Full transparency: Chalice Press books lack humor. Yes, we did publish a Jeff Foxworthy-inspired series with titles like “You Might Be a United Methodist,” and good writing often has a line that merits a laugh or two. But in general, our books won’t get you in trouble if you are read it during a dull sermon.
Derek Penwell is the snarkiest religion writer I’ve come across. Those who don’t like Derek – and there are many, judging from his social media pages – would tag him snide (on their more polite days). What differentiates snide, which is just mean-spirited, and snark, a strain of satire, is the ability to weave humor into the language so a serious argument is made while using humor to explain the same argument.
That, my friends, describes Outlandish: An Unlikely Messiah, a Messy Ministry, and the Call to Mobilize. It’s a serious call to rethink our preconceived notions of who Jesus truly is and follow him in new, radical ways that will change our world and our lives.
In the Introduction to Outlandish, Derek sets the stage quickly, describing who this Jesus guy really was while, simultaneously, preparing us for the humor that follows:
Jesus is a difficult case. Indeed, it’s not immediately clear why anyone would have wanted to follow him in the first place. He was an unlikely guy to lead a revolution, what with his feeble pedigree as an unknown rube from a blue-collar family, hailing from the Galilean backwater of Nazareth. He had no connections to speak of, no trust fund to rely on, no savvy P.R. team to guide him through the labyrinthine world of power politics or high finance. He had no Ph.D., no MBA, no J.D., no training at the finest Rabbinical schools. As far as we know, he was never homecoming king, never presided over his college fraternity, was never voted most likely to succeed. And none of the Gospel writers ever dropped hints about a strong jaw, cleft chin, or Hollywood hair— Warner Salman’s brushwork notwithstanding.
Have you ever thought about Jesus the homecoming king or Jesus the fratboy? That’s just the start. Derek tears down, all the way to the concrete foundation, the mythology of the staid, white-bread Jesus that has ruled the Evangelical scene in the past few decades, then rebuilds Jesus’ life into a ministry that had no business being successful, let alone creating the faith with two billion followers around the world (even if we frequently wage wars over what teachings exactly we’re following).
But this isn’t a novella of The Life of Brian. Besides being one of the funniest people I know, Derek is also one hell of a social justice warrior. The ponytailed, tattooed senior minister at Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky, Derek has helped lead the charge for full inclusion of LGBTQ+ Christians in the denomination. I’ve had the humbling honor of overhearing Derek arrange housing for an immigrant family arriving in the United States with just a few days’ notice. I’ve watched him march with William J. Barber, II, and protest Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s sinful policies on our southern border. I’m in awe of his ministry and his activism. He shows up when it would be easier to stay home. He puts himself on the line.
His activism and humor meet in Outlandish, calling us to do even more, to work even harder, to think even more differently about what it means to be a follower of Jesus the carpenter and Christ the messiah – not conflating the two concepts of Jesus and Christ as we so often do. Derek teaches us the hands-on tools we need to transform ourselves and our faith communities into something more. He’s also produced a special podcast available through ChalicePress.com interviewing other activist leaders.
If your Jesus is stone-faced-serious 24/7/364 (he gets to have fun on Christmas, because it’s his birthday, right?), you should probably find something else to read. But if your Jesus is fully human – if your Jesus makes mistakes, chooses the option that may not have been the easy choice, constantly second-guesses his decisions, wonders if anything he does will matter in the long run – and ultimately pays the highest imaginable price for failure only to find out, “hey, that worked!” dig into Outlandish.
Just don’t read it during the quiet part of the sermon.Gratefully,