The Mystery of Christ by John Behr (Review)

John Behr is quickly vaulting to the top of my favorite theologians list. His book The Mystery of Christ is brilliant. Behr argues that the way forward, in our post-modern context, is to recover the patristic (premodern) way of doing theology. In this we look at the whole of scripture through the passion of Jesus.

Christ has trampled down death by death. By his death, Christ conquers death – in no other way (32)

Theology, as I suggested earlier, begins by reflecting on the Passion of Christ, contemplating there the transforming power of the eternal, timeless God

Christ’s taking upon himself the role of a servant, voluntarily going to the Passion, does not diminish our perception of what we might otherwise have considered to be his divinity, but actually manifests his true divinity

This is something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Like many who grew up evangelical, I became obsessed with apologetics (okay, so many who grew up evangelical and were kind of weird…I’ll admit it). We felt we had to construct an argument to defend scripture. If we could somehow prove things historically happened, ironing over those pesky differences in the gospels, then faith would be as rational as it is irrefutable.

Somewhere, millions of Christians in the first millennium of Christianity are laughing at us.

Books like Behr’s are valuable because they teach us how to read the Bible. Just writing that sentence feels strange, as I’ve been reading the Bible most of my life. I want to say Behr’s book is a challenge and maybe best read by theologically minded types or pastors. Yet, its taken me years to shift my understanding of scripture. It is hard to read scripture and not default back to that historical-grammatical rational way of reading. Maybe if we read books like this sooner, reading it the way Behr teaches would be easier because we’d have less to unlearn.

In other words, I’m gonna give this book to my kids.

Okay, maybe not MY kids since they’re 6 and 9. But I will take these ideas to heart as I teach my kids, and kids at my church, the Bible. Just tonight I was leading a Bible study with the college students I work with and as we read, I was seeing the scripture in ways I had not before. Like I said, I’ve been wrestling with these ancient ways of reading for a while and it takes time for it to sink in. One example from this Bible study. We were reading Acts 15 where the Christians debate whether circumcision is a necessity for Gentiles. One person shared that James argued from scripture and this shows the vital importance of the Bible. I shared that I agreed with that, at the same time, those arguing for circumcision also had the Bible on their side! To some degree, just quoting the Bible was not enough. James, like the early Christians, brought a different way of reading the Bible to bear – they read it in light of their faith and experience of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection!

This book packs a lot more into 180 pages. Overall, this is a brilliant book. I said that already, didn’t I? It provides a background for Behr’s longer books on the development of Christian theology in the early church.

Two more thoughts.

First, the more of these orthodox folks that I read (Behr, Bulgakov, Hart) the more I wonder if there is someone out there connecting the best of Orthodox theology to the best of Anabaptist thought. I appreciate Greg Boyd’s work on nationalism and nonviolence, but I am less than keen on the open theism side. I’m hungry for a sort of Orthodox Anabaptism.

Second, if you’re into the sort of ideas Behr writes about you have to listen to the Mysterion podcast! They are another place I have been gathering these ideas and I highly recommend them.

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