Western Christianity misinterprets Jesus

Book Review

Jesus of the East: Reclaiming the Gospel for the Wounded. Phuc Luu. Herald Press, 2020, 256 pages.

August 12, 2020 | Opinion | Volume 24 Issue 17
Reviewed by Barb Draper | Books & Resources Editor
The new book 'Jesus of the East' offers a sharp critique of western Christianity and presents a different perspective of Jesus.

When H.S. Bender came out with The Anabaptist Vision in the 1940s, he offered a Mennonite theology that was different from the evangelical fundamentalism widely accepted in the church at the time.

The author of Jesus of the East does something similar, offering a sharp critique of western Christianity and presenting a different perspective of Jesus. Phuc Luu says that the predominant Christianity of North America has become a nationalistic religion that oppresses the poor and teaches that God is an angry avenger. He argues that the traditional eastern church and the Minjung theology of Korea do a better job of explaining the message of Jesus.

Although Luu has no obvious Anabaptist connection, his concerns about western Christianity have long been under discussion in Mennonite circles. For example, he argues that, since the time of Constantine, the western church has had a cozy relationship with governments, which reshaped Christian theology into a tool for those in power. He is critical of churches, particularly in the United States, for preaching an individualized and spiritualized faith that ignores Jesus’ message of peace and justice. He also questions the concept of original sin and the penal substitutionary view of Atonement. 

While it may seem a bit presumptuous for Luu to critique beliefs that Christians have held for a thousand years, his questions are honest and his outlook rings true in our postmodern culture. Luu was born in South Vietnam but came to the United States when he was four, when his family escaped in the night just before the fall of Saigon. As a Vietnamese-American, he says he is caught between two cultures, not really fitting into either one. This situation of being between two countries gives him a distinct perspective from which to compare eastern and western theologies. 

Luu critiques western Christianity for teaching that salvation is private and spiritual, so that Christians can avoid being concerned about the world’s economic inequality and racism. He says that, for the past 400 years, the West has separated mind and body to the degree that ethics and social concerns are considered only physical and not relevant to theology. In this way, religious doctrine has supported a culture of injustice.

The doctrine of original sin is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus, says Luu. Augustine, who came up with the idea, misinterpreted Romans 5:12 because he was using a Latin translation rather than the original Greek. In the East, sin is understood differently, as there is no sense of total depravity. The responsibility of Christians is not to deal with guilt but to restore the image of God in themselves.

Luu also doesn’t accept the penal substitutionary view of Atonement. He writes, “There is no systematic theology within Scripture that explicitly shows how God redeemed humanity,” and he argues that God could not have used violence to redeem humanity from their sins. The story of the Prodigal Son shows what Jesus believes about those who need forgiveness, and it does not involve appeasing the wrath of God.

Among all these critiques, Luu also describes what he believes Jesus taught, occasionally referring to some ideas from the Minjung theology of Korea and early Christian writings from the Middle East.

As a Mennonite, I was fascinated to find one subheading entitled “The politics of Jesus,” and that Luu emphasizes peace. I found it very interesting to compare this book to Anabaptist theology and I appreciated Luu’s thoughtful critique of American civil religion.

When I first looked at the cover, I was puzzled, until I realized the words are vertical rather than horizontal. Since many Asian languages are traditionally written in columns, Luu seems to be saying that an eastern perspective can give us new insight.

Although Luu has degrees in theology and philosophy, this book is refreshingly easy to read. I would recommend it for anyone interested in thinking about how God relates to us.

Read more book reviews:
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Intriguing novel explores family trauma
An overview of Christianity’s ideas about God

The new book 'Jesus of the East' offers a sharp critique of western Christianity and presents a different perspective of Jesus.

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thank-you for this review. i am asking my church library to order this.

in 1992 when Marlin Miller was working on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective as editor, he observed that no single theory encompassed the fullness, the richness, and the mystery of the atonement. What God accomplished in Jesus Christ upon Golgotha in space and time.

i look forward to reading this book. thanks for the review.

It’s alarming that a book that denies the biblical penal substitutionary view of Atonement is given any credibility whatsoever in Anabaptist circles. That denial butchers the beautiful and true message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ who died for our sins on the cross of Calvary in our place. In order for Phuc Luu’s view on this matter to hold any water, one would have to erase most of what is written in Scripture! Augustine was wrong on many points, but we all must know too that Phuc Luu does not have the truth either.

Please, everyone! Allow Paul’s words to the Corinthians speak to your hearts:
“But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the Spirit you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.“ 2 Corinthians 11:3-4

I urge you all to read and be blessed by God’s Word instead of ‘Jesus of the East: Reclaiming the Gospel for the Wounded’ by Phuc Luu.

Western Christianity: Religion of the Oppressors

It would stand to reason, given the nature of faith and being human, that various reinterpretations of religious literature such as the Bible would appear from time to time, and that dissimilar points of view would influence our own Biblical hermeneutic to varying degree. In Jesus of the East: Reclaiming the Gospel for the Wounded, Phuc Luu has provided a refreshing contrast to the dominant “western Christianity” of North America. Mr. Luu labels western Christianity (which includes Anabaptist/Mennonite Christianity) as a nationalistic, government allied religion, one which identifies God as an angry avenger, a religion serving as a tool for the powerful, one which ignores Jesus’ message of peace and justice, one which favours individual salvation, one which stresses the concept of original sin, and a religion which is errantly focused on Atonement (CM – Draper 12/20). Mr. Luu indicates that “the Christian faith must be returned to the people to whom it rightfully belongs and for whom it was intended – those who are wounded and who have been sinned against … focused on the need to remedy han, or intense woundedness (Jesus of the East p. 26-27).

It intrinsic to faith in any religion, that a considerable suspension of disbelief is required on behalf of the practitioner. Facts or reason for the most part, are not the underpinnings of a religious belief system, faith requires a fanatic commitment to a concept/God, despite that reason might tell us otherwise. From generation to generation we shape our theology to match our commitment to the concept we have accepted in faith, suspending our disbelief in favour of a framework of Christianity that best adapts to the socio/economic/political/human needs of the times.

Our faith and rootedness in “western Christianity” has been at best for most of us, a “roll of the dice,” contingent upon the culture, time, and place we were born to. John H. Neufeld makes a strong point in this regard in referring to the “fixed canon” of our Bible, that it “has always been a given, inherited from our past, our parents, and churches,” (CM Well rooted-Well winged 04/20).

Our sacred literature and its accompanying hermeneutics for most of us is an inherited faith, a “received tradition” (Suderman CM 0/20), one which we were born to and have subsequently adopted as our own. It is mostly through no fault of our own and a matter of the eccentricities of time and circumstance that we become followers of Christian, Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, or other religions. Our indoctrination begins early in life and in general we go through the motions of acceptance of some religious belief or other.

For the average Christian consumer of Biblical literature, interpretation becomes a “crap shoot” at best. Biblical exegesis is a perilous venture in any case. Mr. Derek Suderman, as a Biblical scholar identifies the pitfalls of Biblical exegesis in his recent CM article In A Perfect Storm (CM 07/20). Mr. Suderman notes he is “deeply invested in the received tradition” yet he acknowledges the intricacies of Biblical meaning making as he extracts and applies meaning from a distant God/Job encounter to a 21’st century reality of racism and suffering (Covid 19). Mr. Suderman identifies ambiguities of translation and multiple meanings in the language of the Job narrative and how this might affect understanding. He contrasts the Job narrative as traditional theodicy of God’s triumph over evil/suffering, with finding new meaning in the narrative as a “wildness built into creation,” serving to place humanity within nature as opposed to having “dominion” over nature (Genesis 1:26). In his exegesis Mr. Suderman challenges the “traditional theology meets existential crisis,” of the Job narrative, implying perceived wisdom outside of the received tradition of Anabaptist/Mennonite western Christianity, a “new” interpretation, understanding, and application to a 21’st century time of crisis. Re-interpreting and re-imagining scripture for relevancy to our age seems to be an on-going pursuit, even for Anabaptist/Mennonite Christians, if we are to develop authentic applications of the Biblical literature to our human existence.

The recent CM articles by John H. Neufeld and Derek Suderman are just a few examples of re-interpretation of Biblical text for a new hermeneutic of how God’s word might apply in a 21’st century context. So, when Mr. Phuc Luu states that “the Jesus of western Christianity (MC Canada) is not the Jesus of the early church” (Luu p. 116), or that the Christianity of the west is infused with “cheap grace” and is the “religion of the persecutor” (Luu p. 119-21), or that “Christians must abandon the faith of the conquerors and colonizers and return to a faith that brings healing to the hurting, and wholeness where damage has been inflicted by oppressive forms of Christianity” (Luu p. 28), then it seems to me that it is time for us (MC Canada) to examine more closely how we have strayed from the message of the early church, to acknowledge our fanatical adhesion to Atonement, to acknowledge that we (Anabaptist Mennonite Christians) have been for quite some time and continue to be the “church of the oppressors” here in Canada, as we bask and revel in the fruits of oppressive colonialist actions.

Mr. Phuc Luu has presented his interpretation/understanding of the life of Christ and how he thinks it should be applied to our life/faith journey in Jesus of the East: Reclaiming the Gospel for the Wounded. Mr. Luu has challenged how we rationalize Christ’s message to meet the shape of our particular position in society, an altered message which reflects our “American (Canadian) life, confirms our cherished beliefs, and does not oppose our ways of living and believing” (Luu p. 31). Luu states that western Christianity by its actions, holds a contempt for a Jesus who “lived among the poor and outcast and criticized the established religious order for demonizing and segregating the most vulnerable and those in need” (Luu 31).

To my mind, the act of faith requires a deliberate suspension of disbelief, a deliberate belief in a God who is invested in my humanity, in the humanity of the world. There is less and less room in my faith for the tenets of the “received tradition” (CM Suderman), the traditions we were “born to,” traditions of an angry God, an evasive mystical Atonement God, a conquering oppressive God, a binary (you’re in or you’re out) kind of God, but much more room for a God of the oppressed and the wounded. Being human, I am on a journey of shaping my God through a framework of the needs of a fragile humanity, as opposed to framing humanity through a Biblical narrative “God lens.” I, like Mr. Derek Suderman (In A Perfect Storm) am trying to reinterpret the “received tradition” of my Anabaptist Mennonite Christian heritage, to find a hermeneutic more applicable to my reality. Mr. Phuc Luu’s Jesus of the East: Reclaiming the Gospel for the Wounded, is a refreshing change of pace and direction from 21’st century western Christianity, an understanding which offers a healing synergy to a wounded humanity.

Thanks for now
Peter Reimer
Gretna, Manitoba

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