Vintage Jesus: Timeless answers to timely questions
Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears
Crossway Books, Wheaton, 2008, pp. 256.
It is easy to like Mark Driscoll. How can you not like someone who founded a megachurch in his 20s, who has the flare of a stand-up comedian, and who can speak for an hour without wearying his audience? Minor differences aside, he is the poster boy for 21st-century Evangelicalism. And having spent considerable bandwidth downloading his sermons, I am constantly impressed at his sparkling use of language and his passionate conviction of the centrality of Christ.
Until Vintage Jesus, however, I had not experienced Driscoll in written form. It is a curious experience. At points, his trademark Americanisms shine through—for example, he likens Bethlehem to a “dumpy, rural, hick town” (p. 11) and notes that Jesus “never won a poker tournament” (p. 12). But at other times, he seems to get bogged down in the long lists and dry data of systematic theology. It may be because I’m not American, but I found this switching back and forth between theology and comedy a little disconcerting. Lines like “Jesus was a dude” have a bit more potential to go wrong in a written context than in a spoken one (p. 31). Nonetheless, Vintage Jesus is a well-written book that presents both the basics and the detail of the Bible’s teaching about Jesus in non-technical language.
Vintage Jesus is based on Driscoll’s sermons. It is arranged in 12 chapters couched as Christological questions: “Is Jesus the only God?”, “Did Jesus Rise from Death?”, “What Will Jesus Do upon His Return?” At the end of each chapter, Gerry Breshears adds a number of answers to common questions relating to each topic: “Isn’t the deity of Christ an idea that the Church created later?”, “Is it possible that Jesus did not rise but that his body was stolen?” (pp. 30, 144). The result is what we might call a work of systematic Christology, but one pitched at the masses of young Christians or enquirers who are unable to digest more traditional tomes on the subject, and who are keen to ask questions rather than just absorb teaching.
The strengths and weaknesses of the book are those of Driscoll himself. Vintage Jesus is peppered with insightful observations about American and western culture. It throws up endless examples of the way musicians, politicians, celebrities and other religions understand Jesus—from The Simpsons and Kanye West to Wired magazine and the Dalai Lama. As a result, Driscoll is able to attack directly the popular misconceptions of our times. No, God is not just a politically correct version of the primitive and fitful deities of pagan nations. Yes, Jesus did actually think he was God. No, God’s glory and our joy are not in conflict. Driscoll brings to bear both the pastoral experience and the prophetic watchfulness that gives his theology its famed practical, cutting edge.
At the same time, Driscoll is often quite dogmatic about doctrines that we might feel the Bible is more open on. Eternal rewards, holding places for the dead, authority over demons—these are all presented with the same matter-of-factness as more central biblical doctrines, such as the humanity of Jesus and the atonement. On one hand, this is a refreshing rebuke to our postmodern coyness about making definitive biblical interpretations. And part of Driscoll’s great effectiveness as a preacher is his boldness in preaching what the Bible says, not just what it might mean. On the other hand, one fears that the young Christian lapping up Vintage Jesus might feel a little cheated to find that there are relevant Bible passages other than those Driscoll cites. Some of Driscoll’s ‘vintage’ Jesus might be better understood as a ‘blend’.
However, for a systematic work masquerading as a popular book, Vintage Jesus is quite helpful. It may just entice a new generation of young Christians into deeper thinking in the tradition of JI Packer’s Knowing God. It is consciously pitched at a pluralist consumer culture, so it stands out in the field of Christian theology. It also stands out in its distinctive packaging, with a plastic white dust jacket overlaying a collage of Jesus iconography. So be prepared to garner a few comments if you read it in public.
I happened to be reading Vintage Jesus over dinner at a hotel, and my copy quickly disappeared into the possession of my Malawian waiter. It only re-emerged upon checkout, along with the assurance that it was “A very, very nice book”. I had to agree.