Although this is April Fool’s day, the blog for today is not for fools. It is a look at the two kinds of Christianity that are out in the Public Square today: Christianity and what I call Jesusanity. The latter I have discussed before in Dethroning Jesus.
Although this is April Fool’s day, the blog for today is not for fools. It is a look at the two kinds of Christianity that are out in the Public Square today: Christianity and what I call Jesusanity. The latter I have discussed before in Dethroning Jesus. However, having spoken around the country on this for six months I have pulled my thoughts together into a shorter summary of the key ideas. Here it is:
There are really two Christian stories in our culture, two things often called Christianity that are very different in their focus.
One approach sees Jesus’ teaching and person at the center of what God is doing for people. Jesus is God’s anointed one, the Christ, whose mission, life and death is at the center of God’s program. This is what is known as Christianity. The name fits because Jesus is seen as the promised Messiah, whose person brings God’s deliverance. His resurrection showed that His death for sin also makes possible the restoration of our broken relationship to God. His resurrection also shows that God has exalted Him to what the early New Testament texts describe as “the right hand of God,” a place of shared honor as the Son of God.
The second approach sees only Jesus’ teaching as the key to understanding who Jesus is. Jesus is like a great prophet, whose teaching shows us the way back to God, but his person, other than the example of Jesus’ walk with God and pointing the ethical path God calls us to, is not central to the divine program. This I have called Jesusanity, because in this view, it is Jesus of Nazareth, the teacher-prophet who is the central focus. This approach to the faith is difficult to discuss, because it does respect Jesus and affirms things about Jesus that are reflective of the Bible. However it also represents an incomplete picture of how the Bible, in its core narrative, presents Jesus. This approach to Jesus does have a distinct emphasis and focus. A conversation between people holding to each of these views can be confusing, because people may think they are discussing the same thing (Christianity), when their perception of that belief is in fact very different. Much cultural Christianity, as well as many presentations of Jesus in the public square, actually reflects this Jesusanity.
Jesusanity has many causes. Some of it is rooted in failures of the church to reflect truly Christian standards over the centuries. Here one can point to the religious wars Christians participated in when the faith and European states, wedded together, competed for political power, ravaging Europe and corrupting offices of church leadership. Immorality and hypocrisy in the church contribute to its presence and credibility. Other causes are more complex. These include efforts to undercut the credibility of the New Testament and its roots in the earliest era of belief in Jesus, the appeal to second and third century gospel and gospel-like texts as giving us an equally relevant picture of this early period, and the claim that portions of the New Testament reflect very contrastive theologies, as compared to distinct emphases in a shared faith. These claims reflect misdirected efforts to promote a more, modern and relevant form of Christianity as culturally more acceptable and tolerant form of the faith.
Beyond these, a kind of brittle fundamentalism can lead to such claims. Brittle fundamentalism is a defense of biblically rooted faith that overdoes the Christian faith by making Christianity do more than the faith claims for itself, including refusing to engage and respond to legitimate questions. When those young in the faith begin to ask questions in such an environment, the questions are not addressed as much as dismissed, often with exclusive solutions that do not consider other possible, biblically respectable alternatives. The impression becomes that the church has something to hide about its faith or that it is afraid of questions. Many who leave the faith from this background end up not adjusting their faith in small increments, but leaving it entirely. It is interesting to note that many of the writers who critique Christian faith today with a kind of Jesusanity grew up in a conservative theological context. The faith of those who grow up in a brittle fundamentalist environment often does not adjust; it shatters like a broken windshield. Some dedicate their lives to making sure others do not go through their experience (For example, in the opening chapter of Craig Evans’s Fabricating Jesus, he presents short bibliographies of many of those writing critically about Christianity in our time. Almost every story started in a conservative environment where such questions were not seriously considered.).
Knowing about Jesusanity is important in today’s context. There are ways to see when it is present. Often it divorces things that belong more closely together than the approach suggests.
First, it tends to distance the creature’s responsibility to the Creator. It speaks in generally ethical terms, but not with a sense of responsibility to the living God.
Second, it places a significant distance between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith, arguing that the distance between the portrait of Jesus in the gospels and the real historical Jesus is so great that the gospels do not reflect accurately enough the real Jesus. (Note how this is carefully stated. Not all discussions of the historical Jesus are guilty of arguing for such a great difference, but many are.)
Third, Jesusanity often argues for dividing the New Testament into very different theologies. Usually it is Paul who is pitted against James, Matthew, and Peter. Sometimes scholars place the historical Jesus with James and company against Paul. Now the issues raised here do often point to texts where there was a scope of distinction in practice. For example, Jewish Christians in Jerusalem did keep many Jewish practices, in contrast to many who lived outside of the land. The book of Acts describes such differences. But Paul, Peter, and James did share the same faith, as Paul himself notes in Galatians.
Fourth, Jesusanity often claims that many types of Christianity existed in the first century with an equal claim to go back to Jesus. This view argues that there was no real functioning apostolic oversight in the earliest period and that Jesus generated several distinct expressions of faith. Sometimes this is wedded to arguments suggesting that the Gospel of Thomas or gospels from an even later period give evidence of such groups with such roots.
Now Thomas is an interesting gospel, completed likely in the early second century some of which is in touch with traditions about Jesus’ teaching that we also see in the gospels. However it also possesses material that reflects a dualistic Gnostic view of the world that the teaching of the earliest Christianity rejected. It is a hybrid gospel that probably operated on the edge of the Christianity of its time. The same thing cannot be said of other gospel-like materials often appealed to, such as the Apocryphon of John, the work found in more copies at Nag Hammadi than any other text. Its story of creation by underling emanations and not the One God, as well as the creation of man by such beings is something the earliest faith Jesus generated out of Jewish roots would not have held. In the early period, the Scripture these early believers embraced were the sacred texts of Jewish faith, which included the belief that (1) God created the heaven and earth and (2) that creation was good. The Apocryphon of John would have been rejected immediately had it existed in this early environment because of its view of God and Creation (pointing us back to the first distancing noted above).
Thus, one can see that Jesusanity is present when one encounters any of these four examples of theological distancing. This cultural kind of Christianity is all around us today, but the above issues make it clear that although its presence is understandable, it is not the same thing as the faith of the ages.