Using Jesus

David Hayward wrote the following on his blog today:

Everyone with any sense knows that we accept the acceptable words of Jesus and appropriate his unacceptable words in altered forms. That is, we use his sayings if they are agreeable, and we reject or theologically undermine the ones that aren’t.

I think an interesting question to ask is how long this has been going on.

In the New Testament Gospels, we actually see sayings being added, dropped, and modified. And so it is not as though we simply have the words of Jesus, and either obey them or twist them to find a way to persuade ourselves that we are obeying them when we are not. We have the words of Jesus and of early followers intermingled, interpreted, and edited in much the same manner that we encounter among those today who believe they ought to do what Jesus says, cannot or will not, and find creative ways of dealing with it by making Jesus seem to say what they wish he had actually said.

Those who emphasize their obedience to Jesus are very likely to be the most disobedient. Those who know the teaching of Jesus as presented in the New Testament as fully and honestly as possible will be the first to admit that they do not do what Jesus says faithfully in every detail.

But some will use the popular sleight of hand trick and distract your attention (and probably even their own) from what they are not doing, by priding themselves in what they are doing.

Just put the stuff about selling all you have out of your mind, by filling it up with the notion that Jesus believed the earth was a mere 4,000 years old, and priding yourself on believing what Jesus did on that topic. It will make you feel better.

But it will also make you spiritually and morally twisted, as you are forced to increasingly disobey Jesus’ teaching about humility in the process of constructing the mechanism by which you deceive yourself into believing you are being obedient.

On the subject of historical Jesus research, Anthony LeDonne has posted several things of interest recently, including one that asks when scholars finally set aside the expectation that we could recover the ipsissima verba – the very words – of Jesus.

Gavin Rumney has some cautionary words for those who assume that their progressive Christian idea of Jesus is coterminous with the real Jesus:

You buy your Jesus in a box. It’s a package deal, and the various brands slug it out. Most of us inherited a model from our parents, some of us traded it in as we got older for something that seemed more satisfying. A few of us, following the rule “once bitten twice shy”, have put Jesus back in the box and moved it to a corner of the garage or attic, out of sight out of mind.

I grew up with the long-haired calendar Jesus, a devotional Christ often pictured with small children clustered around. Later I moved to the macho-preacher Jesus, a kind of newscaster foretelling a bleak future preceding his future millennial reign. This guy definitely had short hair and a no-nonsense approach.

But the evidence is both slim and capable of multiple readings. Even with a minimal understanding of how the gospels were formed it’s pretty clear that, whatever historical bedrock there might be, the details are the product of creative storytelling.

Which makes the Jesus of Progressive Christianity just as subject to critique as any other. There’s a feeling that this Jesus is the Jesus we now need, and therefore simply must be the real Jesus. I sympathize, I really do. But the trouble is I’ve encountered explanations of “the real Jesus” before – as I’m sure you have too – and they were no such thing.

Richard Beck has had some interesting posts on the need for progressive Christians to embrace the importance of spiritual warfare and exorcism for the historical Jesus, even if we cannot embrace the mythology through which it was first expressed.

Of potentially related interest, Pete Enns has an interview with Timothy Michael Law about a book that I will  be blogging about later in the summer as part of a blog tour. The book is about the Septuagint as the early church’s Bible.

 

  • Anthony Le Donne

    The reflection by Rumney is really well said… and equally disheartening for those of us who continue to need a Jesus who is good news for the oppressed. I take some solace in the overall impression that I get from the Hebrew prophets, wisdom lit., Paul, Luke, James, and Revelation that the oppressed ought to be favored among those who profess to worship the God of the Bible. That our NT portraits of Jesus also reflect this only reinforces this impression.

  • wejrowski

    A bit different.. but makes me think of what NT Wright talks about in the beginning of JVG about Jesus icons and silhouettes:

    Either we ‘know’ ahead of time that Jesus is ‘divine’ (it is usually assumed that the force of this predicate is already understood), in which case the writing of the history of his life ‘must’ reflect this fact: the portrait then becomes an icon, useful for devotion but probably unlike the original subject. Alternatively, we commit ourselves to ruthless historical investigation, and expect, whether gladly or fearfully, that we will thereby ‘disprove’, or at least seriously undermine, orthodox theology. If we dislike these two options, we can still withdraw to the silhouette, lest we compromise or damage our faith; or we can leap, without explanation, from one side to the other. The underlying argument of this book is that the split is not warranted: that rigorous history (i.e. open-ended invenstigation of actual events in first-century Palestine) and rigorous theology (i.e. open-ended investigation of what the word ‘god’, and hence the adjective ‘divine’, might afctually refer to) belong together, and never more so than in the discussion of Jesus.


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