The publication of What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer (Nelson, 2002) signals, I hope, the end of our latest enchantment with imitating Christ. The recent fad began 13 years ago with Holland, Michigan, teenagers wearing WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelets to remind themselves to seek Christ's direction before every decision. All well and good up to a point, and with this book, that point has been exceeded.
Actually, author Don Colbert's health advice is sound. He says we should eat whole grains, breads, and fresh foods low in fat and sodium. He also touts sensible exercise: "As an active walker, Jesus was certainly engaged in aerobic exercise."
Admittedly, the biblical connections are thin, but I do not fault Dr. Colbert for trying to help us, in his words, to have "more energy, better health, and a greater sense of well-being." But I do fault whoever came up with the misleading title, which suggests that if we imitate Christ in this way, we'll start "feeling great and living longer."
For better or worse, in the Beatitudes and a host of other passages, Jesus only guarantees that his disciples will feel lousy ("suffer") and likely die young. But this uncomfortable biblical fact didn't interrupt some creative titling/marketing meeting.
Then again, unseemly things happen when the culture gets a hankering to be like Jesus. An early episode was inspired by Antony of Egypt (251-356), who one day abandoned his family and wealth, and walked into the desert to battle the Tempter in the wilderness, as did his Lord. The idea caught on, and pretty soon the desert was littered with solitaries. The ensuing spiritual disciplines formed many of these into stellar disciples (Cassian, Basil, and Athanasius, to name three). But the same movement produced zanies like the Stylites, who thought holiness amounted to living atop pillars, and thousands of gaunt, weak, and weather-beaten hermits who thought a life of malnutrition was a fitting imitation of Jesus.
Francis of Assisi ignited the next wave of holiness and silliness. Like Antony, he was impressed with Christ's poverty and self-denial and took dramatic steps to follow. He so yearned to imitate his Lord in every respect that he annually reenacted Jesus' nativity. And just before he died, as a confirmation that his whole life had been lived in imitation of Christ, he is said to have miraculously received the stigmata, the bleeding wounds of Jesus, on his hands, feet, and sides.
This was an unfortunate example to the often excitable medieval imagination. Within a hundred years, tens of thousands of flagellants were roaming Europe, whipping themselves bloody so they could (a) punish themselves for their sins and (b) suffer like Jesus.
Ironically, the timeless book that embodies this idea in its title, The Imitation of Christ, rarely invites the reader to live or be like Jesus. In the first place, much of Thomas à Kempis's classic is a prayer to Jesus, and when it is not, it pronounces admonitions like these: "Set aside an opportune time for deep personal reflection and think often about God's many benefits to you," "Do not cling to ephemeral things," and "Love Jesus and keep him as your friend." In other words, it doesn't tell readers how to mimic Christ but how God can form their character to become the people Christ wants them to be.
As such, it never entices people to wackiness and, instead, has been a steady source of inspiration for, among other luminaries, Sir Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, and John Wesley—who called it the best summary of the Christian life he ever read.
All this to say: Perhaps Jesus never intended his disciples to slavishly imitate him. Notice that he never uses the idea himself. All he says is "Follow me." Paul often employs the idea of imitation (e.g., in 1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1; 1 Thess. 1:6) to call his readers to deeper discipleship. But the context is always about living by overarching Christian principles, not slavishly copying what Paul or Jesus did.
As he lay dying, Francis of Assisi said to his followers, "I have done what is mine; may Christ teach you what is yours." That's all Jesus asks of any of us—not to ape him, but to do what he calls us to do. That means some of us will be called to live in the desert, others in castles; some will fight just wars, others will wage peace; some will itinerate, others will settle down; some will marry, others will remain single. In short, disciples are not called to live Jesus' life—only he was responsible for doing that. Instead, we are to do what the Spirit of Christ teaches us is ours to do.
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The WWJD movement even has an official website.
Previous Long View columns include:
The Virtue of UnoriginalityThe old kind of Christian is the best hope for church renewal. (April 4, 2002)
Wielding the SwordEarly believers were not as troubled as we are by the use of force. (Feb. 20, 2002)
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