“Things fall apart”, and one thing that rapidly seems to be disintegrating is the Evangelical identity as typically understood in the second half of the 20th century. Here I’ve been talking of late about the “radical middle“. On the Parchment and Pen blog, there has been a discussion of what other terms, such as “historic Evangelical”, might allow one to distinguish one’s views from those of others (such as Joel Osteen). At Sojourners the term “red letter Christian” has been proposed, as a way of indicating that their focus is not on everything in the Bible, but first and foremost the teaching of Jesus.
I think I like what the latter group stands for, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find myself bearing that label at some point. My professional work as a New Testament scholars, however, leads me to ask some further questions about the banner under which they are gathering. Those of us familiar with the Jesus Seminar will be aware of their parody of the tradition of having red letter editions of the Bible, offering editions of the Gospels that include the Gospel of Thomas and rate sayings as red, pink, grey or black depending on whether, after a vote of the seminar’s fellows, it was felt that the saying was most likely authentic or inauthentic.
For a well-informed, educated Christian in our time, who wants to take seriously the teaching of Jesus, it will not be enough to focus on the words in red letters in a traditional red-letter edition. I am not persuaded that focusing on the red (or even the red and pink) sayings in the publications of the Westar Institute one has resolved the problem either, since I have found myself in some instances to not only to be persuaded of the authenticity of sayings they rated black, but also have doubted the authenticity of at least one phrase that they ranked as red.
I don’t think that the various scholars, theologians and other leaders connected with the “red letter Christians” movement intended by this to associate themselves with an uncritical approach to the Gospels, and I am not intending to criticize them at all in this respect. I am simply observing what it might mean for someone who is open to historical critical insights and approaches to wear this label, and also wondering whether certain Christians who might like the emphases of the “red letter Christians” might find these historical questions, if they are addressed openly, deeply upsetting.
The key point, however, is one that I endorse without hesitation: if one focuses on the actual teaching of Jesus – whether simply taking the Gospels at face value, or assessing each saying using the tools of historical investigation – one will end up with a set of beliefs and practices that are very much at odds with the values of those who have in recent times labelled themselves as “values voters” or the “moral majority.” When it comes to this point, acceptance or non-acceptance of an academic historical approach matters little, because the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels so consistently and overwhelmingly challenge the outlook and values of the so-called “religious right.