Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe, by Tom Krattenmaker (New York: Convergent, 2016, ISBN 978-1-101-90642-2) 245 pp. Hardcover, $25.00.
Despite the title, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower, this book is classified by the publisher on the dust jacket as “Religion-Spiritual,” and it is. One wonders just how “Secular” Tom Krattenmaker is. The author is a religion columnist for USA Today as well as communications director for Yale University Divinity School. He begins the book by denying the claims of the religious that without belief in God one is reduced to a dreary life without values or meaning. But very quickly he changes course and pretty much admits the charge is true after all and that, therefore, one would be well-advised to seek meaning and guidance from the biblical Jesus (or anything else that gets you through the dark night of the soul—he is not narrow-minded).
Krattenmaker is agnostic. He does not believe in God, an afterlife, or Gospel historicity. It’s just that he finds great and compelling wisdom in the Jesus character portrayed in the Gospels—whether he actually did or said any of these things or not. Fair enough. I have been there. I recall, years ago, listening to the temporarily Christian Bob Dylan on Saturday Night Live singing (if you can call it that) “Ya Gotta Serve Somebody” and thinking that whatever Jesus really was, if he was, the fact is that his character in the Gospels issues a challenge to the reader to take up one’s cross and follow in the way of discipleship he exemplifies. This, I think, is the kind of thing Yale theologian Hans Frei was driving at, though he never quite arrived there, in his great book The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974): patching oneself into a chosen narrative even if it is “only” a narrative.
That is what Krattenmaker does in this book. As such, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower would seem a perfect fulfillment of the theoretical program Paul van Buren outlined in his fascinating 1963 book The Secular Meaning of the Gospel. Krattenmaker thinks he is not a Christian, but I say he is. He makes it obvious that he is, to borrow Schleiermacher’s phrase, an “agnostic pietist.” It is evident on literally every page that he has absorbed the temperament of the “hip young evangelical pastors” he brags about befriending and dialoguing with. He began by observing them and then trying to be open with people he had once dismissed as laughable stereotypes. He wanted to break down barriers to communication and common humanity. In the process he “went native.” It is hard to remember that one is not reading Joel Osteen.
Krattenmaker is but a hair’s breadth removed from the pastors of today’s megachurches. They, too, are secularized in that they seek to attract people turned off to the churches they attended in their early years. These churches abandon all the trappings of traditional churches. They are huge auditoriums entered through lobbies that belong in a bank or a hotel. This is not your father’s church. No hymns or hymnals are in evidence, only song sheets and “praise bands.” White-bread pseudo-rock and wispy devotional choruses are the order of the day. Such churches even offer in-house sports leagues, cafes, and stores.
And their preaching is essentially secular. Though pastor and congregation share traditional evangelical beliefs, these are largely taken for granted. Sermons deal with secular concerns such as parenting, finances, and pop psychology. When Scripture passages are cited, they are often mere garnish. Omit them, and they would not be missed. Megachurch pastors soft-pedal the theology; Krattenmaker jettisons it, but the result is much the same.
The book is homiletical, preachy in the modern hip style: inspirational, motivational, conversational. If the author did not warn you he was not a conventional believer, you would never guess it. Each chapter is a sermon that makes some at least glancing reference to a Gospel passage or two, but the connection seems to me pretty tenuous. Krattenmaker seizes on some feature of the text and riffs on it pretty freely. Is he trying to convey insights he picked up from the Gospels, or is he merely garnishing his homilies with them? Again, if the editor had chopped every occurrence of the name “Jesus” and every Gospel quote, you wouldn’t miss a thing. Krattenmaker sounds just like a megachurch pastor or a liberal Christian pastor. If he counts as a secularist, so does any Unitarian minister.
You will certainly find much helpful and thought-provoking food for thought here, but I must admit the book makes my skin crawl.