Monday, February 26, 2007

Jesus Then and Now

A post of mine today on VOS:

A couple of days ago we had a brief discussion about biblical interpretation and the "value" of non-canonical documents like the Q source and the Gospel of Thomas. I want to invite a discussion on this coming at it from a different angle.

Why is it, do you suppose, that books by writers of the Jesus Seminar like Marcus Borg and JD Crossan are so popular today? Why are all these books by Elaine Pagels and Karen Armstrong and JS Spong and Bart Ehrman selling? Why the interest in the non-canonical gospels like Thomas and Mary Magdalene and now Judas? Why are CNN and MSNBC fronting stories this very day about the tomb of Jesus on their web sites and news programs? Who is reading and watching and following all this un-Orthodox Christian material?

And to broaden the question even more, why are so many Christians reading books about Buddhism by the likes of Jack Kornfield and Thich Nhat Hanh?

And why has Richard Dawkins' book The God Delusion been on the NYTimes bestseller list for 22 weeks now; and it has been joined by Sam Harris' book Letter to a Christian Nation. And think about how popular Carl Sagan was. How many athiests are there in America? How many of them are sitting in our churches on Sunday morning?

And let's not forget all the interest in new age stuff and wicca.

I think it is all very well to sit in the comfort of one's Christian orthodoxy and dismiss all of this with the certain knowledge that it isn't Christian and all of these folks are going to be toasting in hell. But doesn't it make you wonder what is going on here? Why aren't all these people satisfied with the orthodox Christian story? Why isn't the plain truth of the Bible enough? And, yes I know, some also see this as part of the unfolding plan of God. That's why The Left Behind series is also a best-seller.

But it all makes me wonder if it isn't true that we are living very much in a post-Christian era that has much in common with the era of pre-Constantinian Christianity, a period of time when the proto-Orthodox Christian movement was in real competition with a host of other religious beliefs, many of them pagan, some of them (Arians and Pelagians and Gnostics, Oh My) actually believing that they were the "true" followers of Jesus.

To the victor goes the spoils, of course, and we look back on 1600 years of Christian dominance in the west and it seems obvious we were right. But if you read Paul and the early church "fathers" it is also obvious that although they believed they were right they knew it wasn't something they could take for granted. It wasn't enough to dismiss the "competition" as irrelevant because it wasn't "our story." They had to make their case. And in making their case they didn't just pass on the story of Jesus unadulterated; they translated that story into the language of the culture in whose midst they were living. Jesus the Jewish messiah became Christ the Lord, to give one obvious example.

It appears to me that our story isn't faring so well today in the west and it might behoove us to ask ourselves why that is. And maybe, for example, we need to think about doing a better job translating Jesus into a post-modern and post-magical world. Maybe, for example, the stories and sayings like those found in Q (we think) and Thomas translate better than the miracles.

I also wonder, thinking more directly about the interest in the Jesus who doesn't quite fit into orthodoxy and of the Christians who are sitting in churches on Sunday morning but also dabbling in other forms of spirituality, if it isn't a situation similar to what Paul saw and exploited with the god-fearers who were attending the synagogues. They were genuine in their seeking but were not quite welcome just as they were. Paul showed them how they could be welcome without having to change something essential about themselves. Then it was being Gentile; maybe now it is sexual orientation, or being comfortable living in a scientific world or with the idea that there is more than one true spiritual path. What will the Jesus movement of the future look like that speaks to today's god-fearers, I wonder.

No comments: