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Courtesy of Thomas Krattenmaker

Interview with Thomas Krattenmaker

The USA Today columnist talks about how Jesus’ life can act as an ethical compass today — a theme he explores in his new book, ’Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower’

By Katie Toth

Q In the early 1800s, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson compiled a book of Jesus’ acts and parables that eliminated references to miracles or the supernatural. How would you say what you’re doing is different from that other “Doubting Thomas”?

A (Laughs) The huge difference is that we are applying Jesus to a very different set of issues and circumstances. Some of these things are universal and have challenged human beings since even before Jesus, but I’m also taking a very journalistic approach and addressing racism and sexism in a 2016 context.

In another way, it is very similar except that I’m not [just removing the supernatural stories]. I’m saying, “Yes, if it’s helpful, snip out the supernatural stuff. Or, if you prefer, let’s translate it. And engage with it metaphorically, because it might allow for a more robust rendering of the story and the context.”

The one I really focus on . . . is a different translation of the resurrection, where it has to do with transformation for ourselves and our society — transformation to a kind of world where compassion reigns. You could do the same thing with sin and the concept of God or what it means to be the “son of God.”

Q What does it mean to be the son of God?

A I take the “son of God” thing as something they said at the time and something we can hear today as meaning, “Hey, this is big stuff — this is some of the most important set of teachings we might avail ourselves of.”

I think at the time, too, it was a way of really pushing back on the idea that Caesar was the divine son of God. It was a way of saying, “No, not those values, these values.” It was pretty risky and daring in those times — and one of the acts that probably contributed to Jesus getting executed.

Q One of your chapters is called “Saved From What?” From what can Jesus save us other than the finality of death?

A The Jesus ethic can save us from a life that misses the point, a life given over to seeking to satisfy our consumer desires. I think it can save us from a life that’s devoted only to ourselves.

Ultimately, if we’re going to live a life fully, it’s going to be a life directed toward other people. (Not 100 percent — we can’t just completely abandon our own needs; that kind of life is unsustainable.) If I look at the Jesus examples and teachings, and if I unpack them, over and over again he forgoes things that would give himself power or comfort and sacrifices his own agenda for others. That’s a through-line in the Jesus story, right? It’s the act of giving himself over to be executed and endure that pain to try to make a point for the benefit of humanity.

Q In your book, you mention an atheist you know who looks at Jane Eyre as her sacred text. Why Jesus? Why not Jane Eyre, or Harry Potter, or even Gandhi?

A Well, it’s a very subjective thing — I just sensed that this was the set of teachings and examples that was the most challenging, probably getting closer to being comprehensive. And it’s not exclusive at all. I still feel inspired by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., and all sorts of other people. But I just sensed that [the lessons of Jesus] were the most challenging and difficult to apply, which to me meant that they were probably the most meaningful. They were the most demanding of change and seemed to best address the struggles that I was seeing in our society and in my own existence.  

I admit, too, that it probably has a lot to do with the timing of my birth [in 1960]. If you grew up in American culture in the time that I have lived, you’ve been exposed to Jesus a lot. Less so now if you are coming of age today, but when I was growing up it was inescapable.

Q In the book’s introduction, you share this memory from when you were a teenager: “‘To me, it doesn’t matter if he literally rose from the dead,’ I recall declaring to my father, aware that my statement was a deal breaker with respect to my qualifying as a Christian.” A deal breaker — why?

A In my understanding of who Christians are and what it means to be a Christian, you believe that Jesus was resurrected, that he rose from the dead and, moreover, that this is why he is authoritative. And so even though I was young then, I realized that what I was saying was not in sync with Christian belief. It pained me somewhat to say it to my father because it would make him probably hurt and mad, and because I felt a certain regret. . . . Especially at the time, you know, it was pretty bad not to be a Christian. I did sense that it was a controversial thing I was doing.

Strangely enough, a couple of years later I was heavily courted by the Campus Crusade people at my undergraduate campus, and I tried again to really be a Christian. I thought I did all the stuff. I prayed the prayer, thought I was accepting Jesus into my life. To cut to the chase, nothing really happened, and it didn’t really take. That was my last real earnest try at being a Christian. But as you know, I continued to have a deep regard for and a fascination with Jesus.

I know that there are many who consider themselves Christians but who have a more metaphorical understanding of God and the resurrection and so forth. But even then, I would really strongly cling to the idea that I’m not a religious person. I don’t say that with pride, or with regret and apology. But I don’t go to church; I don’t use religious language; I’m not part of a church community.

One reason I bring this up is that a form of pushback I get is that I’m a “crypto-Christian.” I can’t stop somebody from thinking that. But if you look at the definition of “religious,” I’m pretty sure I’m not.

That said, I do completely understand and celebrate the fact that I have overlap with many Christians. My hope is that Christians find something really beneficial in this book that’s helpful in terms of them talking about Jesus in an updated way.

Q How can mainline Christians do that?

A It seems to me that you begin not with Jesus but with the ethic. If Jesus is not authoritative for a person, it’s not going to help the conversation by saying, “Oh you have to do X, Y, Z, because Jesus taught that.” A better conversation is to say, well, “There is this ethic, and there are these teachings. It’s amazing how much truth there is in these teachings and how powerful they can be. It’s difficult, but they can be transformative. And yeah, they come from Jesus.”

This interview has been condensed and edited. Listen to Thomas Krattenmaker talk about reaching out mainline Christians and the 'Jesus ethic.'

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