This book is a new and fascinating take on an old and important subject.
I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and I’m talking today with Dr. Thaddeus Williams about his outstanding book, Reflect: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History.
Thaddeus, welcome, and congratulations on a truly unique book.
Thank you. It’s great to be with you, Fred.
Tell us about your book – what is it all about?
Well, it’s based on the premise of a lot of good theology that’s been done the last few years, such as James K. A. Smith, with his You Are What You Love, and a lot of Tim Keller’s work. There’s kind of been a rediscovery, in the last 10 years, of a deep biblical theme from Psalm 115, that we become like what we worship. So that’s the premise of Reflect: everybody worships – that’s not an open option in a biblical worldview where we are all on our knees to something. And I can say that with some credibility, having taught in a secular college context for about nine years, and teaching classrooms full of atheists and finding that, at the end of the day, there really were no atheists. They all worshipped, maybe science, with a capital S; maybe it was government, with a capital G, maybe it was a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse or kids. Everybody has these deities and these deities shape us. We become like them for better or worse. So, if you are a consumerist and are worshiping products, you become more product-like yourself; you become more plastic and artificial. Parents who worship their kids tend to become more childish. Romantics who worship their partner tend to lose their identity and become their partner’s clone. You know, just this running theme that goes all the way back to the Old Testament, when people bowed down to some rock idol, they became as dumb as rocks. So that same dynamic is playing out all over again in the 21st century.
So, I’m asking, what if we really worship Jesus, and don’t just claim to? What if it’s not just a box we check on a doctrinal statement, but our lives really lived out under his Lordship? How will that affect us intellectually? How will we begin to think Jesus’s thoughts? How will it impact us emotionally? How will we begin to feel what Jesus feels? How will it impact our actions, our relationships, our imaginations? Who can we expect to become if we’re really living under the Lordship of Christ? That’s the premise.
There have been many books on “Christlikeness” over the years – how is yours different? What is the contribution you hope to make?
Great question! I’d highlight two or three things. Many of the books on Christlikeness are preaching to the choir, so to speak. They are filled with Christianese terms. It isn’t the book you can give to your atheist Uncle Jed at Christmas. So this one was intentionally written to hit two audiences. The Christian audience, who I think will deeply resonate with the message and find their own view of Jesus expanded; but it’s also written in the tradition of C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity or Tim Keller’s Reason for God. I just found that there’s a real shortage of books that Christians can confidently give their unbelieving family members and friends. That’s the first thing that sets it apart is it’s very much written with an apologetic tone to the outsiders who don’t know all of our Christian lingo.
And I’d say a second, unique thing about Reflect is, a lot of the books out there on Christlikeness are working either from biblical theology or systematic theology or just straight exegesis or something like that. And what I’m doing here is, there’s a whole lot of Bible, but there’s also a whole lot of philosophy, a whole lot of cultural analysis, a whole lot of arts, a whole lot of literature, a whole lot of psychology. I’m drawing from a wide range of fields of study so that the reader walks away with the sense that Jesus is Lord over every square inch of reality. So, in one breath I can be talking about Johnny Cash, and in the next breath I could be talking about detailed exegesis of John 17. It’s written to be seamless, working in all kinds of different fields, but leaving the reader with a real impression of Kuyper’s adage that there’s not a single square inch over which Jesus doesn’t declare mine.
Explain the “becoming yourself” part of your title – “becoming yourself by mirroring the greatest person in history.”
Sure. We went back and forth on the title and landed on that because it sounds, intentionally so, almost like something Joel Osteen would publish. (Laughing.) It’s kind of “self-helpy.” How can I become myself? How can I be the best me now, and a better me tomorrow? There’s just this massive market for self-help type spirituality. Which, there’s a statement I make in the book that’s directly inspired by Osteen where I say, “If we’re basically good people,” which Osteen teaches over and over and over, this kind of Pelagianism of the 21st century, “If we’re basically good people, we don’t need Jesus as a savior to take us from depraved to saved. We only need him, if at all, as a life coach to move us from good to great.” The book is, in many ways, a debunking of this kind of therapeutic warm fuzzy Jesus who is just my life coach. So, I thought it would be fun to have a subversive subtitle that sounds like, “Hey, I can become myself by worshiping the greatest person in history.” And it becomes very clear, early on, that I’m not the greatest person in history; you aren’t; the goal isn’t our greatness; we really find our true identity only in getting over ourselves and being awestruck at the size and glory of Jesus. That’s what’s behind the subtitle.
I’d like to add just one thought to that. It’s reminiscent of something Lewis says in Mere Christianity, where if you add salt to eggs, the salt doesn’t overpower the eggs, it actually draws out their flavor; they become more eggs, the more you add salt to them. And there’s something to that when we are worshiping Jesus. It doesn’t make you less yourself, it brings out your unique flavors, your unique design by God, the more you’re in the state of worship.
Give us a brief overview of your book so the listeners can know what to expect.
The title of the book is actually an acrostic for seven aspects of Christ, seven ways we can expect to become more like Jesus as we worship him. The first chapter, the R in Reflect, stands for Reason. And in that chapter, I explore nine dimensions of the intellectual genius of Jesus. The whole chapter is expositing Matthew 22, this famous scene of Jesus going toe to toe with the Sadducees on the Temple steps, and I draw nine lessons from his intellectual life in chapter 1.
Chapter 2 moves from Reason to Emotion, the E in Reflect. I take the scene of Jesus in his table-flipping rage on Passover week leading up to his execution, and talk about what got Jesus’s blood boiling; and if we are worshiping him, it should get our blood boiling too. What did he enjoy and how will we enjoy what he enjoys? I talk about the most common emotion in all the Gospel accounts ascribed to Jesus, which is compassion, this gut-twisting reaction to seeing people suffer. So, chapter 2 is about Emotion.
In chapter 3 we move from thinking and feeling to doing; and that’s a chapter called Flip, which is focused on Jesus washing the disciples’ feet, and the way that he flipped out the way that we think about power and action. He flipped it upside down.
L moves on to Love, how worshiping Jesus will impact our relationships. That chapter is centered on John 17 in this beautiful intra-Trinitarian love bond that Jesus has always existed in with the Father and the Spirit, and how they ought to shape our own relationships and communities.
The E stands for Elevate. Which is about how to mirror the grace of Jesus. How you have an absurd number of contemporary Christians saying that God helps those who help themselves and that’s basically the Gospel. We go back to the text and show that the Gospel is God helps those who are utterly broken beyond self-help; and if we are worshiping that Jesus, who saved us when we were un-savable in our spiritually dead state, how will that shape us? How will we help people around us?
Then the C of Reflect moves on to the Creativity of Jesus. How can Jesus stimulate our imaginations? What does it mean to make Art that reflects him well? That’s all based off Matthew 24 and the Resurrection accounts that show us that matter matters to God, and so what we do in the material world as we make things is a part of a life of robust worship.
And then it all comes together in the last chapter, T, which is about Transforming. How do we actually become more like Jesus? What does that actually look like? The driving theme there is from 1 Corinthians where we are transformed from one degree to another in Christ’s likeness in beholding him. To behold him is to become more like him. To just stand in awe of Jesus and all of his supremacy, has the effect of making us Christlike.
So there’s the two-minute version of 200 pages for you.
Pick a chapter or two and give us a taste of your study.
The Reason chapter is one that I had a lot of fun with. Again, it’s from Matthew 22, where Jesus is squaring off on the question of the afterlife.
Yeah, I thought it was a fascinating chapter.
It’s one of my favorites. There’s this whole side of Jesus that many Christians are oblivious to. A whole new angle to worship him from.
A few of the things that I highlight in that chapter – I get into nine aspects of the mind of Christ, but I’ll just talk about a handful of them. You see the Sadducees build this argument against an afterlife. That is what philosophers would call a destructive dilemma, that if there is an afterlife, then this woman… they give a scenario of a woman who had seven consecutive husbands and they all keep dropping dead and then she drops dead. It’s kind of a Shakespearean play where everybody is dead on the stage by the end of their story… They posit this dilemma that if there’s an afterlife, who will she be married to in the afterlife? All seven husbands, or arbitrarily one of the husbands? And part of the genius of Jesus is he doesn’t take the bait. He doesn’t go with the false A or the false B of their dilemma, he comes up with the true C, that there will be no marriage in the Resurrection. To me, that tells us a lot about how the mind that fully loves the Father functions. Because didn’t just give the great commandment, he obeyed it. He didn’t just preach it, he practiced it. He didn’t just talk it, he walked it. So, I think the best way to understand what it means to love God with our minds is to look to Jesus. And when we do that we see him debunking bad arguments and building good arguments. It follows that part of our spiritual life….It’s not like if our arms are outstretched on Sunday morning and we’re singing a praise chorus, that counts as worship; but if we’re engaged in an argument over, say, the right to life or religious liberty or the identity of Jesus, now, all of a sudden that’s not spiritual. Based on Matthew 22, being able to build good arguments and debunk bad arguments is part and parcel of what it means to love God with our minds.
Then I talk about how the argument that he builds for an afterlife – it only takes him about five sentences to rip their arguments to shreds and build a brilliant argument for the afterlife. His whole argument hinges on the verb tense of a single word in Exodus 3. Which tells us something else about a mind that fully loves the Father. It’s a mind that knows Scripture, and knows it really, really well, and knows it in detail. So, the more we worship Jesus, we’ll become more logical; we’ll build better arguments; we’ll become more biblical, more attuned to the text of Scripture. And then, one last one I offer, of the nine, is that Jesus was what we might call an Icy Hot communicator. Which is some language I’m borrowing from Marshall McLuhan, who was kind of a pop philosopher back in the 60s. McLuhan said there’s hot communication, which is full of content and meaning and premises and it’s very cognitive, it’s very intellectual. But then there’s cool communication that bypasses all of that and just appeals to your emotions and your imagination and your feelings. And so, I raise the question, what kind of communicator is Jesus? Is he a hot communicator, where it’s all content and he’s putting people to sleep; or is he a cool communicator where it’s all about tapping into people’s imaginations but by passing their intellect? And my answer, based on Matthew 22, is that Jesus is an Icy Hot communicator. You know, that product that when you’ve got a sore muscle you rub that in and it feels like it’s burning, but it also feels like it’s freezing. And that’s the kind of communicator Jesus is. He engages the whole person. He can engage us in our heads and our hearts all at the same time; and that’s part of his brilliance that we will mirror better the more we worship him.
We’re talking to Thaddeus Williams, author of Reflect: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History – a fascinating new perspective on what Jesus was like and how we can be more like him. Just read through the unusually enthusiastic endorsements, and you’ll know this is an unusual book.
Thaddeus, thanks for your good work, and thanks for talking to us about it on Books At a Glance.
Fred, thank you so much for having me, brother. God bless you.
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Reflect: Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History