Friday, August 16, 2013

Personal Jesus

I seem to be cursed. It's the kind of thing that the Greek Gods would inflict on a guy. I seem to be simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by religion. I like reading about it, and I like learning about various beliefs. But then when I stop and think, "Wait...people actually believe this stuff?" I start to shake my head. Take Mormonism, for instance. The whole story of how Jesus came to America and there was those warring tribes and all that? That's AWESOME. It's a great story. As an American, part of me even wishes it were true, ya know, when I ignore the racism in it. But then I realize that hey! wait a second! people actually believe this is real? That's when I smash my face into a wall.

Bearing my curse in mind, I read through Reza Aslan's Zealot, which explores the historical Jesus. You may have heard about it due to that lame FOX News interviewer who couldn't let go of the fact that a Muslim was writing about Jesus. I don't want to delve too much into that, but let's just say that if you think that this book has an Islamic agenda, then it must be subliminally inserted into the book. Sure, it doesn't take any of the miracle stories of Jesus at face value, but that's not exactly an Islamic point of view. Muslims revere Jesus, and he even plays a starring role in their endtimes scenario. They have some different ideas of him, one being that he was never crucified. Aslan, however, takes that as one of the few things about Jesus of which we can be absolutely certain. So, if he's trying to convince people of a Muslim worldview, he's really lousing it up.

The book is a good read for anybody who's interested in the subject and doesn't feel bound to The Bible as being some sort of actual history book. (It's not that it gets history wrong so much as it's not even trying to be history - not in the sense that we'd understand the word nowadays.)  I didn't find too much new in it, as I've read more than a couple of books on the subject - the works of John Dominic Crossan (a Christian) in particular. (I believe that Aslan even cites him in the endnotes.) Still, it was a nice refresher on the subject, as I tend to like the historical Jesus a lot more than the mythological Jesus.

I'd like to take a moment that Aslan takes the existence of a historical Jesus as pretty much a given in this book. He claims that there is proof for his existence at the very least, even though the miracles and all of that is a matter of faith. I'm a little sketchy on this idea myself, but I'm not going to make any bold statements either way. From what I know, there aren't any contemporaneous sources that mention him. (Even The Bible itself wasn't written in his lifetime, assuming he existed.) I'm aware of Josephus, but he writes about Christians, not any sort of personal encounter with the man himself.

I've done a bit of reading from those who claim that even the existence of Jesus as an actual historical figure is unlikely. I'm not well-versed in those arguments though, but I did find them to be at least reasonable. Still, I have no problem accepting that the very germ of the idea for the Jesus story might have begun with an actual person. Shoot, the Jesus story might be an amalgam of a few different would-be messiahs for all we know. Either way, my point is that I'm fine going along with Aslan's assertion that we can be certain that Jesus existed in the first place. So long as we understand that all of the miracles, including the resurrection, are matters of faith and not historical fact (despite what professional obfuscators like William Lane Craig will tell you).

When Aslan gets into the apostle Paul, he points out that the Apostle Formerly Known as Saul doesn't even seem to be too aware of some of the basic tenets of the Gospel stories. Aslan also points out that Paul's teachings often directly contradict what you'll find from Peter and James. What he's getting at is that Paul basically took this movement within Judaism and turned it into his own religion. In other words, Paul is more of a founder of Christianity than Jesus is, at least, what we understand Christianity to be. Before you think that this is some wild, out of left field idea, it's hardly an original thought on the part of the author. Good old Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of the idea - even being downright critical of Paul and referring to him as a "corrupter" of the Gospel of Jesus.

So, Paul took Jesus and made it his own thing. But is this really so strange? Isn't this basically what people do nowadays with Jesus? How often do you hear modern Christians refer to their "personal relationship" with Jesus. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty certain that's not a phrase that's used in The Bible, and I don't even think that you'll find Christians speaking of this idea over a hundred years ago - if even that long.

Anybody who thinks that Christianity has basically been the same idea since Jesus came back (if you believe that sort of a thing) needs to do a bit of reading. Even if you think that it's been the same thing since Paul, you need some perspective. The whole religion is a laundry list of divisions and revisions, from Arianism to Trinitarianism, from Catholic to Orthodox, from Catholic to Protestant, from Jehovah's Witnesses to whatever the hell Charles Manson was talking about. In other words, it's had to evolve, and even in the modern day, it's no different. As the scientific method reveals more and more about the inner workings of the universe, you need apologists who can speak to these concerns, from accommodationists who believe in a God-driven evolution to young-Earth creationists who think that a snake actually spoke.

From what I can tell, the "personal relationship with Jesus" is where the religion ultimately has to go as Christianity tries to exist side-by-side with the scientific method. It's demonstrable that the Earth wasn't made in six days, but how does one go about proving that the voices in somebody's head actually ISN'T Jesus? Of course, you can't, but oftentimes when you listen to people talk about Jesus, it comes across to me as a manifestation of their own personal sense of justice and empathy. Does Jesus say a lot of stuff that any decent person can get behind? Oh sure. But what about the bits about how you can't be his follower unless you hate your family? What about how he says that he didn't come to bring peace, but the sword? How about when he instructs his disciples to arm themselves?

I know what some Christians will say: OUT OF CONTEXT! Frankly, I find that particular apologetic slight of hand to be so disingenuous that I don't want to address it beyond pointing out that the ultimate take-down of the "out of context!" argument has already been given:

In short: when the Bible says something you like, then it means what it says. When it says something awful or against the conscience of anybody who's not a sociopath, it's OUT OF CONTEXT! (As though there even COULD be a context to justify the notion that you can beat your slave as much as you want, so long as you don't beat him to death.)

Even if you just take The Gospels, it's difficult to paint a clear, consistent picture as to who Jesus was and how he felt about things. For Pete's sakes, the guy answers questions in parables, not exactly one for clear-thinking, is he? Then when you start adding in the rest of the New Testament - not to mention shoehorning in the Old Testament stuff that's supposedly about him (SPOILER ALERT - It's not about him. Don't believe me? Ask a Rabbi, unless you want to tell me that Jews don't understand their own scriptures.)

So what is a good Christian left to do then? You construct your own, personal Jesus using that fella from the Gospels as a starting point. As I said, there's good stuff in there, and it's easy to ignore the stuff that doesn't work for you. You follow your conscience, and you call him Jesus. Don't worry, you're in good company, and you didn't even need to fall off your donkey to do it.

1 comment:

Connie L. said...

Sounds like a book I should put on my "to read" list, even though I'm not really clear on whether it has any "new" information to offer. The "historical" texts on Christianity seem to agree with each other a lot more than the "spiritual" texts do. As you say: "The whole religion is a laundry list of divisions and revisions, from Arianism to Trinitarianism, from Catholic to Orthodox, from Catholic to Protestant..." Just as "history is written by the winners", so the prevailing doctrines of Christianity were written by the "winners" of those arguments (who were not necessarily always those with the "truest" version of the "truth" but often simply those with the most political clout at the time.) And many of those early discrepancies still found their way into the very self-contradictory document known as "The Bible". I read one study where historical scholars worldwide were polled on who the most important figure in Western Civilization was. Alexander the Great was #1 and I believe Jesus was #3....right after Paul at #2, who is considered by many to be the true "creator" of Christianity. (After reading a lot of historical texts it is my personal opinion/conclusion that Jesus never intended to create a religion with himself at the center of it, and would in fact consider it blasphemy - but that's another discussion altogether.) It's interesting since there's some pretty good evidence that Paul himself never met or had a "personal relationship" with Jesus....he based most of his teachings on a "vision" (or dream) he had in which Jesus spoke to him. Any one of us could go out and found a religion on that basis...except we'd probably just get asked what kind of drugs we were taking at the time. Still it amazes me that people who want to base their whole lives (and afterlives!) on a certain book apparently have little to no interest in finding out just how that book actually came to be, never mind any actual historical facts about the (presumed) real person the religion was created around.