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.


Laura said...

I struggled to understand the point you were trying to make, as you gave only one examine of, in your estimation, two different Jesus'.

The last paragraph about putting the crucified Christ in the background so churches can become more seeker friendly, seemed to come out of nowhere. If your point was to be disturbing, you succeeded.

Doug said...

Thanks for commenting Laura. This post is really part of a series I’ve done the last few weeks and I should have said that explicitly, realizing that not every reader would have been aware of that. Probably you would need to go back to the post on October 28 and read from there to see where this latest one is coming from. My bad.

Very briefly, one of my main points is that the church is struggling, if not dying, because its traditional primary function of providing “salvation” is simply no longer of interest to many people. In these posts I am trying to say explicitly what a lot of people in the church have been hinting at and saying in a round-about fashion for quite awhile.

The reality is that losing “going to hell” as a concern has resulted in “being saved” becoming an essentially meaningless notion. Even in evangelical churches, while heaven and hell are still in official belief statement, preaching is now much more about “10 steps to a happy marriage” and “God really does want you to be rich.”

The identity of Jesus has been the subject of intensive study by New Testament scholars for at least the past forty years. I couldn’t hope to summarize those results but one popular book that does a pretty good job is Marcus Borg’s “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time” (1994). Jesus scholarship for most of the 20th c. has focused on what I call the Jesus of Galilee. While there has certainly been interest in Jesus’ death (the “Crucified Christ”), most research has focused on its historical details and very little on its theological implications. This is remarkable considering that for centuries scholars spilled ink by the gallons writing of little else.

While I don’t doubt what I wrote can be disturbing, that isn’t my intent. The problem is that so many within the church simply accept its presuppositions and can’t imagine any alternative. I understand that but it’s not for them that I am writing. Rather, I hope to reach those who recognize that traditional Christianity is at a dead end and are looking for new possibilities and directions.

Kevin said...

Doug, as a confirmation teacher at my local Lutheran congregation, I know that the primary purpose - though not the only purpose - of the Bible is salvation through Jesus Christ. That this was Martin Luther's viewpoint as professed through the Small Catechism, and, that you are clearly stating a 180 degree alternative viewpoint of this position, do you consider yourself to still be Lutheran? Why or why not? I ask this particularly since you've noted that you are a Lutheran pastor.

Also, as I alluded in my prior e-mail, what point is there to going to any Church that doesn't profess a goal of salvation? Sure, helping the poor and downtrodden is very noble; however, you don't really need a church for that do you? I mean, Medicaid, Medicare, TANF, WIC, etc. do pretty well without churches, no?

So, to the chase. Why should anyone attend your church? What value could YOU offer them that is more entertaining or enjoyable than a Sunday morning motorcycle ride (or Golf, Reading, Tennis) and perhaps a Sunday afternoon volunteer effort at the soup kitchen to make the current world a little better? Seriously, with no offense intended, I don't understand your purpose and how you fit in with the aforementioned motorcycle enthusiast.

Doug said...

Kevin, as I said above to Laura, you should go back and read some of my earlier posts. Otherwise, I'll just be repeating things I have already written.

Obviously we are coming from very different places. In terms of your examples, I would just note that more and more people are already choosing golf, motorcyle riding, etc etc over churches, most of which are offering the salvation you think is essential to them. It is salvation's loss of value and meaning in the modern world that I am addressing in these posts. Whether the church can re-imagine itself in the wake of this is the big question, which is still to be answered.

David said...

I want salvation from the thought that non-believers will be cast out with the "chaff" regardless of the purity and love in their hearts.

I go to service and am involved with a congregation mostly because my wife and son want to.

1/2 of me feels I belong, 1/2 of me feels totally the opposite. It's movements like this that keep me engaged. This is truth seeking.

I do enjoy being part of a community that isn't driven by the latest gadgets or pure thrill seeking. This isn't easy any other way. We also are involved with support groups (Special Olympics etc.) that are great, but aren't universal and don't generate the type of personal bond as those that come from true worship and concern for others in community.

I feel salvation through faith alone is best left dead in the water. God is simpler than that.

Michael_SC said...

"Why should anyone attend your church?" ... If I lived in his area, I would attend because this is honest truth-seeking. I no longer understand why doubling-down on pre-modern 17th century confessions of faith is supposed to be attractive to the wider world, as if it was the last word and as if no new insight or discovery (including on the nature of the Bible itself) has been made in the past few centuries. I think more and more educated people see this approach to faith as theatrics or 're-enactment' like the weekend Confederate soldiers.

David said...

Sorry, I think my SAD affliction and annual Scrooginess must be setting in early this year. Hey, my wife's Disciples' choir sang with a local Lutheran church's at a Thanksgiving worship tonight. Nice service.

My point is, rules are often broken to begin with.

Kevin said...

Michael (presumably from SC), who really cares about your apparent hatred toward all that is "Confederate"?!; I mean, come on, as a native Southerner, I'm thoroughly smart enough to see through your thinly veiled self-hating Southerner rhetoric that subtly equates traditional (which of course means "homophobic", "bigoted", etc.) Christianity with the big, bad re-enacting Confederate racists that apparently still plague the South. Seriously dude, the racism is the root of all evil argument of you and your kind is just plain stupid tired. There are in fact far worse evils than racism, such as being seperated from God (of which racism, as well as hatred of self, Southerners, Republicans, Conservatives, etc., are merely symptoms).

Further, I'll stand by my contention that Salvation through Jesus Christ is the main thrust of the (original) Lutheran faith. Call yourselves anything you want, but calling yourselves Lutheran is frankly a disservice to the "brand". Though I'm sure that that is your self-hating point. Let's be clear, Martin Luther would probably need a restraining order against those ELCA'ers should he be alive today - which of course doesn't speak too well of Luther's overall temperament.

Finally, though I'm sure I'd easily enjoy a beer or two with Doug and his flock discussing everyhing from politics, to astrophysics, to sports, to art, to whatever, I'd nevertheless have no real interest in attending his "good works" only church since it offers no more than living for the here and the now (kind of like the John Lennon song, "Imagine"). Here's a newsflash, I already live pretty well in the here and the now - without the church. (For that matter, many during Luther's time were also living pretty well - though often without the Devine inspiration of Grace/Faith - with their daily regiment of good works.) The point of church for me is to move myself and others beyond the evils (original sin) associated with living in this world - you know, toward Salvation. Sure, less the Salvation part, that may be Doug's overall goal as well. But in the end, I - as well as Doug's flock - would lose interest in this brand of Christianity anyway since it basically speaks of a god who is either not terribly omnipotent or who is frankly too selfish to reward his loyal flock with such acts of nobility. Regardless of which, I believe that Doug's flock in the long run will have no real incentive to continue their efforts toward the downtrodden in the name of a "spiritual" god who offers them nothing particularly ominpotent in return. Clearly, such a "god" would not be much of a loving god.

David said...

There's something about following certain ways of Jesus Christ that gives us courage, not just fearlessness through faith. That's enough for me. I imagine it could get me through to the end if I let it. History and discovery is of interest, but can't change that.

Other ways (traditions) seem equally effective. I can never deny, or discount them.

I think the church(es) actually help democracy and freedom endure. This column and its comments attest to that.

Laura said...

Ok, Doug. Fair enough. But how do you account for the fastest growing segment of Christianity - young right-leaning evangelicals.

Kids are smart. They see through all the "show", and they want it straight. And when they get it, they want to tell others. They're excited and full of the Holy Spirit, and they are talking about hell, and sin, and the Blood of Christ.

I say more Power to 'em.

Doug said...

Laura, while I don't disagree that young evangelicals is the church's growth, I think you have way over-simplified them. I know one topic of conversation in evangelical churches is that they DON'T mimic their elders' politics or morality, acceptance of gays being just one example. I'm also not at all sure about how fascinated they are with "hell, sin, and the Blood of Christ."

All that aside, though, the fact is that while that is where the church's growth is, it's decline is much greater. I have no doubt the evangelical slice of the Christian pie is growing but the pie over-all is shrinking.

This is a global trend that even transcends Christianity. Virtually all of the world's religions are becoming more conservative and evangelical (if you will). At the same time though, such aggressive religiosity is also a turn-off to many people. What's dying the fastest is moderate Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. Religion is becoming leaner and meaner, you might say.

I live in an area with LOTS of professional 20- & 30-somethings. For most of them, church is not even on their radar screens. They are the epitome of "spiritual, not religious." They may have some curiosity about religion (tho that's as likely to be Buddhism as Christianity) but very few have any interest in belonging to a religious organization. And I think they are the trend.

Laura said...

Doug said "I'm also not at all sure about how fascinated they are with "hell, sin, and the Blood of Christ."

What I'm seeing are Rob Bell disciples, using the Law like a mirror to show people their need for a Savior. It's everywhere, so I'm surprised at your statement.

As for their approach, I have some problems with it but that's for me and God to work out. Paul called the Law the ministry of death. And in the same chapter, where kids are using the Law as a mirror, Paul said "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord". 'Course, he was talking about believers...

You seem to have drawn a lot of readers who happen to live in the south - I being one of them. We just aren't seeing the decline in the church here that you are experiecing there. If anything, there seems to be a need amoung us southerns to get back to the basics of life, and that means God first.