Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
A Critique of a Good Idea
by Lynn Michael Martin
When I hear a piece of wisdom the first time, I’m inclined to agree with it. When I hear it for the hundredth time, I begin to wonder why it’s popular. Take, for example, the idea that “travel broadens your horizons.” This idea used to make sense to me, because why not? But now that I’ve heard it from half the millennials and Gen Z–ers that I know, most of whom are apologetic for never having left their home country, it seems to me that there may be a problem with the idea. The truth rarely goes uncontested.
In this case, a critique could run along these lines—the idea seems to carry a poor understanding of what it is to be a human. It assumes that if you see the ways people live, you will understand them better. This is not at all false, but I think that a more dangerous assumption lies beneath it—that a person’s culture or social position is who they are. When we attempt to understand the Appalachian logger, we shouldn’t eat bacon-and-egg breakfasts in West Virginia; we should find out his favorite song or book of the Bible. It may be harder to understand what is specifically Appalachian about him, but we will at least understand him much more quickly, and can then move to the secondary step of understanding his culture.
Besides, trying to understand faraway cultures might easily come at the expense of understanding the people around you. What good is it to know the architecture of Budapest until you are comfortable among the traditions and wisdom that surround you? Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, for example, understands criminology by observing only her parochial English village. By knowing who you are and where you have come from, you might understand the European townsman and his hopes, desires, and beliefs better than if you were to spend a week in Bavaria. And if you want to understand Russia, should you visit the birthplace of Tolstoy or should you read War and Peace?
There’s much more to be said here, and many more nuances could be made, but my point is this—good ideas can still be critiqued. They may be good, but they may also be incomplete. A belief that sounds so winsome, especially one that is newly prevalent, deserves a watchful eye. This article is an analysis of one such idea.
The idea that I plan to critique in this article is far wiser (and far more deeply held) than the belief that travel broadens your horizons. I hope, however, that its proponents will be kind enough to let me push back against it. In any case, I invite critique of my argument in this essay. If you disagree with me, please respond in the comments to this post, send me an email, or (best of all) write an essay in response and submit it to this blog. The Curator editors would love to facilitate respectful dialogue and debate about the issues we raise here.
The idea that I’m addressing in this article is that all content should be “centered on Jesus.” This principle is often, it seems, applied to literary, religious, and philosophical content. Of course, I don’t dispute that the history of the world centers itself around Jesus. The creation of the world itself is through him and for him (Col 1:16). Furthermore, Christians must center their lives around Jesus and God’s kingdom. I find that I need to continually reevaluate my life and recommit to seeking first the kingdom, or I drift away. When I allow something other than the kingdom of God to become most important to me, I soon suffer from anxiety, burnout, and a multitude of vices in my relationships with others. So please hear me saying that Jesus is the center around which we must build our lives.
But must all content, literary and otherwise, be about Jesus? For some reason, I didn’t ever hear much about the idea before this year. I mean, of course I’ve heard sermons on seeking first the kingdom—I even preached one myself a month or so ago. But recently I’ve been hearing from friends in intellectual ministries that they frequently meet with the idea that all our writing, speaking, and thinking must be fundamentally about Jesus. At first I thought, “That’s a very good point. How can Christians shape our literary and philosophical content to be more centered on Jesus?” But after hearing it so often, I am now taking another look at it.
First, what does the “center content on Jesus” or “content centered on Jesus” concept entail? (For the sake of brevity, I will abbreviate it to CCOJ.) Since it’s a concept that’s usually only mentioned to critique the way existing content is balanced, I haven’t heard a robust defense of it. So I’ll try to characterize CCOJ as best as I can from an outsider’s perspective. If I’m getting something wrong, I would be glad if a proponent of the idea would defend it here so that I can better understand it.
The broadest possibility of what it means to be centered on Jesus is what I said earlier—that all things are created by and for Jesus. His story is the story of the world. Matthew’s gospel depicts Jesus as the true Israel and the one who succeeded where Israel failed. Paul calls him the one man through whom grace came to many. Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. Jesus is the redemptive example of mankind; thus, everything having to do with humankind is about Jesus. Therefore, the CCOJ principle could argue, all or most of the content that we create should be about Jesus.
However, if the definition of being “centered on Jesus” is so broad, then CCOJ is already broad enough to include all the content that we are already creating. Anything that we write about ourselves is CCOJ simply by virtue of its existence. If we write poetry about human joy, pain, and love, we are writing about Jesus, because these things are integral to the story of Jesus. They are things that Jesus has exemplified or redeemed. Thus, this possible exposition of CCOJ contains no useful information about how we should write.
The next possibility for the basis of CCOJ could be that Jesus is the one archetype of all that is true. He is the thread holding truth together, the connection between all truths. Jesus is, after all, the Logos of God, creating the world (John 1:3) and sustaining it (Col 1:17). He is alpha and omega as well as way, truth, and life. Perhaps all content should be fundamentally about Jesus because every analytical stone, when turned over, has his name inscribed on it, or because understanding Jesus’ story gives the true insight into what anything means. Our speaking and writing should draw the example of Jesus out of every inference discovered, experiment made, or argument given.
This form of CCOJ sounds great in theory, but I’m not sure it’s possible in practice. How could one use Jesus’ example to explain every single truth that is expounded? In fact, it goes the other way. Jesus uses examples unrelated to him to explain himself. In Scripture, the stories of the patriarchs are prototypes of that of Jesus; Jesus describes himself as a shepherd, bread, and the resurrection; and John portrays him with a sword coming out of his mouth. These things that are not Jesus help us to understand Jesus. We understand the deepest meaning of things through Jesus, but we do not automatically understand the story of Jesus without knowing many other stories too. And yes, Paul uses Jesus’ example in many of his letters to teach us how to live, but rarely does Scripture use Jesus’ story to teach us what the world is like.
How do we defend the Old Testament stories if Jesus is the ordering principle that must be explicit in every essay, story, or poem? The OT stories exemplify Jesus by pointing toward a human need, rather than showing a perfect picture of what fits that need. That is how I found Jesus, by the slow realization that all my needs are fulfilled in him. Generally we need (because of our hardness of heart) to fear death before we are willing to approach life.
The third, and most plausible statement of CCOJ that I can think of is this (and again, I invite better depictions of it). Perhaps, since Jesus is our focal point, our great Example as Christians, and since his kingdom is the center of our work, we should be more interested in subjects related to Jesus than in any others. Perhaps CCOJ means that we should talk about Jesus more often than about any other subject. Maybe our love for Jesus should keep him in all our conversations, just as a new mother might talk of little other than her baby’s developmental progress.
This is what I think I found compelling about CCOJ at first. What a person most talks about seems to be that person’s first priority, and being Jesus’ disciples in creating the kingdom of God is the first (and perhaps only) mission of a Christian. Yet note how ambiguous CCOJ is, if presented in this way. Can it do more than produce dissatisfaction that something or other “isn’t centered enough on Jesus”? Where is the internal metric to tell us what is enough? Where is the modeling of a better way?
Furthermore, Jesus didn’t always talk about himself. He talked about lots of things: rulers, ideas, food, wisdom, and especially God the Father. If we center everything around Jesus, when exactly are we supposed to talk about the other things Jesus found important—especially the Father, whom Jesus loved and obeyed implicitly? Jesus is fully divine, the Son of God, and co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit, but he deferred to the authority of another person even though that person’s being and his were the same. I think that CCOJ and similar mindsets often contain an implicit modalism, where “Jesus,” “God,” “Lord,” and “Father” are used interchangeably in speech and prayer. Jesus and the Father are one with each other, but Jesus makes clear that they are not the same. I see no reason why one subject, which is not in fact the absolute center of reality, should be our only focus.
Someone could suggest at this point that we should therefore center content on the Father. But I see no reason why this should mean that the Father be the explicit subject of every type of content. We love God and talk about him. We love the people he made and the world he created—they are all good subjects for content.
And finally, Jesus makes it clear that it is not what we say but what we do that makes the difference as to whether we are disciples (Matt 7:21–27). It sounds great to talk about centering our content on Jesus, but the best-sounding and truest statements are often the easiest to hide behind. Talking about Jesus is not the point. It is doing for Jesus that is the point, whether that means talking about Jesus, talking about something other than Jesus, or being completely silent.
If what we do is of the greatest importance, it certainly has implications for what we say. After all, we will give account for every idle word. I take Jesus’ message to mean that what we say needs to be true and a pathway to kingdom-oriented deeds, that we need to encourage truth and worship, that we must turn our ears toward God. Perhaps we could call this “Content Actively Seeking the Kingdom” (CASK).
Let me relate the CASK principle directly to the Curator and the content that we publish here. The Curator is eager to publish writing that is explicitly centered on Jesus (for example, see our Advent 2019 and Easter 2020 series). But our goal is to facilitate a conversation where the truth can be found, and therefore we primarily publish what people are sending to us. Perhaps neither religious verse nor bound verse are as well represented here as we would like. Our mission is like that of the CCOJ proponents—to change that. However, we work to change it not by cursing the darkness but by lighting a candle. We encourage more writers and readers in the hope of strengthening our community’s ability to have kingdom-oriented conversation—knowing that things will be said that we disagree with.
I believe that there are kingdom-oriented reasons for encouraging writing by publishing content that is not always explicitly about Jesus. For one example, an important purpose of literature is to celebrate the world God made. Marveling at beauty opens us to be able to thank God and stay turned toward him. Another reason is that examining the human experience helps us to understand our need of God better. My colleague Kenneth Godoy’s poetry, for example, in exploring brokenness and dysfunction, shows us where our weak points are and demands a more-than-superficial response from us.
But perhaps the main philosophy of the Curator that I should bring up is this: We need to focus on quality of literature, and not merely on its literal content, since the Curator’s hope is to facilitate the creation of a valuable counter-culture that is robust enough to stand in place of secular culture. We all know those sing-songy poems and moralistic children’s stories that have great messages and are centered on Jesus, but have very little effect because of their lack of quality. If that’s the best thinking and skill that Christianity can offer, who is going to come to us for a conversation, much less for answers? The bar for what people count as good devotional poetry needs to be raised—why should we give God content of less quality than the content being created in any other area?
Authors cannot turn their readers’ focus to Jesus, even if they were to publish only CCOJ—only the readers can do that for themselves. So we try to create an atmosphere where iron can sharpen iron and people can speak the truth in love. Since truth can only be sought where there is freedom for exploration and disagreement, we publish content that we editors disagree with and which can give us well-thought opinions to respond to. Within some broad boundaries, we don’t generally censor our content, since we trust our readers to take what’s true and leave what’s not.
And finally, we can only print what we receive. When all the best-quality poems that we receive are CCOJ, we will publish only CCOJ. But people’s deepest beliefs are often the hardest things to write about with quality and depth. It’s just hard to write good religious verse. We’d love to publish more of it, but we recognize that much better religious poetry could be written than is being written by Anabaptists. We want to help change that, and we believe that speaking about other subjects can prepare us to speak well about God.
So send us your poems, my CCOJ friends. Better yet, send us your critiques. Let’s talk about Jesus. Let’s talk for Jesus. And may the Father be glorified by his and our creations.
Lynn Michael Martin hopes that his poetry can connect with others who struggle with the tension between a glorious hope and a self-interested realism—and who find it hard to be content with the complex and muddy life that usually results.
Artwork by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)