Why we pay attention to Jesus

Article published in The Mennonite [13.12 (December 2010), 12-15].

Jesus is pretty amazing.  He’s an ancient character in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire.  He barely made it to his 30s and then joined countless other expendable people who the Empire considered worth executing.

Yet, in his afterlife, he became surely the most famous human being in world history. Certainly, the story of Jesus has been twisted and turned, exploited for evil purposes, corrupted almost beyond recognition—but somehow sprouts keep shooting up through the rubble, bringing forth flowers, revealing something of the beauty of the original vision of this person who history can’t let go of.

We still must ask, though, why do we pay attention to Jesus?

Once upon a time, there was a brilliant young German scholar and musician who paid attention to Jesus.  The seriousness with which he paid attention to Jesus led Albert Schweitzer to abandon a career that combined being a professor of religion with being a world-renowned organist.  He returned to school, earned a medical doctorate and spent the rest of his long life as a medical missionary in Africa and gained enough renown to be named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work.

Schweitzer’s most important scholarly work was about Jesus.  In his book The Quest of the Historical Jesus, he surveyed attempts by European scholars in the 19th century to produce a purely objective, historically accurate portrayal of Jesus and get behind the obvious biases of the gospel writers to the supposed bedrock of fact.

Schweitzer scorned these efforts. He concluded his book with the famous image of various scholars peering deep into the wells of history looking for the face of the historical Jesus.  They don’t realize that the face they see looking up at them is actually their own.  They are not really looking at Jesus but only at a reflecting pool of water.

This image makes an undeniable, and very important, point. We all look at Jesus through our own perspective.  We all look for stuff that matters to us and that speaks to our world.  None of us can be objective about Jesus.  We all run the risk of turning Jesus simply into a caricature of our own values and our own culture.

One impact of Schweitzer’s cutting insight, though, has been to serve as a kind of cynical debunking tool.  It’s a way to mock attempts to take Jesus seriously: Ah, you’re just projecting your own interests onto Jesus and calling them his.

When we look at what people say about Jesus we see such incredible diversity and  contradictions and self-justifications.  I have two recent books that focus on how Americans have presented Jesus—one’s called American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2004) by Stephen Prothero, the other Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession (HarperOne, 2005) by Richard Wightman Fox.  These books make it clear how so many in our culture have confused a reflection of themselves for a picture of Jesus.

And yet….

There just may be something we could call revelatory in this cacophony of images of Jesus humans have generated these past 2,000 years.  Maybe we do see something truthful in the sum of what humans, Christian and non-Christian, rich and poor, religious and secular, young and old, westerner and easterner, say about Jesus.

Jesus has become a metaphor for human aspirations. He symbolizes what people want. Some people want sick things.  So we get images of Jesus wielding an assault rifle or a picture called “Undefeated” with Jesus the boxer, muscle-bound, leaning back against the ropes in the corner of the ring, his gloves hanging next to him, a satisfied, victorious, post-fight smirk on his face, and a banner labeled “Savior” hanging next to him.

But even skeptics recognize that this super-macho Jesus isn’t right.  Comedian Bill Maher, in his movie Religulous (the title comes from merging the words religious and ridiculous) goes on a 90-minute rant against religion, especially conservative Christianity.  But several times he invokes Jesus as evidence on his side in his critique.  You Christians are contradicting what Jesus was about, he says.

Several years ago, The National Catholic Reporter held a contest for artists to create representations of Jesus.  The winner, a powerful painting called “Jesus of the People,” used a young African-American woman as its model. I bet if you showed a cross-section of people this picture and asked who it was, most would say, Jesus.  Most people do see him as “Jesus of the people” (all the people, not just white, wealthy, powerful male people).

If we pay attention to what people say and think about Jesus, we actually get an overall picture of something interesting—and not necessarily that far from the gospel portrayal.

This is why this quote from historian Jaroslav Pelikan: “As respect for the organized church has declined, reverence for Jesus has grown. There is more in him than is dreamt of in the philosophy and Christology of the theologians. Now he belongs to the world.” Jesus has escaped the bounds of formal doctrine and top-down church domination.

With this loosening of control over how Jesus is presented to the world, we do see an inability to prevent misuse and abuse of the message and image of Jesus. Yet we also see a ministering to wounded hearts, an empowerment for resistance to the domination system, a reminder to so many of how the core convictions Jesus stood for contrast so sharply with the “American way.”

We see in the story of the story of Jesus in our world a powerful reflection of God’s vulnerability. Go back to the story of Noah and the Flood. Instead of an all-powerful, all-knowing, above-it-all patriarch in the sky, we get in the Flood story a God brought down low by grief, a God whose heart can be broken by creation.  The story does tell us that out of this distress, God creates an overwhelmingly destructive flood.  But the story goes on to make clear that this retribution is dissatisfactory to God.  What comes out of the Flood is a new approach, one we could say embraces the vulnerability.  God starts a long, fragile process of dealing with brokenness and alienation through persevering love.

The story of biblical Israel reemphasizes God’s vulnerability in the tangled path of faithfulness, alienation, obedience, injustice, destruction, renewal, tears and fears.  Then in the New Testament Gospels we again see vulnerability. God’s very son enters human life.  He embodies persevering love and gets executed as a revolutionary for his trouble.

The vulnerability of God becomes our most powerful basis for belief.  God’s vulnerability stands in contrast to all the energies Christians exert trying to construct airtight arguments, to create and enforce overpowering doctrines, to restrict access to God and salvation with closed membership and closed rituals, and to silence doubt and questions and expressions of dissent.  The true power of God to transform human hearts is the kind of power that, in Isaiah’s words, “does not break a bruised reed” (42:3).

God allows many versions of the story to be told, even contradictions and counter-stories. And in this cacophony of versions and representations, as well as in the cacophony of the turmoils and traumas of life in this fallen world that seems so far from God’s intentions, we nonetheless see Jesus.

We can see in the amazing variety of responses to Jesus and representations of Jesus an affirmation by God of human aspirations.  When you get down to it and acknowledge all the terrible exceptions, many human beings want to be like the “Jesus of the people.”

Another great, and in the best sense, I would say, iconic representation of Christ is the woodcut “The Christ of the Breadlines” by artist Fritz Eichenberg.  The picture, which was created for and has become identified with the Catholic Worker movement, shows a Depression-era lineup of hurting people waiting in line for some food.  Standing in the midst of the line is a humble-looking character clearly recognizable as Jesus.

Even skeptics like Bill Maher it seems, believe that images such as the Christ of the Breadlines give us an accurate sense of the true Jesus—and challenge us to be more like that ourselves.  This is what Pelikan had in mind when he wrote that Jesus now belongs to the world.  Jesus has been freed from church dogma and, remarkably, the result has been growth in awareness of what his message actually was, and this message centers on our highest human ideals.

We pay attention to Jesus because he does embody a lot of what we want to embody ourselves—to be truthful, kind and courageous, to say no to domination and oppression, to be in solidarity with people in need, living simply with generoity sharing our resources.

However, and this is a big however, while many of the various representations of Jesus in our world point us toward a healing Jesus, a biblical Jesus—we still would do well to solidify our understanding.  The general sense of Jesus echoes the gospel accounts.  This then should encourage us to look more closely at, to take more seriously, those accounts.  They provide all that we can know about the Jesus who walked among us.

We should read the gospels now in a post-Christendom, or Jesus-who-belongs-to-the-world, sense.  What do we learn from this flesh-and-blood, pre-dogma Jewish prophet who speaks to our flesh and blood lives?

Luke, 7:18-23 can serve as an entrée into the story.  Let’s assume that when John the Baptist’s disciples go to Jesus and ask, “Are you the one who is to come?” they had in mind, Are you the promised Messiah, the Christ, the one God will send to bring wholeness to the world.

But what is meant by “Messiah” (Hebrew) or “Christ” (Greek)?  Maybe the story becomes more clear if we say that by “Christ” we mean one who truly shows us the possibilities of living as fully human, healthy and whole.  A model, a guide, an empowerer.  So, Christ is a character in solidarity with humanity, not who stands over and against humanity.

John’s disciples ask our question: Is Jesus this kind of character, a Christ, a model and empowerer for helping us be whole and faithfully  human?

How does Jesus answer? Typically, he doesn’t simply say yes or no.  Partly he recognizes that so much depends on what kind of Christ we are looking for.  What he does do is name what it is that he stands for and does: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the leapers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22).

The meaning of these words, their reception in Jesus’ world, the ways God vindicates them, make up the story of the gospel.  Let’s notice a couple of things.

We face a test here. What kind of people do we want to be?  How we answer will determine how we understand the validity of Jesus’ answer.  Do we passionately desire healing in our own lives and at least as much in the lives of others?  Do we believe such healing, regardless of the resistance from those who benefit from the brokenness and alienation, is truly good news?  If so, we will recognize that Jesus is the Christ. We will pay attention to him because we believe he can and will help us find healing for ourselves and find power to be healers of others.

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