[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.