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Is “the Way of Jesus” Language an Empty Signifier? David Fitch Weighs In

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David Fitch is doing some reflecting on his blog today about a popular phrase in Christian circles: “the Way of Jesus.” His thoughts derive from things shared by Cherith Fee-Nordling at our recent Church and Post-Christian Culture event. Here’s where Dave is landing:

 The verbage “way of Jesus” does some good things. It plays on the idea that we need to focus on following Jesus with our lives, not merely receiving a transactional gift by way of the atonement that offers us forgiveness and pardon from the punishment of hell. It plays on the Anabaptist emphasis that Jesus challenges us to live a certain “way,” not merely assent to a creedal statement about His ontology that makes possible an atonement.  It plays on the history that the original Christian gatherings in Acts were called “the Way” It is meant, I believe, to resist the abstracting of Jesus out of His impact of the way we live daily life.

But good ideas, when they get used too much, can become extracted out of daily life and in essence become a signifier ( a word ‘container’) which we can then fill with any meaning we so choose. So suddenly, in almost unquestioned form, the “way of Jesus” becomes equated with a host of social injustice endeavors in which it is not entirely clear how this has anything to do with Jesus, His reign, His person or His work. Likewise the new lingo can be used to upgrade (make more relevant) the old discipleship practices that in essence continue to train Christians to make Christian faith private and detached from what God is doing in the world for His mission. Ironically then, “the way of Jesus” becomes an empty-signifier into which we can import just about any behavior we might deem part of our own agenda (I learned all this from the political theorist Zizek et. al.). Churches/social organizations can then use it as a defining cause (or object) to rally people around something and say we’re different than what you’ve heard before (especially those evangelicals who don’t care about the poor). Ironically, “the way of Jesus” (a term meant to emphasis practical everyday Christian life) becomes extracted (and abstracted) from everyday real life with Jesus as Lord in the real world. It becomes an ideological object with all its attendant consequences. It works against an actual practice of a way of life together under His Lordship as manifested by the Holy Spirit alive and at work in a community.

At the #OnceFutureMission Conference (which used “the way of Jesus” in its title)a few weeks ago,  Cherith Fee Nordling said something I’ve been thinking for a while now. She said “as we pursue the way of Jesus, let us not forget Jesus.“ It was a statement that gets at my concerns in this post. Has “the way of Jesus” become a moniker that has ideological power but enables us to escape what it actually means to live as a people together submitting to and living out of Christ’s Lordship over us? In lieu of the living Jesus who reigns, we now have the “way of Jesus”?

Read the full post here.

What do you think of David’s, and Cherith’s, cautionary thoughts on this popular idea?

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