One of my deepest concern for Christians today, expressed in my post yesterday, is not widely shared by many in the North American church, whether Catholic or Protestant, mainline or evangelical. In fact, I have discovered only a few single-minded souls (e.g. friends such as Leonard Sweet, Joseph Girzone, David Bryant come to mind here) who are currently speaking prophetically to this concern. This concern is a base line, or a north star, for how I listen to, and process, the message of the church – the heart of Christian faith is Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. He is everything. He is all. His supremacy is self-evident if you read the New Testament. My question, the question with which I ended my post yesterday, was: “Could we have substituted a movement in morality and ecclesial practice for Jesus?”
It ought to be a simple truism that a lively concern for the gospel and the Christ-event, as it is centered in the life and person of Jesus of Nazareth himself, is the marrow of all true Christian faith and practice. Yet in neither academic theology (generally speaking), nor in the typical church context, is there a strong and passionate interest in Jesus.
We talk about him for sure. We talk about him in terms of this cause and that social or political movement. We even use his name, more or less. I do not deny any of this at all. (David Bryant has done a number of anecdotal studies which show how rarely we actually do mention his name, even in sermons, prayers and books!)
The classic (standard) “lives” of Christ, which nurtured the piety of my family and church, did not have a lively interest in the Jesus of the biblical story. Many of these accounts were born of a form of apologetics that arose in the nineteenth century that sought to counteract historical positivism. These “lives” attempted to make the gospel plausible by adopting, in all their essentials, the same form of proofs used by the skeptics. We were modernists, in other words, who used rationalistic forms of fundamentalism to counteract the liberal “lives” of Jesus that were gaining interest much like Reza Aslan’s best-selling book Zealot did in 2013 once Fox News blew up the story for conservatives. There is no doubt that these more conservative “lives” of Jesus served a purpose. For example, they made Nazareth, Bethlehem and Cana come alive for readers. We could now place these on a real map and even learn about them and visit these sacred places on special tours.
So how did these “lives” fail us? They did not look at the gospel story for what it was and thus they did not identify the Jesus who was at the center of the gospel story. The Gospels were seen as first-century biographical reporting. Conservative Christians believed these mini-biographies were accurate and trustworthy and liberals believed that they were naive and (often) inaccurate. Miracles were debated, pro and con. I’ve listened to both conservatives and liberals preach the Gospels and I do not think I exaggerate when I say they make the same mistake but come at it from two wholly different perspectives. The end result is they miss Jesus! A Catholic theologian named Bruce Vawter, writing in the 1970s, rightly opined: “The net effect of the ‘lives’ was to construct the pseudo-history of a Jesus who never was, the Christ of faith mythicized by historicism.”
The problem was that in the nineteenth century, when a number of real issues in New Testament scholarship were being faced in a new atmosphere of academic freedom, one in which we could ask good questions and have honest debate, the church responded in fear, trying to push back against these kinds of unbelieving questions. Contact with modernism, and the modern world’s way of thinking and learning, was generally condemned. Catholics began to move openly beyond this at Vatican II. Protestants had already begun the move decades earlier but evangelicals would finally join the parade by the end of the last century, decades after I finished my academic training in their circles. Yet, as Bruce Vawter writes, “Ecclesiastical obscurantism on the authoritarian level does not alone account for the church’s Christological apathy.”
What about today? While the millennial generation pushes back against so much taken for granted in the typical church, rightly so in most instances (especially against our hypocrisy and inconsistency), it seems that there is a continued disinterest in Jesus, the central figure in the Christian story. (Many millennials are in danger of repeating the same old mistakes – creating a Jesus for their cause or ideological interest!)
I believe the Second Vatican Council addressed some of this problem in the constitutional document called Dei Verbum. The substance of what I am seeking to affirm was stated by the Council so well in these words:
What the apostles preached in its fulfillment of the commission of Christ, afterwards they and apostolic men under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit handed on to us in writing. . . . with that clearer understanding which the authors enjoyed after they had been instructed by the events of Christ’s risen life and taught by the light of the Spirit of truth. The sacred authors wrote the four gospels, selecting some things from the many which had been handed on by the word of mouth or in writing, reducing some of them to a synthesis, explicating some things in view of the situation of their churches, and preserving the form of proclamation.
A central problem today is that so many people have had their own personal faith experience that they have found to be rewarding and fulfilling that they are not interested in the Jesus of the story. At the end of the day any person’s personal experience is irrefutable by anyone else. But one can, and should, strongly object to fuzzy ways of thinking and speaking when they are neither reliable nor consistent with the biblical narrative.
If Christian faith is to be alive and healthy then it must be clearly and consistently identified with Jesus, not with whatever we are doing and saying and calling Christianity. Bruce Vawter said this very well when he concluded: “The only Christ with whom we can have any contact beyond our own imagining, the Christ who is the indispensable referent for any alleged experience of him in life or liturgy, is the Christ of the gospels (The Man Jesus, Doubleday, 1973, 23, italics are mine).