I imagine Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover article on Christianity in Crisis will attract a great deal of interest. He castigates the modern church in all its forms for its corruption, hypocrisy, loss of moral authority, materialism, obsession with sex, intellectual obscurantism, and collusion with political power. He thinks that Jesus would have been baffled by North American religion and by culturally dominant North American Evangelicalism in particular. In place of the “the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations”, he portrays a Jesus who looks very much like Francis of Assisi—the real Francis of Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, not the fashionable “erstwhile hippie, communing with flowers and animals”.
Sullivan’s Jesus would not have condoned the torture of terror suspects; he taught his followers to love, not fear, the other; he had nothing to say about homosexuality or abortion; he condemned divorce and forgave adulterers; he did not focus on the family; he had no personal interest in sex; he eschewed politics; he was homeless; he told people to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor; he “anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant”; and he demonstrated his complete rejection of coercive force by “his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution”.
I can appreciate the appeal of this Jesus to Andrew Sullivan—and to the large numbers of young Americans who have lost faith in a complacent, overbearing church but still need a handle on God, a clue, a landmark, a sign, a road, still need a humanized icon to reveal the “ineffable Being behind all things”. As Sullivan points out, atheism is a very unnatural and inhuman creed.
I also think it is reasonable to hold up a radically unchurchlike—even un-Christian—Jesus as a foil to organized religion. That makes for good polemics and arguably for good prophetic critique.
But I don’t think that the only way to address the current crisis of Christianity theologically is by remaking Jesus in the image of St Francis or Thomas Jefferson or Ghandi or Martin Luther King or Andrew Sullivan.
1. We will not arrive at a better understanding of the Jesus who lived and died in occupied Palestine a little under 2,000 years ago by cutting the radical teacher from the narrative in which he is embedded—and then further eliminating most of the “supernatural claims” that he made. If critical scholarship is currently teaching us anything about the historical Jesus, it is that he was a thoroughly political figure who cannot be taken out of the story of Israel. The only Jesus we have—and the Jesus to which the church must profess allegiance—is a fully contextualized Jesus.
2. Jesus’ “practical commandments” were not given as universal spiritual-ethical teaching. Jesus was not a Stoic philosopher. They were given to a relatively small community of followers who would have to make the difficult journey of eschatological transition from second temple Judaism to a new age when Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations. We can learn from them, but not by picking out the best bits, and not by ignoring the story.
3. Sullivan believes in “Jesus’ divinity and resurrection”, which is one of the reasons why he is such an interesting writer. But Jesus’ divinity and resurrection are also narratively determined: his resurrection on the third day certainly cannot be separated from the story of judgment on Israel and the restoration of the people of God (cf. Hos. 6:1-2); and I would argue—and intend to do so at some point—that belief in Jesus’ divinity can be arrived at only by way of apocalyptic expectation. And while we’re on there subject of apocalypticism….
4. Jesus did not anticipate the imminent end of the world. He anticipated the imminent end of the world of first century Israel, and he was not in the least mistaken when he told his followers that some of them would live to see the reign of God coming in power, both to destroy and to recreate. I think the apocalyptic Jesus has to be taken very seriously.
5. The narrative-political-historical dimension to the whole story about Jesus—including the story of the exalted Jesus—means that the believing community matters as community. Church cannot be dissolved into an incoherent swarm of idealistic Jesus followers. The historical Jesus, no less than Paul, affirmed the continuing relevance of a chosen, holy people, a people for God’s own possession, a kingdom of priests. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the church today should not be troubled to the core by the crisis that Sullivan describes.
6. There is divinity, resurrection, radical love and forgiveness in Andrew Sullivan’s Jesus, but seemingly no atonement. The observation about how Jesus conducted himself through it all doesn’t count—”calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God”. Jesus died for the sins of the people of God (see yesterday’s post), and that brute fact continues to resonate through the long history of this people.