Book Review: Who is This Man?, by John Ortberg
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Sigh. John Ortberg. This is the second book of his I’ve read, and I felt the same way after both. I quote from my brief review of The Me I Want to Be: “This started out a lot stronger than it finished….[Ortberg] makes good, thought-provoking points throughout, but the drop off in writing made it hard for me to finish.” This is exactly what he does in this book.
It’s an intriguing idea, an examination of the far-reaching effects of the life of Jesus. It’s undeniable that, even for non-believers, we are all impacted on a daily basis by the brief, earthly existence of this one man. Ortberg identifies historical points, such as the origin of hospitals alongside cathedrals, and philosophical ones like the fact that compassion was not considered a cultural virtue prior to Christianity. In the latter especially, the author does an excellent job of explaining the early developmental shifts. Quoting historian John Dickson, he says “it is unlikely that any of us would aspire to this virtue [humility] were it not for the historical impact of his [Jesus] crucifixion on art, literature, ethics, law and philosophy” (p.85). That said, the fact that Ortberg leans too frequently towards the abstract impact over the physical frequently makes the book feel wishy-washy.
The late chapters are rife with poor transitions and questionable conclusions. For example, when he discusses the acting-related associations of the word “hypocrite”, Ortberg says “There is a good chance that Joseph and his young apprentice son, Jesus, would have found work helping to construct the building projects in Sepphoris [home to a prominent theater]. Jesus from boyhood would be familiar with the stage and the hypokritai, these actors” (p. 118). Ortberg goes on to use this idea as an explanation for why Jesus spends so much time talking about hypocrites and hypocrisy. This is just entirely too much assumption. After the Christmas stories, we have only one tale of Jesus’ childhood, and it has nothing to do with either carpentry or acting. Could Ortberg be right? Sure, but there’s just no way to know; there’s no evidence one way or the other. To base part of your argument on an invented story is simply bad scholarship, and it breaks faith with the reader.
Throughout the book, Ortberg shows flashes of being a solid contemporary theologian. He can articulate old truths in interesting ways. Indeed, on the page opposite the carpentry incident, he says “The condition of the heart is the primary emphasis of Jesus’ teaching about human goodness” (p. 119). Not only is this a well-constructed sentence, but it reveals an understanding of Biblical truth. The issue for this book, though, is that moments like that become evermore surrounded by a sea of poor writing. I don’t know if it was rushed to print, or, perhaps, changed editors, but there is a noticeable decline in quality which undercuts what should have been a good book.