What's Tony Thinking

Early Christians of the 21st Century


Today is an in-between day, the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As such it is a day for these times, in so many ways a time between. Almost everything seems up for negotiation, re-examination, reframing — and contesting. For many the reaction, perhaps understandable, to our clouded conditions is to grasp more tightly old verities, turning them into idols grimly held.

This in-between day, our in-between times, are hard ones in which to live. But not only that, they hold promise, if often hidden. We may amid the dislocations and disruptions, hear things we’ve not heard before, ask things not asked. I speak of us as “early Christians of the 21st century.” The old institutional structures are in crisis, yet for some this is a time of going deeper and finding something in our faith that is both more challenging and more nourishing.

This paradox was noted in Ross Douthat’s recent column on the values of a naive reading of the gospels on the part of increasingly generations. Titled, “A Naive Reading of the Gospels May Be Just What Christianity Needs.” For years our reading of the story has been filtered through church doctrine and custom, resulting in what Douthat terms “pious readings.” What he means by that is that the strangeness of the story has been largely winnowed away. We know what it means. We have worked off the rough edges. We hear it through filters that strain out the awkward and the astounding.

For better or worse, the number of people who have not been so taught or indoctrinated grows. Inevitably more will read the gospel stories of Jesus naively, without the benefit, but too often the hindrance, of agreed upon interpretations which put a period on things where a comma, dash or ellipses might be more appropriate. Here’s Douthat’s concluding paragraph:

“Take away that power, throw people into the texts without an anticlerical preoccupation, and you won’t immediately get a revival of Christian orthodoxy. But you may get much more acknowledgment of what’s obvious each and every Easter: That in their immediacy and mystery, their lapel-shaking urgency, their mixture of the mundane and the impossible, the Gospels are at least — at the very least — the strangest story ever told.” (emphasis added)

The Easter stories, but really the whole of the gospels, aren’t what we expect. None of the disciples meet the resurrected Jesus with joy or confidence. No round of “high-5’s.” Alarm, incomprehension, fear even terror. They are more disturbed than any of us want or expect on Easter Sunday.

This Lent I participated in a webinar based on a new book by the theologian Chris Green, Being Transfigured. I was one of a panel of four that discussed a chapter a week as more than 600 people tuned in on-line. Green finds Jesus stranger, the gospel more mysterious and less susceptible to our conventions of interpretation than we have thought. In a sermon titled “Transfiguring Doubt” Green pays close attention to a night meeting of Jesus and the Jewish leader, Nicodemus, writing:

“Lent is a good time to remind ourselves that Jesus was anything but a simple teacher. In the Gospels, his teachings are met almost always either with incredulity and confusion or fury and fear. His hearers are left astonished or incensed. In fact, in John’s Gospel, virtually everyone misunderstands everything Jesus says and does. Nicodemus’ astonishment, then, is anything but unusual.”

Pious readings of the story tend to dismiss Nicodemus’s stunned query, “How can these things be?” Nicodemus doesn’t get it, while we — in the know — do. Really? Green suggests that we may be closer to the truth of it if, like Nicodemus, we are confounded and stammer, “How can this be?”

“It’s hard to talk about doubt without slipping into cliché or, worse, into sentimentality. Some of us, God knows why, talk glibly about it—as if doubt were sexy. Others of us, even less sensibly, talk as if doubt were foreign to the truly Christian life. If we’re honest, however, we’ll have to admit that much of what passes for doubt is nothing but honest hesitation, the inevitable upshot of generations of poor or bad teaching, teaching which trades in simplicities and cheap certainties, often eschewing pain at all costs, leaving us to feel that our salvation depends not on the mystery of faith, sustained by God’s devotion to us, but on our own grasp of our own beliefs or on the intensity of our desire for religious experiences.”

As Christianity in the modern west slips its institutional moorings, and we find ourselves in a time between, it may be that “simplicities and cheap certainties” fade before mystery, before one of faith’s primal experiences, unknowing. “Concepts create idols,” wrote the 4th century desert father, Gregory of Nyssa, “only wonder comprehends anything.” And so it is, in these latter days, some begin to think of themselves as “early Christians of the 21st century.”

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