Tomorrow, my friend Jonathan Merritt is going to release his third book, Jesus is Better than You Imagined, which will expel a breath of fresh air into the lungs and souls of many weary Christians.
Jonathan is a senior columnist for Religious News Service and has written a couple
great books and over 1,000 articles for USA Today, Christianity Today, and many other news outlets. Jonathan was cool enough to give me an advanced copy of his latest book, which I devoured over the last few days. I don’t often blog about books, but I wanted to blog about this particular book simply because you need to read it!
Jesus Is Better than You Imagined is a creative blend of memoir and theology. Jonathan puts theology to story and story to theology as he reflects on God, Christianity, suffering, grace, and the joys and frustrations he has experienced with the evangelical church. This is what I love about Jonathan’s book. On the one hand, he’s bold enough to identify and bemoan the shortfalls of the church, and yet he’s biblical enough to acknowledge that the church is Jesus’s bride. The church is a whore, Augustine once said, but she is my mother. We’re not perfect. We’re hypocritical, judgmental, and we often argue over weird and insignificant issues. But Christ died for us. Unconditionally. The Just for the unjust. And Jesus has empowered us—a pack of inadequate misfits—to turn the world upside down (Acts 17).
Unlike many celebrity Christians whose platform alone attracts piles of book contracts, Jonathan Merritt is an actual writer, and his creative command of the English language glimmers from every page of this book. Jesus Is Better is a smooth read—tough to put down by anyone who enjoys a good book. Merritt is also a skilled theologian. With two masters’ degrees in theology, he’s able to maintain theological precision while proclaiming truth to the populace. He’s not just waxing eloquent with rhetorical flourish, but unleashing the depth of God’s word with meticulous artistry.
What I love most about this book, and Merritt’s work in general, is his ability to speak to the millennial generation with biblically saturated honesty.
For instance, he’s not afraid to find Jesus through solitude at a monastery (ch. 1), or in wandering through the cathedrals of creation (ch. 2). Merritt describes his encounter with Jesus through suffering (ch. 3), sexual abuse (ch. 5), and in the church (ch. 10). Merritt is clearly committed to the authority of God’s word; he’s also determined to weep over pain and suffering in God’s beautiful creation.
There are too many nuggets in this book to list in one blog, but here’s a brief sampling:
“Faith in God isn’t irrational, but it is sometimes suprarational…faith often transcends logic” (pg. 50).
What I love about this statement—and the chapter as a whole—is that it interacts compellingly with the delicate balance between faith and reason. We can’t rationalize our way to heaven, but neither should we believe in stuff that contains no evidence. Biblical faith doesn’t require us to check our God-given minds at the door, but neither do we elevate (fallible) reason above revelation.
Merritt often acknowledges the discontinuity between what we’ve always believed and what the Bible actually says.
“As an overchurched youth growing up, I along with my friends often cited Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ’…but we didn’t believe it. We couldn’t speak in tongues, and we couldn’t get our virginities back. If there was even an ounce of sin in our lives, we believed we couldn’t have a relationship with God…Like many God followers, we claimed to serve the God of impossibility, but we confined Him so tightly, the belief could never be tested” (pg. 68).
This whole chapter, subtitled “Encountering Jesus in the Impossible,” is worth the price of the book alone. As is chapter 5: “A Thread Called Grace,” where Merritt feeds hungry souls searching for honesty and authenticity. Merritt, the son of a famed Baptist minister, was sexually abused as a kid and this messed with his own sexual identity. But conservative Baptist churches aren’t known for soothing the pain and fear of socially unacceptable sins, especially for sons of preachers.
But they should be. And Jonathan boldly calls the church to quit talking about grace and start believing it. Yet Jonathan still loves the church. I can’t tell you how much I resonate with Jonathan’s perspective (stated long ago by Augustine). The conservative Christian church can be so goofy, with its worship wars, hypocrisy, and sometimes out-of-touch sermons that sound like a foreign language to the rest of humanity. But Christ died for the church. Merritt is critical both of the church’s shortcomings, but also of independent spiritual vigilantes who think they can love Jesus without loving Jesus’s bride. (Imagine telling someone that you love them but can’t stand their spouse, whom they love. Would that relationship last very long?) Merritt rightly says that “spiritual fulfillment” can’t be found in “waiting in a cynical wasteland of religious criticism and freewheeling spiritual pursuits…If God died for her [the Church]…I should find a away to live with her” (pg. 168). Again:
“Being a part of a faith community forces me to coexist with people I didn’t choose, to follow a God I can’t prove…If I love God, I should at least try to love what He loves. Attempting to have communion with God and not His bride would be an act of cosmic divorce, to separate what God has put together. Unlike me, Jesus isn’t flighty and fickle” (pg. 170).
Merritt’s book is filled with such brutal honesty filtered through a zealous love for God’s word and His bride. It’s not just a series of sermons spun into print, but a prophetic and personal proclamation to the church that we should never stop pursuing the Jesus who will always be Better than You Imagined.