“Jesus plus nothing” is a mathematical impossibility for our beliefs.
I’ve started watching The Family on Netflix, a dramatized documentary of the Jeff Sharlet book by the same name. I always thought that I wouldn’t need to read Sharlet’s book because I knew enough about the dark underside of American evangelical Christians and politics.
I was extremely wrong.
Sharlet describes something larger than a secretive group seeking to influence politicians on specific policies through their offers of spiritual counsel and support. There is a kind of fraternity of young men who are trained on the surface to be simple devotees of Jesus alone while absorbing an extremely toxic authoritarian theology that believes these men are set apart by God to do great things, placing them on a level above the common person.
I have long wondered why so many evangelicals in politics don’t believe the rules apply to leaders exercising great power. This is because their status as leaders proves their blessing from God and thus overrides the other moral teachings of the Bible in service of the “higher” call to lead.
There is more than enough judgment for a woman who is labeled as a Jezebel or a “loser“ “brother” who leaves the group. Yet, a powerful Christian leader affiliated with the Family who lies, cheats, rapes, swindles, and commits any other sin to satisfy an insatiable pit of greed or envy is above all judgment and rebuke by virtue of his power and position.
This is an extreme form of Calvinistic fatalism that places virtually unlimited power in the hands of those presumed to receive it via divine decree.
The young men described in The Family have a well-meaning but malicious naivety and simplicity about the Bible made all the more menacing because of the rigid authoritarian structure imposed under the guise of brotherhood and fellowship. They claim to have a simple faith that is Jesus plus nothing, but in applying this formula to real life, there is a millstone’s worth of additions to this formula.
No matter how hard we try, something else will always spoil our illusion of clear vision.
If we dare to believe our faith is Jesus plus nothing, there most assuredly will be Jesus plus something.
Since it’s bound to be Jesus plus something, then we need to interrogate what that “something” is that we attach to Jesus. We have roots to our faith. Some roots are deeper than others, but each person who claims to only follow Jesus is living in an illusion of purity and clarity while carrying the obscurity of what has been passed from others.
When I read the story of the Prodigal Son, I don’t read it as a story of immigration and migrant labor. That’s because I read the Bible as a Christian with Jesus plus something, namely American prosperity.
When I read the story of Elisha and his care for widows and mothers in their times of need, I didn’t notice the ways that God was countering the unjust patriarchal systems of the time. That’s because I read the Bible as a Christian with Jesus plus something, namely white male assumptions of power.
When I read the story of the Good Samaritan, I tend to focus on the ways I can be a good neighbor rather than recognizing the ways prejudice and racism in my life prevent me to see how God is working among other races and nationalities. That’s because I read the Bible as a Christian with Jesus plus something, namely the assumptions of white privilege in a culture still influenced by white supremacy.
That isn’t to say that our goal to remove the things that obscure our vision of Jesus is hopeless. And there is still a space for simple practices of spirituality. In fact, I would argue that theology will be more complex than we would hope or believe, while our practice will most likely benefit us most if it’s simpler than we expect.
The people involved in the Family and other conservative branches of the faith tend to insist on keeping the beliefs simple, while imposing complex hierarchies and practices that seem to have a vague biblical grounding. Yet, these leaders insist that they are above scrutiny since there isn’t much to scrutinize. They just believe in Jesus plus nothing–and a long list of practices and rules and hierarchies that allegedly stem from Jesus and dare not be questioned by the rank and file lest they undermine their God-appointed leaders.
Jesus plus nothing gets complicated immediately.
In my book Coffeehouse Theology, I argue that we can have a simple faith and trust in Jesus, but it is necessary to also analyze, if not interrogate all of the other things we add to our faith on our own.
We each add something to our approach to Jesus based on our faith background, experiences, and awareness of other members of the faith. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
If anything, that should leave us humble and aware of our deep need for God’s mercy and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We should ask more questions, not less, about our beliefs, but in the day to day grind of life, we can practice a simple faith and trust in our Lord who is present and with those who call out for guidance and help.
If we have any hope in holiness and conversion, then we will surely need to rely on Jesus alone–although even our practices require discipline to set aside time and attention for God. If we hope to be present for Jesus without our assumptions and cultural baggage clouding our view so drastically, then we need to figure out what those somethings are and address them with clarity.
It’s never Jesus plus nothing when it comes to theology. It’s always Jesus plus something, and that something will change how we see Jesus until we figure out what it is.