Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The identity of Jesus Christ

Recently I was saddened to be asked what I thought of Zealot, the best-selling book about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Reza Aslan. I was saddened because the man who was asking me is a lifelong churchman, certainly a believer of sorts, and a fine person. He was enthralled by Zealot and had no clue that there had been any criticisms of it. When I tried to explain that Aslan was not a biblical scholar and did not understand the issues, he protested that Aslan had a PhD (it's in sociology).

Particularly discouraging is the fact that these sorts of books are often recommended by clergy, read in church book clubs, and held up as the latest piece of "new" thinking about Jesus. Actually, these books have been coming out since 1778, with Hermann Samuel Reimarus' initial foray into the "historical Jesus." From the standpoint of anyone who loves the Bible and believes in the gospel, it is tiresome to have to deal with these books again and again, rehearsing the same arguments again and again.

To give Aslan his due, he is apparently a lively writer and has given a highly readable account of first-century Palestine; such books do not hit the best-seller list and the airport bookstores unless they are accessible and engaging. I don't intend to read the book (I figure I have about ten years of reading left, God willing, so I choose carefully these days!) but a review by New Testament scholar Greg Carey in Christian Century (September 30, 2013) outlines some of the "misleading information" and "outworn misconceptions" in Zealot.  (I can't give a link because you have to subscribe to read the review.)

The wife of the man who asked me about Zealot later told me that she also had read it. She made one comment: "It diminishes Jesus."

That's it exactly. That is the point that needs to be made about Zealot to all who really seek to learn, understand, and follow the man who is called "my Lord and my God" by Christians (as the disciple Thomas does in John 20:28).

Of course anyone is free to write anything they want about Jesus. Christianity does not issue fatwas against, let alone decapitate, people who diminish or dismiss our Master and Redeemer.  But it seems to me that it is part of our Christian duty to stand up and explain why these books which purport to tell us about the "real" Jesus are bogus.

Let's say it again: we have no access to the "historical Jesus." Such reconstructions are guesswork, shaded by the personal biases of the writers. We know nothing whatever of the historical Jesus--though it can safely be assumed that he did indeed live "under Pontius Pilate" and was crucified. The four Gospels are not history. They are testimonies to the Messiah of Israel and Son of God. These are claims that can be made only by faith. The various writers of the New Testament are testifying "by faith, for faith."  That's why reading "the Bible as history" or "the Bible as literature" is doomed to failure (although I will admit that The Great Code, by the distinguished literary critic Northrup Frye, comes close to success...but then Frye was a believer of sorts). The Bible is not a scholar's book;  it is the church's book, by which the church lives.

I am at a loss as to how to counter the enthusiasm for Jesus-diminishing books. Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus (1996) is still an excellent takedown of the historical Jesus movement by a New Testament scholar writing for a popular audience. For those interested in undertaking a more rigorous scholarly approach, there is How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? (2005) by Larry Hurtado, another New Testament professor, who writes from a more historical perspective, but with theological convictions.

The way to meet the real Jesus has always been the same: listen to someone who knows him. Read the sermons of the great preachers who knew him (I have all of Spurgeon in my laptop). I sent a copy of Theodore Parker Ferris' sermons, What Jesus Did, to the man who asked me about Zealot.

Will Willimon, the celebrated preacher of our day, wrote somewhere that the Jesus-diminishers all have one underlying assumption: Jesus is dead. That's the difference, right there. The "real Jesus" is not a figure of the past to be studied like other historical persons. He is the Saviour who through the Spirit is alive in our present, and he is the reigning Lord of the future of the created order.


As a postscript I am adding this little piece on the same subject, both astute and delightful, by The Rev. Adam Linton of the Church of the Holy Spirit (Episcopal) on Cape Cod (Orleans):


“Of making many books there is no end.” 

So we read in Ecclesiastes (12:12).  However, being a bibliophile, I appropriate these words rather differently than in the cautionary spirit that the writer intended! On the other hand, given what often gets published these days, I can see the original point.

This is especially the case with books having to do with the New Testament.  Many of the more popular writers on the topic are significantly less helpful than they are marketed to be—in particular those writers that I might characterize as popularizing skeptics.  Much dated scholarship presented as the latest thing; many questionable theories presented, simply, as up-to-date facts.  As I see it, authors in this class are frequently only a couple of notches higher than what we read in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.   While no writers can claim perfect objectivity, these are highly agenda-laden.  I believe that what they offer is often seriously misleading.  And it’s not simply that I disagree with these writers’ conclusions (although I do).  Just that—in my estimation—they are the kind of authors (especially when read too exclusively) who tend to leave their readers thinking that they know much more than they actually do.  I find that a serious problem.

The difficult truth is that we can go in for this kind of stuff precisely because it appeals to the part in us that does not want to be drawn closer to Christ.  This is the unhealthy secret, I believe, often at the heart of these writings. The “know-it-all, heard-it-all” de-bunking attitude of superiority functions spiritually as a distancing mechanism.  All too effectively.  But no faith tradition can be “used”—or better, enacted—in the lives of its practitioners from a place of sophisticated cynicism. 

I sometimes feel—to use an illustration—it’s as though folks get caught in between the Sugar Smacks and the Honey Nut Cheerios, in the “breakfast” aisle at the grocery store—and hope that it’s not too paternalistic to say that it reminds me of the classic shopping trip scene of parents trying to get their pleading children past the brightly packaged—and very well marketed—junk food.

There’s another direction, entirely, to which I might be inclined to indicate:  Perhaps something more along the lines of Old Fashioned Rolled Oats.  I’d rather lead people to better basic ingredients so they can do their own work of preparing meals that actually nourish. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Pelagius, Augustine, and the "Rape of Nanking": orthodoxy in disarray (part two)

The "rape of Nanking," a terrible atrocity that occurred over six weeks at the end of the year 1937 in the Chinese city (now transliterated as Nanjing) was largely overlooked in the West until it entered the popular mind in 1997 with the publication of a best-seller, The Rape of Nanking, by a young Princeton-born Chinese-American journalist, Iris Chang, who became famous and then developed "reactive psychosis" and took her own life.

The Yale Divinity School has an archive on the Nanking massacres:
And here is a short capsule explaining the horrific six-week episode of mass murder and mass rape:

What has this got to do with the Augustine-Pelagius debate and Christian doctrine?

Here's what. A few weeks ago, wanting to understand more, I went on a binge of watching movies about the events in Nanjing during those terrible six weeks of 1937. One of them, John Rabe, tells the story of a "good German," a member of the Nazi Party, who was a leader of the international community of doctors and missionaries who set up an International Safety Zone within Nanjing, thereby saving hundreds of thousands. (Other hundreds of thousands perished.) The second one, Flowers of War, by respected director Zhang Yimou who has done some excellent work in the past, was tarted up with Christian Bale and a glamorous prostitute (the central episode of self-sacrifice, however, is based on a real event). The third and fourth films, City of Life and Death and Nanjing, are justly admired treatments in quasi-documentary style. The History Channel also has a 40-minute documentary on YouTube.

I have never been bothered by violence in movies and do not flinch from it, in most cases. Often it is clearly just cinema. However, as I watched all this material from the Nanjing massacres (and much of it is profoundly disturbing and truly sickening to see), I was appalled to discover something happening in myself. I am, naturally, ashamed of this, but I am admitting it in the interests of something greater. I began to be repulsed and fascinated at the same time. I began actually to want to see more violent episodes because of the sensations they produced. I could feel something happening in myself that lay far beyond the reach of my conscious will.

Why am I admitting to this alarming propensity? Because I believe it is universal.  I believe, with good cause, that any person under certain circumstances can become anesthetized by pure sensation, so that one becomes capable of reactions that otherwise would be very out of character--reactions that in certain circumstances will lead to actions. Take for example the recent book What Soldiers Do by Mary Louise Roberts, which details the appalling behavior of many American GIs after the liberation of Paris, acting with impunity and the active encouragement of senior officers. There have been numerous stories out of our recent wars, from the massacre at My Lai (Vietnam, 1968) to the Haditha killings (Iraq, 2005). The photos from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq (2004) displayed what can happen when ordinary American soldiers are allowed free rein to indulge in sadistic fantasies without fear of repercussions. In Jarhead, his book about the Gulf War, Anthony Swofford told how his Marine unit repeatedly watched supposedly anti-war films like Platoon to bond over their delight in the violent scenes, without any context other than that of warrior culture.

I'm suggesting that there is something wrong with us all, something beyond our conscious wills, that causes us to lose our bearings. The vile torture-murderers of today's ISIS seem truly to believe that they are no worse than the Americans who were in charge of Abu Ghraib. The negotiations now taking place about releasing a cache of Abu Ghraib photos that have so far been withheld from the public are not encouraging in this regard; they are said to be much worse than the ones previously published. The young Americans in the photos we have already seen, giving thumbs-up signs over dead bodies, laughing and joking at the humiliation and torture of others, would have lived and died as ordinary citizens if they had not been placed in the midst of the fog of war with no moral guidance from their leaders.

These human failings, which ail us all even though only some of us get found out, are caused by Sin. Sin is as forbidden a word in the church today as are racial epithets. St Paul's teaching about Sin as a Power operating in the world independently of human positive thinking is little understood and very seldom preached or explained. Instead, the popularity of "human potential" and "human possibility" holds the center. That's what Pelagius believed in. His writings have survived only second hand, but he seems to have feared (as we do today) that our self-esteem and our motivation to do good would suffer if we were to take seriously a gospel of undeserved, radical grace.

The goodness that overcomes evil in this world is not a result of human potential but of divine gift. It lives out of hope and faith in the God who has restored human nature in his Son Jesus Christ, alive in the Spirit as a guarantee or "down payment" of our inheritance in salvation "until we acquire possession of it" (Ephesians 1:14). In this life we must live with the ambiguous fact that the "world rulers of this present darkness" (Eph. 6:10) are as near to us as our own unconscious, and more dangerous to our soul's health than we can ever understand if we continue to look for such health inside ourselves. There is no unsullied location in the human interior where we can find victory over the "elemental spirits of the universe" who seek to enslave us (Galatians 4:3). The only victory over Sin is found in the direct action of God who "sent forth his through God you are no longer a slave but a son/daughter" (Gal. 4:4-7).

Years ago, the mainline churches used to sneer at Norman Vincent Peale, with his "power of positive thinking," but his form of the Pelagian gospel of human potential has just been replaced by another, in the form of various kinds of self-affirming messages clothed in "spiritual" language, as though Sin did not exist. These lies are not only evasions of the truth about ourselves and the Powers we face, not only pablum about the benignity of the creation as though it were unfallen, but most deceitful of all, they violate the truth about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ who gave himself up to the Powers of Sin and Death in order to save the entire created order from its bondage and to restore the true image of humanity. He accomplished this by recapitulating the human story in his own human life, the only human life that has ever been lived free from the power of Sin. It is precisely in absorbing the onslaught of Sin into himself that he won the victory and was raised into eternal life on our behalf. It is in his agony and death that we see the final judgment upon the infernal Powers, and it is in his resurrection--and in that alone--that we see the final defeat of all that afflicts the human race.