There is no shortage of books and preachers proffering remedies to lagging discipleship. One book published more than 100 years ago still insinuates evangelical tentacles into the praxis of believers.
"In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?" by Charles Sheldon, published in 1896, is a book about a homeless man's challenge to a church community to act like Jesus in their daily lives and to evaluate their actions in light of his example. While some in the book make admirable life changes, half the novel is about their attempts to drive out saloons -- hardly an exigent concern to our modern sensibilities, especially because we know that Jesus liked a good glass of wine. But, no matter, the book has sold 30 million copies.
The phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" had a renaissance in the 1990s as the ubiquitous WWJD was slapped on bumper stickers, bracelets, posters, coffee mugs, and yes, even underwear. It spawned a whole new group of followers who saw value in attempting to forecast and then to imitate the actions of the man from Galilee.
The would-be Jesus doppelgangers remain strong, as recently evidenced by many asking What Would Jesus Do? of bishops and priests who failed to act with holy diligence to stem the sex abuse crisis in the Church. Perceiving the actions of the hierarchy to be less than Christ-like, many proposed that a more serious deliberation of the Christological query might have saved Church leaders from their Waterloo.
With apologies to the fans and marketers of WWJD (and to Thomas a Kempis' "Imitation of Christ"), all of this Jesus copy-catting sorely misses the point. We are not Jesus. And Christianity is not a brand. Jesus never had to contend with Lady Gaga, electric cars, "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" or Blackberry outages. He was never married, never a parent, never a woman and never fell victim to sinfulness as the rest of us do. The point is not to extrapolate the actions of Jesus and then fit them into a 21st century redux. It is rather to consider the words and actions of Jesus as informing our own, and then to act in unique, thoughtful and Christ-like ways.
The salient question is not What Would Jesus Do? but rather What Did Jesus Tell Us to Do? This not only refers to external actions, of which Jesus was often suspicious, but rather to cultivating the heart and mind of Jesus accomplished through deep meditation on his word and actions.
The Gospel of Matthew's "Sermon on the Mount" (Chapters 5-7) and the "Last Judgment" scene (Chapter 25) form the heart of what Christians today are called to emulate. In those pivotal scenes Jesus tells us what to do. Rather than advising us to mimic his actions -- those of a first-century Messiah who had a sinless track record and a direct line to a doting Father -- he exhorts us to act in the spirit of his teaching and example. While Jesus surely embodied some of his greatest teachings through action, not all of them transfer without nuance to today. "Love of enemies" needs interpretation and discernment in an age of bomb-toting jihadists in way Jesus could have never dreamed.
If you remain doubtful, try to keep literally the Judaic law promulgated in the Book of Leviticus, as Jesus the faithful Jew surely did. That would mean no more haircuts around your temples, since it is forbidden (Lev.19:27) and no more touch football since touching the skin of a dead pig makes you unclean (Lev.11:6-8). You can see the problems in shadowing Jesus.
So then, why does WWJD still register a resounding ka-ching? Perhaps some find it easier to ask What Would Jesus Do? than to grapple with the complex nuance and uncertainty that moral action requires. Even the cover article of this week's Newsweek magazine asks: "What Would Mary Do?" (Now we're getting the mother involved too.) It's' obviously tempting to fall back on a simplistic proof-texting of the Scriptures and a rote response.
Real life, however, is not that simple. Remember, Jesus never had to deal with snow -- the kind you shovel or the kind that, unfortunately, some snort. WWJD simply won't see us through most of life's modern complexities. We may justifiably find ourselves asking instead, Who Cares What Jesus Would Do? And there's nothing wrong with that.
Father Edward L. Beck, C.P. is a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Community. He is the author of three books, "God Underneath," "Unlikely Ways Home" and "Soul Provider," all published by Doubleday. In addition to conducting retreats and workshops on spirituality nationally and internationally, Father Beck is a religion contributor for ABC NEWS. He hosts a weekly TV and Internet show for ABC called "Focus on Faith" with Chris Cuomo of "20/20" and is also a commentator on religious and faith issues for various other media outlets including CNN and Fox Television. Father Beck is the executive producer and host of "The Sunday Mass," which airs nationally each week.