Friday, October 21, 2005

Jesus in the Apse

I once preached a sermon in which I said that certain parts of the Bible were so worn by use, they no longer had any sharp edges to grab us and make us see the truth they are relaying. In other words, familiarity breeds not so much contempt, as it does blindness. And then there is the whole phenomenon of people who say they know and love Jesus, but never actually spend much time listening to him, or trying to gain even the slightest inkling about the world in which he lived. And so Jesus is lifted high up into the apse of our spiritual consciousness, where he is proclaimed King, Savior, and Substitute, and where he is as silent as a gilded mosaic.

N.T. Wright, whose commentaries I have used and appreciated over the years, and who has contributed to the New Perspectives on Paul debate, offers this comment: "My own understanding of Jesus, and hence of Christianity, has been deeply and profoundly affected by my historical study. Whatever else is the case about my beliefs and my scholarship, it is certainly not true that I have 'found' a 'Jesus' who has merely reinforced the belief-system I had before the process began. The closer I get to Jesus within his historical context, the more I find my previous ideas, and indeed my previous self, radically subverted" (emphasis mine), Who Was Jesus (SPCK, 2005).

What does it mean to be "radically subverted"? For some this might mean deliverance from bondage to a particular besetting sin, while for others it might mean an opening up to new forms of discipleship which go beyond Sunday pew-sitting. Of course such language can be co-opted politically and socially as well. But here's the rub: I don't think most people in the church even know Jesus. For to know him would require they intimately know the New Testament, and that they manifestly do not. Biblical literacy is atrocious in the church, never mind secular society (see this survey). Absurd answers abound to even the simplest questions: Moses is often named as an apostle; 12% of adults polled believe Joan of Arc was Noah's wife; 82% believe that the phrase,"God helps those who help themselves," is in the Bible; a significant portion of high school students believe Sodom and Gommorah were husband and wife.

Do we know the Jesus of the New Testament, or do we prefer Jesus in the apse? The gospel depictions are replete with uncomfortable moments (e.g., the Syro-Phoenician woman (Mt 15), the fig tree (Mt 21), and statements like, "For truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes" (Mt 10:23)). But beyond such glaringly problematic verses, is the encounter with this Palestinian Rabbi who teaches an ethic of living in God's kingdom which seems impossible to live by. So I ask again, do we know Jesus?

I think we prefer not to know Jesus, and instead prefer to focus on Christ, who is more Savior than rabbi, more occidental than oriental, and who is for the most part, mute. I don't think Jesus is even in the apse; I think Christ is in the apse. What I mean by that statement will have to wait until my next post.


Blogger Andrew said...

An eloquent, insightful post on a topic I've thought much about. I look forward to reading Part 2.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Inquisitor Generalis said...

That's a pic you'll never see in a Reformed faith community!

12:51 AM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

Oh, Ars. Ins't it so. This is why I have a preference for narrative theology and the words ands stories of Jesus. The actual words of Jesus, in my view, act as a corrective to the theological tangents of other writers including Paul. I am also pleased to see your emphasis on the oriental Rabbi and the hard words of Jesus. Too often I find that these are glossed over for the Sunday School blonde haired blue eyed Jesus who is Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild. Jesus in his own words is anything but meek and mild. Jesus in his own words is a man of his time and culture (what else would the Incarnation be about?) The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is a case. Wasn't particularly inclusive was he in the way he spoke to her? Not particularly gentle nor was he mild. Jesus was a Jewish teacher. He was great to us women - but take a dominant Jewish custom like touch. Look to the Gospels how often Jesus touched others. Look how often he touched women. He was very Jewish - and, of course, this is why the woman touching the hem of his garment is so significant and remarkable. Jesus in his ministry and teaching sought to remove the layer upon layer placed by humanity on top of the God-given message of truth. This needs to be a continuing task for us too - stripping away the dross humanity has piled up through ignorance, theology, philosophy, materialism, accommodation to the world and its desires. The message then becomes simple and confronting and the response comes down to choice: God and Mammon and whom you will serve.

3:48 AM  
Blogger Miss Eagle said...

Ars, people from the USA visiting Australia are often stunned to find how secular Australian society is. Few Australians wear their religion on their sleeves as Americans do. We have declining church attendance and even the mega-churches are concerned with their churn rate. I don't think people in the pews have confronted the facts and outcomes of a couple of generations who have not even had basic Sunday School contact. The story I am about to tell is true. First of all let me explain that our Prime Minister (the top politician in the land) is named John Howard. Cafe of the Gate of Salvation is the top accapella group in Australia singing in the black gospel tradition. Its leader is the brilliant Tony Backhouse. Tony does lots of workshops in Australian and New Zealand as the interest in black gospel music continues. Two years ago Tony was doing a workshop in Townsville, North Queensland. About three hundred people were present. I was in the soprano section and Tony was taking us through a version of The Lord's Prayer, phrase by phrase. I looked around at one stage and noticed two thirty-something women talking down the back of the sopranos. Next thing one of them spoke up. "Tony" she said "what is that we are singing? Not Howard be thy name is it". "No" said Tony quietly and patiently "it is hallowed be thy name." So in Australia anyone who thinks the population has some sort of knowledge of The Lord's Prayer can be in for a shock.

4:01 AM  
Blogger Scribe said...

Wow! Thanks for both posts. You anticipate my post for tomorrow, which is part 2 entitled "The Laminated Jesus." Layers and layers of theological imposition obscure the teachings of Jesus, and so we worship the ikon, and ignore the person. This is also a violation of the inter-personal nature of the Trinity, and a form of idolatry which permits injustice and oppression.

"Howard be thy name..." LOL It reminds me of the little children who at Christmas sing, "Hark the Harold angles sing."


8:47 AM  

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