When I was a Christian, I used to say things like this all the time. [And yes, for the six hundredth time, I really was a Christian. For at least twenty years of my life, my faith was my life; everything else was secondary. But that doesn’t seem to stop people from dismissing me with the wave of a hand, saying “Surely he was never truly one of us.” Some people’s faith is so weak that if they ever allowed that people can genuinely and sincerely commit their whole lives to Jesus only to leave the faith later on, they would lose all hope for themselves. So they write me off, which means that now they don’t have to listen to me or learn anything from me at all. But I digress.]
I used to say “It’s about Jesus, not the Bible” for the same reasons that I used to say “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” I was trying to distinguish my own particular variety of the Christian faith from all those lesser creations of men because unlike theirs, mine was The Real Deal. I had recovered True Christianity™ unlike all those millions of misguided yahoos who insisted they had done exactly the same thing but with wildly divergent results. Those poor souls were taught to be a “people of the book,” but I knew better. I knew that those who truly understood their book should have understood that making the book central goes against what the book itself intended. The book just leads to Jesus and for that reason Jesus trumps the book. If at any point the book seems to disagree with Jesus, you go with Jesus. These were the distinctions I learned to make, and they made sense within the context in which I lived at the time.
Now that I’m outside that context, I’ve got people throwing those same distinctions at me and I’m having a hard time getting them to see that this talk only has meaning to those who share their implicit trust in what the Bible says. Yes, I promise I’ve heard these disclaimers and clarifications before, and for what it’s worth, I recall them having meaning for me as well at one point in time. Like them, I once sought to present a portrait of a God who was attractive and winsome. “It is his kindness that leads you to repentance,” I would maintain, hoping to convince others (as well as myself) that my Supreme Being was supremely likeable, and far more concerned with “fellowshipping” with us than with judging or condemning us. That’s all well and good, but…
When you’re having this conversation with someone who doesn’t defer to the Bible the way you do, this distinction between two alternate gospels totally loses its significance because from our point of view, those are both constructs. Yes, your construct sounds nicer than some of the competing constructs people are pushing on us pretty much every day (the culture wars are a daily thing where I live), but you don’t seem to realize that both the book-centered gospel and the Jesus-centered gospel are predicated on a book we don’t trust in the first place. And not only do we not trust it; it appears that in many ways you don’t either. Allow me to illustrate.
The Bible versus the Bible
Some people build their theology around the notion that the Old Testament got a bunch of things wrong, whereas Jesus got them right. Let’s call this Jesus versus Moses. As pastor Brian Zahnd recently argued in a post entitled, “Jesus Trumps Biblicism,” there is in the New Testament itself a clear precedent for viewing things this way. This perspective allows us to dismiss the less savory parts of the Old Testament which portray God as an angry, vengeful, fickle deity who wipes out entire races or even entire species because he’s so upset with them for not following his rules. The God of the Old Testament killed off an awful lot of people (and animals) both directly and indirectly. But never you mind, folks! The good news is that the same book that says God had people stoned for Sabbath breaking and ordered all the Canaanites to be killed later says that God sends his rain on the just and the unjust. “You have heard it said,” Jesus said, “but I say to you…” Again, that’s all well and good. However…
The Bible is what’s telling us both things, and they can’t both be right. As a Christian I was taught to “embrace the tension” between those two conflicting things but it never occurred to me that those two things cannot both be correct. In both places it is saying that God said such-and-such, which means that in one place the book is reliable and the other it is not. It’s not like the book just says “the Israelites thought God said to kill them all.” It says God said it. And then later the same book says it was wrong earlier when it said that God said. . .what God said. Do you not see the problem here?
For Christians, this is not a problem. Because of their prior commitment to trusting the Bible as special revelation from God, they begin with the assumption that it must all work out somehow. The most popular rationalization is that the long history of God’s plan of salvation required a “progressive revelation” of his mind and will, which means that the earlier revelation can be “incomplete” while the later revelation is more authoritative. The letter to the Hebrews begins this way:
In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
You can see the struggle to reconcile the Old and New Testaments had already begun at the very beginning. But there is a much simpler (and to my mind more likely) explanation: They’re both made up, and they’re both wrong. Of course, I won’t likely be convincing them of that, but that’s not even what I’m trying to do here. I’m just trying to explain that presenting Jesus as more authoritative than the Old Testament carries very little weight for people who don’t see any reason to implicitly trust either source. They both come to us today between the pages of the same book. For us today, both Moses and Jesus are literary characters in stories which we don’t believe. Yes, Jesus is far more palatable than Moses in most places. At times Jesus even comes across as an enlightened and liberated proto-humanist. But there are other times when, well. . .let’s save that for last. My point for now is that I think Christians regurgitate this explanation to us out of habit because they’re accustomed to using this as an explanation for one context (demonstrating to other Christians the “right way” to interpret the Bible) while speaking to a group situated in an entirely different one (demonstrating to non-believers how any part of the Bible is authoritative in any respect at all).
But it’s not just about the New Testament disagreeing with the Old. In many places, the New Testament disagrees with itself. In response to this problem, many simply pit Jesus versus Paul, as if the man most responsible for sketching out early Christian thought somehow got Jesus totally wrong. In all fairness, I see a lot of sense in this notion myself, except that I no longer share any ideological commitment to defend the integrity of the Christian religion, so this doesn’t present a problem for me. But if you subscribe to the notion that a guiding intelligence was supposed to be shaping the early Church in any way, admitting this dichotomy would seem to undermine your whole system. Truly, when you read Paul’s letters and then go back and read the gospels, there’s so little repetition or overlap that you wonder if Paul had ever even heard of those stories. The ethereal cosmic figure Paul wrote about seems like a trippy departure from a guy he never really met in real life. Paul knew Jesus only from visions and from weaving together a kind of literary character out of Hebrew scriptures which, when you go back and read them in their original context, say nothing of the sort. Come to think of it, even Paul contradicts Paul in such key ways that most scholars who aren’t personally bound by religious loyalties to inerrancy will admit that much of what we were told was written by Paul wasn’t written by him at all. In other words, even Paul disagrees with Paul, so it’s no surprise that he represents a departure from Jesus as well.
But now comes the group that irritates me most of all lately. Some people are prepared to concede that even the gospels get Jesus wrong sometimes, and they argue that places where Jesus seems to advocate judgment and condemnation aren’t really giving us the real Jesus after all. So now we’ve got Jesus versus Jesus. And yet somehow despite this debacle they are still certain that they can discern which portrait of Jesus is the right one: It’s whichever one is the most likable and which, coincidentally, happens to agree most completely with all of our most cherished modern virtues. Sure, they tell us, the Bible says Jesus spoke of Hell more than anyone else in history up until that point, but maybe that was added later. And yes, they admit, it appears that Jesus had some harsh and dismissive things to say about family life. But maybe the real Jesus never said such things because “that’s not the Jesus I know.”
People, are you even listening to yourselves? On what basis are you able to tell me which words and actions are the real Jesus and which ones are the imposter Jesus? They’re both coming from the same source. And this time we’re not even talking about two different texts written in two different languages 1,000 years apart. We’re talking about parsing a single story compiled by the same editor(s) at the same time (we don’t even know who wrote the gospels, and they don’t really tell us anyway). What makes you so certain you can reliably do this? How is it that you—living two millennia later than the original writers of these stories—can discern better which stories are “real” and which are “fake?” Your own personal feelings? Is your gut leading you now? I just don’t get the cherry picking. Or more to the point, if you have any self-awareness about how much cherry picking you’re doing, I just don’t get how you can then turn around and say you worship and love something you know you just built yourself with scissors and tape and glue. All I can figure is that you’re convinced your hard work has simply uncovered the real Jesus as he was meant to be known. But you have fashioned this person yourself.
Christians mock their Hebrew forbears for crafting the golden calf out of their own treasures. Who would be so silly as to worship something they know they’ve just made, right? Why do they think something they had to make themselves is worthy of praise? My question is: How is that not exactly what Christians who cherry pick the Bible are doing, especially once they start sculpting Jesus out of the bits and pieces of him they like, discarding the rest? Fundamentalists will nod their heads to these questions and shout “Amen!” but that’s only because they fail to see that at least the cherry pickers are trying to resolve the tensions which the Fundamentalists aren’t even trying to reason out. Some are content to just throw their hands in the air and give up, saying “His ways are higher than our ways. It’s not supposed to make sense.” That may work for some people but for the rest of us, we want to make sense out of the stuff we are told we’re supposed to believe. We’ve seen enough to know that uncritically accepting unreasonable beliefs is a recipe for disaster, leading to unnecessary heartache and pain, and quite often grotesque social injustices as well.
I think I know the most sensible resolution of this whole mess. The only reason any of this presents a problem in the first place is that all of these people are trying to save the Bible from itself. But have you seriously considered the possibility that it’s a hopeless mess? The Bible is a messy collection of the pious imaginings of many, many groups of people over a very long period of time. Honestly, it gets more things wrong than it gets right, and the only reason more people don’t see it is because of centuries of reinforcement which says you’re supposed to see this as a special book—a magic book—a book which, if you read it correctly will change you. It will shape your character and help you see things and understand things you wouldn’t be able to see any other way.
Well I did that. I grew up in that mentality and it was my world from childhood through my early adult years. But I see its error now. The emperor has no clothes. To people in my position, hearing you profess that you don’t trust the Bible but that you love Jesus is like hearing you say that you know the emperor’s weavers were charlatans, but didn’t the coat they made look splendid! Don’t bother telling me that it’s “a mystery.” From where I’m standing, we’ve got another word for that.