What's Tony Thinking

On Loving Jesus (continued)

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In the previous post I spoke of my history with “loving Jesus,” as well as the impact of Francis Spufford’s book,¬†Unapologetic: Why Despite Everything, Christianity can still make Surprising Emotional Sense.¬†

I want to recommend (again) Spufford’s book. I think it especially helpful and pertinent for UCC and liberal/ progressive Protestant type folks.

Over the last several decades people in our tribe have drunk deeply at the well of “The Jesus Seminar” (the most recent iteration of the quest for the historical Jesus), of those who tout the “Gnostic Gospels,” and of Dan Brown-like plots and conspiracy thinking.

The upshot of all this tends to have been a too-easy and not well thought out embrace of a general climate of suspicion about anything that seems the least bit orthodox and challenging to modernist sensibilities.

But this embrace of a sophisticated (or perhaps “pseudo-sophisticated”) suspicion falls short on many counts, one of which is pastoral. While church certainly ought to be a place where people can safely pose questions and entertain doubts, if that — questions, suspicion and doubt — is your ending up place it doesn’t give a person (or church) much to go on.

Spufford is particularly good in engaging this climate of sophisticated nay-sayers in an accessible way. For example, here he is on one popular conceit involving Paul.

“In the air now, there’s a general feeling that somebody or other in the early church, probably St Paul, retrospectively glued Godhood onto poor Jesus, appropriating what was a perfectly ordinary and un-mysterious career as a Jewish preacher, and using it as a vehicle for weird shit. Jesus goes about encouraging people to be kind and forgiving; then, when he’s safely dead, he gets signed up as the lead of an unlikely cosmic drama he’d have been horrified by if he’d ever known about it. Lift the lid on the interpretation, and there’s the man underneath, a minor first-century religious reformer with a bit of bee in his bonnet about gentleness. A well-intentioned and irrelevant person from the pre-Englightment ages of superstition.

“The trouble is that the historical sequence by which we get the story is exactly the other way round. The interpretation came first, before the narratives about him preachin’ and teachin’.”

In other words, the weird, paradoxical and impossible claim that Jesus is fully God and fully human isn’t thought up later as some sort of rationalization for an institution and power hungry men (of course “men”). This confusing claim is the starting point.

More from Spufford:

“That Jesus’ actions in the world were God’s own actions in the world; that where Jesus was present, God was directly present too; that his death and return from death were an initiative by God to take from humanity the weight of guilt and shame and disgust, and to show us a life larger than law. This cluster of propositions is Christianity’s first layer of organized words and understanding. It, not the biographies, is the foundation.”

Spufford does an equally able job of responding to claims for the so-called “non-canonical” and “gnostic gospels,” and for arguments based on the parallels to the Jesus story in various cultural and religious myths, e.g. Odin.

As I say a great deal of this popularized hermeneutic of suspicion has made its way into the world mainline Protestantism, to disabling effect. I am reminded of the remark of my friend Jason Byassee, who teachers at Vancouver School of Theology. “If you want more aging, white liberals talk a lot about ‘diversity.’ If you want a diverse congregation talk about Jesus.”

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