Diana Butler Bass has had a conflicted relationship with evangelicalism over the last several decades. Early in her career, she was fired from the evangelical Westmont College, blacklisted, and ignored after she challenged traditional beliefs. She has written extensively about progressive Christianity ever since, and is the author of eight books, including Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution and, most recently, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. She hopes to dismantle the idea that Jesus can only be understood in static, simplistic ways in her new book, Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence (HarperOne, Mar. 2021).
The impetus for the book was a class Butler Bass taught at Rhodes College in the late 1990s on Christology, the study of Jesus. Drawing on a range of resources, including the New Testament and books by Philip Yancey and Bart D. Ehrman, she examined varying views of Jesus across the theological spectrum. “The best part was the discussion based on the students’ views of Jesus,” she says.
Those classroom conversations led to a fascination with “how I understood Jesus during various times in my life,” Butler Bass says. Reflecting on her life from childhood, she discovered she had known six Jesuses, which she labels Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence.
One of the biggest challenges while writing the book, Butler Bass says, was reliving her faith journey, but looking back she concludes that each of the six images of Jesus resulted in valuable spiritual growth. For instance, when she was seeking “clarity, order, authority, and craved certainty,” she found Jesus as Lord and Way. “It was physically painful for me to think about those years from age 22 to 30,” she adds, describing becoming very dogmatic and concerned about being right. “But I was able to say it was part of the path I took. I could look back and accept those places I was in my life.”
Freeing Jesus digs into the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament to explore her six images of Jesus biblically. Butler Bass unpacks them historically and, finally, examines the contemporary implications of what these facets of Jesus can mean for others. She sees the audience for the book as “people who don’t know what to do about church any longer, those who aren’t hearing what they need to hear from the institution of American Christianity, who aren’t attached to church but still love Jesus. Some are in church, some are coming back, and some are leaving,” she says. “These are people who place Jesus above or in a slightly different category from how they think about religious affiliation.”
Churches and academics want people to see Jesus in their particular way, to believe only their version of the story, Butler Bass argues. Instead, she encourages readers to walk away from her book “asking themselves what their experience of Jesus is, narrate that story, tell people about it, and know that their story matters.”