Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Following Jesus: A Review
I grew up in a secular home. That means I don’t have a background in Christianity. As an adult when I turned to religion my first attraction was to Buddhism which I studied intensely for many years. I mention this to clarify that the Evangelical tradition of Christianity is very far from my own experience. I have no direct knowledge of this tradition, its views, or its forms of worship.
As a Quaker in a Meeting that is affiliated with the liberal Pacific Yearly Meeting, access to the Evangelical Quaker tradition remains limited. I became aware, though, that the Evangelical branch of the Quaker tradition is by far the most widespread, and by far the most numerous. It is also the tradition which has founded a number of significant academic institutions with a Quaker focus.
Wanting to broaden my understanding of the Evangelical perspective I picked up Paul Anderson’s “Following Jesus: The Heart of Faith and Practice”. I’m glad I did. I found it to be a congenial, friendly (and Friendly), overview of Quaker Evangelical understandings.
The book is divided into seven sections: Following Jesus, Evangelism and Convincement, Worship and Transformation, Ministry and Christian Service, Sacraments and Sacramental Living, Blessed Are the Peacemakers, and Testifying to the Truth. Each section contains 5 or 6 essays. For the most part these essays are short. They are written in a non-technical, accessible way. I didn’t have any trouble understanding Anderson’s views, even though I lack the background from which he speaks. That is a sign of a good writer, I think.
This is not a scholarly work, though it is informed by many years of study and a broad understanding of various Christian trends. When I say it is not a scholarly work, I mean that the essays do not have the kind of scholarly apparatus one finds in academia; footnotes, for example, are minimal. I believe that the target audience is the interested layperson rather than the learned academic. The tone reminds me of someone introducing me to some field of knowledge I am unacquainted with; covering the basics without going into technicalities or complexities which would be distracting for the novice. This is exactly the kind of work that I was looking for and I am grateful that Anderson took an approach that was spacious enough for a non-Evangelical to feel comfortable with.
It is difficult for me to pick favorite essays. But I found Anderson’s discussion of the nature of the sacraments particularly illuminating. It also seems to me to be distinctively Quaker in its point of view: mainly that the sacraments of baptism and communion are fulfilled in an inner transformation. Anderson works out the dialectic of inner and outer sacramentality in a thoughtful way. There is much to ponder in that section and I plan to reread it.
Anderson is illuminating in his essays on the peace testimony; section VI of the book. In the essay ‘The Counterviolent Way of Jesus’, Anderson writes, “Jesus’ counterviolent teachings on peace are entirely clear. He calls his followers to love others – including their enemies – to renounce violence and return good for evil, to embrace the way of his kingdom rather than resorting to force, to serve others rather than seeking to dominate them, to put away the sword, to forgive and not to avenge, and to embrace the cross – even if faithfulness exacts a price.” This is striking in its clarity and scope.
I think that for Liberal Quakers who want to understand the Evangelical Quaker perspective (which, again, is the dominant Quaker presence in the world today), “Following Jesus” is an excellent means for stepping into that world view. For me it has clarified where the Liberal and Evangelical understandings differ; but more importantly it helped me to understand how much the two traditions share. Yes, there are differences, but the commonalities are considerable. I found this book to be thoughtful, well written, and an enjoyable read. Perhaps you will as well.