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Michael Hardin, The Jesus-Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus

The Gist of Michael Hardin’s The Jesus-Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus, JDL Press, 2010.

When well-read Christians list the most influential exponents of their faith the names include Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, Tillich, C.S. Lewis…

Michael Hardin says we must now add the name Rene Girard. Girard’s main contribution to Christian hermeneutics? ‘Mimetic theory’, which, for Hardin, answers Bonhoeffer’s key question ‘Who is Jesus Christ for us today?’

Brian McLaren writes about a deep shift in American (make that Western) Christianity, especially among its youth. Researcher George Barna (You Lost Me) says 18-29 year olds are becoming either ‘nomads, prodigals or exiles’ as they desert the churches. We have growing movements like the New Monasticism, or radical spiritualities like Shane Claiborne’s The Simple Way. Even Evangelical scholars/pastors like N T Wright, Alister McGrath, Rob Bell, Ben Witherington III and others are doing radical re-thinks of traditional orthodox systems-of-belief and behavior. [1] So this approach is creating quite a stir, especially among conservatives. [2]

It’s a bit complicated, but let me try to connect a few dots. In 1996 some researchers in Parma, Italy, discovered ‘mirror neurons’ in the human brain, which not only guide our actions, but also our perception. Cells “fire” and we move our arm to wave good-bye… but these same cells are also imitation or copy devices: when we see someone waving these same cells “fire” as if it were our own arm waving. Deduction: we are hard-wired to imitate, and do so from birth (Hardin’s italics, 141). Girard came to the same conclusion but mainly – though not exclusively – from studying the insights of great novelists and playwrights. And theologically, when ‘mimetic theory’ is viewed through the early church’s teaching about the cross of Jesus Christ it becomes transformative. The connection? If God is like Jesus, loving and nonviolent, and is prepared to be done to death by all of us, we have a Model for living which transcends the ugly, warlike way we learned from infancy (Michael suggests that’s what ‘original sin’ might be about). The biblical drama teaches us that ‘God in Jesus entered the cultural religion of sacred violence, suffered its most horrible side effects and revealed that the mechanism is ungodly and doomed’ (155).

All of which involves huge leaps of theo-logic, of course, and raises many questions. To take just one at this point: Are Hardin – and Walter Wink, and James Alison and Shane Claiborne and Marcus Borg et. al. – saying that God is not actually violent? Yes. The Bible can only be properly understood from the standpoint of Jesus, ‘our primary interpretive matrix’ (38).  What the church has done, especially since the Constantinian hijack (my term), is to revert to Platonic ways of doing theology, and replace Jesus and the non-violent message of the Sermon on the Mount with a ‘Janus-faced god’ who is a projection of our own violent way of ‘doing life’. Thus we got out of the habit of interpreting the Bible – Old and New Testaments – through the lens of the life and teaching of Jesus. [3]

In short, says Hardin, Christianity is about Jesus, or it is about nothing. ‘God is not a mixture of yin and yang, good and evil, terror and love… The gods of our theologies might be mixed up, but the one who made the heavens and the earth is and always will be the One we are called to love because God is love’ (35). And how do we know God is love? Simple: we trust Jesus, who deliberately divorced himself from his contemporaries’ violent ideologies. And we are called to follow Jesus and also do the holy work of peacemaking in a world as addicted to violence as it ever was.

It’s an exciting book, and raises some hard questions. It’s not an ‘easy read’ in places, and presupposes a working knowledge of some theological jargon/ideas.

The foreword by Brian McLaren and the Walter Wink’s afterword are excellent bookends for Hardin’s main thesis. They both highly commend Hardin’s work (‘magisterial’ says Walter Wink – that’s not faint praise!). Let’s use McLaren’s five point summary-headings (the first five below, to which I’ve added five more) to summarize the book’s main theses: 

(1) Jesus. The beginning, middle and end of all Christian life and theology is Jesus. ‘The greatest commandment, for Jesus, was a way to interpret the Old Testament that was lived out by Jesus. Jesus spoke of God, the abba, as one rich in mercy and not prone to retribution’ (154).  Jesus’ negativity about the Temple rituals mainly had to do with the hierarchical model of sorting out those worshippers – they fitted into strata of holiness, from the outer court of the Gentiles to the Holy of Holies. So also in society [there were] varying degrees of holiness, as Joachim Jeremias has outlined in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. ‘It was a hierarchical model, lived out by every group or party except one, that of Jesus’ (71).  

(2)  Scripture. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures affirm God’s peaceable purposes for creation/humanity, but since Augustine, Anselm, Calvin and others we theologians and pastors have been ‘well trained not to notice’.  ‘The church until the early second century (for the most part) interpreted the Scriptures in the light of Jesus rather than Jesus in the light of the Scriptures’ (129). Have we not noticed that ‘the Hebrew prophets critiqued their own biblical tradition, [and] Jesus followed suit’ (166)? ‘We are not rejecting parts of the Bible [as Marcion did]; we are simply insisting they be interpreted within the framework given by Jesus and the apostolic church’ (184). [4] And, as Michael points out (John 5:39 etc. 251 etc.) it’s often those who study the Bible most – then and now – who are least likely to get the point. For example those who condemn same sex relationships, based on five biblical passages, and also most likely to minimize the thousands of references to poverty (271). [5]

(3) Atonement theory. Girard says every culture comprises three pillars: ‘prohibition, ritual and myth. These pillars are generated by the mechanism of the scapegoating process’ (152).  ‘Jeremiah [7:21-23] is a trenchant critic of the sacrificial system and the Temple’ (301). ‘In the cross, as Mark Heim puts it, Jesus didn’t get into God’s justice machine. God in Christ entered ours’ (154) (cf. James Alison’s notion of ‘the intelligence of the victim’). ‘In the cross, scapegoating violence is shown to be the emperor with no clothes’ (155). ‘His death ends once for all any relationship we have to texts that authorize violent retribution’ (229). In summary: ‘The death of Jesus is * The end of sacred violence * The end of violent Biblical interpretation * The end of relationships based upon law * The reconciliation of enemies * The turning of the ages, the Eschaton’ (232). [6]

(4) Violence in human history.   President George W. Bush failed to reach out to the two greatest living experts on warfare in the Persian Gulf – his father and his secretary of state – when he ordered the invasion of Iraq. But as Bush told Bob Woodward, there was no reason to ask Colin Powell’s advice because he knew the general opposed the invasion. Bush 43 also told Woodward that there was no need to seek out Bush 41’s wisdom since he had his “Heavenly Father” to consult!!! Jon Pahl, Empire of Sacrifice, 2009, ‘shows that violence is at the structural heart of what it means to be the American people’ (307). One of the most problematic texts in the Hebrew Bible is this one: ‘I form the light and create darkness. I bring prosperity and create disaster: I the Lord do these things’ (Isaiah 45:7). But note that when Jesus read Isaiah in the synagogue (Luke 4:16-30) he omitted ‘the day of vengeance of our God’… And then we have post-apostolic church history: ‘Augustine paved the way for St. Thomas Aquinas, who attempted to provide the medieval Inquisition with a theological foundation’ (quoting Altaner, Patrology, 532) (305). [7] In summary: Jesus rejected any relationship of violence (sacrifice) to authentic religion.

(5) God. Michael Hardin denounces – probably 30-40 times – the notion of a traditional ‘Janus-faced’ God – merciful and wrathful, loving and punishing. The God Jesus preached about and related to is essentially non-retributive, a God of mercy and love and forgiveness, who actually does what he commands us to do ie. loving enemies. ‘The use of violence or retribution did not form any part of the way in which Jesus perceived God’s working in the world’ (106).  ‘Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus say God is angry or wrathful with sinners’ (104).

(6) Revising our theologies. Michael Hardin has journeyed from the Catholic faith of his childhood, through the Dispensationalist fundamentalism of The Thompson Chain Reference Bible of his ‘conversion’ experience, to his current ecclesiological home within the Mennonite movement. So, with Brian McLaren and others he asserts that there’s now ‘a new way of thinking emerging that cannot simply be labeled “conservative” or “liberal” or “pietistic” or anything else’ (112). He rejects the ‘canned’ doctrinal approach of Christian fundamentalism, with its ‘flat view’ of biblical inspiration and its ‘Old McDonald’ approach to proof-texting  (‘Here a verse, there a verse, everywhere a verse verse…’). He still likes some of the more enlightened Evangelical scholars (Tom Wright, Alister McGrath). The ‘Moral Majority’ of Jesus’ Judaism caused him the most problems (74). The fundamentalists’ ‘hell’ is reserved for apostates and outsiders; Jesus’ preaching about hell was particularly directed at the leaders of Israel (295). He preferred ‘Be merciful as your Father in Heaven is merciful’ to ‘Be holy as I am holy’. ‘Holiness caused ostracizing and exclusion; mercy brought reconciliation’ (75). The goal of discipleship is not ‘I me my’ narcissistic accepting Jesus as Savior ‘so that when we die we go to heaven’ or getting ‘peace of mind, blessing, wealth, health or anything else’. ‘The goal, the reason we follow Jesus is to serve one another as he has served us’ (83). But Liberal Christianity is also given short shrift (eg. it threw out the Fourth Gospel because it would not come to terms with the divinity of Jesus). Hardin says somewhere that he’s appreciated the scholarly offerings of the Jesus Seminar, but he could not follow that movement to its key conclusions.  

(7) Action: Our model for existence is summarized in the Sermon on the Mount and the Didache – both used as catechetical studies in the early church for Christian neophytes. Walter Wink: ‘Jesus’ injunction in Matthew 5:38-48 does not counsel letting others abuse you. The Greek verb antistenoi does not mean be a doormat, it means that when you are abused (persecuted) you “speak truth to power” by engaging in actions which, while nonviolent, are also resistant’ (119). ‘There is no record of which I am aware where a Christian convert to Christianity in the first three centuries asks if killing can be justified’ (119).  The Anabaptist maxim ‘to know Christ is to follow him, to follow Christ is to know him’ is our valid starting-point’ (259).

(8) Anthropology: what are humans really like? ‘Our brains are hard wired so that we are always imitating one another’ (148). Original sin? We learnt it from each other (144). Thus, says Rene Girard, we are ‘interdividual’ (147).  Further: ‘The devil is an anthropological category not a theological one. The devil is about us humans, our violence, our projection, our victimizing, our idolatry’. ‘The satanic requires sacrifice, human sacrifice’ (174).  [8] ‘The Powers’ are institutions/bureaucracies humans form to regulate behavior. And note that history is about whoever wins battles: ‘in the beginning was the weapon’ as Andrew McKenna wryly puts it (163). But the cross turns all this upside down: Christianity is about what Bonhoeffer calls ‘the view from below’. ‘Mimetic realism’ confronts us with our violent selves, and helps us find our true humanity. ‘Tears are a second baptism’ (John Climacus (c. 579-649) (180).  

(9) The Christian life. ‘Discipleship was not matriculation in a Rabbinical College but apprenticeship to the work of the Kingdom’ (79). ‘Ethics is no longer a question of trying to figure out right and wrong; it is about living in relationship with others in the same manner that Jesus lived in relation to others’ (82). [9]

(10) Mimesis. Harden writes: ‘Mimetic realism is one of the few modern anthropologies that takes the witness of the entire Bible seriously’ (148). Further: ‘I can no longer do theology etsi Girard non daretur (as though Girard did not exist). Rene does not have all the answers, he is not always right. But he is the best guide for where humanity needs to go in its thinking and Christians in their theology as we begin this ominous twenty-first century’ (169).

Challenging stuff! As the ‘Jesus freaks’ used to say ‘If God is like Jesus, nothing is too good to be true!’

More: visit Michael Hardin’s websites www.PreachingPeace.org , www.TheJesusDrivenLife.com


[1] See http://jmm.org.au/articles/29015.htm – Evangelicals re-thinking issues like abortion and gay marriage.

[2] For the pedant a couple of Hardin’s habits are annoying – like his use of Roman numerals for end-notes, and his almost universal preference for it’s when the word is its. Some reviewers don’t like the annoying title – a take-off of Rick Warren’s Purpose-driven Life.

And there are some tantalizing idiosyncratic words and memorable phrases sprinkled throughout. Like –  

* ‘Job had trouble with this kind of [punitive] god and three times threatens to file a lawsuit against God’ (85)

* ‘The popular relationship between Jesus and God looks more like a good cop/bad cop routine’ (86)

* The [Christian feminist] term kin[g]dom of God – a lovely expression in my view

* Unusual words like alterity, rivalrous, victimage, disclosive, originary, anthropologizing… (I just noticed Word put a wiggly red line under all of those, so I’m not the only ignorant wordsmith here).

[3] For example, Augustine, ‘the most influential Christian ever… provided a theological justification for victimizing’ (123).   

[4] Little note to Michael: I like your statement that when ‘God’ is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus was able to tell when his ‘Abba’ was speaking (209), but another chapter is needed to help us discern this better. You can borrow some of Marcus Borg’s helpful insights here.

[5] The notion of social justice tends to be absent from Christian creeds.

[6] Hardin quotes Tom Wright [Jesus and the Victory of God, 1996:14]: ‘If the main purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to die on the cross, as the outworking of an abstracted atonement theology, it starts to look as though he simply took on the establishment in order to get himself crucified, so that the abstract sacrificial theology could be put into effect. This makes both ministry and death look like sheer contrivance’ (303). Father Raymund Schwager’s Must There Be Scapegoats? dramatically changed Hardin’s thinking (19). The ‘cleansing of the temple’ stories are telling us that the end of all sacrifice had come; something new, mercy and compassion – far more pleasing to God than the blood of bulls and goats – replaced sacrifice (77). Medieval atonement theory ‘breaks with the New Testament, for the apostolic church did not relate Jesus’ death to a wrathful deity. They say the opposite: the initiative for our reconciliation comes from God (eg. Romans 5:6-11, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21) (101). Jesus never says or implies ‘that God’s wrath must be appeased before God can accept sinners back into the fold. None of the logic of the sacrificial principle (his italics) can be found in anything Jesus says regarding his death’ (104). He likes this phrase – ‘The myth of redemptive violence’ (278).

[7] Paul, in his Damascus Road experience is asked about his violence (not whether he wishes to be born again, or become a Christian or whatever): ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ (Acts 9:4). This was the big question for Paul: what was it about Jesus that deserved persecution? (211). Later Paul writes about his Jewish contemporaries reading Torah ‘veiled’. ‘They read it from the perspective of divinely sanctioned death, through the lens of zeal, that which authorized killing in the divine name’ (215).

In John 8:17 Jesus refers to ‘your law’: the religious authorities used ‘the Law as a tool of justification of social violence… In every case where the word nomos (Law) appears in the Fourth Gospel, it is strategically tied to the problem of violence… The issue is not Christianity vs. Judaism [but] between those who interpret the Scriptures as justification for violence or whether, like Jesus, many rabbis, the Gospel writers and Paul, interpret the Scriptures as the in-breaking revelation of God’s not-retributive character’ (252).

‘Is God selectively violent to some and kind to others, but who will eternally punish his opposition? Or a God of peace who will not be satisfied until every prodigal is welcomed home?’ (xiv). 

Remember Millgram’s experiment? Millgram was a Yale psychologist who ran tests asking volunteers to give other volunteers electric shocks on an escalating scale until the shock-giver believed the receiver was being hurt, and even killed. Sixty-five per cent of participants, despite the victims’ pleading, went on to deliver the final massive shock. Millgram concluded: ‘Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process… Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality… few people have the resources needed to resist authority’.

[8] The satanic is the human religious impulse toward scapegoating, using violence to cast out violence… The Spirit defends the victim of unjust persecution, exposing the victimizer’s lies and vindicates the victim (264). Genesis begins with Abel (the mark of Cain is a reminder that killing will escalate out of control) but ends with Joseph (who could have been retributive, but was reconciliatory’ (175). There are three types of victims: the victim of myth, the one who believes they are guilty as charged; the innocent victim like Abel who seeks retribution but whose voice is heard; and the victim like Joseph who seeks to be reconciled with his “enemy brothers”. Jesus, says Hebrews (12:24) is like Joseph: his blood speaks a better word than that of Abel’ (183).

[9] See T W Manson, The Teaching of Jesus (1935; 239-240); also Ben Witherington III The Christology of Jesus 16).

Rowland Croucher     jmm.aaa.net.au

February 2012



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