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Q&A: Dodson talks doubt … and faith in Jesus

March 28, 2014



Let me introduce you to Jonathan Dodson, lead pastor of City Life Church here in Austin, who took some time out of his busy schedule to talk about the importance of doubting the claims of Christianity (yes, you read that right) and contributing to your city culturally and how Jesus shouldn’t be used for political agendas.
I first interviewed Jonathan back in 2008 when his young congregation (then known as Austin City Life) was meeting at the Hideout coffee shop/theater downtown. He described his church as “theologically conservative but culturally liberal” (though see in this interview how he addresses the conservative/liberal problem) and talked about the importance of worshipping on “common cultural ground” and how the church should go to the city, not the other way around.
Dodson, who holds master’s degrees in divinity and theology, has been active in national and local church planting efforts and is the author of the newly published Raised? Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection (which we’ll discuss below) and the forthcoming The Unbelievable Gospel: Say Something Worth Believing. He lives with his wife Robie and children Owen, Ellie and Rosamund. In his own words, he “enjoys listening to M. Ward, watching sci-fi, smoking his pipe, and following Jesus.”
I should also mention the film component of Dodson’s new book — a documentary about the lives of Benjamin and Jessica Roberts after they left the church and how they coped with a sense of emptiness by using drugs and then eventually rediscovered their faith in Jesus. You can watch it in four installments here. Made by Christian filmmakers at MovingWorks, it’s beautifully shot and compelling, raw and provocative. There will be a screening followed by a Q&A with the filmmaker and the couple on April 19 at Alamo Drafthouse — appropriate Easter vigil film fare.
Describe City Life Church: What are your basic beliefs, your mission and the demographics of your congregation?

The mission of City Life Church exists to renew cities socially, spiritually, and culturally with the gospel of Jesus. Like the early Christians, we believe that our presence in the city should enhance not drain urban resources. We see social, spiritual, and cultural brokenness in the city, and in our lives, and are committed to an enlivening power for the whole person and city, which comes from outside of ourselves, in Christ.

We gather on Sundays, downtown, in Ballet Austin next to Austin Music Hall and though out the city in homes, pubs, and parks during the week. We have a lot of kids, young adults, and families with a few older families sprinkled in (we’d love more). We are a church that reflects the creative ethos of our city—entrepreneurs, artists, students, DIYers, and so on.

Our beliefs center around Jesus as Christ and Lord. He is a forgiving Redeemer and a benevolent King. His authority gives us a north star for living, as opposed to subjective personal beliefs, and his loving grace nurtures deep spiritual satisfaction we can’t find anywhere else. His gospel is the good and true story that Jesus conquered sin, death, and evil through embracing the brokenness, injustice, and sin on the cross, and through his resurrection is making a whole new world. All other doctrines are secondary to our belief in him. We do not believe we are superior to any person or faith, but we do believe in the supremacy of Jesus.

Our mission is adapted from Jesus, whom we see in the Gospels reversing the order of things—the proud are humbled, the marginalized are brought into the center, the diseased are healed, the deranged are given sanity, and sinners are forgiven. We are trying to follow in his footsteps, but we’re also aware of our own weakness, which is why we return to his forgiving grace for our own pride, love of comfort, tendency to just take from the city.

Since we believe the church should be display of God’s grace to the city, we put the mission in the hands of our people. This happens through our 4 neighborhood churches, who together work socially in three low-income apartments in our city to love and mentor kids, teach them the life-changing message of Jesus, and provide nutritious meals. This is carried out in partnership with Hope Street and are also deeply committed to Austin Children’s Shelter. Since the Heavenly Father loves the orphan, we believe he has sent us to bring his message of acceptance, forgiveness, and healing though Jesus.

We also believe that Christians should be exemplary neighbors and citizens culturally. So we teach, train, and encourage people to add value to the city through their work. We have quite a few entrepreneurs who have created a number of businesses in Austin, leading to job creation and cultural flourishing. Our musicians have been engaged in making great culture, starting Music for the City.

Your new book Raised? invites skepticism as a gateway to belief in the resurrection. This is an interesting approach — acknowledging how unbelievable the claim is that Jesus died and rose from the dead. How did the book come about and what makes your approach unique?

Spending significant time in three creative class cities (Minneapolis, Boston, Austin), I’ve tried to listen to people’s concerns and objections to Christianity. A lot of people have really good questions and doubts about the Christian faith. When I step back and look at just our core beliefs, it’s pretty audacious to claim that God became a baby, died such a unique death that it absorbed the evil and sin of the world, and that he came back to life after three days in a cold, dark tomb. In a scientific age, that’s really hard to swallow. We just don’t see people come back from the funeral home. I don’t blame people for doubting it. Christians should doubt their faith more and skeptics should press into their doubts to discover deeper reasons for faith or unfaith.

If you doubt the resurrection, you’re in good company. The disciples, Jews, Greeks, and Romans of Jesus time all did too. If you came to a Greek in the 1st century and told them Jesus rose from the dead, they’d scratch their head and say, why would he want to do that? The body is contaminated, a cage, and dying is our freedom. Different Greeks had different spins on this, but essentially no Greek person would find resurrection desirable. Jews also would scratch their heads since they believed in one big resurrection of everyone at the end of time to face judgement. So one person, in the middle of history, didn’t fit with their age-old their theology. But Jews and Greeks changed their beliefs about resurrection instantly. They turned on a dime, changing centuries-held beliefs overnight. What would provoke philosophical Greeks, and staunch Jews, to change their mind in an incredibly short amount of time? The only plausible explanation is that they encountered a risen Jesus or heard the news from someone that did. Why else risk the scorn, ridicule, mental and spiritual instability, of switching you beliefs just like that?

So I say doubt it but doubt it well. Let’s not assume the arrogance of our cultural scientific moment and rule out the supernatural. Lets be more open-minded, do good history, and then consider the difference such a teaching has. It is worth risking the scorn? I believe so.

In our email exchange, you used the term centrist to describe your views. I’m so accustomed to hearing that word in a political context. What does it mean in the Christian world?

Briefly, we try to avoid liberal and conservative camps in our theology and politics and center our views on Christ. Conservative views often add to Christ teachings, saying we have to clean up, be more moral to be accepted by Jesus. Liberal views tend to subtract from Christ’s teachings, denying his clear claims to be God, to have died for the world, risen from the dead. We don’t what to add or subtract from the Jesus we see in the Bible and have met through profound personal encounter. We prefer to be centered on him, and not use Christianity of Jesus for strong political agendas. Jesus’ agenda of grace cuts right through the camps.

He confronts us in our bentness away from him (left or right, self-righteous or unrighteous), and says very clearly—“You need me. You need forgiveness for trying to add or subtract from me. And I’ll forgive you and give you a life better you can make for yourself. But you have to give up on yourself and give into me, where you will find perfect acceptance and love, enduring hope and joy.”

As these interviews are geared toward improving our religious literacy, I like to ask folks about misconceptions. Is there anything about your particular theology or church that you think is misunderstood?

I think I’ve addressed a few of those already. I do believe in what you are doing, Eileen, that we should all become more religiously literate. Let’s talk more about the deep things of life and culture with one another, respectfully, truthfully, and winsomely. And let’s work together of the renewal of our city. Let’s understand, not just blindly accept, the wonderful weirdness of Austin.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Jack permalink
    March 31, 2014 7:52 am

    Mr. Dodson’s comments bring to mind the popular mind of the ages in redefining
    the meaning of words; here, being in this case, the word “Christian” has become a
    self-declared identification that differs radically from the religion of Christ taught by
    His apostles.

    Mr. Dodson’s popular religion seeks to stake out some “middle-ground” between
    two extreme schools of departure, a rather crowded field that marks a fine spot
    of cultural adaption for civic pursuits, but falling far short of the mark of Jesus
    call for those who would be His disciples; who, though being in the world, are yet
    not of the world (as Paul wrote to the disciples in Galatia).

    “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives
    in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of GOD,
    who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (2:20)

    Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions
    and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. (5:24-25)

    “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult
    and not tried” -GK Chesterson

  2. Jack permalink
    April 1, 2014 7:31 am

    The Motto
    by H. Parson

    I sought from Socrates the sage,
    Whose thoughts will live through every age,
    A motto to direct my life,
    A hero make me in my strife;
    And Socrates said, ‘Know Thyself.’

    To know myself did not suffice,
    To make me useful, pure and wise;
    I sought Aurelius, good and great,
    Wise ruler of the Roman state;
    And Aurelius said, ‘Control Thyself.’

    O, Nazarene, Thou who didst give
    Thy life that man might live,
    What message dost thou leave for me,
    That I may truly follow Thee?
    The Savior said, ‘Deny Thyself.’

  3. Jack permalink
    August 11, 2014 11:54 am

    Eileen I hope you will read this, for in just the 12th Chapter of Romans you will find a Reader’s Digest synopsis of the character to which Jesus called His disciples. A character foreign to every culture in which they live. Character so completely foreign to the overwhelming majority of those in America who call themselves Christian.Of these there is a large ignorant middle and two extremes: the first, like Mr. Dodson’s fellowship, either ignorant of scripture, or in denial of its authority; the other extreme adds to and manipulates scripture for radical purposes (burn books, civil disobedience) and political involvement on either side of the aisle_ which has no place in the gospel.

    Romans 12:1-21
    I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of GOD, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to GOD, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of GOD, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
    For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that GOD has assigned.
    For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.
    Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.
    Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
    Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.
    Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
    Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.
    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.
    Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.
    Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
    Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.
    If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
    Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the LORD.”
    To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”
    Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

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