Exclusive Interview with Jason Hood, Pastor & Author of “Imitating God in Christ”

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As we continue to strive at The Wise Guise to highlight various topics and various voices, we’ve been honored to be able to interview Tennesseans who are making big splashes in various aspects of life. This week, we’re honored to interview Jason Hood, who currently lives in Memphis with his wife and four kids under the age of ten. He’s also a professor and pastor. His book, “Imitating God in Christ: Recapturing a Biblical Pattern,” was recently published. Check out that link and read more about it on Amazon.com. After you read this interview, you’ll probably want to order it. (The book is 40% off on Amazon and at Christian Book Distributors. For those of you in Memphis, you can also get it at the Second Presbyterian Church bookstore.) Check out my interview below with Jason, where we discuss the Christian life, what the Bible has to teach us about that life, recent and ancient theological debates, and so much more. Hilarious as he is insightful, as humble as he is faithful, you won’t want to miss this excellent interview.

First things first, introduce yourself to our readers. Tell us a little about yourself and how God’s brought you to where you are today.

I’m in Memphis. God brought me here by car. Rhodes 98, Seminary, doctorate in New Testament, teaching all over town–Union University, Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies, Visible Music College, Second Presbyterian, Christ Methodist, guest lectures various places. I write for a variety of outlets on occasion. Mrs. Hood and I have four kids…and we’re all moving to Tanzania in September to find the next Hasheem Thabeet. (Actually I’ll be pastoring an English-speaking congregation there, and if I find the next Hasheem Thabeet, I’ll baptize him and take his basketball away.)

How would you pitch this book to a believing Christian? What is in this book for them?

Overhand. (Plenty, if they want to know what the Bible says about discipleship.)

How you would you pitch this book to a non-believer? Could this book also be helpful for them?

Underhand. (Could be really helpful, but only if they are curious about the Bible.)

What would you say are the biggest lessons from your book for Christians?

Different people are going to get hit by different things. In fact, that’s one of the beautiful things about the book; you can certainly read it straight through, but the NT chapters in particular can be read if you’re (say) prepping for small group, a sermon, a Sunday school lesson, or just curious about one particular area of the Bible.

What would be the most surprising argument you make to non-Christians who are skeptical about the Christian faith and/or the Christian church today?

Christians and non-Christians are going to be struck by the degree of challenge Jesus lays out for his followers. They’ll both be impressed, I hope, with the massive vision the Bible has for what a human being is supposed to be; how tragic our fall has been; and the beautiful vision of the repair of the image of God by the Holy Spirit.

If someone reads it and is more attracted to Jesus, I’ll be a happy camper.

I really like this statement concerning the implications of new birth being a complete vision of restoration and fulfillment of God’s original design from the Old Testament and Testaments along with the empowerment of the Spirit for moral renovation: “As a result, there is a distinction but no radical separation between God’s work and human work in sanctification and discipleship.” Do you see this as theologically consistent with both Calvinism and Arminian beliefs? Furthermore, is this your way of trusting and leaning on the mysteries of our faith whose search for answers often divide the body of Christ?

I don’t think my book is particularly Calvinistic or Arminian (I’m the former)–it was endorsed by scholars from both camps. I do think both groups sometimes err in the way they explain discipleship, which can be shaped more by theological commitments than by the Bible’s own content. I’m not big on throwing my hands up and shrugging, “It’s all just a mystery,” unless the question is, “Can you explain Justin Bieber’s outfits?” But I do like carving out room for Christians to work together and trust one another, to focus on what divides us instead of what unites us.

As a writer, who are some of the philosophers, theologians, and pastors who have had the greatest impact on you?

Who knows? I’ve learned so much from so many, and I’ve forgotten almost all of it. I’ve been learning from C. S. Lewis, Tim Keller, and Sandy Wilson for fifteen years. But lately I’ve been wondering how much of my worldview was impressed upon me in my youth from relatively simple Christians:  guys who weren’t educated or rich or influential, but who loved their families, worked hard at a job or two or a craft, believed God loved them, and tried not to screw it all up.

One tension you discuss a lot is that between the imitation of holy and righteous believers that have gone before us and the possible heresy of works-based salvation. You state, “Faithful interpreters do not shrink from dangerous ideas.” In a culture today in which dangerous ideas are often plucked from Christianity in order to water down the Gospel and the Word of God to push the cultural reform of the day, how can Christians advocate and wrestle with dangerous ideas when even our non-dangerous ideas that seem straight-forward are warped by those inside and outside the Church?

I’ve been a parent, a spouse, and a teacher for ages 12 to 92. I can confidently say that it’s impossible to say something that can’t be and won’t be warped. We simply have to do the best we can to communicate, remembering that the life we live is our greatest mechanism for teaching and communication. But even Jesus’ life–the greatest demonstration of love in history–was misinterpreted by his followers and his opponents.

Another good rule of thumb is to only advocate for things you can really get a handle on, and areas where you might actually have the chance to influence the little piece of the world you inhabit. A Christian attorney, a Christian teacher, and a Christian farmer should feel the freedom to focus on different aspects of cultural or political reform.

What would your book’s arguments say to the current online dialogue/debate surrounding books like David Platt’s “Radical” and Francis Chan’s “Crazy Love” and fears about a new legalism stemming from these books, as articulated by Anthony Bradley here (http://www.worldmag.com/2013/05/the_new_legalism)?

Great question. Although I haven’t read those books, I find that discussion fascinating. Just a guess:  much of the disagreement comes from the fact that Anthony (a college prof in NYC) is addressing a very different context from Chan and Platt (mega-church pastors in very comfortable settings). Anthony’s comments about “leading a quiet life” are very helpful for young radicals who think they must work for a non-profit or move to a slum; I recently closed a course with a similar admonition.

On the other hand, I also think that many of us probably need more of a kick in the pants–from God, our friends, the word, etc. But the “radical” thing we do might be working through a tough marriage, loving difficult neighbors or needy in-laws, regularly attending prayer meetings, faithfully giving away a sizable chunk of our income, serving a church that isn’t as hip and radical as we’d like, learning to evangelize or fast. If you bring experts in those subjects to Christian ministries on college campuses, you get far less interest than if you bring an expert in (say) fighting sex trafficking, which is of course terribly important but hardly highly relevant for the vast majority of us. And taking care of our old relatives is counter-cultural and righteous…in fact if we don’t do it, the Bible has some pretty harsh words for us.

You directly address your argument to the political left, the “muddled middle”, and the religious right. Could you summarize what you think your book can teach to each of those groups? 

Actually, not political, but theological left, middle, and right. (That’s one danger of using such labels!) I don’t say much about these audiences in the book, and generalizations can be misleading, if they are more than a way to introduce a matter. I do think we can see three approaches to imitation in the contemporary church. First, there’s a liberal approach, which strips Jesus down to a mere example. I point out that this isn’t how imitation works in the Bible; we’re responding to rich theological truths–the gospel. There’s also a sort of muddled approach that’s very common, where we hear quite a bit about imitation but–again–not much about the foundation for our action in the gospel. And it’s often merely imitating characters in shallow (even corny) ways, rather than the rich and challenging dimensions we find in the NT. In reformed circles, I hear a great deal of suspicion about imitation; in response to the other two camps, there’s a lot of downplaying going on, as if imitation is naturally going to threaten the gospel. But the skeptical approach is unbiblical and unsound, and in fact it’s not true at all to the Reformed tradition. (I cite Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Warfield, and others.)

What’s often missed is that imitation doesn’t start with Jesus. Imitation starts with our identity as God’s image-bearers, made to reflect his character and his creativity. From the very first page of the Bible, humans are imitating God in response to his initiative and his grace. In the gospel we see the restoration of image-bearing in God’s True Image, Jesus his Son. All four gospels, and Paul’s theological explorations, are pretty saturated with the great theme of imitating Jesus and the theology that lies underneath it. Jesus didn’t just come to die and leave us as is; as Augustine says, “Christ, the master of the mint, came along to stamp the coins afresh.”

Finally, consider the life of Paul: he taught his cross-shaped way of life “everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:8-17). So we don’t just imitate God and Jesus; we imitate others, sinners like ourselves who nonetheless are walking in the Spirit and looking a bit God-like (godly), because God is at work in them.

As political, theological, and other debates happen in the never-been-noisier public square today online and in real life, I often struggle to try to figure out how to speak the truth without ostracizing hearts and minds. Now, besides this being a case of me not trusting God and the Holy Spirit, I often come back to saying, “I need to get into the Gospels to see how Jesus lived and what he did… and imitate accordingly.” What does your book speak into this dynamic of wanting to both speak the absolute truth while also living out Christ’s love?  

I’m convinced that loving God and living the way he wants us to live often speaks for itself. But we also have a responsibility to communicate as best we can, and to point others to helpful arguments when opportunity presents itself.

There’s a tendency to try to pit theology and love, or grace and truth, against one another. But if one of the ways we are to love God is with our mind (part of the “greatest commandment,” according to Jesus), then we can’t quit the pursuit of truth, and we can’t stop searching for the best ways to present Jesus and his claims to a culture that needs him. And every culture needs him. I’ve yet to find the part of town that doesn’t need Jesus.

The point I mentioned earlier–that imitation doesn’t start with Jesus, but with the imitation of God–puts the imitation of holiness front and center. Let’s not forget that holiness is missional.

You quote Michael Goheen at length when discussing the practicality of imitating Christ, saints, and righteous believers who are loving out of purity: 

The remarkable power of technology to shape worldview along with the enormous amount of time young people spend with its many forms makes the small amount of time they spend in Christian nurture seem almost negligible by comparison. The best preaching, worship, and education programs of a church simply cannot compete with television, movies, the internet, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, and the ever-expanding list of technologies that shape our vision of the world. If families are not taught to make radical, costly, and time-consuming commitments to nurturing their children, the future of the church as a missional community in the West will be bleak.

What practical steps do you think are needed when the culture bombards us daily with so many implicit and explicit messages that compete with the Gospel?

It’s pretty easy to get depressed about the state of society. I accidentally walked through the girls’ bra section in Target last week. Honestly, as the father of an 8-yr-old girl, I daydreamed me some arson. I taught four years in the ‘hood and have served in fairly wealthy congregations, and no matter where you are, guys are pounded with cable, porn or semi-porn, and mind-numbing video games and sports.

And here’s the thing: what we do shapes our desires, which then shapes our actions. What we need are friends and families that model a different approach to leisure and desire where we aren’t enslaved to trinkets and titillation. We can learn to say no to shows and events and sports, and choose other richer, meaningful activities. That’s less cathartic but more effective than burning down Target or Game Stop, or boycotting Abercrombie.

Since this is The Wise Guise, we always ask some funny, goofy questions in our interviews too. So here’s a few…

What summer movie are you most looking forward to?

I have four children under the age of ten, so I almost never get to see movies until long after they are out, if ever. About once or twice a year I take the kids to the theater, so I hope there’s something coming out that won’t bore me to tears but will be appropriate for them. Fingers crossed.

If we were to take a look at your DVR right now, what would be on it?

Did I mention I have four kids? Animal shows, and occasionally something interesting/adult. Literally, the time just isn’t there. While I was typing these answers at a local playground I had to stop; one of my kids vomited because he couldn’t bring himself to stop riding the spinning teacup. (Like this one, only without redheads, because my kids aren’t allowed to play on the playgrounds with gingers; I’m all for civil rights, but only for people with souls.)

What sports teams are you a fan of? 

Memphis everything. I was born in Lubbock (Texas Tech), grew up in DFW (I had a comprehensive understanding of sports at a very early age), so I like those teams. But the thing I love most is soccer–the Premier League in England and USMNT.

If you had 24 hours to do anything you wanted, with a completely free schedule, what would you do?

Fasting. (I kid.) I’d make love, eat at Grisanti’s with Mrs. Hood (we’d split Elfo Special and Veal Piccata), I’d lecture/discuss the Bible for impressionable 20-somethings for 1.5 hours, play hoops with my oldest (and yes, I would win), and spend an enormous amount of time reading (to my kids and alone). Maybe some Cheesecake Corner or Muddie’s, and some nicotine in there somewhere to cap things off. NB: activities are not necessarily in chronological order.

H/T here to Martin Luther who, as one scholar puts it, had a faith “simple enough to trust that after a conscientious day’s labor, a Christian father could come home and eat his sausage, drink his beer, play his flute, sing with his children, and make love to his wife — all to the glory of God.” I just prefer reading to singing.

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Posted on by Joseph Williams in Assorted Wisdom, Books, Featured

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