Awkward Hashtags: A Review Of “Original Jesus” by Daniel Darling

“Deep-down, we’re upset with the God-man because he has not met all the expectations we had when we first encountered this relationship with him by faith.” (The Original Jesus, p.15)

Everyone tells authors not to read their Amazon reviews. I’m annoyed by authors who can follow that advice. I read all of mine, and I’ve noticed a phenomenon of late wherein people are under the (possibly accurate) impression that they are legally bound to explain just how they got the book, if they didn’t buy it through the normal channels (e.g., “Per SEC ruling 88.3134, subsection 9F, I am disclosing that I received this book from Such & Such Publisher in exchange for my honest review. It was in no way shady.”)

In that spirit, let me disclose the following: I happened to pop into my wife’s office at Baker Publishing Group on Thursday morning, and saw a stack of “perk books” (these are books employees get for free—and they get a lot of them). On top of the stack was a bright yellow paperback bearing a cartoon image of a Jesus bobble-head, grinning and giving a thumbs-up in a way clearly intended to evoke Kevin Smith’s “Buddy Christ” of yester-millennium without actually depicting it.

The book was The Original Jesus by Daniel Darling, whose name I recognized from the Gospel Coalition and elsewhere. Flipping through it, I saw quotes from Michael Horton, Trevin Wax, Joe Carter, Kevin DeYoung, and Matt Chandler. (And, oddly . . . Bono?) I was headed to the airport to fly down to a writing conference, so I snagged this little book because it looked like it contained very little with which I would disagree and that struck me just fine at the moment. Maybe it’s something about reading on planes.

Overview

Darling’s goal, he says, is to peel away the fake “jesuses” we’ve constructed in order to reveal the true Jesus, which implies something he doesn’t fully tease out: that these “other jesuses” are unique among idols, because they append our idolatrous self-worship to the One True God in a way that goes beyond the Israelites designating their golden calf “YHWH, who brought us out of Egypt.” The calf only had a name and one mighty deed in common with the true YHWH. In contrast, these idols begins with the full Gospel accounts of the God-Man and then begin adding and chiseling away, slowly and subtly, until the Savior being worshiped is almost unrecognizable.

Darling devotes a chapter a piece to Guru Jesus, Red Letter Jesus, Braveheart Jesus, American Jesus, Left-Wing Jesus, Dr. Phil Jesus, Prosperity Jesus, Post-Church Jesus , BFF Jesus, and Legalist Jesus. He supplies the missing context for the few arguments and proof-texts upon which each “jesus” is built, revealing them to be non-load-bearing. He also takes several of these “jesuses” to their natural conclusion to show how undeniably unchristlike they really are.

As with any book that follows a strict formula, a few chapters are a bit of a stretch, but the stretches might be the best parts. For example, the first chapter, “Guru Jesus” is an apologetic of the resurrection, challenging unbelievers to consider the claims of Christ, and it contains the best line of the book: “Judgment, sexual morality, and cutting off of limbs make for awkward hashtags.” (p. 46) Starting with this apologetical emphasis, Darling’s book reminded me a lot of the ever-present Nineties youth-oriented Josh McDowell volume Don’t Check Your Brains at the Door, and I’m pretty sure I mean that as a huge compliment. In fact, the whole concept of the book (debunking religious myths and false jesuses) is identical (if updated), right down to the cartoony cover art. It’s all somehow very fitting.

Which brings me to the vibe of this book. Apparently, Rev. Darling was born the same year I was and has written for Relevant Magazine, but he also wrote for Focus on the Family. And let’s just say the tone reflects the latter publication more than the former. What I mean is that Darling’s “Dad humor” and Ken-Davisesque writing style made me assume he was a Baby Boomer until he referenced the year of his birth. Don’t get me wrong; this didn’t turn me off as a reader (maybe because I’m becoming more of a corny dad every day, myself). The book is humorous and entertaining, just not (in the words of April Ludgate) “draped in five layers of irony,” which was kind of a breath of fresh air considering the blogs and magazines I’ve been immersed in lately.

Most of Darling’s diagnoses and prescriptions are pretty textbook, although he does come in with a couple unusual moves. For example, my response to so-called “Red Letter Christianity” is usually just to point out that it makes no sense if our hermeneutic is on straight, because “all Scripture is the Word of Christ.” I don’t even like red letter Bibles because they miss the point of inspiration. But Darling makes a tight case that, even if we start with a view that the “red letters” are a cut above the rest of Scripture, those very red letters form words which elevate all Scripture to equal status. i.e. Red Letter Christianity is no more tenable a view than other self-defeating systems, such as moral relativism or atomism.

His treatment of Braveheart Jesus is also quite strong. I wonder if this chapter title predated the unveiling of Driscoll’s now-infamous “William Wallace” message board tirades. Knowing what I do about publishing and timelines, I imagine it did. Which is amusing.

Darling ends strong too. If the first chapter (“Guru Jesus”) was a springboard to addressing unbelievers with the Gospel, the last few were excuses to do the same for believers. For example, “Dr.Phil Jesus” was actually a primer on Law and Gospel and a corrective for churches (both liberal and conservative) who confuse them—a corrective that really can’t be repeated too often in today’s church climate. Through the last couple chapters, Darling gently rebukes churches and pastors who emphasize Law over Gospel (or as Gospel) and the parishioners who create this demand.

Gripes

The book’s weaknesses can be found in the back matter. In the chapter “Left-Wing Jesus,” the author makes the statement, “A few liberal thinkers have said outright that Jesus was a thoroughgoing Marxist.” In the corresponding endnote, rather than give some examples and cite some (preferably primary) sources, Darling drops in the URL of an article on www.faithstreet.com, from August of 2011. Two other citations in this chapter point to different articles in the same month, on the same website. Clearly, Darling’s isn’t an academic book by any stretch, but this does suggest a certain “quick-grab-something” approach. The same chapter also turned, ironically, into a purely pragmatic stumping for a compassionate capitalism before it was done.

And then there’s the issue of the Greek. Darling does the now-so-very-popular dissecting of the Greek word “ekklesia” (generally translated “church”). In doing so, he tells us that “ek” means “out to.” Again, instead of citing BAGD or another lexicon (or even Strong’s), he makes an oddly selective reference of a rather obscure online sub-source. Had he opened a lexicon or two, Darling would have found that “ek” can mean, from, out from, away from, a whole lot of things denoting origin, or (conceptually) by reason of, but never “out to.” If I’m wrong, I would like to know. At any rate, pastors and authors should be hesitant to make much hay of this “church means called out” stuff to begin with, as the word “ekklessia” had taken on a meaning of its own (i.e., “congregation”) long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem. If you want to “do church,” then, you’re being called to congregate or assemble more than you’re being “called out.”

Another Greek gaffe occurs on pp. 121-122. Darling claims that the word usually translated “fullness” in Ephesians 1:23 is, again, the word “ekklesia.” Um, no. It’s plêroma—which is not even close. (To be fair, this is probably just a goof that should have been caught in the proofreading process.) These are all relatively minor gripes, but they jumped out at me and gave me pause.

Conclusion

I have in my study at least one full book addressing each of these “mythical christs” in far greater detail (e.g. Jesus Made in America by Stephen J. Nichols, Why We Love the Church by Ted Kluck and Kevin DeYoung, Christless Christianity by Michael Horton), but Darling offers a nice series of summaries that work together in a sort of Chalcedonian process of elimination, all collaborating to bring the True Christ into focus.

In a way, this little book could almost be an orientation to cross-centered, Gospel-Driven Reformation Christianity for those whose spiritual grid was established in mainstream evangelicalism and pop theology. This book does what it sets out to do and I’d love it if every believer currently enduring movie-themed Sunday messages and shallow sermon series on sex, debt, and living-your-dreams-now were to be given a copy of Darling’s book, which presents a proper Law/Gospel distinction, a refuting of antinomianism and legalism, a potent Christocentrism, and a sound approach for bringing biblical truth to bear on temporal issues—all in about 150 pages.

Zach Bartels

I’m pastor at Judson Baptist Church in Lansing, MI and the author of Playing Saint, The Last Con, and a few other books. I’m husband to Erin, father to Calvin, and lover of gourmet coffee and fine cigars. He's the author of Playing Saint and The Last Con