The essential premise of John Ortberg’s Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus, is that Christianity has had a great impact on society. Hardly earth shattering news. Somehow, Ortberg seems to think this legitimizes Jesus for the world, but, of course, it does not. A Christian will not point to the lived out faith as proof that Jesus was Christ, but instead focus on Jesus. Ortberg does show ways the influence of Christianity has spread, but he tends to focus on the all the good ways, instead of the evil. He gives passing mention to some errors, but if you want to focus on the role of Christianity in the world, you have to address the Inquisitions, Christian support for slavery, Christian countries warring, and countless examples of individual misuses of Christ’s teachings.
One thinks of Gandhi’s reply to why he rejects Christ. “Oh, I don’t reject your Christ. I love your Christ. It is just that so many of you Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Which is one of the few quotes in the world which does not make it into this book. Ortberg strings quote after quote after quote together, quite often from four or five unrelated sources, on a single page. Sometimes they relate, sometimes they do not, but you want to hear more from Ortberg and less from everyone else. These are broken up by some very bad, classic “preacher” jokes which are often forced into the text.
Clearly, I found this all annoying. What he does have to say of value is what you would pick up in any history of Christianity class or text. Now, let it be known that I’m in the minority here. This is book is very popular and has spawned many study groups. If it succeeds in getting people talking about their faith, there is something going right. And many may argue that I get Ortberg’s goal wrong. An arguable point, so feel free to disagree in the comments.
And just when it seems that all hope is lost for the book, I do find some saving grace (pun intended) as Ortberg turns his attention at the end to the three essential days in Christianity: Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Here we get a glimpse of what Ortberg has to share if he quits quoting others and writes his own thoughts. His reflections on each of these days are simple, but strong. Especially interesting are his thoughts on the Saturday, when no hope existed. If you are looking for devotional reading for Easter Weekend, use these three chapters. As for the rest, spend time instead with a good history of Christianity. And never confuse Christians with Christianity — we are stumbling lot seeking the perfection of Christ, but always falling short.