For The Someday Book

Book Review: Beautiful Outlaw

Posted on: October 13, 2013

Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus by John Eldredge, FaithWords (Hachette Book Group), 2011, 219 pp.

Beautiful-OutlawA leader of my church passed this book along to me as something that opened her to a new understanding of Jesus, and moved her closer to Christ. I was intrigued and thought I might skim it, but ended up reading the whole thing. There were elements I applauded, parts to which I objected, and parts that also moved me in my faith. There was not much that was new or surprising, but I can see how it could be new to lots of people.

Eldredge aims to strip away the religiosity and pious purity of our images of Jesus, and reclaim what he calls his “true personality,” his humanity. This is not a new project–many have attempted it before–but the aspects he highlights are solid, and it is always a helpful reminder. Eldredge emphasizes Jesus’ playfulness, especially in his interactions with the disciples. He imagines inside jokes and jocularity among “the boys.” He also develops aspects of Jesus’ fierceness, anger, cunning, honesty and humility. His Jesus refuses to be pastel-colored in a gentle Sunday School painting, which he refers to as “marshmallow.”(144)  He wants us to be able to relate to this Jesus, and to be confronted by him. If I’m in the mood (which I was), I always find these kinds of projects interesting and illuminating.

He is a fan of G.K. Chesterton, and quotes him identifying Jesus as “more human than humanity.”(48) Eldredge straddles a traditionally irreconcilable Christology here–he claims a pre-existent Christ, with foreknowledge of creation from beginning to end, yet the same one who must learn to walk, speak, and live in a human body.  His theology is extremely traditional and conservative, which is what makes it so odd to me that he would take such a vindictive approach to what he calls “religion.” Religion, for Eldredge, is what prevents us from meeting Jesus as he truly is. We can only do that when we leave religion behind. While I understand that church culture or religiosity can white-wash or even obscure the powerful edginess of Jesus, he condemns all church practices as religious in this way, at the same time he is starting his own ministry (aka church) and existing well within orthodox theology shaped and preserved by–you guessed it–the church. He treats Christianity and the church as a straw man throughout, as though he has never seen any merit there.

Nevertheless, there were things that gave me pause and opened me for prayer. One question he asked was, “What do you think Jesus thinks about you?” What limits have we placed on Jesus? What judgments do we hear, and are they accurate? He writes:

Where are you having a hard time with Jesus? Where is your struggle with him?
Do you find it hard to believe he loves you? Or that he loves you because of what you do?
Do you feel like you are always disappointing him?
Is he mad at you? Ignoring you?
Does Jesus seem like a hard man who wants you to work harder?
Does he seem distant–loving, sure, but disengaged? (160)

I find myself right now having definite struggles with Jesus, and these questions helped me move forward in my conversation with him.

Eldredge also offers this gem in his conclusion:

What enormous good would it do in the world if churches would be known as playful, witty, fierce, humble, generous, honest, cunning, beautiful and true? When we hold fast to a bland Jesus, we get a bland church. A two-dimensional Jesus equals two-dimensional Christians. (210)

Indeed. It’s because I have found the church to be all of those things, however imperfectly, that I do not share Eldredge’s anti-religious sentiment.

Beautiful Outlaw is a decent, readable introduction to Jesus beyond the Sunday School paintings, written to invite a devotional personal relationship with Christ. I would hesitate to share it, however, because of its anti-religious sentiments and straw man argument against the church.

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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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