Note: I received this book for free from Baker Book Bloggers in exchange for writing a review.
In the strand of the Christian tradition in which I am a part, our main focus is on Jesus as Savior. All humans are sinners, desperately in need of salvation from the separation from God that comes as a consequence of our sin. Jesus took upon himself our sin and its consequences, enabling us to be restored in our relationship with God. He is our Savior.
When we read the Bible and consider the Christian tradition as a whole, there is more (not less!) to Jesus than his role as Savior. Kenneth Richard Samples’ book, God Among the Sages, broadens the picture in its very title. Jesus is not just Savior – he is also sage – a wise man who through his life and teaching shows us how to live the good, truly human life God created us for.
The book is organized in three sections. This first examines Jesus. Samples draws on the New Testament picture of Jesus, showing him to be God incarnate who took upon himself the sins of the world. The idea that Jesus is more than just a good man – even superlatively good – or a great teacher is shown to go back to Jesus himself, and is not just a fabrication of the disciples or later church.
The second section examines four other “sages” and compares them with Jesus: Krishna, Gautama, Confucius, and Mohammad. Through these comparisons samples delves into the basics of the religious traditions each represents: Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. He considers the commonalities each of these shares with Christianity as well as the differences. The major focus is on the individuals – on how Jesus contrasts with each. Not surprisingly, Samples finds that Jesus is clearly superior to each, if for no other reason that his claims are substantiated in history and he alone defeated death. Jesus alone lives up to what we would expect of God.
The final section of the book deals with the issue of religious pluralism. He examines the various general stances commonly taken toward the presence of multiple religions. Between pluralism, inclusivism, and exclusivism, Samples defends a version of the latter. His exclusivism allows him to see truth in other religions, but ultimate truth is found in Christ alone.
This book would be best for beginners in the study of comparative religion who want to pursue their study for apologetic purposes. Jesus gets all the strongest arguments, the richest evidence. The more advanced student might even find the deck stacked against the other religions. If we begin with Jesus – an appropriate place for Christians – and assume that he is the paradigm for representing God, we’re easily led to assume that Christianity offers the best criteria for judging religions. By those criteria, every non-Christian religion is likely to fail.
There would be value to this book if Samples had hewed more closely to considering Jesus as a sage. If he had examined Jesus on the criteria of the not-necessarily religious criteria of being a sage, the book might be more useful. (Well, yes, the title isn’t Jesus “among the sages,” but “God” among the sages, pointing the reader to the conclusion.) Sure, the Christian might not have walked away so easily with the conviction of Jesus’ superiority. But one of the hardest challenges facing the apologist is shying away from thinking one has to offer the total case for Christ in every work.