Meet Greg Garrett, who evokes ‘The Other Jesus’

THIS WEEK, we’re helping congregations nationwide connect with creative, inspirational resources for Lent. We’ve already suggested “Our Lent: Things We Carry.”
ON MONDAY, we introduced Greg Garrett and his thoughtful new book, which also is ideal for Lent. AND, in that Monday story, we reminded readers of four earlier Garrett books we recommend—on everything from comicbook superheroes to the rock band U2.

TODAY, you’ll meet Greg, who speaks for himself about his new book, “The Other Jesus: Rejecting a Religion of Fear for the God of Love,” which is available through Amazon at a discount.


DAVID: The message of your new book, “The Other Jesus,” reminds me of Marcus Borg’s new study guide for small groups, “Embracing an Adult Faith.” You and Marcus both are doing something pretty simple—yet very powerful—in these new books. You’re inviting people to discover the gifts of Christianity. For some, that’s a re-discovery and for some it’s a first-time experience. I’d describe both books as: Christianity 101.

GREG: Yes, Marcus is one of the models I had in mind as I wrote this. Another is Brian McLaren. Way back when Brian was working on his first book for Jossey-Bass, I was asked to read the manuscript and comment on it. That’s something I do professionally, since I teach writing, and I was willing to take that assignment professionally—you know, for a paycheck. But a funny thing happened as I began reading Brian’s manuscript; I started thinking: This stuff about “A New Kind of Christian” is cool! If Christianity actually is like this, then maybe I could be some kind of Christian, too. That really was an important moment for me and I continue to draw from Brian’s work.

DAVID: Millions of Christians have been inspired by Brian. What fascinates me about him is this: As much as people think of Brian as a reformer, he’s actually more of a restorer. Brian argues that he’s a defender of orthodox Christianity. I’ve interviewed Brian a number of times over the years, including just last year about his “New Kind of Christianity,” which was published by HarperOne. It’s Christianity 101, again.

GREG: A lot of people—like I was when I first read that manuscript years ago—need to discover that the riches of the long Christian tradition are just waiting for us. Ever since the Reformation and the birth of the Protestant movement 500 years ago, some Christians have tried to throw away some of those treasures—but they are still there in our tradition. We’re all saying: You can be a passionate and faithful Christian, you can experience that richness today—and you don’t have to buy into forms of soul-killing religion that we hear some preachers proclaiming today.


DAVID: It sounds like there’s a big problem with stereotypes in what people think Christianity requires of us. Marcus argues that the problem runs as deep as the language we use. He’s working on an upcoming book all about rethinking the language of Christianity. As an English professor, do you agree?

GREG: Yes, there’s confusion. Someone asked me last week if, from an evangelical standpoint, my book is describing what evangelicals would call “the Christian walk.” I realized we had some common touchstones, so we talked about that phrase. I said: “If what you mean is that we’re called to take up our crosses and live lives that illuminate what God is, then yes I agree with that phrase.” But, I said: “If you mean that I’m preaching the limited idea of piety and church attendance, and that I’m saying our primary purpose is to encourage others to attend church, then: No, that’s not my purpose.”

DAVID: That’s an excellent example of how one loaded phrase carries more than one meaning.

GREG: Early in my own life, I experienced a kind of conservative Christianity that claimed it was life giving, but in fact was the opposite. It was soul killing. I wanted nothing to do with Christianity for quite a few years. But, I know now that Christianity can be about abundant life. In my own experience, a faith community actually rescued me at a point in my life when I was suffering from serious chronic depression. In that community, I experienced that abundant life Jesus talks about in the gospels. I began to see that Jesus’ message is about living with love, courage and compassion in a world that often encourages us to indulge our most disordered desires.

DAVID: In your new book you’re helping people see that God is far bigger than the kind of legalistic deity that we often hear about today from various voices around the world. You’re saying that Jesus isn’t a vengeful, punishing figure. But, you’re also saying that Jesus isn’t merely a butler/therapist to make us feel good—a popular myth that Miroslav Volf and Kenda Creasy Dean both are trying to debunk, as well.

GREG: In some of the interviews I did in preparation for writing this new book, I kept hearing about the importance of doing real theology and going back into the Bible. Particularly on the progressive end of Christianity, people sometimes are nervous about this. But that’s what Borg and McLaren are talking about, too—returning to the Bible with genuine seriousness. In the Episcopal Church ordination service, we affirm that everything that’s necessary for salvation is contained in the Old and New Testaments. We believe that and affirm that—but we aren’t saying that we should turn the Bible into some kind of cosmic dictation of rules that we’re supposed to read off, verse by verse, and follow literally. For me, it’s important to go back into the gospels and, instead of being afraid of the Bible, see what the Bible is teaching us. The Bible is a larger narrative about God calling us into abundant life.

DAVID: There’s that phrase again: abundant life. Let’s be clear about that. You’re not talking about a feel-good, fix-everything, make-you-rich God, right?

GREG: That kind of feel-good God is as much a false projection as the angry, I-hate-everything-in-this-world God. Both are false. The feel-good God denies one of the basic truths the Bible teaches: We’re often called to do difficult things. We often have to give up things to be what God calls us to be. We give up our lives to gain our lives. That’s proven to be true for me and for many people. Once you surrender your life to become who God wants you to be, you actually experience the joy and peace that is the byproduct of the Christian faith.


Theologian Miroslav VolfDAVID: Right now, we’re talking about Christianity, which is the faith of a majority of Americans. But there’s a truth you’re describing here that goes beyond Christianity. At its best, religion calls people to care for others—even to take risks in support of each other. We’ve seen that in Egypt and in other similar democratic movements—and a lot of those men and women are Muslim.

GREG: We live in a world that connects people in ways we’ve never seen before. It’s becoming almost impossible to sit back, isolated in our own little world. When we do stick our head out the door, we realize that, to live in this world, we need a living faith that speaks to us and speaks to our relationships with other people. If we look at this wave of revolutions right now, we see people who are endangering their own lives in the belief that: This world is clearly not just about “me.”

That’s what I mean when I say: Being a person of faith calls us out into the larger world and calls us to do things for other people. It calls us to do things that are scary. That’s been my experience of faith. The amazing thing is that, through faith, I find that I am capable of doing things that, relying only my own strength, I wouldn’t be capable of.

DAVID: I’m impressed that the final chapter of your new book is titled: Living in a Multifaith World. This could have been a very exclusive book—just about living as Christians. But you close the book with a vision of diversity in our world.

GREG: To my own surprise, I’m discovering that being a faithful person is a necessary part of how I react to people of other faiths. The good, secular-liberal approach I took earlier in my life suggested that we all should pull back parts of ourselves to engage with other people. Then, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel, telling us that the first requirement of interfaith interaction is—faith. Miroslav Volf talks about projecting love instead of anger; he talks about reaching out without fear toward others. What I’ve found is that, if we are faithful ourselves, then it becomes possible to reach out in this way. When Philip Newell leads a class along with a rabbi and a Muslim leader, it’s not that anybody stops being who they are. They all bring forward things from their traditions that enrich us all.

In this last chapter of my book, I’m wrestling with something that I’ll be wrestling with in another book down the road. We all need to learn how to live with real faith in a complicated, confusing, diverse world. My Christianity makes it possible for me to love people who are different from me. If we can’t achieve that, then our default in this world will be fear.

DAVID: Somber words! Do you find hope in what you’re describing?

GREG: There are two places where we can go when things start to change as dramatically as they’re changing all around us. I’m a writer and everything I thought I understood about writing and publishing is changing. It’s changing for everyone at ReadTheSpirit, too. I have a coffee mug with a Chinese ideogram for “crisis.” I’m told that this ideogram is made up of two other characters, the ideograms for danger and for opportunity. When the world moves toward crisis, the secular part of us reacts more to the danger and I believe it’s the faithful part of us that reacts more to the opportunity. That’s what I’m trying to live out as the world changes all around us. We have the opportunity to be the faithful people of God—at a time when people need that now more than ever. That’s what’s truly exciting about living today.

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