Monday, December 14, 2015

The Jesus Problem

Bill O'Reilly's Faux News invention of the War on Christmas typifies the evangelical obsession with a Jesus narrative divorced from the doctrinal and ethical messages behind the Nativity. The greeting of 'Happy Holiday' in no way threatens the church, the Christian faith or Jesus himself because Advent borrows nothing from our cultural celebration of Christmas. Advent itself has meaning beyond the birth of Jesus.

I won't bore you with yet another reminder of the origins of, or fallacies surrounding, Christmas, simply to say that the church exploits the Christmas season as much as John Lewis and Coca Cola. However much we might deplore the nauseating commercialism engulfing Christmas, its a buyers market. By definition, consumerism is a consumer disease rather than a marketing epidemic. The church itself has had to learn that in order to engage with its potential pew dwellers it must speak the common language, much like New Testament writers who wrote in Koine [common] Greek rather than Aramaic or any other obscure language like Latin. Its a matter of supply and demand.

If Bill is going to criticise anyone for ignoring Christmas he should start with the Gospel writers Mark and John who made no mention of Jesus birth at all. John really doesn't care because it adds nothing to his message while Matthew and Luke tell different stories, neither of which tally with the beloved nativity scene that we are familiar with. Its hardly any surprise that a Fox presenter would not check his sources. More profoundly, though, he's probably oblivious to the real message of Jesus' incarnation which is that God desired to live among us and as one of us. 'Us' being the disenfranchised, despised, occupied and homeless as well as the comfortable.

The message of the incarnation is one of identity, not with a people group or a religion but with the human condition in all its glory and depravity. Muslims, on the whole, are more than happy to share in the Christmas celebrations. Even atheists quote Jesus when his words align with their ethos. In stark contrast are the Christians who insist on those with other beliefs paying lip service to a name they lazily curse the rest of the year round. You can't take Christ out of Christmas simply by supplanting another holiday greeting but you can take Jesus out of Christianity by replacing the Jesus of the Gospels with a misogynistic, gun possessing, Muslim hating parody.

Rather than Jesus being the answer (as we are told), Jesus is the moderator of the question. Read the Gospels and see how often Jesus attacks the validity of the question or leaves the enquirer with another question. He drove the authorities mad because he wouldn't give them the answer they wanted but left them with questions they dared not answer. If you're looking for a happy Christmas, Jesus isn't the solution - he's the problem. He was a problem for Herod, he was a problem for the Jewish authorities. He didn't exactly make Joseph and Mary's relationship simple or easy, being conceived out of wedlock.

Christmas is a problem. Its a marketplace that the church must compete in because it no longer has a monopoly. Its a time of family strife and marriage breakdown. Its a time of pressure to get into pointless debt, a time of guilt and peer pressure. Its a time that the lonely and heartbroken dread. Where is Christ in this Christmas? He's not on a card, in a carol or a cheery greeting. If you truly believe in the incarnation you'll know he's not in the sweet nativity scene, he's wherever humanity is most messy, destructive and dangerous. He's rotting in Calais, surviving in refugee camps, waiting in line for a bowl of soup.

When the Queen gives her dreary speech with the enthusiasm of a wino at a kids party, he's challenging her privileged lifestyle. When the kids get fractious because they are overwhelmed by the mountain of gifts, he's watching a family of refugees clinging to the gift of life. The problem isn't the guilt trip - no, that's a privilege in itself. The problem is much more universal. There's a story of a monk whose only possession was a pencil. His problem was that despite his vow of poverty he'd never dealt with his possessiveness. He guarded his pencil as if it were his life. Jesus told a rich young man to give up all he had. Not because he was rich but because he was possessive of his wealth. Jesus wants the heart of the monk and the rich man alike.

Jesus said that your heart is where your treasure is. So if your motivation is money you heart will be invested in the making of it. But its equally true that you will invest in your religion if that's where your heart is. But Jesus said that our hearts should be for the kingdom of heaven which is neither a religion, a place nor a destination, its a way of life that is summed up in Jesus' sermon on the mount. Its a life free from greed, hate and enmity, full of love, peace and honest self reflection. There is no room in this kingdom for the possession even of hearts and minds or the preservation of religious dogma.

The cares of this world are tied up with our possessions, material or otherwise. The greatest gifts we can receive are those we cannot hoard or barter with. When we invest everything in what we eat, drink, wear or drive, in our own selfish interests, in our prejudices and fears – we take Christ out of Christmas. When we strive to love, to care, to trust, to understand and to sacrifice we invite Jesus back. Jesus becomes a thorn when we choose convenience before truth, comfort before empathy and security before trust. He is no friend to the bigot and the war monger.

John tells us that Jesus became our neighbour. Jesus told us that the world is our neighbour.

John tells us that we cannot claim to love God and hate our brother. Jesus said that if you cannot forgive your brother then God cannot forgive you.

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests."

On whom does God's favour rest?
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

I should add that Jesus claimed to be the "way the truth and the life" and promised eternal life to those who place their faith him. But he demanded that those who claimed to follow him must show the fruits of that faith. Faith without works is dead.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Past Perfect

We often use the word 'perfect'. We can have a perfect day, a perfect meal or a perfect score. But what if your experience can be improved upon? Is anything truly perfect? If Jesus was the perfect sacrifice what does that mean? And how are we to define that 'perfection' perfectly?

When images of Holy Week stirred negative feelings within me I had to give it some serious thought. I've never been enthusiastic about religious festivals and Easter never excited me much. Having said that I don't really register anniversaries emotionally - I find its random incidents that trigger memories and take me back to experiences rather than dates. Jesus isn't going to die on Friday or rise on Sunday and I can't generate the enthusiasm that I somehow feel this commemoration should.

But there's much more to this than simply feeling a little disconnected from the festivities. Christians have been hitting the headlines recently for all the wrong reasons and I hope I can claim a little justification for my negativity; I can quote the Bible like the best. In the book of Amos God declares, "I despise your religious feasts, I cannot stand your assemblies … I will not listen to your music. But let justice roll like a river, righteousness like a never failing stream".

I'm thinking of the Ashers bakery, supported by the Christian Institute who, to me, have an over-zealous and narrow minded concept of justice. I have no problem with believing marriage is exclusively heterosexual and we've been taught in church that same sex is sinful. But there is a world of difference between staying true to your beliefs and discriminating against others who don't hold to your convictions. Besides, the issue of same sex marriage gets little more than a few passing mentions in the Bible so how does it become a defining principle?

Further afield a law has just been passed in Indiana that allows discrimination of LGBT people provided its on religious grounds. Yesterday I read about how Christians had (about a year ago) abandoned World Vision child sponsorship overnight to the tune of around $8 million only because World Vision had admitted to employing those in same sex marriages. Because so much of World Vision's backing comes from conservative Evangelicals it decided to back peddle immediately which I found even more disappointing.

And its more than the LGBT issue. I feel a little like Elijah who complained that there were none left in Israel who hadn't bowed the knee to the Baals. Where are the Christians who hold fast to the Apostle's Creed without being spiritually abusive, bigoted, judgemental or exclusive? Where are they who can claim Jesus as Lord without making it sound jingoistic? Stepping off my holier than thou pedestal I'll get to my main point.

My reading of the Bible has evolved over the years and I may well have slipped into that pit of heresy and sedition occupied by liberals. I know that David didn't write all the Psalms attributed to him, I no longer believe the world was created in 6 days and if, as has been shown, the King James Bible contains errors, we have to be cautious about declaring every apostrophe to be the word of God. I understand that the Bible must be understood in context but have increasingly found this to be less than satisfying in every case.

One such problem arises when the Bible appears to condone Israel annihilating indigenous communities for what were essentially religious reasons. The New Testament seems more progressive yet appears to condone slavery even when the slave owner is a Christian. Context and history can mitigate the damage to a certain extent but I wonder if the Christian doth protest too much. I'm wondering if the Christian concepts of an inerrant Bible and a perfect God are fundamentally flawed. "Heresy" they cry but if you know your church history you will be aware that heresy is grist to the mill of truth.

Unlike toxic heresies like Zionism, the "Rapture" and the "Word of Faith" my heresy is based on orthodox Christian belief and accepted scholarship. While the Apostle Paul says all scripture is God breathed we know that each book has a human author with their own distinctive approach. I know at least one story in Genesis that is based solely on superstition and many of the numbers in the book of the same name just don't add up. The last few paragraphs of Mark's Gospel are disputed and the story of the woman caught in adultery was considered too scandalous to be included in the earliest canon. There are many other reasons why putting all your eggs in the biblical basket might be less than prudent but don't draw any conclusions yet. What of Jesus' perfection?

It has been said that the only man made things in heaven are the wounds in Jesus' hands and feet. Does that not mean we have a mutilated, hence less than perfect, Jesus in heaven? In the book of Hebrews we are told that he was made perfect in suffering. Does that mean he was 99% perfect right up to the cross? Was Jesus never told off as a child and, if he was a carpenter, how would he make perfect objects? The real issue was that he was the perfect sacrifice, more perfect than the lambs who were sacrificed under the old covenant. 10 out of 10 is a perfect score even if the performance was less than perfect in other regards.

One of the most powerful statements in the Bible is that man was made in God's image. One extension of this is that we 'have the mind of God'. We are all keenly aware of how the Disneyfied world of beauty and harmony grates. We crave the imperfect hero with whom we can identify instead of the Teflon phoney who mostly turns out to be a hypocrite and scoundrel in the end. The definition of our perfect hero does not include the proviso that he/she does nothing wrong. Rather than putting this down to us living in a perfect world maybe we are getting a glimpse of God's perspective.

To be holy literally means to be 'set apart', i.e. to be entirely different and dissociated rather than strictly perfect. Presumably the angels are perfect but they are not holy like God. So if we have the mind of a God who would send his son to walk the sewer of human experience and be mutilated in the process would it be that surprising if we were collaborating in a less than 'perfect' revelation? When seeing God and his Word as holy and perfect is there a danger of us creating God in an image of perfection that we have defined imperfectly?

We are generally suspicious of those who appear to have no faults but trust those who are flawed yet appear honest and transparent. If the Bible does perhaps sometimes get its facts wrong, discriminate and condone what seems ethically unacceptable it is also honest about its failings. It doesn't tell only one side of the story and when the God Man appears it becomes electrifying. If it were a crystal ball, polished to perfection we would be blinded by its reflected light. Instead Jesus walks into a rough and flawed landscape, rich in history and contradiction, predicted yet profoundly confusing, pregnant with hope both deferred and realised.

The Old Testament prophets lambasted the Jewish priests for following rituals to the letter and completely missing the point. Jesus condemned the Pharisees for the same. When Jesus declared that even looking at a woman lustfully meant you'd committed adultery, he was letting the self-righteous know they were not off the hook rather than adding more rules. In the Apostle John's first letter he says that "perfect love drives out fear". Jesus gave us only two commandments - to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbours as ourselves, we weren't commanded to love the faith or love perfection.

Jesus' plan wasn't that we would be lawless or excuse anything because love was the answer. Neither are we to strive to be perfect (we all know where that leads). Rather we are to be constrained by a love for God that is measured by our love for others. Its not through a book or a set of rules that we will find perfection, its through love.