Book Review – The Karma of Jesus

“Do we really reap what we sow?”

This question is the basis for Mark Herringshaw’s new book, The Karma of Jesus. In mostly conversational dialogue with a young man named Andrew, Herringshaw explores the concept of Karma and how it relates to grace found in Jesus Christ. He gives a brief explanation of the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism and Greek mythology, showing how each one holds to some form of Karma. Due the small size of the book, Herringshaw obviously doesn’t present an in-depth portrayal of the teachings of each, but overall seems to do a fair job. Throughout the book, he writes in a manner that is very easy to read and follow, using mostly illustrations and stories from his life and the life of others. His narration of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is especially good. You can sense the expectation of the Jews building, wondering how the grand finale would play out. Towards the end of the book, he outlines the Karma of Jesus in the following way (pp.193-194):

– I reap what I sow – Karma
– I sow trouble; I get trouble.
– If someone lived a perfect life would they have perfect Karma?
– Jesus lived a perfect life.
– He offers to exchange lives with me.
– He takes my trouble—my Karma.
– He gives me his consequences—his Karma. I can accept his offer.

Herringshaw does a fair job of describing not only Jesus taking our “Karma” but also the benefits we get from Jesus, answering the question, “If Jesus gets my Karma, what do I get of his?” In some respects, Herringshaw answers this question well, saying that we get Jesus’ abilities to love, to care, to “manifest his attitudes through my body, mind and emotions.” He says “I can ‘channel’ Jesus ‘ patience when that’s what I need most.” (p.169)

Unfortunately, this is about the only thing that Herringshaw’s Karma/grace comparison gets right. There are several very serious errors in the underlying theology of the book. First is the actual comparison between Karma and sin. Herringshaw says, “Karma doesn’t obey motives. And it doesn’t discriminate. It’s not personal; it’s cold, calculating mechanics, with no capacity to make an exception. Karma answers with hard-core reality in response to what actually happens” (p.47). This description of Karma does not at all fit the description of sin. When we sin or “do bad things,” Karma is simply the universe bringing itself back into balance. The Bible, however, teaches that sin is not something that we do wrong to an impersonal force. Sin is an offense against a holy God and as such the consequences of sin are a very just result meted out by a just and holy God. Herringshaw’s comparison of Karma and sin completely misses this point.

The second issue is when Herringshaw gives a brief description of the three “theories of atonement.” The first by Origen says that Jesus paid the debt that all humans owe to Satan. The second, put forth by Peter Abelard, says that Jesus’ death “inspires us to love in the face of evil,” that Jesus’ life is the perfect example. (p.129) The third theory as written by Anselm of Canterbury says that Jesus paid man’s debt to God himself. Herringshaw gives objections to all three of these theories, concluding with the astonishing statement that “Bottom line…we don’t know how Jesus takes bad things out of the world and releases good things in their place.” (p.132) His objection to Anselm’s theory of atonement is simply that “the Almighty comes off looking like a bloodthirsty sadist or vengeful street gang member who practices child abuse on his own son just to pacify his own anger issues.” (p.131-132) Amazingly, Herringshaw does not even attempt to use Scripture to either support or deny any of these theories of atonement. It’s as if none of these theories line up with his own set of reasonings regardless of whether or not Scripture supports or denies them. In fact, very little Scriptural support is used throughout much of the entire book, relying more on anecdotes and illustrations. Herringshaw does go one step further, saying “Maybe Jesus’ death becomes whatever we expect it to be, or whatever we need him to be. He’s a warrior, he’s an example, he’s an advocate who intercedes for us, and he’s all these things all at once. Maybe the power of each role gets activated once we decide based on our own need and act in faith for one or the other.” (p.132)

The third issue I have with the book is Herringshaw’s borderline denial of the self-sufficiency of God. In discussing creation he says, “God said, ‘Let there be light…and oceans…and elephants…and man and woman.’ Until then, everything was God and God was everything. But Christians believe that when God created, God divided and made things distinct. There’s something lonely and dangerous about this, but it makes giving and receiving love possible. How could God love selflessly if God was all there is?” (emphasis added) (pp.170-171). In this short quote, Herringshaw has seemingly proposed a pantheistic theology (God is everything and everything is God) that denies the self-sufficiency of God (God needs the creation in order to love.) This is evidenced earlier in the book when Andrew asks the question, “What’s in it for him [Jesus]?” Herringshaw’s answer not only hints at God’s seeming need for his creation, but also points to a man-centered salvation: “You are. I am. Evidently, we’re all he really wants out of life.” (p.132)

Although Herringshaw’s style of writing is very easy to read, the theology beneath the comparison between Karma, sin and grace is incredibly lacking in any Scriptural support. The premise of the book – that we are forgiven based entirely on the grace of God through the death of His Son, Jesus – is one well worth studying. However, this book falls disappointingly far short of that goal. 1/5 stars

(Thanks to Bethany House for providing a review copy of this book.)

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