Would You Have Followed Jesus?

by Matthew Sitman

Many described in the New Testament as encountering Jesus didn’t know what to make of him, with his strange parables and convention-defying social habits. John Koessler reviews Derek Cooper and Ed Cyzewski’s new book, Unfollowers: Unlikely Lessons on Faith from Those Who Doubted Jesus, which explores what we can learn from them:

Unfollowers focuses on “the people who got it wrong” in the Gospels and invites us to see these familiar stories in a new light. When we see ourselves in their stories we are able to better understand their reaction to Jesus. We also begin to see ourselves more accurately. We would like to think that if we had been present when Jesus taught and performed miracles, we would have been among the few who believed. But this is probably not the case. The authors want us to consider the possibility that we might have responded to Jesus with skepticism, disappointment, and even outright rejection. In the process, they propose to deconstruct our view of Jesus. This is necessary because our tendency is to “imagine that Jesus looks just like and wants the same things as us.” But the book’s real objective is to deconstruct the view we have of ourselves. Or if not to completely deconstruct it, at least provide us with a needed reality check.

The book directs our attention to the unfollowers of the Gospels in the hope that it will close the distance between the lives we live and those we read about in Scripture. Cooper and Cyzewksi do not want us to view these biblical accounts as stories about religious or irreligious people who are now long dead. They want us to understand that they are stories about us. The specific events and people in the life of Christ are used to highlight our own spiritual problems. John the Baptist shows us the folly of projecting our own expectations into God’s plan for our lives. The townspeople of Nazareth cast a light on the shadows of our ambivalence toward Christ and reveal that we expect too little from God, despite all our affirmations of faith. The Pharisees expose our tendency to exclude others, along with our tendency to judge them based on the “external markers of religious devotion” that we have set.