I write this review as someone committed both personally and theologically to the Vineyard movement, and the health of Vineyard theology, as well as the wider pursuit of Jesus. This book, Live Like Jesus, is a difficult book to review, and my sense whilst reading it was a form of emotional deja-vu. We have seen this before. Putnam is a good writer, engaging and interesting, but his underlying (and explicit!) theology in this book is deeply concerning. Emotionally, I felt like I did in 2014, reading Ken Wilson’s A Letter To My Congregation. I remember sitting through Putty’s talks at the 2019 Vineyard UK Leadership Conference (one live, the other online, as I couldn’t be present for the whole conference), and feeling quite distinctly that something was off. A friend who’d recently planted a thriving church asked if I’d read Live Like Jesus, as did others, and so I felt I should. This review, then, is quite long, quite personal, and hopefully useful. I haven’t yet met Putty, but given that the book has been out in the wild for a while, I hope this review is taken in the spirit of fellowship and discernment.
Firstly, though, a potted review, because I doubt most readers of this blog will want or need a long or even remotely in-depth review of this book (if you even want long book reviews anyway!). At face value, this is a book about living like Jesus – particularly with reference to Romans 7-8 and the tension of being in Christ and free from sin, and the reality of much human experience, that sin is still a live issue in our lives. Putty’s engagement with these issues is interesting, but ultimately a distraction from the main idea he is working out in this book (in my reading of it, at least) which is about what it means to be human, and to have our identity rooted in God rather than other things. For example, “It is also the sin image that we now bear instead of the image of God” sounds theological, but is actually quite novel and quite dangerous. The image of God is not lost or replaced in the fall (otherwise Genesis 4:1-16 makes no sense!) and we need to be hot on this.
This is also a book about the gospel, and what it means. In the shorter end of this review, I would say not much more than this: if you want to live like Jesus and embrace the full spectrum of what the Gospel means, you would be much better off reading Freddie Pimm’s superb The Selfish Gospel, which is a healthier, humbler book by an even younger leader! As I read Live Like Jesus, I found myself repeatedly thinking ‘isn’t this book merely attempting to re-balance an imbalance in understanding of the Gospel?’, and arguably sets up two caricatures of the Gospel in order to then offer another. There is a problem at the heart of it; “This is a major shift in our understanding of the Gospel. Paul is not saying Jesus died for us. He is saying that Jesus died as us“. I simply can’t see how this makes sense of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel, let alone explicit biblical teaching like 1 Peter 3:18.
Perhaps the biggest issue (a common problem in books from the charismatic stable, as I explored in this post about something similar Bill Johnson wrote) is a lack of clarity over who Jesus is. After reading and re-reading Live Like Jesus, I honestly am not sure what Putty is trying to articulate about Jesus. Other issues around language and clarity include for example the usage of the word ‘dominion’, (I unpack this a little below in the longer review), as well as a slightly puzzling way of asking a question in order to answer it, for example “What question was Jesus answering with the arrival of the Kingdom of God? The answer is the dominion question that was raised in the Garden“. This is a great way to engage readers (or listeners) but is a puzzling way to explain truth.
I can’t recommend this book, and would actively discourage pastors and leaders from reading it. There are some good things in it, but there are a few bad things, and quite a lot of unclear and downright confusing things. That said, I’d want to recommend a couple of books on similar themes that I personally think are more helpful:
- Freddie Pimm, The Selfish Gospel – a brilliant little book.
- Robby McAlpine, Post-Charismatic 2.0: Rekindling the Smouldering Wick – a really helpful book for processing some of the issues in the charismatic/pentecostal world.
- Simon Ponsonby’s MORE: how you can have more of the Holy Spirit even though you already have everything in Christ – one of my favourite books, ever, which is beautiful. He also has a great book on holiness.
If you are interested in some more in-depth criticism, you can read some deeper thoughts below…
Live Like Jesus is ostensibly just another book on living the Christian life, but the Goodreads summary has it as ‘Rising Vineyard Leader Unlocks the Supernatural Kingdom Promises of Romans 6-8’. This kind of language (rising leader, ‘unlocks’, ‘supernatural kingdom promises’) should ring alarm bells, but a careful reading of the book reveals some deeper issues. Having worked in Christian publishing, and been in and around churches for a while, I’d like to clarify that in engaging with the ideas in Live Like Jesus I am not attacking the author, but rather asking some questions or raising some flags about the ideas. If I’m ever lucky to be in the same city as Putty again, I’d gladly buy him a drink (or more than one!) to ask these questions in person, or have him in our home.
But I digress.
To return to the Goodreads summary, this does give us three broad themes that are problematic in or about Live Like Jesus. Firstly, the notion of a ‘rising leader’. The Vineyard has a wonderful legacy of discerning leadership, with a special place for leaders who limp. The notion of a ‘rising’ leader seems to me to be closer to the world’s view of leadership as success, rather than the biblical vision of servant leadership. I appreciate that this is probably the publisher’s choice of wording, but given Putty is speaking internationally at Vineyard leadership conferences, it is worth noting. In terms of extant teaching within the Vineyard on leadership, I’m reminded of a brilliant talk that Eleanor Mumford gave in 2012, which includes aspects of personal holiness.
Ultimately, Putty’s comments on Romans 6-8, and the message of Live Like Jesus, come down to one question: what does it mean to be human? As Live Like Jesus starts to flesh out it’s view of what it means to be human, examining the creation story, we read “At this point, God does something interesting. He changes up the pattern. He does speak, but in a different way. Rather than speak Adam into being, He speaks something into being over humanity“. This is where the question of ‘dominion’ that dominates this book begins, but this is a strange interpretation of Genesis 1, which seems to me to have more in common with a hyper-charismatic theological perspective (perhaps even Word/Faith or dominionism, for which see Robby McAlpine’s book linked too above) that simply fails to understand it. I would argue that humanity is created in the same way as other things, but then commissioned and empowered due to being specially created in the Image of God. Putty explicitly states that “God declares His image and likeness over Adam and then assigns him a dominion” – this simply is not the case in either of the creation accounts. Humanity is made in the Image of God, and blessed and commissioned. It is difficult to take seriously this account of identity, and given that this is core to Live Like Jesus it is a rather fatal flaw in this book.
In a post about Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian I commented that an inadequately inclusive understanding of what it means to be made in the Image of God is a serious issue. Putty writes that “Every single one of us, you and myself included, is born after the template Adam broke when he sinned. He took sin inside himself and altered his nature. He changed, at the DNA level, from the image of God to the image of sin. We now bear that broken template”. Spurgeon once said, allegedly, that discernment is not knowing right from wrong but the nearly right from right. This might look like theological quibbling, but actually it is deeply important. The language of a ‘sin image’ is problematic, to say the least. Even the sternest reformed accounts of soteriology would stress that the Image of God is not ‘lost’ or ‘replaced’ at the fall (which Live Like Jesus explicitly teaches: “This was lost at the Fall“. It is tarnished, damaged, reduced and broken, but it is not lost. Humanity is sinful, to be sure (I personally would argue ‘totally depraved’, though that isn’t important for the purposes of this review) but to say we were totally changed at the DNA level is a novel and dangerous interpretation of the fall. Perhaps this is what ‘unlocking [sic] supernatural kingdom promises’ is referring to – and perhaps I simply don’t understand these yet.
I mentioned above a question I have over the usage of the word ‘dominion’ in Live Like Jesus. As I quoted above, we read “What question was Jesus answering with the arrival of the Kingdom of God? The answer is the dominion question that was raised in the Garden“. I don’t think this is true. I would suggest instead that the vision of the Kingdom in Isaiah 61 is not about ‘dominion’, whatever that is, but rather a vision of the Kingdom of God that is so unlike any earthly experience of authority, power or dominion. Putty argues that “this is the primary message of the Gospel of the Kingdom of God“, whereas I would suggest that the Kingdom is less about re-asserting dominion and more about restoring all of creation (obviously including personal salvation) in line with God’s will.
Having established that the question of what it means to be human is key to understanding Live Like Jesus, I think it is also worth briefly noting some of the issues around Christology, the question of who Jesus is. This book seems to offer a range of Christologies, from classical “He was God” through to vague “Jesus is the central revelation of who God is and what He is really like“, which isn’t particularly clear. It is vital to affirm the incarnation, that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Any ambiguity on this is seriously problematic. This flows into a serious (but understandable, for a non-theologian [in terms of formal training]) issue in that a trinitarian framework is broadly lacking for this book. In one of the closing chapters, ‘Christ in us’, I found the lack of the role of the Holy Spirit somewhat puzzling, particularly for a book rooted in the charismatic tradition.
A final issue for me is the evidence offered for the ideas broadly put forward in Live Like Jesus. I think I’ve demonstrated that at the very least there is a lack of clarity over some important issues and doctrines, and some of these are very concerning. What some people might call pragmatism (look at the results!) can occasionally be baptised into a results-driven version of Christianity by what sometimes feels like a double-bluff interpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 about knowing people by their fruits. About halfway through the book, Putty writes “It can be scary to adjust our understanding of the Gospel, but the fruit speaks for itself. I have seen too many lives transformed to consider any other road right now. There was a time I was ashamed of the Gospel, but I can be ashamed no longer. I have seen God’s power for salvation for everyone who believes“. I don’t know who will read this review, but I hope that what I’ve outlined here will cause folk to consider ‘other roads’. We don’t need to see the fruit to engage with the ideas. It is telling that a guest post from the aforementioned Robby McAlpine touches on some of the creation/identity/dominion issues raised in Live Like Jesus:
“I’m surprised how often I hear: “Well, there were miraculous healings, so obviously God isn’t too worried about their theology!”
Which, being translated, means: “Anything you say can and will be dismissed as irrelevant. Miracles prove orthodoxy. You must have missed the memo.”
By themselves, miracles don’t prove anything, except that something unusual has just happened. Miracles are a sign which draws attention to something. Jesus’ miracles drew multitudes — but when He got theological (“I am the bread of life”), people deserted Him in droves (John 6:25-66). Jesus’ miracles pointed to His message, but they didn’t guarantee people would accept it.“
Robby wrote that in 2014.
There are other issues and questions that Live Like Jesus raises, which sparked off a host of questions that I could think about in more depth. Fundamentally, though, there are a lot of problems in this book. I’ve focused on what I think is the fundamental question – what does it mean to be human – and I’m sure more learned folk than me could engage with what Putty says about Romans 7 and 8. It is difficult to see how this book can be a helpful catalyst for discipleship when it contains so many issues. Thus, in addition to the recommendations above, I would want to commend the following to you:
- Chris Lane’s Ordinary Miracles – a beautiful, humble book about leadership, the miraculous, mission and the table.
- Rich Nathan and Insoo Kim’s Both/And – a brilliant book that covers similar territory to Live Like Jesus and even more!
- Robert Jenson’s A Theology in Outline – a beautiful book that I wish every pastor and leader could read and chew over.
- Ian Paul’s Grove Booklet Kingdom, Hope and the End of the World
- Rowan Williams God With Us – a short, powerful and profound book on the cross and the incarnation.
Some of my own posts (inspired by and linking to other folk!) may also be relevant:
- Origen on the Gospel and the Trinity – why the Trinity is important.
- DTLC: A Kingdom Theology of Suffering
- Division and Truth – some thoughts about why what might seem ‘divisive’ might not be the case…