Jonathan Martin. Prototype: What Happens When Discover You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think? Tyndale Momentum, 2013.
Pastors don’t usually get to sit and listen to sermons on Sundays. I can’t speak for all pastors, but I miss being able to sit and hear someone else lead me through scripture. So I do what I can- podcasted sermons. There’s a few folks who in a sense “pastor” me, most without realizing they’re even doing it. One of my favourite pastors to listen to via podcast is Jonathan Martin. Until this spring, Martin was Pastor of Renovatus Church in North Carolina. I love his preaching. It’s deep without being dry, stuffy and heady. It’s passionate, and soaked with the message of radical, transforming grace. So when his book Prototype popped up on sale for the low low price of $1.60 (US) for the ebook I jumped at the opportunity. And I launched myself into it, and took advantage of a unique opportunity to get through the whole thing- I was reading this between my wife’s contractions, and then while she and my newborn daughter slept peacefully. And I did indeed finish the whole thing in 24 hours. But since that was my third daughter, it has meant this review has been understandably (hopefully) long in coming.
What it’s about:
The basic premise is that Jesus is the “prototype” of a new way to be human. Jesus, as the perfect image-bearer of God, reflects to us what it means to be human, made in the image of God, living as we are intended. Living in our broken world has lead us to confinement, to living according to the demands and expectation, a life of fear, guilt, and anxiety. What God has created us to be is ourselves, free from the restrictions which come from sin and brokenness. We are created to be freely ourselves. Martin connects this freedom to time spent as a child riding his bike, where he felt most able to break free of any restrictions and be truly and authentically himself (since leaving renovatus, Martin’s twitter handle switched from @renovatuspastor to @theboyonthebike). This incredible sense of freedom and connectedness is what Martin depicts as the free, unrestricted, untainted life in the presence of God. We are to be defined by the identity given and designed by God, not the activities we do, or the marks we bear from sin. Jesus has freed us to be like him. Prototype goes through the various means by which Jesus frees us and transforms us to live in his presence, and more fully live as bearers of the image of God, and beloved children.
I am deeply appreciative of Martin’s tone, and encouragement. The reminder that we are beloved children, created to be free and in fruitful connectedness to our creator is something we always need. We need to know that God desires not a life a guilt, shame, oppression, insecurity and identity crises. He desires fruitful life in his presence.
Martin suggests we need times of “wilderness”, times away from Facebook, email, and frenetic life in 21st century western culture which inundates us with expectations of how we are to look and be- expectations which create crippling fear of inadequacy and failure. We need to escape, suggests Martin, to find a place (like riding a bike) where we are uninhibited before God. While there is something lacking in this wilderness depiction I get what he’s implying- that the pressure of culture can create a situation in which we live to please the cultural expectation. This existential cry can be problematic, but there is something in there which needs to be heard. The call to become vulnerable, cut off, “exiled”, draws us out of our little pseudo-realities and force us to confront the fact that we utterly in need of something else. It is in the wilderness, in “obscurity” that we hear the “calling”. It is when we strip away the noise and distractions vying for our attention that we hear what God has to say.
The chapter “Resurrection” is particularly good. In this chapter Martin depicts the stumbling block that our affirmation of the risen Christ can be. But in that, God’s plan is unpacked, New Life, freedom from sin and death, and sharing in God’s community become realities. Martin unpacks Thomas’ reaction to the news of the resurrection. Noting that a moment of doubt at the claim of resurrection ought not become a defining characteristic. Why do we call him “doubting Thomas” because of this single moment of wavering? Are we defined by single low points in our lives? Or are we defined by our belovedness, and the grace and victory we’ve been showered with, and the person who God is transforming us to be? The good news declares that “doubting Thomas” is beloved, redeemed, and reconciled Thomas.
In the following chapter (“Sacraments”), Martin unpacks how it is we experience God, and draw close to him and participate in his life. He opens with “Following Jesus turns out to be a full-contact sport” (99). He declares the Christ who reveals the “goodness” of the created world. This anti-gnostic affirmation of God revealed in the flesh, “The God you can touch” (100), declares that God can be encountered in real, flesh and blood, experiential ways, through sacraments. While I am not “High Church” in my view of the sacraments, I do take a more participationist stance on baptism and the eucharist (ie. what we do in the eucharist and baptism is more than simple symbols, but symbolic acts which allow us to “participate” in Christ, to have union with him). Martin does include footwashing in his sacramentalism, which is not necessarily bad, but I simply don’t, since I think it’s power is somewhat culturally bound.
The chapters on “witness” and “community” do a great job of drawing the lines between our experience and the outworking of our spirituality towards others. It demands that our spirituality not become isolationist or pietistic, but become enfleshed, and lived out with others.
The non-headyness of Prototype was helpful for me, breaking from my usual reading patterns of commentaries and academic theology. Given the fact that I was reading in the maternity ward, having little sleep, it is probably best I wasn’t forced to engage on an intellectual level (I may have to reread this one, because I probably missed some good stuff in my sleepiness). But Martin provided a wonderful portrayal of what life with God’s presence can look like. It’s unsettling, and difficult at first, but freeing. Finding God in the flesh-and-blood realities is kind of weird, after seeing my daughter Mhaili born; to see the holiness and sacredness of life there in that room. To be awed at God who is imaged in humanity is amplified by the stuff that makes us squeamish.
One thing I noticed which was kind of weird is that Martin’s writing here and his sermons are somewhat different. Maybe it’s the southern accent. I don’t know, but part of me hope that this book would more closely resemble his sermons. I love how his sermons focus so much on the absurd and incredible outpouring of grace and transformation revealed in Jesus; how Martin captures the extravagant and lavish grace of God, in ways which are humourous, captivating, but real, raw and unafraid of brokenness. In Prototype there are some moments that more closely resemble self-help pop psychology in terms of style. Finding my true self type stuff (which I’m sure wasn’t the aim, but occassionally is what came across to me) turned me off on occasion. I wanted the gritty, rawness, and humourous depiction of the outrageous love of God. We see only glimpses here of something Martin does with excellence and abundance in his preaching. We see his story telling, but less of his exegetical skill (Martin is incredible, especially when preaching on the parables).
Secondly, there are several appeals (especially in the second half) to stories from Renovatus Church’s ministry. I was struck with a sense of lack of clarity as to the purpose of including these stories, as interesting and encouraging as they may be. Is it a justification of ministry style? Promotion? I want to assume he is using them to illustrate how the freedom of becoming a beloved child in the image of God happens, but sometimes those connections aren’t made as clear as I would like them to be.
All in all, it is a good read; uplifting, encouraging, and does what it intends to do- depict Jesus as the model of our lives when we receive God’s liberation and redemption- free, unhindered life with God our creator, being as he had intended, keenly aware of his love, goodness and desire to have us dwell in fruitful life in his creation. Martin artfully depicts God, whose beauty can be seen in the healing of mess, not in the distance he keeps from the mess. Our messy, broken lives become the place where God is revealed, and his power is shown in the transformation which comes about in the lavishing of grace on us in our realities. I am thankful to Martin for writing this. And now, since my reading of this is so closely associated with the birth of my Mhaili, this book carries an accentuated place.