“We, the modern readers who search the figure of Jesus down the years of Christian history and through the tangles of Christian mythology, have a sentimental tendency to believe that if only we could have known members of this original Judaean Church, we should have a clearer picture of what the historical Jesus was actually like. I think that this is a yearning which, had it been granted, might have proved illusory.” — A. N. Wilson, Jesus: A Life.
One of the advantages to being a professional Christian, i.e., a theologian, is that there is no end to the material at hand written about the Christ. You can specialize, focus, narrow the search, just like any good scientist on the hunt or literary critic looking to tie up the loose ends. A living can be made, a career sustained, research performed and curiosity indulged. All this because—and we can be grateful for this—the subject, Jesus, is elusive in the extreme, slipping in and out of the light, always just out of reach.
By now, all these centuries later, the Jesus business is an immense industry. One can spend a lifetime inside the organizational machine, faithfully tinkering with the gears, rewriting the operating manuals, and offering tours of the plant. Rarely would the occasion arise to question the mission statement or, in the case of some variations on the theme, to ponder the profits won in the name of a first-century Jewish rabbi. There is simply too much at stake, too many events interpreted, innumerable private moments captured, diverted and sluiced through a corporate filter, too much memory and ego involved to ever hit the emergency switch and bring the whole train to a shuddering halt.
Reports of the imminent demise of religion are greatly exaggerated; those who predicted its passing so confidently back in the 60s are now rewriting their scripts to reflect the upsurge in passionate intensity. In America, every serious candidate for the presidency must pledge his or her allegiance to god and country, and find the born-again moment or a good facsimile of it, before being taken seriously for fund-raising and politicking. The fact that this was the first country to honor private belief by separating church and state provokes an equal and opposite reaction that chafes at the very freedom which guarantees its existence.
Where to begin with understanding Jesus? Who to believe? Which side to take in the wars of faith? If we are not to drown in the tide of scholarship or be sucked down in the maelstrom of fundamentalism we need to just. . . stand still and imagine. The great payoff of all the archeology, the historical and linguistic criticism of the Bible, the socio-political analysis of life as a Galilean peasant under the heel of Roman oppression is that we’ve caught clear glimpses of Jesus’ times. That is of immense value to organization and individual, scholarship and devotion, professional and pilgrim. But all that apparatus may not help to a quite simple end—imagining with the mind’s eye what Jesus must have been like from moment to moment.
Humility is needed, not ignorance. Knowledge in the service of faith, faith seeking understanding—all of that is to our advantage. And yet, for all that we know about Jesus and the Gospels I don’t think we’d feel at home in Jesus‘ world. In fact, I’m not so sure we’d be at ease around Jesus. Our modern phrase, “I’m not comfortable with that,” might get us a quizzical look and a shake of the head. He did not come to make it easy on us; after all, he was an offense and a stumbling-block to almost everyone.
Garry Wills, eminent historian, classicist, and Catholic lay theologian, writes in his devotional What Jesus Meant, “He was a mystery in his own home. Other members of his family will be at a similar loss in coping with this disturbing person in their midst.” After all, he shocked and terrified his parents early on by slipping away from their homeward processional to argue and debate the priests in the temple. When Jesus is invoked as an example of love and obedience to parents, it’s usually meant in a restrictive and conformist sense. “But there are many indications,” notes Wills, “that Jesus was more like those restive and resisting children who have all the idealism and absolutism of youth—young people who chafe against the boundaries of the past and are panting to explore new horizons.” Such young people often stir up resentment and anger. In Jesus’ case it was extreme: his own childhood friends and neighbors tried to kill him one Sabbath after synagogue. It gives new meaning to the practice of roasting the pastor at the Sabbath potluck.
But the point here is not to do what Jesus did. He had his life and purpose; we have ours. It would be misguided and wrong, I believe, to examine his actions in order that we might reproduce them in our time and context. In many Christian bookstores you can find bracelets, T-shirts, headbands, license-plate frames, mugs, belts and rings with the acronym WWJD—What Would Jesus Do? As well-intentioned as the sentiment might be (and I do mean sentiment) it completely misses the point. It reduces the complexity of a human life to a trite recitation of middle-class platitudes. It avoids the hard truth that there are many things that Jesus did that we wouldn’t and couldn’t do because of who he was, where he was, and the urgency of his singular mission in life.
What I am struggling to say is that the kind of radical change that Jesus called people to comes from the inside and works outward. It does not work if it’s imposed from the outside, a mere aping of the motion without the underlying emotion. Behind the emotion lies understanding and motivation, two pillars that may be grasped in a blinding flash (remember Saul’s ‘Damascus road’ experience?), but are built up over time like the growth of coral or the layers of a pearl. We want the shortcut to glory without the small gestures that come from a deepening union with Jesus.
Here is where I’ll stop because the cliches so easily come to mind. That way leads to paralysis. What is needed is the eloquence of simplicity, something truly easier said than done. As for Jesus, well, he is still there, the piece of our puzzle that never fits and in the end remakes us around his own mysterious form.
“There is much else that Jesus did. If it were all to be recorded in detail, I suppose the whole world could not hold the books that would be written.”