Book review: Huntsman’s “Becoming the Beloved Disciple”

I added Becoming the Beloved Disciple to the top of my list after reading Michael Austin’s Goodreads review. It just so happens that Austin also wrote the Foreword to the book, which starts out with a profound story, which I want to include here:

Several years ago, at the Catholic university where I worked, I attended a lecture by Father Greg Boyle, a Catholic priest who has spent much of his life ministering to gang members in Los Angeles. When his presentation was over, Father Boyle spent about a half an hour answering questions from the audience. I only remember one of the questions, which was, “Why don’t you teach these young men to be good Christians and worship Jesus?” I will never forget the answer. He said simply, “Jesus wants disciples; he doesn’t need a fan club.”

That was an inspired priest. Increasingly, I am convinced that the gospel is in the doing. To use the famed phrase from Gordon B. Hinckley, “forget yourself and go to work.” If you want to convince someone of the truthfulness of the gospel, it probably isn’t going to be through a well-thought out theological or historical argument. It’s going to be in the love they feel. Didn’t Christ teach “by their fruits ye shall known them”?

Different kinds (not degrees) of discipleship

Getting to the book itself, Huntsman takes a unique approach to the gospel of John. I always found John intimidating at parts. It starts with this confusing intro that I’m never quite sure I’m interpreting right (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God). Add to that the Bread of Life discourse and the Intercessory prayer, and you’ve got me scratching my head quite a bit. While Huntsman does add some new insights into each of these aspects, the book isn’t written as a verse-by-verse commentary on the gospel of John. Instead, he breaks the book down by character, following the individual paths of discipleship.

According to Huntsman, the gospel of John was designed to read yourself into the text. The Samaritan woman at the well, Nicodemus coming to the Lord in the night, Thomas’s doubts– all were mean to highlight the different routes we take coming to Christ.

There were two in particular that struck me. The first was Nicodemus. I was always a little unsure about Nicodemus, but Huntsman gives a moving portrayal of Nicodemus as a man initially unsure, but who comes to a full faith after the events of Christ’s Atonement. I like his summary:

The example of Nicodemus reminds us that we must be careful about judging the spiritual journeys of other people. Sometimes we can be too quick to judge the faith of others, faulting them for questioning or perhaps insisting that people testify that they “know” when sometimes what is important is just believing or having the desire to believe.

I like that Huntsman asks us to not judge Nicodemus, because I know I was guilty of doing so. The other story that struck me was the story of Peter. Huntsman makes clear from the outset that Peter wasn’t perfect. Not only was he not perfect, he made some pretty big mistakes:

While the nickname “the Rock” that Jesus gave him upon his first call reflected his character as it was later known, he had to grow into the role of a steady, firm disciple. Instead, throughout the Gospel of John, Peter is often portrayed as outspoken and zealous for Jesus, but he also frequently misunderstood the Lord and was impulsive, overconfident, and even rash. Yet his darkest moment, when he three times denied knowing Jesus or being one of his followers, stands out as Peter’s greatest failing.

I like this. I like this because yes, most takes on Peter acknowledge his mistakes. But I feel that they sometimes minimize them. Denying Christ? That’s a big deal here. To me, Peter represents Church leadership. We sometimes like to lionize them, but when we actually confront the magnitude of some of their mistakes, we can potentially lose our faith. The gospel of John reminds us that leaders have weaknesses and their own set of challenges.

In his conclusion, I loved this summary statement on discipleship:

Indeed, a modern revelation teaches that different kinds of belief constitute different kinds of spiritual gifts: “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful”

I have tended to interpret the faith to believe on their words as a lesser faith. But Huntsman’s statement acknowledges them as two different spiritual gifts. I think people with both kind of faith can contribute to the body of Christ. We should be ready to embrace people who can testify that they know, or that they believe, or that they want to believe.

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