I just finished a great read, The Year of Living like Jesus, by Ed Dobson, a prominent evangelical (and recovering fundamentalist) pastor who reads The Year of Living Biblically, by A. J. Jacobs, a secular Jew. Dobson is so impressed that “someone had taken the Bible seriously enough to attempt to live it out” that he asks,
As a Gentile and a follower of Jesus, what if I were to take the teachings of Jesus seriously? What if I were to try to live like Jesus lived? What if I tried to do some of the things Jesus did?
Maybe just for a year.
Since Dobson recognizes that Jesus lived as an observant Jew, he has to learn a lot about Judaism to live like him and he shows a level of respect and engagement that’s encouraging to a Messianic Jew like me. He stops cutting his beard, although not his hair—he doesn’t end up looking like the robed and sandaled, wavy-locked Jesus of Sunday school illustrations, but an older guy with glasses, short hair and a ferocious beard. He starts wearing a tallit kattan, keeps kosher, and tries to rest on Shabbat. He spends a lot more time with sinners than he used to and gets into intense conversations about God, especially in bars. As a former teetotaler he discovers that if he sticks with light beer, he can down a couple of glasses during his stay in the bar without becoming impaired.
Dobson is a sharp and somewhat contrarian observer, and a man of real heart. He’s suffering from ALS, the dread Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he handles with a light touch and much grace throughout the book. I felt privileged to walk with him through his year-long journey with Jesus.
Toward the journey’s end, Ed gets interviewed by his local paper in Grand Rapids, and the story is picked up by the newswires, spreading abroad the fact that this well-known Christian leader kept kosher, drank beer (which seems to shock teetotalers far more than drinking wine), prayed the rosary (although it’s hard to explain how that practice arises out of “living like Jesus”), and voted for Obama in the 2008 election. Ed is staunchly anti-abortion, but notices that “fortunately or unfortunately, Jesus never mentions the issue of abortion,” and decides to vote for Obama because he thinks Obama lines up with the teachings of Jesus better than McCain in three key areas:
- Treatment of the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.
- Treatment of one’s enemies.
- Commitment to peacemaking.
So, guess which practice draws by far the most criticism when Dobson’s interview comes out a month or so later? You got it—voting for Obama. Back when I was sojourning within the fundamentalist-evangelical camp, keeping kosher and Shabbat or praying the rosary would have stirred up cries of heresy, and drinking beer, especially in a bar, would have gotten you cast out of the kingdom. Dobson drew his share of flak for these things, but it was voting for Obama that consigned him to the ninth circle of hell.
A few days after I wrapped up my reading of Dobson’s story, another prominent evangelical, pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist, Dallas, endorsed Rick Perry for president, saying “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born again follower of Jesus Christ?” Later the pastor said that a born again Christian shouldn’t vote for a Mormon, because Mormonism is a cult. Now, I’ve had opportunity to attend First Baptist Dallas and meet Pastor Jeffress in his office for a few minutes, which was all around a very positive experience. He seemed like a cordial and genuine guy and preached a great sermon. But, as some commentator noted, what if he’d said, “A born-again Christian should never vote for a Jew?” Religious values have an important place in political discourse, but a religious litmus test is another matter altogether.
Don’t get me wrong, the tenets of Mormonism are strange enough that evangelicals might well question whether it should be considered a Christian denomination. I don’t think I’d go to Romney for spiritual counsel. But, his political positions don’t seem strange at all. He’s kind of moderate, which I like. So, I’m almost ready to endorse Romney just because he is a Mormon. But then, I’m thinking about how Ed Dobson was surprised to find himself voting for Obama back in 2008. Maybe he botched that call, but still, looking at 2012, I find myself wondering, What would Dobson do?