Thursday, July 21, 2011

He must increase (Sunday Reflections for July 24, 2011)

Last week via Facebook another pastor directed my attention to a Huffington Post article, “Why I'm Not a 'Fan' of Jesus.” It was by a Pastor Kyle Idleman, identified as the “teaching pastor” of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, supposedly the fifth largest in the country. The article apparently summarizes a recent book/DVD he authored.

Idleman’s basic point is a familiar one and not without value: being a “fan” of Jesus is not the same as being a follower of Jesus. He observes that while three-quarters of Americans identify themselves as Christians, it’s pretty hard to tell that from their behavior or the state of our society. With all these Christians around, he asks, why are there so many hungry, homeless, with inadequate health care, etc.

One explanation for this discrepancy Idleman found in learning about a new kind of vegetarian, called a “flexitarian.” They don’t eat meat—usually. One woman interviewed said she considers herself a vegetarian but admits she likes—and occasionally eats—bacon. In Idlemans’ view that really means she isn’t a vegetarian whatever she might think of herself. Similarly, Idleman says that people claiming to be Christian, but living in ways that hardly show it, are not followers of Jesus but fans of Jesus.

The word fan is most simply defined as, an enthusiastic admirer. And I think Jesus has a lot of fans these days. Some fans may even get dressed up for church on Sunday and make their ringtone a worship song. They like being associated with Jesus. Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get the benefits, but not so close that it requires anything from them. They want a no-strings-attached relationship with Jesus. So a fan says, I like Jesus but don't ask me to serve the poor. I like Jesus, but I'm not going to give my money to people who are in need. I like Jesus, but don't ask me to forgive the person who hurt me. I like Jesus, but don't talk to me about money or sex that's off limits. Fans like Jesus just fine, but they don't want to give up the bacon.

I understand and in some ways share Pastor Idleman’s frustration but I think he is barking up the wrong tree. Unfortunately he is engaging in a favorite activity of clergy and other church authorities going all the way back to St Paul: blaming the victim. The ├╝ber-Christians who naturally end up in the church’s hierarchy are always complaining about the lack of commitment and understanding of the folks in the pews. Why don’t they get it? Why aren’t they as faithful and devoted as I am? Whining and scolding is a fine art in the church.

I give Idleman credit that he doesn’t follow the usual path of complaining about people’s lack of support for the church and its activities: Why don’t they give more? Why don’t they worship more often? Why don’t they witness and evangelize? Jesus spoke little about such things. Rather, like Jesus, Idleman focuses on people’s social behavior. Where are the fruits of their faith and commitment?

While Idleman’s approach is truer to the teaching of Jesus it isn’t going to have any better result. The reason is because he hasn’t identified the problem, which goes all the way back to the beginning. Regardless of what was said about the Christian life, over the centuries most people have equated being a Christian with belonging to an organization. Or in the words of an admittedly oversimplified yet basically true assessment: While Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom, what we got was the church.

Jesus’ message was that the reign of God was coming into the world in a new way, right now. It may be that he expected that to include some dramatic divine intervention in world affairs. In any case, he does not seem to have made any provision for an organized movement to come after him. Any “church talk” from Jesus was almost certainly put on his lips later by the gospel writers. And while in the gospels Jesus does make radical statements about disciples needing to deny themselves and take up their crosses (as Idleman says), Jesus also tells people not to follow him but go back to their homes and live out their new experiences of God’s grace.

In any case, out of the confusion following Jesus’ death came the church. First it was small and informal as we see in Paul’s letters but it quickly became a highly structured, hierarchical and authoritarian organization. And while there was always some presentation of the gospel and the call to a new ways of life, nonetheless what most people heard as it spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond was: Join the church and be saved.

The Reformation attempted to put a new emphasis on Christian lifestyle and personal transformation over against merely belonging to the church. Yet Protestant churches still required baptism and retained a simplified congregational structure. Thus being a Christian still meant receiving sacraments and “going” to church. Even for “born again” Evangelicals this could become as perfunctory as for any Roman Catholic.

Pastor Idleman’s push to transform Christians from being fans to followers seems like another trip around an old and well-worn track. Would he say that among the 20,000 that supposedly show up at his church each week, there are only followers and no fans? I doubt even he would make that claim.

Idleman is right, along with so many others, that we are in the midst of a religious and spiritual crisis. It is a crisis of purpose and identity, not for the church, but for Christianity. Shortly before his death Dietrich Bonheoffer, who decried the lack of commitment of German Christians, wrote enigmatically of the need for a “religionless Christianity.” He saw that the church had become an obstacle rather than the means to Germany’s spiritual renewal.

While there are exceptions like Pastor Idleman’s megachurch, overall church Christianity is in decline in the developed world. Belonging to an organization simply doesn’t meet people’s spiritual needs anymore. Yet what recent biblical scholarship has made clear is, that isn’t what Jesus was about anyway.

If people are genuinely going to become followers rather than fans of Jesus, they’re going to have to relearn who Jesus actually was. So far, as Bonheoffer, Kierkegaard, and many others concluded, the church has been mostly an obstacle to that reeducation. Encountering this ancient Jesus and a kingdom-centered Christianity, the church would be forced into the role of John the Baptist who admitted honestly, “He must increase and I must decrease.”

Friday, July 15, 2011

From Jesus to Christ and back again (Sunday Reflections for July 17, 2011)

(I am at last posting again. I have a several Reflections articles I need to catch up on but I thought I should start with the most recent first. Watch for more to come!)

FRONTLINE is PBS’s premier documentary news program. So it probably seemed odd back in the late 1990s when it broadcast a 4-hour series about Jesus and the early church. From Jesus to Christ: The First Christians (which a group of us watched last month) really did report news, however, as well as tell history.

The news was of the cumulative results of decades of scholarly research into that subject, and which was just then coming to a culmination. (When I was in seminary in the early 80s this scholarship was beginning to trickle in.) What had been found really was something new about the earliest years of the Jesus movement, but it wasn’t the kind of sudden discovery that might happen in a laboratory.

The study of ancient documents and archeological findings often takes many years to bear fruit. For example, shortly after World War II two ancient collections of documents, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Library were found in the Middle East. Once they saw them, scholars knew immediately they were of immense importance. Yet it literally took nearly a half-century of study (and even physical reconstruction) to genuinely understand them. Many scholars did not even live long enough to fully appreciate what they were studying, and that study still goes on.

The question that scholars have been trying to answer is, Who was Jesus and what was the movement launched in his name about? Just asking the question shows we are in a different world from our ancestors. For centuries and generations the answer to that question had been found by looking at the church’s creeds. But that had stopped being satisfactory or adequate well over a century ago.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, scholars began looking at the Bible with new honesty. Among other things, they had come to realize that the creeds smoothed over a much more complex reality about Christianity’s origins. The four gospels, as well as Paul, each had distinctly different understandings of Jesus. They also came to realize that figuring out where the historical Jesus was in the midst of this was much more difficult than anyone had imagined. Some concluded that such a task was impossible.

As From Jesus to Christ reports, what needs to be said first is that nothing new has been found that can be traced back directly to Jesus himself. We still have no physical evidence of him or of anything he did or said. It’s almost certain he never wrote anything. In fact, it could be said we have taken a step backwards because most scholars now doubt we even have anything genuine from his followers or disciples, either.

And this is unlikely to change. Scholars and archaeologists have literally gone over Jesus’ Palestinian homeland with a fine tooth comb. More important than their thoroughness, however, is the realization of how amorphous Jesus’ life and ministry truly was. He just didn’t leave much of a footprint—and probably couldn’t have if he wanted to.

During his lifetime the number of people he interacted with or even knew he existed was probably very small. The “crowds” the gospels report him attracting are almost certainly exaggerative ways of conveying how important Jesus had become for the early church years later. In fact, the evidence for Jesus’ historical life is so thin and ambiguous that there are some who have concluded he didn’t exist at all.

That’s probably going too far. Yet it is true we are unlikely to ever have a very clear or accurate picture of him. This is due both to lack of evidence but also because his own ideas were so quickly mixed together with those of other spiritual leaders and movements of the time, Paul and the gospel writers being the most well known examples.

What seems to be the case is that Jesus was a genuine social catalyst. He was a spark which found an ample supply of human kindling. Scholars now have a much better understanding of Jesus’ world and it is evident it was ripe for change: spiritual, religious, social, economic, political. At the same time, however, that world wasn’t as ready for change as Jesus hoped and envisioned. The new “kingdom of God” of justice and equality he believed he was inaugurating was certainly more than those in positions of authority would tolerate.

His death by execution then was no surprise. What was (and still is) a surprise was that Jesus didn’t then disappear into the dust of history. And perhaps that was the genius of his vagueness and ambiguity. He said just enough to enflame people’s imaginations and give them a vision and hope of a better world. Yet his message was open enough to interpretation that many different and even conflicting people and movements could rally around him.

Thus from the start, the movement and church that followed Jesus’ death was fractious, conflicted, and marvelously chaotic. No one then or since knew what Jesus was really up to. And we will never know. All we have are the bubbling ideas that erupted from him and those around him, and which have challenged every generation since to hope and work for a better world.

Over the centuries countless church authorities have thought it their job to reign in this disorderly mess and get it under control. It’s now clear, however, that the man who upset the tables in the temple believed that such holy chaos is often the only way God’s will ever gets done. The religious chaos afflicting the church today may well be just what Jesus would have hoped for, or even ignited himself.