Diana Butler Bass – Releasing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus … [Review]
The Jesus we met in our own lives
A functional check of
Liberation of Jesus: rediscovery of Jesus as friend, teacher, savior, Lord, way and presence
Diana Butler bass
Hardcover: HarperOne, 2021
Buy now: (IndieBound) (Amazon) (Kindle)
Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley
By a strange coincidence, the day before Diana Butler Bass' new book Freeing Jesus was launched, Gallup published a new report that began: “American membership in churches continued to decline over the past year, falling below 50 for the first time % in Gallup's Eight Decade Trend. “This is a 70% decrease in 1999. (1) For many in the institutional church, this news is troubling. For Bass, who has been writing about this trend since the publication of her Christianity According to Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening in 2012, this report is not surprising or necessarily alarming.
Ever since reading Christianity by religion, I've hoped Bass would write some sort of sequel that updates her astute observations and optimism that despite declining church affiliation, a spiritual awakening is still taking place in America. Her next two books, Grounded (2015) and Grateful (2018), had a different order and dealt with spirituality in a more personal way. Now in Freeing Jesus I find this continuation, but in a completely different genre than I expected – "Memoir Theology" – which it defines as "Making of Theology" – understand the text of our own life and take seriously how we met Jesus (264). While not a new genre, it was grossly underestimated by the academy, especially before feminist theologians came out in significant numbers.
Bass remembers asking a seminar professor (in a Protestant seminary, around 1980s) why the readings were all given by male theologians. He replied that women did not write theology. She named some who lived well before the 20th century: Perpetua, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. He replied, "This is not theology. This is memoirs" (264). She later concluded that when men write about Jesus from experience there was a tendency to call it "theology" and when women write theology from experience write, their work is more commonly referred to as “memoirs.” What about Augustine? Luther? Wesley? Bonhoeffer? All great theologians; they too wrote from their experiences.
"Memoir Theology" invites an audience that Bass understands so well: people who question the version of Christianity they have been exposed to (whether directly through the church or indirectly through culture and politics), people who are leaving the church have but still want to Follow Jesus, people who stay in church and want to talk about Jesus with their friends over Sunday brunch but are painfully aware of the baggage that is often associated with Christianity in today's society. She writes for all people who ask about Jesus: “Who are you? A question with innumerable answers ”(264).
In delivering Jesus, Bass circumvents the constraints of doctrine and correct belief by writing about the Jesus of their experience and getting readers to ponder their own experiences with him. She does this by telling the stories of six of the Jesus who have walked with her through the stages of her life: Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way and Presence. Through her story, she tells “the story of the Jesus of experience who keeps coming and when we least expect him. To deliver Jesus means to find him on the way ”(xxvi). I don't want to reveal the arresting story this book begins with because it's too funny, too poignant, and too profound to be paraphrased. But the title alone makes it clear that Jesus wants a life outside of the church and actually wants to be free of all the boxes we put him in.
Bass moves seamlessly from her story into theology, church history, Bible studies, and culture. In Chapter 4, “Lord,” she tells of her experiences as a student at a Protestant college for liberal arts on the west coast in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There she found the protection and security she had valued in her church youth group, as well as the motivation and resources to expand her understanding of Jesus beyond the Savior of the individual. She read Your God Is Too Small by J. B. Phillips, who criticized Christians for "putting God in a box" (118). There she learned a radical notion that the proclamation of "Jesus is Lord" is the assertion that it is not Caesar and that it is necessary to privilege the poor and work for justice in order to act on that notion: "When hanging around with Jesus, it was easy to believe that some kind of political revolution was imminent" (136). This wasn't news she'd heard at home in church.
As a fond memory should be, Jesus' deliverance is a gentle persuasion never to tell readers what to do, or think, or be. In addition, Bass graciously relates that he has moved from evangelicalism to more progressive Christianity. She presents a multi-faceted view of evangelicalism, claiming how it fueled their growth and how it held them back. Their vulnerability invites us into their lives, but doesn't keep us there. She wants readers to ponder the kind of questions her stories raised for them and realize that our lives are important to understanding the life of Jesus.
Finally, after Bass wrote this book during the pandemic, she comments on the irony of the project. Their mission was to release Jesus, but actually last year the church doors were locked and Jesus had left the building. Congregations have had to find creative ways to be church outside of their buildings, and some have made it. She writes,
But, as millions have discovered in those many months, Jesus was not confined to one building. Jesus was at home at our tables, with us on walks and hikes, in music, art and books and was visible in faces via zoom. Jesus was with us when we felt we couldn't do anything, overwhelmed with work and online school. Jesus was with us as we prayed on cell phones with the sick in the hospital. Jesus did not make us suffer alone. COVID-19 forced Jesus out of the cathedral into the world, reminding Christians that the church is not a building. Rather, the church is where two or three are gathered, even if the "two" are just you and your cat. . . (266-267).
Some commentators are already speculating about the impact COVID-19 will have on church life if the doors are reopened. Will church attendance continue to decline? Or will churches grow from the creativity they learned last year to get beyond their walls and follow Jesus into the world? We do not know it. Bass says that many people will not return because "they are already discovering what it means to follow Jesus beyond the Church," but many will. She continues: “Whatever happens, I hope none of us will forget the Jesus that we met in our own lives who were with us in fear and confusion and loss, in forced isolation and surprising moments of joy and through the services of our common human priesthood. It's all important. All of it ”(268).
(1) Jeffrey M. Jones, “US Church Membership Comes under Majority for the First Time,” Gallup, March 29, 2021. https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls -below-majority-first-time.aspx
Jeanne Torrence Finley
Jeanne Torrence Finley is a regular contributor to FaithLink, a United Methodist weekly current affairs curriculum, and Ministry Matters. The author of Three simple rules for the Christian lifeShe was campus minister, pastor, and college English teacher. She is currently writing a book with Noel Paul Stookey – the "Paul" of Peter, Paul and Mary – about his journey of faith, solo music and social activism. Connect with her on her website and blog. Say it weird