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.