William A. Dyrness. Insider Jesus: Theological Reflections on New Christian Movements. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
William A. Dyrness teaches theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary.
Can a person be a Hindu and a Christian at the same time? How about a Muslim and a Christian? Or a Buddhist and a Christian?
This is not exactly the main topic of the book, Insider Jesus, but it is a significant aspect of the book, in terms of its larger agenda and thesis. Dyrness talks about the phenomenon of people of other cultures embracing aspects of Christianity, yet retaining aspects of their own cultures, in terms of beliefs, practices, communities, and identities. Some of them keep their belief in Jesus a secret. Some gather in groups that they form. Many feel alienated from Western missionaries.
Dyrness’ goal in this book, it seems, is to help provide Western Christians with a constructive way to look at this situation. Dyrness opposes imposing Western ideas on non-Westerners in the name of missions. Dyrness does not really offer specifics on how the Western churches can interact with non-Westerners who embrace the phenomenon that he describes, though he does refer to approaches that Western Christians have taken, some more constructive than others. His hope, however, is to influence Western Christians’ attitudes, which can set the stage for an appropriate and a loving response.
Part of Dyrness’ method is to do what the subtitle of the book says: to offer “theological reflections on new Christian movements.” The Bible plays a paramount role in these reflections. Dyrness argues, from Scripture, that God engages people where they are, that religion is a part of the human search for God, and that God works through culture. A key idea in Dyrness’ theological reflections is that God’s goal is the renewal of the earth, and Dyrness believes that God’s Spirit is at work in non-Christian cultures to accomplish that.
Dyrness engages questions that Western Christians may have about his view, particularly concerning the special status of Scripture and the church. Does what Dyrness say about the role of the Spirit in non-Christian cultures contradict this special status? Dyrness does not believe so, and he explains why.
The book somewhat falls short in addressing whether the phenomenon that Dyrness describes contradicts Scripture, or primary Christian doctrines. Dyrness does note that there are Hindus and Sikhs who receive Christ and worship according to Hindu or Sikh rites, while repudiating idolatry. A repudiation of idolatry would be consistent with Scripture. But do the Muslims who embrace Christ also accept the Trinity and see Christ as God? This was not clearly addressed in the book.
And yet, Dyrness was somewhat critical of Western Christians who make orthodoxy the end-all-be-all and thus utterly reject adherents to the phenomenon that he describes. For Dyrness, there are more open and constructive ways to approach the situation.
Some things that I like about the book:
First, overall, Dyrness’ theological reflections make me feel better about studying other religions. Part of me is leery about doing so, since the Bible does condemn idolatry, and Dyrness did not robustly explain how the biblical condemnation of idolatry fits into his theological reflections about other cultures and religions (though there was a brief passage in which Dyrness made an attempt). Still, Dyrness does present effective arguments on the basis of Scripture that support an openness to the wisdom of “pagan” (as in non-Jewish and non-Christian) cultures. Dyrness probably goes further than a lot of other Christian writers in acknowledging parallels and overlaps between “biblical” religion and non-biblical religions, in terms of morality, rather than portraying biblical religions as vastly superior and non-biblical religions as grossly deficient, or immoral. At the same time, Dyrness does seem to present the biblical religions as superior, on some level.
Second, the case studies in the book effectively illustrated the phenomenon that Dyrness is discussing. For instance, there are Buddhists who believe in Christ, seeing Christ as a solution to the human problems that the Buddha identified.
Third, Dyrness’ discussion of Aztec religion was interesting. Drawing on the work of Costa Rican theologian Elsa Tamez, Dyrness talks about the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl (whom my sixth grade teacher called “Captain Q” when we studied the Aztecs). Captain Q “represents the god of life who injures self to bring a new humanity (a fifth creation) into existence” (71). That sounds somewhat like Jesus! During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, around the time that the Spanish invaded, Captain Q was replaced by Huitzilopochtli, a warrior deity, and that coincided with the rise of an Aztec military dictatorship.
I am rather skeptical when Christian apologists argue that non-Christian religions have Christian themes, and that this is one of God’s ways of preaching Christ to them, or of preparing them to accept Christ. In short, these Christian apologists seem to imply that the presence of Christian-like themes in other religions somehow attests to the truth of Christianity. I think that this is projecting Christianity onto other religions, rather than allowing those religions to speak with their own voice. I one time read a Christian apologist who was arguing that Christ (or the theme of a god dying for people’s sins) is in the Hindu religion, and, when I read the Hindu texts that he was citing to support his point, I found that those texts were making a different point from what he said they were making. At the same time, I try to be open-minded, and I realize that different religions can have similar themes and motifs. Maybe that is the case with Aztec religion and Christianity.
The book also had a thoughtful discussion about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, surveying Muslim and Christian views on that question. The book helped me better understand John Wesley’s teaching of preventing grace. And it included good quotes, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement about the power of the name of Jesus, in whatever context it may appear.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest!