Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Inventing Jesus

I once wrote on this blog that if Jesus had not existed, we would have had to invent him. And according to Reza Aslan’s bestselling Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, we did. That is, the Jesus we all know and love.

You might recall I bought the book on my birthday earlier this month when I was stuck for ten hours in the Cincinnati  airport, diverted there for repairs to my plane. I heard about it via an offensive Fox news interview gone viral on the internet in which Aslan was asked repeatedly why a Muslim would write about Jesus.

The controversial thesis of the book is that the historical Jesus was in reality a revolutionary unopposed to violence, one whom early Christians transformed into a more agreeable and thus more acceptable (to Rome) figure of peace and love. Many of you know that Aslan is not the first to assert this, something Aslan confirms, as he considers his well-written and informative narrative the sum of biblical scholarship to date (others disagree).

A Christian Century review by professor Greg Carey serves as a corrective to this view of Jesus, explaining that “Jewish resistance did not always imply violence.” I would add that I think Jesus would have been far less memorable if he were a conventional revolutionary.

And Carey points out what I noted reading the book that “Aslan sometimes regards the Gospels critically, and he sometimes takes them at face value, but I cannot discern the criteria by which he makes such decisions.” Finally, Carey takes Aslan to task for “the played-out model that Paul ‘invented’ Christianity,” and for “posit[ing] a Jewish Jesus tradition that did without the idea of Jesus’ divinity.”

Which brings me back to inventing Jesus. What we have, I believe, are stories and teachings of one who had and has a transforming effect on people for the better, a transformation variously called healing, saving, liberating, redeeming, reconciling, forgiving, and atoning. Doesn’t mean that these people didn’t mess up—we have church history and our own lives to prove that. But we needed and need someone like Jesus to remind us that we are all children of God, with all the privileges and responsibilities. And that’s divine in my book.

What Henri Nouwen wrote about the Eucharist in Creative Ministry seems pertinent here: 
We will never fully understand the meaning of the sacramental signs of bread and wine when they do not make us realize that the whole of nature is a sacrament pointing to a reality far beyond itself. The presence of Christ in the Eucharist becomes a “special problem” only when we have lost our sense of His presence in all that is, grows, lives, and dies. … Bread is more than bread; wine is more than wine: it is God with us—not as an isolated event once a week but as the concentration of a mystery about which all of nature speaks day and night (p 102-103).
The Jesus of faith reminds us that God is always with us. To paraphrase Henri, the presence of God in Jesus becomes a “special problem” only when we have lost our sense of God’s presence in all that is, grows, lives, and dies.

For a rabbi’s more extensive review of Zealot, click here.

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  1. An intriguing reflection. The contention that Jesus was "just another violent rebel" does not in any way explain the reality that the Jesus Movement did in fact achieve world-wide success far beyond any other. I find it interesting that Reza Aslan's name corresponds exactly to the "Christ figure" in Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia". The Lion Aslan, who is "not a tame lion", is very apropos. Strength having the potential of violence, but exercising it only in a manner controlled and informed by love (eg., cleansing the Temple) is the point here.

  2. Apologies to subscribers who may not have received their Feedburner delivery of this post today. I did not receive mine either! That means it will probably come tomorrow between 5 am and 7 am. Apologies also for the Christian Century link--when I inserted it, I don't recall CC requiring a subscription to read it. I had read the review in hard copy.

  3. Appreciated your comments and thoughts, Chris. Thank you for the link to Allan Nadler's review.

  4. I loved Zealot, partly because it was readable, but also because it brought back into focus the mucky issues that most Christians don't want to look at--namely the irreconcilable aspects of the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of the epistles. I've always had trouble with Paul's almost singular emphasis on the risen Christ (and him crucified!), and it was very helpful to me to have Aslan put into context and perspective the historical progression of things. I needed the refresher course, and even with Carey's assessment of Aslan's critical inconsistencies he made a strong case for what I think he sought to do with this book. Perhaps most importantly it has created a space where people who feel so inclined can talk about these things. We have the opportunity to give voice to discomfort and doubt, and for one friend, an exasperation with the Church's tightly held reigns about what it means to be a believer has fueled her desire to depart from the Church (thought not from Jesus) for saner ground. For me the book cut through a lot of crap, and I found it refreshing.