My wife Genie has been my “Jesus tutor.” She’s very much like the Virgin Mary, not counting the virgin part. Like Mary, Genie got pregnant when she was a teen—by me not by the Holy Spirit. And it was unplanned like Mary’s pregnancy and also “out of wedlock.” Genie is a primate (Mary was too) but like Mary, Genie does not bite and scratch (very often). And Genie taught me how to forgive others and myself by forgiving me for behaving like a grade-A asshole.
Genie has copied Jesus over our 42-year marriage. And my daughter Jessica, who bore the brunt of my stupidity, youth and anger when I was a teen father sliding into my insecure selfish 20s, has copied Genie too. Jessica grew up and then forgave me for being a sometimes mean and always impatient young father. And I copied Genie and Jessica.
That’s the “how” of my changing some of the neural pathways in my brain for the better. I was set a good example and decided that theirs was the better way. That’s the “how” of my second chance to be a very different person than I once was—at least in the eyes of my youngest grandchildren.
My granddaughter Lucy (presently a four-year-old) and my grandson Jack (presently two-years-old) came into my life after my decades-long steep learning curve. Thankfully, they didn’t have to endure it. Others paid that price. That means Lucy and Jack mostly know me as the guarantor of unconditional love. (They are my former-Marine son John’s kids and live next door, and I see them for many hours each day, so to say we’re “close” hardly covers it.) I just wish I could roll back the clock and be the person they know today especially to my firstborn, back when Jessica was very young.
So who is this Jesus we can copy through others who copy him? No one will ever know. But here are some possibilities. If the fundamentalists are correct (and why shouldn’t they be, because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and every word of the Bible is “literally true” (whatever that means), when Jesus was nailed to a cross and asked God to unconditionally “forgive them for they know not what they do,” he was asking God to renounce vengeance—forever. He was asking for God to forgive everyone involved in his murder, and that included the Romans and Jews of his day who would never “become Christians” let alone pray the “sinner’s prayer.” Forgive them all unconditionally, Jesus asked. In other words, the idea of hell was abolished.
If the theologically liberal “side” is correct (and why shouldn’t they be because no one knows anything about God or the Bible) and the Bible is mostly myth (whatever that means) combined with garbled oral history screwed up by St. Paul and further deformed by hell-loving vengeful St. Augustine, and all the other power-hungry retributive abusers of the Jesus Story from Augustine to Calvin, then Jesus-The-Mysterious-Myth holds out just as much hope of salvation as a literal Jesus does. Because either way, if you imitate Jesus (or copy your version of Genie and Jessica copying him) you can change your brain and be saved from the only person with the capacity to punish you forever: yourself.
That change comes not because of magic or even God but because Jesus (or whoever wrote about him) actually had one great idea: Forgive! So who is this Jesus? Is he God or man, divine or “merely” wise? And where do we “learn” about him, from the Bible, from clever teachers in seminaries, from inspired pastors and/or from the traditions of the ancient church?
The good news is it doesn’t matter. The Jesus idea is powerful and true in that it “works” so where we learn about it doesn’t matter. We don’t even know those we live with, so how very silly to claim we know who anyone else really is or was. Our knowledge of those even closest to us is woefully incomplete and yet we muddle along. I can’t definitively tell you who Genie and my children are either. I’m not them. But that doesn’t stop me communicating with them any more than my incomplete or even wrong knowledge about who Jesus is stops me from learning the great idea – forgive – that is at the heart of the Jesus Story.
I don’t just “meet” Jesus in the Bible. I meet Jesus at midnight through a tired, thrice-divorced, seen-it-all nurse who gave up her day and night to do the dishes with me for our church but who will still be on night duty a few hours later. I meet Jesus through people who are atheists, agnostics, Muslims or nothing at all, except imitators of Jesus– no matter who they credit for their non-primate like loving behavior. In other words, they are forgivers. They might not have ever heard of Jesus, let alone “believe in him,” but often they are much more like him than some folks running churches.
This seems to be the “message” of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus said (okay, the person writing the story about him said that he said) that the only character in his story serving God wasn’t even a believer. The Samaritan was an enemy of the chosen people, someone who was outside of the holy tradition into which Jesus was born. And this despised “other” (in today’s American context say a gay atheist) was the only person doing the will of God—ergo “saved.”And the religious people with the “right” beliefs in the story were lost.
(To be continued. Look for PART 4 and the conclusion of The Blessed Hypocrisy “Method Acting” of Salvation coming soon to this space.)