In-Sight: Surprised into Transformatiom

​A writing project I am engaged in has taken me back into the books of E. Stanley Jones.  I have spent large amounts of time re-reading them. I have been reminded why he is the overall major influence in my faith formation.  

Decades ago, when I read E. Stanley Jones’ book, ‘The Christ of the Indian Road,’ for the first time, I was surprised by what I found before I completed the Introduction.[1]  Jones had barely arrived in India to begin his missionary ministry before he faced his most formidable challenge: the Westernization of Christianity, offered to the Indian people in ways that reflected British colonialism more than Christ.

Jones saw that Western values (e.g.  domination, conflict, and racism) were defining Christianity and the Church more than the Gospel. He wrote that very quickly, “It became clear that we were not there to implant Western civilization.” [2]  In fact, Jones had to drop the word ‘Christianity’ from announcements about his public speaking because the word had become so acculturated by British views and values that Indian people either boycotted his meetings or attended with preconceptions that made them indifferent and cold.  

Jones saw that their skepticism did not lie in their resistance to God.  On the contrary, most were warmly religious in their respective faith traditions.  Their resistance was rooted in their sense that Christianity was mostly a religious means of subjugating them to Great Britain as a country and to an Aryanism racial superiority. He observed that “hitherto it has been exceedingly difficult to get non-Christians to come to a Christian address of any kind.” [3]

When Jones shared his discovery with fellow missionaries, he received less than agreement. Other Christians too were perplexed and did what is often done to those who see things differently—they caricatured him, and labeled his as having become a Modernist. [4]  In some cases, he was met with resistance by them.  Some were so wedded to “the system” that any critique of it was suspect. Jones saw that too much of Christianity was under the influence of an institutionalized Jesus rather than the universal Christ—not just in India, but elsewhere in the world. He set out to change that. [5]

All this happened a hundred years ago, but the need to liberate Christ from Christianity and the Church is as great now as it was then.  The public face of North American Christianity (largely a neo-fundamentalism) is once again too Western—or to say it more generally, too acculturated. But to many even mainstream Christianity looks more like a corporation than the Body of Christ.  It’s a rough time for institutionalized Christianity.

Moreover, the person of Jesus looks too much like a citizen and too little like the Christ.  The values of our acculturated Jesus express the values of a capitalist/corporate  America more than they express the ethos of simplicity, equity, compassion,  and generosity.  The Church is too much captured by a “prosperity gospel” (which is not the Gospel) and a mission to try and convince us that “the kingdoms of this world” are the Kingdom of God, when they are not and never have been. We are living in a neo-Constantinian era when religion, economics, politics, and the military-industrial complex are leading us away from God more than toward God.

And just like the people in India saw through the acculturated gospel (“British greatness” imperialized), people today are seeing through an acculturated gospel once again (“American greatness” globalized).  Just as there were nones/dones in Jones’ day, there are nones/dones in ours—in growing numbers.  It is a sad irony that non-Christians often have a keener sense of who Jesus is, what Christianity should be, and what the Church ought to be than those of us who have lived inside institutionalized Christianity for so long that we cannot see any difference between an ecclesial Jesus and the universal Christ.

But God is never without a witness.  E. Stanley Jones is an example of one in the past.  Others today are rising up to do what Jones did—i.e. to unwrap Christ from the burial clothes of acculturated Christianity and offer him to a world in fresh ways that make him be the Lord and giver of Life…..to ALL.  The prophetic task—to call out falsehood by calling forth a new vision of shalom—is incumbent upon us today.  God is always looking for people who will separate the chaff of an acculturated Jesus from the wheat of a universal Christ.  He found such a person in E. Stanley Jones.  Will he find such persons among us?

[1] E. Stanley Jones, The Christ of the Indian Road’ (Abingdon Press, 1925).

[2] Ibid., 17.

[3] Ibid., 29.

[4] E. Stanley Jones, ‘A Song of Ascents: A Spiritual Autobiography’ (Abingdon Press, 1968), 92.  In that day, to be called a Modernist was the harshest judgment that fundamentalist Christians could make against someone, even more judgmental than calling someone liberal.  To be called Modernist was tantamount to being called un-Christian.

[5] I believe this is why his strategy was to begin his message at the widest possible place (the excarnate Christ, the Word) and then move to lift up the incarnate Christ (the Word made flesh) as a universal Savior and Lord.  We see this approach in his books, The Christ of Every Road (1930), Victorious Living (1936), Abundant Living (1942), The Way (1946), and The word Became Flesh (1963).

[6] There is no way to list all those who are rising as prophets in our day.  As always, there are many who have not bowed to Baal.  I list these few only as illustrations of that larger number: Christena Cleveland, Nadia Bolz-Webber, Rachel Held Evans (r.i.p.), Wilda Gaffney, Barbara Brown Taylor, Mirabai Starr, Jen Hatmaker, Joan Chittister, Cynthia Bourgesult, Richard Rohr, William Barber, Liz Theoharis, John Dear, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Parker Palmer, and John Pavlovich—to name a few.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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