William A. Dyrness

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Book Review: “Insider Jesus” by William A. Dyrness

ij-dyrnessWhat does it mean to be a follower of Jesus in non-Western cultures? Could it mean something different than it does in places like the United States and Europe? These are some of the questions that Insider Jesus by William A. Dyrness seeks to answer.

Dyrness, in this pithy book, focuses on contextualization and the frequent misunderstanding of the same. Contextualization is often seen by some as being the distortion of Christianity to fit a culture; at the opposite extreme, it is seen as a kind of imperialistic co-opting of whatever culture is being witnessed to. Dyrness calls us to move past these extremes and come to understand that we must take a critical look at our assumptions about what other Christians should do and how they should behave. Often, these “shoulds” reflect our culture rather than a biblical understanding of Christianity.

Dyrness utilizes a number of case studies to highlight examples of “insider movements” in which Christians are not abandoning their culture while still following Jesus. These studies include Latin America and Africa with interfaith dialogues, emergent Christianity in places like India, and more. Each shows some ways in which Christianity is making headway in places that it might not have otherwise done. Each may make readers uncomfortable as we are forced to see that many of the things we take for granted culturally are not even understood in other cultures.

It is this last point that is perhaps most important to Dyrness’s thesis. Spreading the Gospel of Christ does not mean spreading our culture. As Christians, we’re called to be all things to all people, and that may, at times, make us uncomfortable. Some may here charge Dyrness with syncretism–a dreaded word in interfaith discussions–but such an accusation would be off-base. As Dyrness argues, using the thought of Kang-San Tan, a Christian from a Buddhist background, that we must

…distinguish between the danger of external identification with two religious communities and the possibility, even the necessity for those from these religious backgrounds, of maintaining an inward multireligious identity… Christianity itself necessarily exhibits an integration that reflects its historical and cultural situation… Every Christian religious expression represents some combination of indigenous values and religious practices… and the impact of the Christian Gospel… on this (124-125, emphasis his)

The point is that many of the things we think of as normal for Christian worship (standing during the Gospel reading, for instance) are clearly a use of cultural context to worship our God. Such things are not necessary for other groups, but when they are absent, it may lead us to wrongly think these other groups are mistaken.

Insider Jesus provides a much-needed critical perspective on insider movements that encourages readers to be aware of these movements and how their own faith is influenced by many similar aspects. It’s an uncomfortable read at times because it highlights areas of our own blindness about our religion. Several points Dyrness makes are controversial, but he provides enough argument and context that readers will be challenged even where they disagree.

The Good

+Provides framework for thinking through controversial questions
+Further study encouraged with sources to pursue
+Good job introducing complex topics

The Bad

-Exegetical sections brief with sometimes questionable conclusions

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book from the publisher for review. I was not obligated to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever. 


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