*Editorial Note: Centering Jesus: How the Lamb of God Transforms Our Communities, Ethics, and Spiritual Lives is available now and would make an excellent Autumn read! ~CK
How Arnold Schwarzenegger Radically Skewed Our Perspective of Jesus, the Lamb of God
In June 2023, Netflix dropped a three-part documentary on the life of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The short series fared well with both critics and audiences scoring a 72% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com and a 96% approval rating among audiences.1 The documentary broke up Arnold’s life into three episodes describing his bodybuilding career, his action movie successes, and his service in California politics. I found myself most interested in the story of his movie career. In fact I rewatched the original 1987 movie Predator as soon as I finished the documentary. Head to the choppa!
I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s idolizing the action movie stars like Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, and of course Arnold. I cannot deny the impact the characters these men portrayed on the big screen had on my masculine imagination. To be a man, I surmised, meant that I would need to be a ‘tough guy.’ This hardened persona implied that I would need to be not only physically strong but violent if necessary, using masculine power and force to thwart evil and promote the good. After my baptism and subsequent commitment to follow Jesus with pointed devotion, I began to blend the emotionally ‘tough guy’ motif with what it meant to be a Christian man. I cannot deny the impact the characters Arnold, Sly, and Clint portrayed on the big screen had on my masculine imagination. To be a man, I surmised, meant that I would need to be a ‘tough guy.' (1/2) Click To Tweet This hardened 'tough guy' persona implied that I would need to be not only physically strong but violent if necessary, using masculine power and force to thwart evil and promote the good. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Jesus and John Wayne
Through the late 1990s and into the 2000s, I lived through much of what Kristin Du Mez described in her book Jesus and John Wayne. I had adopted what Du Mez described as a “militant masculinity,” where I understood my role as a Christian man and the role of the church itself in terms of militancy. Du Mez observes,
“The heroes who best embodied militant Christian masculinity were those unencumbered by traditional Christian virtues. In this way, militant masculinity linked religious and secular conservatism, helping to secure an alliance with profound political ramifications. For many evangelicals, these militant heroes would come to define not only Christian manhood but Christianity itself.”2
Militant masculinity and a militant Christianity drew upon biblical imagery, but a select biblical imagery. For example, a “warrior for Jesus” mentality finds rhetorical roots in David’s cunning and savage killing of the giant Goliath (1 Samuel 17), but ignores David’s nonviolent restraint in not killing King Saul (1 Samuel 24). Militant images not only defined Christianity for a select time in my life, it also distorted my understanding of the mission of the church. A militant church is always looking down the barrel of a gun for the next threat which created in me a posture of fighting the world instead of advocating for its flourishing.
In the midst of my love affair with militant masculinity, I began to lose sight of the Jesus proclaimed in the Gospels who came not to condemn the world, or fight the world, but that the world might be saved through him. I came to recognize that if our primary identity is one of a warrior, then we’ll be inclined to treat every problem as the opportunity to start a war. But if our primary identity is one of a peacemaker, then we’ll be more inclined to treat every problem as the opportunity to make peace.
The truth of the matter is Jesus only blessed one of these.
If we are to shed the baggage of militant masculinity and militant motifs in the life of the local church, then we need a fresh imagination of Jesus — not as a warrior — but as the slain lamb of God. If our primary identity is a warrior, we're inclined to treat every problem as an opportunity to start a war. But if our primary identity is a peacemaker, then we can treat every problem as an opportunity to make peace. (1/2) Click To Tweet If we are to shed the baggage of militant masculinity and militant motifs in the life of the local church, then we need a fresh imagination of Jesus — not as a warrior — but as the slain lamb of God. (2/2) Click To Tweet
The Lamb at the Center
The book of Revelation captures the apocalyptic impulse of the first century Jewish and emerging Christian worlds. In a sense the world was coming to an end. John the Revelator records a series of fantastic visions that have baffled and interested Christians for millenia. The central figure in John’s Revelation is Jesus who is often depicted as a lamb who appears to have been slain and yet sits on a throne.
A few years back I was reading through the book of Revelation as a part of my daily Bible reading. I follow the Daily Office Lectionary for my morning Bible reading and on a random Tuesday in October 2020 the epistle reading was Revelation 7:9-17.
Without looking for a sermon to preach or a book to write, I read these words:
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:16-17, NRSV).
I paused for a moment and slowly reread the words “the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd” (Revelation 7:17, NRSV). This image of Jesus as the Lamb seated at the center of the throne seemed like fresh language to me. Other translations describe the Lamb in “the midst” of the throne, but the picture of the Lamb at the center seemed unique to me.
That image lingered in my imagination.
The Lamb at the center.
As I continued to dwell on that image in my mind, I thought to myself, “This is what we need in these unsettled days. We need the Lamb at the center.” With all the hostility boiling just under the surface of our world, we need a renewed vision of Jesus as the Lamb of God who can lead us in the peaceable ways of the kingdom of God.
We need renewed practices of centering Jesus in our hearts and minds. With the deep divide in American culture and the polarization that continues to grow in part because of the militancy of the church, we need a renewed focus on the Lamb, that we might blaze a path forward into civility and kindness.
With the deep divide in American culture and the polarization that continues to grow in part because of the militancy of the church, we need a renewed focus on the Lamb, that we might blaze a path forward into civility and kindness. Click To Tweet
From these few verses came the idea for a book, but before I started writing, I wanted to flesh out the ideas in a small group.
In January 2021, I led a ten-week online discussion group entitled “The Lamb at the Center.” During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, I was leading a number of small groups on Zoom as many people were quarantined at home. Each weekly session of “The Lamb at the Center,” I would present some of what I was reading, thinking, and feeling, and then we would discuss the material. I sensed a lot of interest from this online small group.
Those conversations formed the outline and structure for my new book Centering Jesus: How the Lamb of God Transforms Our Communities, Ethics, and Spiritual Lives. Centering Jesus is an impassioned call for us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the reigning Lamb of God, and to keep the Lamb at the center of three distinct areas of Christian life:
- Our practice of spiritual formation, particularly Scripture reading and prayer
- Our ethical live, grounded in Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love
- Our common life together, including worship, advocacy for justice, and political engagement
When we go to work centering Jesus as the Lamb in these areas of Christian experience, things begin to change. The images of a militant masculinity and a militant Christianity become eclipsed by Jesus’ vision of the peaceable kingdom of God. Moreover, centering Jesus as a core Christian practice displaces the autonomous thinking self from its unfortunate dominance upon the throne of our hearts. Our propensity to push our agenda and advocate for our wants causes the division we see in the church and adds energy to the antagonisms we see fueling Western culture.
When we heed the exhortation of John the Baptist to “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, ESV), we find ourselves becoming more like the Lamb. We believe Jesus came to take away our sin and heal us of all the fractures caused by sin, but not only do we believe in the Lamb, we also need to behold the Lamb.
We become like that which we behold.
We grow into the image we gaze upon.
We are formed into the person we focus on.
We desperately need Jesus as the Lamb at the center of our lives if we are going bear witness to the peaceable kingdom of God and if we are to pass on the faith to the next generation. I was editing this book in the summer of 2022 when Leo, my first grandchild, was born. Becoming a grandparent has emboldened my conviction that we will not be faithful to Jesus if we only cultivate the Christian faith in our generation. We need to be at work centering Jesus if the next generation is going to come to believe in King Jesus. When center Jesus as the Lamb in our Christian experience, things begin to change. The images of a militant masculinity and a militant Christianity become eclipsed by Jesus' vision of the peaceable kingdom of God. (1/2) Click To Tweet Moreover, centering Jesus as a core Christian practice displaces the autonomous thinking self from its unfortunate dominance upon the throne of our hearts. (2/2) Click To Tweet
Derek Vreeland is the Discipleship Pastor at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. He and his wife Jenni have three boys, Wesley, Taylor, and Dylan. He earned a MDiv from Oral Roberts University and a DMin. from Asbury Theological Seminary. Derek is the author of numerous books including By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus (2019), and his newest work, Centering Jesus: How the Lamb of God Transforms Our Communities, Ethics, and Spiritual Lives,released in August 2023.
1 https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/arnold/s01. Rotten Tomatoes score reflected these percentages on July 24, 2023, when this review was accessed.
2 Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (New York: Liveright Publishing, 2020), 11.