Daniel Darling’s The Original Jesus, reviewed in Christianity Today

The Original Jesus: Trading the Myths We Create for the Savior Who Is, Daniel Darling, foreword by Russell Moore, Baker Books, 2015.

You know the old saw that God created humans in his own image and we have spent ages returning the compliment. How ironic that Jesus, who came to change us, has from the first been changed by us into a more congenial idol. Idolatry is the malady that Daniel Darling tackles in The Original Jesus. At the first we dressed up Jesus in a royal robe and placed a crown upon his head just before we nailed him to a cross. Today we continue to remake the original Jesus into a “Jesus” who is less threatening and demanding than “the Savior Who Is.”

Darling takes deadly aim at a score of popular but fake Saviors: Guru Jesus, Red-Letter Jesus, Braveheart Jesus, Dr. Phil Jesus, Prosperity Jesus and more. No matter how biblically faithful you are in your thinking about Jesus, Darling will snag you with at least one of his pseudo Christs. In his usually gentle, sometimes funny, always astute skewering of au currant myths about our Lord, Darling’s neo-Calvinism shows. Reformer John Calvin was convinced that idolatry is our root sin and that the human imagination is a factory for idols. Clear biblical thinking casts down our self-fabricated godlets. That’s what Darling does.

This book would be helpful reading for any North American Christian who is willing to have his or her Christology critiqued and corrected. Church study groups, if they dared, would find the short, fast-paced, hard-hitting chapters great catalysts for debate. At various points in my reading of Darling I reacted with, “Hey, I really like worshipping that Jesus. I’ve been personally blessed by the Jesus you are attacking. How dare you?” To which I hear Darling reply, “Gotcha!”

Anyone who sets out to correct our false, self-serving conceptions of Christ has got his work cut out for him. The challenge is not only that lousy Christology is rampant among us but also that the critic presumes that he knows the much more correct, biblically defensible, sure-fire original Jesus. It’s easy enough to knock down as biblically indefensible Joel Osteen’s Prosperity Jesus, or the goofy, hairy-chested Braveheart Jesus. But Darling tends to get tangled up in his own Jesus myths when he goes after more subtle heresies like American Jesus or Post-Church Jesus. In those chapters he is less theologically thoughtful and more personally revealing of the limits of his own Christology while he presumes to correct ours.

A favorite old liberal strategy is to attempt to reduce living, lordly, complicated biblical, resurrected Jesus to some abstracted essence, an essential core, a set of propositions. Liberals attempted to go back to the original, historical, real Jesus, peeling away all the pious accretions of the ages. While that’s the sort of reductionism Darling justifiably abhors in the Red Letter Jesus, he does the same in a book claiming to have zeroed in on the Original Jesus. Doesn’t John 1 say that Jesus’ origins are in eternity, going all the way back before Creation?

While Darling’s Original Jesus is divine savior he is not so much the Second Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit doesn’t make much of a showing in this book). We have attempted to cut Jesus down to our size, making him into a self-help guru or enlisting him into our pet political causes. Agreed. But in Darling’s definition of Jesus, Christ’s work appears to be limited mostly to salvation of us individuals from our sins, leaving us unchallenged politically, economically, racially, etc.

Probably mine is a predictably Wesleyan prejudice but I didn’t hear enough from Darling about Jesus as teacher, master of disciples, healer, rabble-rouser, scathing critic of the rich, and lover of enemies. In short, Darling fails to offer a picture of Jesus that’s half as rich Scripture. Where’s the Jesus who said not, “Believe correct things about me,“ but rather, “Follow me!”?

The church has done some rich reflecting about Jesus as Incarnate, Trinity, Lord of the Church, eschatological Lamb, actively revealing subject, thinking provoked by and faithful to the Scripture that Darling merely cuts and pastes to bolster his arguments. When you worship a Savior as complex and true, as rich as the divine/human Jesus, theological reflection is demanded. Scriptural citations alone, abstracted from here and there, are insufficient to talk about Jesus then or now.

I liked best Darling’s critique of the overly simplified, ripped-out-of-full-biblical context, Red Letter Jesus. Unfortunately, along the way, Darling lapses into saying, in effect, that, though Jesus is the Son of God, he is subordinate to Scripture. I was forced to ask, What about the living, active, revealing Christ now? I love the way that Darling allows Scripture to keep Jesus as difficult and demanding as he is, yet one has the nagging suspicion that Darling wants to limit Jesus to Scripture rather than worshipping Jesus as Lord even of Scripture. At least some of the questionable characterizations that Darling pillories believe that Jesus is relevant to us here and now.

I’m sure that Jesus would make a way to have us, even if we had not been given Scripture. Jesus is not only the Bible’s subject but also revelation’s agent. People met the original Jesus and were forced to ask, “Who is this?” Theology wasn’t something that occurred centuries later as folk distorted the obvious, self-evident Jesus.   From day one, ordinary people were forced into complex theological rumination because of what Jesus said and did. The original Jesus didn’t assert obvious truth. Darling stresses that we must accept Scripture, all of it, as from Jesus, but doesn’t give us a Jesus at work in us and through Scripture. Jesus, the church has always taught, is a speaking, revealing subject rather than simply the object of a reliable historical record.

As I said, it’s tough to defend the assertion that you have the absolutely original Jesus. Most of us are more sure that Jesus has got us rather than that we have got him.

Darling seems not to want to offend his targets. Fine, Christian charity is a noble virtue. But who are these heretics who advocate for a Braveheart Jesus or the inane American Jesus? His book would have been strengthened with more citations from the specific fellow Christians whom he is presuming to correct. Is there really someone out there who preaches “Jesus is my buddy?”

Go ahead and call his name and nail him like you nailed Donald Miller.

It’s fine with me for Darling to attack Left Wing Jesus, though I can’t imagine he is much troubled by left wingers among his fellow Southern Baptists. Where was his chapter on Right Wing Jesus? Hard pressed to find any Scripture to bolster his good old American defense of capitalism, private property rights, hard work, and personal freedom, he simply asserted conventional conservative political wisdom. And where does Jesus praise marriage and family as wonderful pastimes? Oh, that Jesus is too challenging to our confidence that we’ve got the original Jesus.

As I said, anyone who claims to possess the real, scripturally certified Jesus and charges that others cling to a fake Jesus leaves himself open to fellow Christians who, because of Scripture, are quick to counter with, “But what about the Jesus who said…?”

Will Willimon is a popular author, United Methodist Bishop (retired), and Professor of the Practice of Theology, Duke Divinity School.

One thought on “Daniel Darling’s The Original Jesus, reviewed in Christianity Today

  1. Dear Dr. Willimon,

    The reviewed book has deficiencies if I correctly understand your review. Would you please name alternative(s) to read?

    Thank you and sincerely,



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