Ross Douthat titles part two of his critique of American religion: “The Age of Heresy.” He opens with a description of the work of Professors Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, the latter a once-upon-a-time evangelical who graduated from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College seen in photo on the left, on the “lost gospels.” He refers to the two of them as the “prominent popularizers of early Christianity’s . . . revisionist story.” So they are. The blitz which followed the release of the Lost Gospel of Judas in 2006 provides the perfect contemporary narrative to show how far the radical denial of the orthodox account of Jesus of Nazareth had taken some scholars. Within six months of the dramatic release of this material Rice University professor April DeConick found that “several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field.” This, adds, Douthat, is an academic way for saying the National Geographic team had “botched their work.” The Gnostic heresy was once again at work but now it had the attention of the popular media to support it.
So Douthat concludes, quite correctly I believe, that “Every argument about Christianity is at bottom an argument about the character of Christ himself, and every interpretation of Christian faith begins with an answer to the question Jesus posed to his disciples: ‘Who do you say that I am?’” From Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson, and from Joseph Smith to Mary Baker Eddy, America has been producing noteworthy heretics for a long time.
So what is the difference now? Douthat believes that “amid the post-1960s decline of institutional Christian faith, the question has taken on a new urgency, and the various answers have won an ever-wider audience.” Thus heresy, he believes, has a newfound dominance! It is this thesis that is at the center of Bad Religion. American Christianity has always been able to churn out heresies but since the 1960s something fundamentally changed that allowed for the current debates to flourish.
From serious academics to new-style popularizers alternative portrayals of Jesus are the rage today. We seem to have forgotten that “Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character.” In fact, no figure in human history has so many different interpretations of his life and/or teaching. Here is Douthat at his best:
He [Jesus] makes wild claims about his own relationship to God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but a sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still–a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.
Christian orthodoxy has always sought fidelity to this complex being who defies easy description without the paradox. Was he God or man? Orthodoxy says he was both. The same response applies to a host of similar questions about his message and mission. But the goal of the greatest heresies has always been to “extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives” a seemingly non-contradictory Jesus. All of these simplifications have required a thinning of the Christian story. America’s heretics have done the same, both in the origins of the country and today.
The real difference in our time is to be seen in how progressive Christianity seeks to completely accommodate the gospel to liberal, secular ideology. These modern proponents, such as Bart Ehrman, have had two great purposes in common. One is to show that the story of Jesus we were taught is largely a myth. The second purpose is to produce a Jesus who is at once “more historical and more modern than the orthodox man-God, a Jesus whose life and works and message could serve as the basis for a new religious synthesis.” Ironically, or not, these scholars cannot even remotely agree on what this “new” Jesus really looks like, disagreeing massively among themselves. One thing they all seem to agree upon is that Paul is the real villain in the story.
One of the continual foils offered by this new Jesus is political. Their Jesus is anti-Republican, a Jesus who supports a different view of government’s role in the world than that of many conservatives. And the church these scholars envision is nonjudgmental about sex and a host of other moral issues. In the end the Jesus these writers always come around to accommodates Christians in the world of today.
According to this view of Jesus, Christianity must modernize, and secularize, in order to survive. Tolerance must trump dogma and the sins of the Christian past must be repudiated with fervor. Whether it is the academic teaching of Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan, or the more popular nonsense of Dan Brown, or even the next popular documentary, Bad Religion gets the central problems with this modernizing about right. Liberal religion has the great ability to release new energy but seems to have little or no ability to refocus it.