Sunday, November 21, 2010

Will the real Jesus please stand up? (Sunday Reflections for November 21, 2010)

Most adults remember the long running game show To Tell the Truth. Three contestants would each claim to be someone with an unusual occupation or experience when, in fact, two of them were imposters. By asking questions, a celebrity panel would try to figure out which person was genuine. After making their guesses, the narrator would intone, “Would the REAL _____ please stand up?” All three contestants would make motions as if to stand until the actual person finally did so.

That scenario isn’t a bad description of the state of biblical study into the life of Jesus. For one of the truths biblical scholars have been uncovering almost since beginning their work is that the New Testament contains multiple Jesuses. By that I mean that the various ways he is depicted in the gospels and other writings just can’t be merged together into a single person.

As scholar Robert Price says, there are just too many Jesuses: teacher, sage, miracle worker, prophet, mystic, reformer, revolutionary, etc. All the ways he is depicted in the Bible simply can’t be brought together into a single, coherent individual. The result is that over the centuries people have constructed multiple Jesus figures from the materials available, selecting some bits and ignoring others.

Over a century ago, and before his medical missionary days, the scholar Albert Schweitzer exposed this practice among theologians. It’s only been more recently that we’ve realized the problem goes all the way back to the New Testament itself. “Will the real Jesus please stand up?” Unfortunately we seem stuck in that moment when the contestants each make the gesture of standing up—but no one ever does.

The past few weeks I have been writing about the problems of religion in the modern world. Standing in the middle of any discussion about re-thinking Christianity or re-making the church is, of course, the figure of Jesus. In reality, though, we don’t have one Jesus to deal with, but many. Some New Testament scholars talk about the difference between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. I think a variation on this that is more helpful is to think about the Jesus of Galilee and the Christ of Calvary.

It doesn’t take a literary or theological genius to realize that a dramatic shift takes place in the gospels when the rabbi Jesus leaves Galilee for Jerusalem, to become the crucified Christ. Nor is it hard to recognize that the gospels struggle to make this transition convincing or logical. Jesus’ “trial” is never really believable because the story of his prior life doesn’t set the readers up for it. The evangelists try to make this support the notion of the unfairness of Jesus’ death but it really just leaves a dramatic hole. Asking “What did Jesus do to deserve this?” is as much a question about the story as it is about theology.

The conclusion of many scholars is that the gospels in essence are two stories awkwardly pasted together: one about Jesus’ Galilean ministry and the other his death in Jerusalem. Some have described the gospels as passion stories with long introductions. I think this is wrong, but it certainly has been a popular interpretation and probably the prevailing one over the centuries. In any case, it points to that sense of disjunction, resolved by making the Galilee story a prolog to the Calvary story.

The reality, which preachers and most scholars both prefer to ignore, is that the origins of the New Testament and the church are hidden in a fog that will never clear. Modern New Testament scholarship has taught us a lot. Yet one of its most important realizations is that there is much we almost certainly will never know. One consequence is that it is unlikely the “real Jesus” will ever stand up.

This has been the source of many of the biggest fights in the church over the centuries. Yet paradoxically this diversity has probably also been a source of strength. People have claimed the label Christian while constructing in their own minds a Jesus that suits their personalities and needs. The church today needs again to take advantage of its “multiple Jesuses.”

Around the world, even among non-Christians, Jesus remains a popular figure. Yet it isn’t just any Jesus. It is almost always the rabbi Jesus of Galilee. Today most people, including many Christians, have relatively little interest in the crucified Christ of Calvary. Yet it is this latter Christ that the church has promoted and built itself upon—and that’s a problem.

Salvation through faith in the crucified Christ has been the church’s primary “product.” In Catholicism and the churches which remained close to it, people received salvation through the sacraments, especially baptism and communion. Salvation was very real as people literally “got” Jesus this way. For evangelical Protestants, salvation was more of a psychological or emotional experience. People got Jesus by believing in or “accepting” him and often by having various spiritual experiences so that they “felt” saved.

Yet whatever the tradition, the result was the same: people received salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross. It was tangible and very personal, as this well-known 19th c. hymn declares:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! Oh, what a foretaste of glory divine!

Today, most people are not interested in possessing Jesus as the ticket to a heavenly reward. However, this is the Jesus promoted and “sold” by the church through most of its existence. As that market has dried up, the church’s fortunes have fallen. People’s concerns are for their lives here and now, not for some intangible existence that might come later.

Yet this practicality is exactly what we find in the rabbi Jesus of Galilee. This Jesus rarely if ever offers “pie in the sky, bye and bye.” His concerns are consistently with how people treat one another, with their values, and with their appreciation of what a gift they have in each day of living. He focuses both on individual relationships and on the justice and injustice of social structures. He is concerned with the abuse of power and the need to protect and care for the weak. In this Jesus we encounter someone who treats each person as an equally valued individual.

Admittedly, Jesus is a person of his ancient world. Not everything he says or does has equal relevance to life in our time. Yet there is much that does speak to life in this world and that people are still listening to. Putting this wise, prophetic and compassionate Jesus front-and-center would be a step toward remaking the church into something contemporary people could find of value. But that can only happen if the church is willing to move the crucified, savior Christ into the background and let go of the ancient baggage he carries with him.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Getting out of the salvation business (Sunday Reflections for November 14, 2010)

What business is the church in? What is the church’s product? As I said last week, this can be a bit complicated to figure out. Over the centuries, the church has always offered a variety of products and services. This has been part of its strength as it allowed people to connect with the church in a variety of ways. Still, however people valued it, the church has understood itself to offer one primary product more important than any other: salvation. That product, I believe, has become the church’s buggy whip.

Theologians and church historians will tell us that salvation has always been understood in a variety of ways. That is true, but let’s accept that for the vast majority of Christians, as well as for most people who have heard the Christian message but didn’t accept it, salvation has meant escaping the judgment and wrath of God and receiving the gift of eternal life. That is what has been the church’s primary product and that is what it can’t sell anymore, or even give away for that matter.

In my ministry, I can honestly say I have encountered only one person seriously concerned about going to hell, and she was in a hospital psychiatric unit. Not only are people not concerned about this for themselves, they show no concern about it for others they know (hence our evangelism problem).

My most memorable example of this was a young man whose life was basically one screw-up after another, hurting a lot of people along the way. He finally took his own life and at his funeral (which was well attended) I quoted his brother’s summary of him and of people’s feelings about him: “He was a son-of-a-bitch but we loved him.” Afterward, people congratulated me on my message. No one expressed any concern about his soul.

Salvation and its alternative are simply not on people’s radar screens anymore. Generally we’ve all become pretty vague about what we think does happen in “the next life” or even if there is one. That’s a topic for another time but for now I’ll just note that whatever is awaiting us, very few of us are concerned about it. The experience of dying may scare us (especially our loss of control) and we may be anxious about all those potentially unfinished items on our to-do lists. Yet the idea of being dead doesn’t seem to bother us much. The very-old often look forward to it. In any case, the once awesome image of “meeting our maker” hardly gets a thought.

And to that I say, “Well, it’s about time.” For to me this is testimony that the church’s message has finally sunk in. Whoever or whatever God is, people have concluded, God loves us. God is the personification of love. God is love. That’s all in the Bible but so is a lot of other less positive God-talk. Yet I don’t think the God-of-love has ever been reconcilable with the God-of-wrath. It’s just been too obvious that the God of hellfire and brimstone has been a convenient tool of religious authorities to scare people into propping up religion and its institutions.

As the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Paul and Luther all discovered, a genuine message of grace inevitably generates violent opposition from religion and the people in charge of it. They just have too much to lose if people ever genuinely believed it. And they’re right, of course. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Christian message of freedom also means freedom from religion. The inevitable conclusion is: I don’t need it anymore.

In short, humanity has been growing up but religion, including Christianity, hasn’t been keeping up. In fact, it often has been resisting that development. It has been to the church’s advantage to keep its members in a child-like, dependent relationship. Over the past century or two, however, people throughout the modern Western world have been maturing and leaving the church by the millions.

Aimee Semple McPherson
And so to repeat, people don’t need to be “saved”—not from God’s wrath and judgment, not from hell and damnation. That buggy whip won’t sell. Now as I indicated above, for many theologians, as well as many church leaders and even ordinary Christians, this is old news. For them salvation long ago became a metaphor for other human needs and experiences. For them, the gospel is about our experience of God’s love and grace in this life rather than some reward in a life-to-come.

Fine—yet the truth is that even in so-called moderate and liberal denominations like ours, this is rarely said explicitly nor has it significantly influenced our liturgy or the materials we use in Sunday school, adult education, evangelism, and so on. I think there are two reasons for this. One, as I’ve talked about before, is the unwillingness of clergy, especially, to do anything that might provoke those who retain old traditional religious beliefs. Why kick the hornets' nest? Yet, protecting their sensibilities has resulted in the loss of far more people for whom religion has become increasingly disconnected from real life and therefore irrelevant.

The other reason the church has resisted moving beyond “salvation” is that it will take hard work to, quite frankly, recreate Christianity. It will take admitting, once and for all, that ancient Christianity is dead and that the only alternative now is for something new to take its place. It will take major rethinking, remaking, and even some killing off of much if not all of the church’s sacraments, liturgy, liturgical calendar, scripture, institutional structures and self-image.

Billy Sunday & Mae West
It will require re-imaging an adult God for adult people. This God can no longer simply be Santa Claus on a cosmic scale, who’s got a list, checking it twice, to see who’s been naughty or nice; a God who brings treats and toys to good girls and boys but puts coal in bad children’s stockings. This God must somehow encompass a 14 billion year old Universe, vast in space and time beyond our imagining, yet also relates to a human species on one small planet and whose history encompasses only the tiniest last fraction of the Universe’s existence.

The church must get off its high-horse and finally say to itself and to the world, no one needs us. We are not God’s instrument of salvation for the planet. We are not essential to the life or well-being of humanity.

Then, having said it and genuinely believing it, perhaps the church can re-create itself to be something people want in their lives. Then, perhaps, we can rediscover the genuine hope and wisdom of our scriptures and of our saints, buried by centuries of institutional self-interest and stagnation. Then, perhaps, we can again be a genuine force for justice and peace in the world and a source of courage and love in people’s lives.

That could be a viable business plan, with a product that will sell. But first we must accept, once and for all, that the church is not any longer in the salvation business.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The best buggy whip money can buy (Sunday Reflections for November 7, 2010)

Imagine it is 1905 and you are president of Acme Buggy Whip Company. Your sales are dropping alarmingly. Without questioning why this is so, you assume you need to improve your product to make it more appealing to your customers. As a result, you begin making buggy whips in different colors, different sizes, and with different grades of materials. You begin having contests, two-for-one deals, a buggy whip of the month club, and other promotions. Result? Sales continue to drop and you are soon out of business.

The problem, of course, wasn’t with the quality of your buggy whips or their price. The problem was that fewer and fewer people wanted buggy whips at all. The problem was the arrival of something brand new and which you did not anticipate: the automobile. As a result, there was nothing you could have done to improve your buggy whips that would have made any difference. What you really needed to do was change your product.

Businesses have become very introspective. They are all followers of Socrates: “Know thyself.” Business guru authors, seminar leaders and consultants all preach that businesses need to better understand their operations. They need to have a clear understanding of their “mission,” of their customers, of their products, of their internal operations, and of their company culture.

To be successful (they are told) businesses need to know who they are and what they are trying to accomplish. In short, they need to know what business they are in. Remarkably, this is much more difficult than it sounds. Like people, businesses are reluctant to change, preferring to keep on doing what they are familiar with. Plus, there are those monthly bills to pay. If there is enough cash coming in to cover expenses, why do something risky? And we don’t want to alienate our stockholders.

In recent years, there have been attempts to apply MBA-style thinking and concepts to the church. In general, they haven’t accomplished a whole lot but frankly I suspect that is because churches find it difficult to be as honest or as ruthless as such thinking often requires. The church isn’t a business but it certainly has business aspects, as the Crystal Cathedral, the ELCA national operations, and countless congregations around the country, including our own, have learned. Churches, too, have a bottom line.

Yet as my example above illustrates, business thinking doesn’t start with dollars and cents. It starts by asking a more fundamental, and therefore more difficult, question: What business are you in? Acme Buggy Whip was making a product which its customers no longer needed. It had to re-imagine itself and understand its primary objective was to meet customer needs. If customers no longer needed buggy whips, Acme needed to re-create itself to meet some other need—or go out of business.

Today, the church needs to be asking itself: What business are we in? Like Acme, the church has been offering a variety of products and services for which there has been a steadily falling demand. Also like Acme, the church has responded by trying to improve those products making them more appealing, more consumer friendly, more affordable, etc. Result? “Sales” have continued falling with hardly a pause. Could it be that, like Acme, the church’s real challenge is not to improve its product but to find a new one altogether?

Of course, the church’s product is not as tangible or simple as a buggy whip. Over the centuries, the church has provided a variety of services and, as a result, people have joined churches for a variety of reasons. Take worship, for example (the church’s most well-known service). I have learned during my years as a pastor that people come to worship for many reason. For some it’s the liturgy or the sacraments, for others it’s the sermon, or the music, or having some quiet time, or the fellowship, or the coffee and donuts afterward, or for the kids or to keep their spouse happy, or just habit.

Because the church as a whole has this multi-faceted nature, it’s made it hard to figure out what isn’t working (maybe we just need better donuts). A big part of the church’s success has been the variety of products and services that it offers. It’s given people many different ways to connect with the church. So when, despite that variety, and the tweaking and improving that’s gone on lately, participation in church life is still falling, then that would indicate something has fundamentally changed.

Remember again our beloved Acme: the reason it couldn’t sell its buggy whips wasn’t because it didn’t make good buggy whips. They were the best. It was because people no longer needed them. Their horses and buggies had been replaced by automobiles. What could Acme do? Assuming its whips were made of leather, it could have found a different leather product to make. If it wanted to stay in transportation, perhaps it could have shifted to leather wrapped steering wheels or gear shifts, or leather interiors, or something we can’t imagine.

What business is the church in? That’s been a difficult question for church leaders to look at. When you think you’ve been given your mission by God it’s pretty hard to imagine that mission changing. Acme’s management couldn’t imagine a world without horses and buggies, or that they could be replaced by those noisy, dangerous, unreliable auto-mobiles, motorcars, or whatever you wanted to call them (“Menaces is what I call them!”). And yet….

It’s probably true, as some people say, that the phrase “out of the box thinking” is overused. It is a useful image, though, because our thinking often does get trapped inside of mental “boxes.” Cars were outside the box of Acme’s leaders. And being unable to imagine such a world, they couldn’t imagine how Acme could fit into it—and so it didn’t. End of Acme.

The church is now in a new world. Thus far, it is a world the church cannot imagine and therefore can’t imagine its place in it. Its thinking is still in that box with the horses and buggies. Surely some people will always want our buggy whips, won’t they? For awhile longer, yes. However, that time seems to be coming to an end. But imagine the opportunities in this new world! Can we get out of our box, put aside the buggy whips—and imagine?