Jesus for Atheists (and Agnostics, and Nones, and Everyone Else)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Soilse via Creative Commons 2.0
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Soilse via Creative Commons 2.0

In this RD10Q, writer Tom Krattenmaker makes the case for a religion-free Jesus.

What inspired you to write Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower?

It’s more like who inspired me to write the book and gave me the idea for it. Back in 2014 when the book was conceived, I was going through a process of finding the right words to describe my religious/a-religious identity. I guess I’d started to think “secular progressive” was too vague, and I was gravitating toward the idea that I was a “secular Jesus follower.”

I naturally shared this with some of my Christian friends. One of these friends—the awesome Tony Kriz—told me I really ought to devote my next book to this idea. I think he said it like this: “Write a book imploring your fellow secular progressives to follow the way of Jesus.” I thought it was a damn good idea and, as is now obvious, I did what Tony suggested.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

You don’t have to be Christian or in any other way religious to be open to the inspiration, example and ethics of this figure of Jesus. In other words, this incredibly valuable input and insight is available to us even if we are atheist, agnostic, or otherwise part of the growing group of religiously unaffiliated “nones.” Not only is this input available, but I think it’s urgently important to consider Jesus’ teachings and example. I find that they address so much of what ails us individuals and society—especially when it comes to how we treat our fellow human beings. Especially given what our society is going through right now.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

I ended up including less about intergenerational justice (especially climate change), and Jesus’ applicability to this issue, than I initially planned. Sure, I do have some points about this crucial matter in the book, but they’re not as developed as they might be. This is one of those cases where you bring up the general idea and count on readers to connect the dots.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The principal one is that Jesus is only a Christian figure and is off limits to those of us who are not religious. True, many will argue that following Jesus is an inherently religious undertaking—I’ve been having this put to me for years—and that you can’t follow Jesus in a secular way. Well, as I argue in the book, there is absolutely nothing to stop us seculars from following Jesus. And the idea that anyone would try to stop us is absurd. What are they going to do, and why would they do it? So that’s not the biggest problem with declaring oneself to be a secular Jesus follower, as I’m doing. The biggest challenge is making it real—not just some light, thin “nice idea,” but something that really confronts us and changes how we live our lives and treat other people.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

Two, mainly.

One is the growing population of nonreligious people—especially those who are not so concerned about fighting religion and its excesses but who are pursuing a positive articulation of secular life, addressing questions like, “What do we believe? How are we making our lives meaningful? How are we contributing to our communities and the people in our lives?”

I have been fortunate to be part of the Yale Humanist Community, which is very much committed to, and active in, this pursuit. I hope people who are engaged in the secular quest for meaning and community can benefit from Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower.

The other principal audience I have in mind are Christians, especially those who are interested, first and foremost, in Jesus. I find many people in this group to be super curious about what a non-Christian might see in their savior and the ways in which this non-Christian person articulates what’s compelling about Jesus. Some in this category are struggling to find ways to demonstrate the applicability of Jesus to the new and difficult times we are going through in this country, and ways to talk about Jesus that can resonate outside of Christendom. I think lots of those folks will find my book helpful and give their faith a shot in the arm.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Entertain them? Piss them off?

Since I write principally as a journalist, I want all my work to inform people and help them put things in perspective. That said, I want to do more than that with this book. I want to entertain people in addition to informing them, which I hope I’ve done by working in a fair amount of self-deprecating humor and some creative touches like the imaginary conversation between me, Jesus, and the Devil’s Advocate that takes place in the chapter on worry and anxiety. At the risk of sounding grandiose, I also hope people are actually moved by the book.

As you’ll read, I’m not the kind of person who’s big on intentionally pissing people off. But I do hope to challenge readers—especially secular readers who’ve dismissed Jesus as too Christian and too radioactive for us secular people to talk about and learn from. It may be unfashionable, but it’s incredibly valuable!

What alternative title would you give the book?

None really. The publisher and I were set on the main title right from the get-go. Then we explored some other possibilities and ended up circling back to where we started. It was quite a struggle coming up with the subtitle, however. Maybe that’s always the case.

How do you feel about the cover?

When I saw the cover, it was love and approval at first sight. Juxtaposing the King James-style font with that ultra-sleek, ultra-modern font used for the word “secular” really captures the energy of the book. Thankfully, I got to meet the designer during one of my visits to Penguin Random House, and I had the opportunity to thank her in person.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

That would be the new book by Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America, which I find to be so important, engaging, well-informed, and helpful in the attempt to understand what’s going on our society these days.

What’s your next book?

I don’t know. I’m open to ideas! After all, the idea for Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower book was gifted to me, so why would the next one be any different? When it comes to writing books, I’ve learned the hardest part is coming up with a truly good idea. I feel like that happened with Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower, but it was not because of me. That said, I have a feeling some fascinating experiences and conversations will happen in the months following the release of my new book. Maybe that will lead to the idea and inspiration for the next one.