author suddenly remembers that his audience is not USA Today readers, but rather “The Youngs,” being spoken to by a fighting young crypto-Christian pretending to spit the language of the cyber, before telling us, like Creed, that what’s “Really Cool” is Jesus.

No doubt, with Unconditional Amnesty and Kent State by his side.

He tries to establish these bonafides early on, slamming the Duck Commander and Pat Robertson, but if you can’t do that then who can you slam?

Early on in the book, in order to make sure we know he’s not just some backwoods hick from Portland Oregon telling us about an undivine Jesus, Krattenmaker name drops some philosophers. He doesn’t tell us about them, because if you know a thing or two, Charles Taylor, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly are not cool philosophers to hang around. They’re stalwart foes of reasonable things like naturalism and secularization, so I’m honestly rather surprised to see our hip young not-a-priest in the streets dragging out old guys who love Heidegger.

Of course, Dreyfus, Taylor, and Kelly are big proponents of Heidegger, because where else are you going to go for a philosophical basis of dour pompous warnings about the perils of enlightenment and advancement?

They claim, and Krattenmaker rejoices, that the “technological world, when compared against the divinely infused age of old, can seem impoverished and dull.”

Excuse me while I make a magic box show me videos of cats riding capybaras a thousand miles away. The romanticism of the past in rejection of the present is a failure of the imagination, not the modern world.

If I seem to be harping on the errors of the book, let me be frank: I am, because they seem forced. In trying to show us all that the stodgy old churchgoers and the hoity-toity highfalutin scribes and pharisees who write newspapers and laws aren’t following Jesus, he never shows us that nonbelievers aren’t taking those very generic and thrice-tried bits of advice to heart, he seems to think that we will take that on faith, that his readers buy into a dubious narrative about the fallen nature of the secular present, even if he does deny the religious glory of the past.

It's a sin of omission, but Krattenmaker isn't being honest about the negative things that you can soak up from following Jesus, from in the church or without. He never mentions the fact that you might casually adapt to a hierarchy, that you'll be taking moral advice from On High (in this case, from the Highest Possible Place) and doing so solely on the virtue of their word. Krattenmaker claims Christianity helps overthrow the forces of Empire, but saying that gleefully carrying your load, doing twice as much as you are commanded, and turning the other cheek to the master who just slapped you doesn't speak to throwing off your yoke. It doesn't mention that now, the guy with the goad knows that you’re working for the next life, and not this one.

Again though, there are good points. Krattenmaker says that we should follow Jesus in a rejection of crass commercialism and consumerism. That would be no small feat, and if believers and nonbelievers alike carried through, it would be an improvement on the modern age.

But while we could wind our way through the threads of biblical stories and read a lot into some proverbs, we could also just take two minutes and listen to John Prine and be saved. Saved from what, you might ask, in the chapter "Saved From What?" Well, Advertisements, apparently. Don’t get me wrong, advertising and "keeping up with the Joneses" is the scourge of our modern age - but does that mean I should follow Jesus, or John Prine? I know which one will be more fun.

There are also low points. In that, I would include the SEX CHAPTER, disappointingly titled “Sexploitation,” in which we take the advice of 12 dudes from two thousand years ago about the wide array of sexuality and titillation on tap in the modern world. There’s no mention of ways to get over the shame and entitlement that Christianity engenders, no attempt at righting any real wrong - only a shallow condemnation of hookup culture and sexual freedoms that end with Tom Krattenmaker, this well-spoken midwestern guy from Portland, wearing his nicest shirt and telling me that Ross Douthat is right. Where we get Heidegger, and the lament that the modern world just isn’t sacred enough, Douthat cannot be far behind with his crypto-Catholicism and longing for a better, more orderly day, when the priest knew what was best for you, and you played along. The fact that men like that have always loved the priestly robe and the glittering jeweled staff seems entirely to escape the notice of our author, as caught up as he is with the street preachers of Portland and the wisened Humanists of Yale Divinity School.

Back to a high point though - after the hand-wringing and statistics spouting that start his chapter "Incarceration Nation," Krattenmaker pulls one of his best points out - after some of his weirdest, white-guilt-ridden woe-is-me lamentations.

Freeing people from prison. Mercy toward those who the judges say have done wrong. Here he does mention the good work that churches have historically done. He does mention who it is that visits those in prison. He doesn't mention the work done by others, but that's not the scope of the book. Krattenmaker is absolutely right to say that America needs to practice what we literally preach - forgiveness and freedom. We need to stop playing pharaoh and let these people go.

But here’s the thing about forgiveness, a caveat that can be stuck on any of those virtues Krattenmaker says Jesus espouses. The gospel of Jesus isn’t deep. It’s the simple story of a man who overcomes his challenges with love and forgiveness. It doesn’t touch on the difficulties this can bring. The only character that suffers for the love and forgiveness? The guy who comes back from the dead with new superpowers. Love is a good universal value, but forgiveness is not. Forgiveness can enable abuse. Forgiveness can create a monster just as quickly as vengeance.

I’m not lying when I say that Krattenmaker brings up quirky young street priests and social justice preachers, apparently laboring under yet another incorrect assumption - that we nonbelievers didn’t think that Christianity could also be COOL!

Would you think I was lying if he included a section in his book where he had a tearful argument with his dad about the divinity of Jesus? Did you think it would be in a car? You’re right. He totally has the “Jesus is just another man, DAD!” conversation in the book. And since he’s not in Mississippi or another wide swath of the nation, that confession does not result in alienation and abuse. It does result in this cool story, bro! His disbelief never costs him a job. His children are not made to cry over his fate in Hell.

Do you want a better ethical story than the story of Jesus? This book won’t give them to you. There’s no reason for it not to - if Krattenmaker really believed that Jesus isn’t the special son of God, then why is he the only one who supposedly has all these great ideas? He’s got the best ideas, those ideals that most of us vaguely understand are somehow Jesus-ish (and most of us have a really bad memory) and Krattenmaker says that one book is the only place you can read about it.

I suppose now is a fine point to bring up a simple fact - Other than the street preachers and Gonzo Jesus Freaks, "those who don't believe" are going to be the only ones who give Krattenmaker a fair shake. His ideas of an undivine Christ are anathema, quite literally, to millions of Americans who hold lots of power, especially in the small towns in which USA Today is the only national news source.

The book gives me a singular thought - not “I should follow Jesus,” or “What a great example,” no - all I can think is this: It must be nice living in Portland. It must be nice, spending your time at meetings run by the Yale Humanist Association. I could see that, in such a crowd, a book like this might get some nods, some applause. That ideas like these, milquetoast and obvious, would be worth repeating to those who will go through life with the silver spoon in their mouth and the beautiful hills of Washington State to wander when they are dejected.

But I am not there. I am in the world of fire and brimstone and giant crosses outside of fried fish buffets. Who are these people who haven't heard any of the teachings of Jesus? Perhaps they propagate in Portland, hide out at Yale, but miles away in Mississippi, I cannot find them. 

And the questions pile up! Are these even Jesus’s ideas? Vaguely, yes, but they are not his alone. They might as well be from Obi Wan Kenobi or The Dude. The Buddha or Superman. Gandhi or Nelson Mandela. You can just as easily learn them from your mother or sesame street, without picking up the unwanted baggage of Christian culture.

The statistics and the portrait of the world Krattemaker creates seem to speak to those who already believe - these are lessons for believers who aren’t doing a very good job on those virtues Krattenmaker extols.

Therefore, I am not sure who this book is for. Not exactly. It seems to be written for church-goers who don’t think too much about the subject matter, who are treating church like another aspect of the rat race, seeing who the preacher likes best - but I cannot imagine them being seen in public with the line “...for those who don’t believe” on the cover.

Krattenmaker suggests the mountain-climbing metaphor for his book. But as I pointed out earlier, this metaphor is rife with missed potential. Perhaps we could anchor ourselves to humanity?  Krattenmaker says that Jesus is just a man, nothing magic, and Jesus treats us all as equals, but for Krattenmaker, Jesus must be first amongst equals, listened to above and beyond all the tax collectors, prostitutes and politicians he wants us to hang around.

No matter how good your anchor is, you’re relying on the people on that rope (and what is the rope in this metaphor?) because everyone’s on the same rope. Even with the best anchor, you’ve got to climb along that rope and everyone in front of you has to make it. It’s particularly hierarchical, which is one of the worst features of the Christian religion - and it’s something that Jesus, for all his parables about the order of the world, seems to inculcate with his advice. The man had disciples, after all.

Humanity is in a free climb with no anchors, and some people are holding on tighter than others. Perhaps we should give our slipping brethren a hand, rather than relying on an anchor

I would suggest a different metaphor - orienteering. We are not climbing higher and higher up some mountain to reach a peak. Instead, we are navigating a difficult wilderness full of bad signage and guides who are usually only slightly less lost than we are. Our maps are crude, our shared history of landmarks is shaky. But we do have a compass.

Plenty of nonbelievers have that moral compasses in working order. Krattenmaker thinks that, because our compasses don’t point north to the Lord, we will all be lost in the wilderness.

Perhaps our compass points East. Or East-North-East. Or South. But the direction is irrelevant. What matters is that the compass points the same direction all the time. Compass in hand, we still have to know that the map may not be right. We have to know that the guides are just as lost as we are, and we have to know that the map is not the territory. So we make our own maps, study the landmarks others have noted time and time again, and keep our sense of direction.

Jesus may have scribbled some notes on some of the more well-worn paths. Some of those are good notes, good pointers, good moral advice. Some aren’t that handy if you can’t walk on water.

Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe is available on Kindle. A hardcopy edition will be available October 12th.