As I write this, I’m about an hour away from recording Steve Brown Etc., our talk show. We’re interviewing Tom Krattenmaker about his new book, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower: Finding Answers in Jesus for Those Who Don’t Believe. I have no idea what he is going to say and my opinion may change after talking with him. After the interview, I’ll come back to continue writing this letter. But for now, I’m fairly certain he’s crazy.
My assessment has nothing to do with his writing or his profession. Krattenmaker is an award-winning USA Today columnist and Director of Communications at—of all places—Yale Divinity School. My assessment doesn’t have to do with his personality either. I assume he’s a nice man who hasn’t committed any major crimes and the interview will be reasonably civil. I also suspect that, given his connection with Yale, he is smart and accepted in some pretty heady places.
But I still think Krattenmaker is crazy. Do you know why?
Sane unbelievers simply don’t hang out with Jesus. C.S. Lewis’ oft-quoted view was that we don’t have the option of calling Jesus a good man, saying good things, loving everybody, and being a great teacher. Lewis said that there were only three options: 1) Jesus was a lunatic, 2) Jesus was a liar, or 3) Jesus was Lord, who he said he was, the Son of God.
In fact, Krattenmaker is sort of the equivalent to wearing a MAGA hat and waving a Trump banner at an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rally. We may admire his or her bravery but doubt his or her sanity. Krattenmaker is a Jesus fan (a good thing, I suppose), but he just doesn’t want to have anything to do with the religious and God stuff. What? That means that Krattenmaker will get killed by both sides. The pagans won’t like the Jesus fan stuff and the Christians will be certain he’s going to hell.
I don’t know but I’m fairly certain that Krattenmaker isn’t far from the kingdom. (I’ll let you know after the interview.) It’s hard to hang out with Jesus very long without either worshiping him or running from him. Jesus doesn’t allow much wiggle room.
Speaking of Jesus, that’s kind of the case with Easter. When a dead man gets out of a grave and wants to have dinner with you, it can be a rather sobering event. One either proclaims with great joy, “He’s risen!!!” or turns away with, “I’m out of here!” Paul draws a line in the sand with the resurrection when he writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).
But if Jesus is risen (and he is), then everything is different.
As some of you know, on our regular Key Life broadcasts over Easter I traditionally go over some of the evidence of the resurrection, proving that Jesus didn’t provide fertilizer for flowers by his grave outside Jerusalem. In fact, there is more evidence—incontrovertible evidence—for the resurrection of Jesus than there is for the life of Julius Caesar or the imprisonment of Napoleon.
But if Jesus is risen (and he is), then everything is different.
I’m not going over that evidence here, but I’m glad God saw the necessity of providing all the evidence anybody might want in order to prove that a dead man got up, walked away from his grave, and said that we could too.
But that’s not the main thing for me. Rather, it’s the exclamation point after the name of Jesus. One has a tendency to listen to a man who predicts his own death, dies, and then comes back to talk about what that fact means.
Okay, we just finished the interview with Tom Krattenmaker. I said on the show that I felt the only reason Tom called himself a “secular Jesus follower” was because it was the only way he could survive in a wacko, theologically liberal place like Yale Divinity School. Tom laughed because he knew I was joking…sort of.
But I also quoted Camus, the French existentialist and atheist, who said that the only issue a modern, thinking person faces is the issue of whether or not he or she should commit suicide. I also suggested that, if Jesus were just a good and wise man, the interview we were having was the moral equivalent of Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill only to have it roll back down...all the while thinking philosophical thoughts. That, by the way, is an image to which Camus referred in his essay, The Myth of Sisyphus.
I’m glad for the resurrection, but I’m even more thankful for the fact that I’m forgiven. As the old Puritan prayer says, “My sins are too heavy to carry, to deep to undo, and too real to hide.” I’ve often hurt people, asked for their forgiveness, and received it. But I still felt terribly guilty. There were times when I went back and tried to clean up the mess I made with my sin, and at least some of the people involved forgave me. But I still felt guilty. There were times when my marriage was rough—when I felt like a hypocrite in the pulpit—and thought about leaving the faith I proclaimed and couldn’t quite live. I’ve been fairly honest of late about those facts and people are kind. They peach the Gospel to me, and those who aren’t Christians say, “Steve, stop it...you are, after all, human.” That makes me feel better but I still don’t feel forgiven and free. Do you know why? It is because ultimately I sinned against God a lot more than anybody else. As David discovered, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Psalm 51:4).
There is a difference between my friends who forgave me and Jesus. When Jesus says that I’m forgiven, I’m totally, perfectly and unconditionally forgiven. I think my new friend Tom would rejoice if Jesus did that for him. I would rather be forgiven than listen to a lecture on ethics. I’ll bet Tom would too.
The resurrection is an incredible fact for which I’m so glad, but to know that I’m loved when I’m not very lovable is even better. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends...” (John 15:13-14). There’s an old story about an orphan who went to the orphanage wall, climbed up a tree over the wall, and put a note in one of the tree limbs for someone walking by to find. It read, “Will somebody love me?” Jesus didn’t just talk love; he loved us enough to die for us. And not only that, he’s still around loving people who don’t deserve it. A professor of ethics can’t pull that off.
I’m glad for the resurrection, but I’m even more so for eternity that broke into our world and confronted the dark. Life is dark, empty and meaningless. “Men must work and women must weep, and the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep.” But because of Jesus every dark place has light, every thought of life’s meaninglessness is shattered, and every circumstance is infused with the reality of meaning, purpose and hope. There is a God, he created me, and he calls me to walk with him and share his work in the world. I really liked Tom, and I’m glad he likes Jesus as teacher and ethicist. That’s not enough, though, because the problem is bigger than ethics.
And of course, the resurrection is so very important because it is the soil in which hope grows. How often I’ve looked at the hatred, pain and evil in the world (and in me), and thought, This isn’t right...it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. The risen Christ is the only one who has the authority and experience to say, “You’re right and it’s going to get better...a lot better” for “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
Jesus the good man and wise teacher can’t make those kinds of promises. He’s going to die just the way I am and he doesn’t know any more than I do.
I liked Tom Krattenmaker a lot and I was right about him not being very far from the kingdom. Tom really likes Jesus and Jesus—contrary to Buddha who is stone-cold dead—is still around loving, forgiving, and reminding of and pointing to heaven. If Tom continues to like Jesus and doesn’t leave, he will be welcomed into the kingdom because even a secular Jesus follower wants to be forgiven, loved, and to have hope…and Buddha can’t do that.
Jesus is risen, Tom.
He is risen indeed!
Because Jesus is still around, he asked me to tell you.
To Listen to our Interview with Tom Krattenmaker, Click Here