My Jesus, I Love Me -- er, I Mean Thee
Over the last four or five years I've been spending time with "historical Jesus" studies. Scholars like N.T. Wright, Howard Marshall, Ben Witherington, and Scot McKight have refreshed and revolutionized the way I read the Gospels.
These studies typically involve historical reviews of previous "quests" for the historical Jesus, and the common consensus is that most quests involve a scholarly look down the deep, dark well of history and result in the looker seeing his own reflection.
But lest we think "Jesus in our own image" is a sin solely owned by so-called "liberal" academics and historians, we should at least acknowledge the Western Church of the modern world is frequently just as guilty. Just because our Jesus looks different doesn't mean He's the historical Jesus.
Justin Holcomb has a good post this week at Common Grounds Online called Jesus is For Losers:
I am currently reading Stephen Prothero's American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, which investigates the various constructions of Jesus in American history. He argues convincingly that what Americans have seen in Jesus has been a reflection of themselves. I haven't liked most versions of Jesus that Prothero sees in American cultural history—Enlightened Sage, Manly Redeemer, or Superstar—because they are mainly reflections of American ideals and hopes. While reading American Jesus I also read the Gospel accounts of Jesus and saw another interesting version: Jesus as Loser Lover (thanks to Steve Taylor for his brilliant song "Jesus is for Losers"). Jesus loved the spiritual losers: swindlers, whores, and drunkards. These were not people "achieving growth in noble virtues." Jesus told us what to think about his mission for losers: "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
I'd suggest even more errant Jesuses propagated by American evangelicalism -- Success Guru Jesus, Mystical Experience Jesus, Politically Correct Jesus, Fundamentalist Jesus, Patriotic Jesus, Co-Pilot Buddy Jesus, Tony Robbins Jesus, Personal ATM Jesus, and last but certainly not least My Own "Personal" Jesus.
How do we sort through these myriad Jesuses, each of which has just enough truth in them (even if just a dash) to make them dangerous, to find the real Person Jesus Christ? I think we ought to start with the Gospels, which usually are the last texts consulted. We think we are quite familiar with them, but we are not. We think we know their stories and have been building on them for years, but the army of false Jesuses marching in the hearts of well-meaning Christians testifies otherwise.
And the Jesus Cottage Industry is making a killing on all the ways we have Jesus without the gravity of His real personality. We have endless books offering alternative histories and secret messages and "what he really said" and hidden gospels. When, if we cared to see it, the four Gospels we already have contain enough truth to challenge, comfort, convict, and create us for eternity.
Yes, I said "create" us. It was G.K. Chesterton who, in his defense of Christian orthodoxy, said, "I did not make it. It is making me."
Can we say that of Jesus? Can we say the Jesus we believe in, rest in, trust in is the Jesus who is making us? Or is He the one we'd prefer, the one who's most like us, who's safer and nicer, who reflects all of our personal or political values and idiosyncrasies? Is Jesus making us, or is he the Jesus of our own making?
It is quite possible to make an idol of Jesus. Which is not to say that Jesus is not to be worshiped. He is the only Man worthy of worship. What I mean is, it is possible to project a self-idolatry onto Jesus, to mistake our own satisfaction with ourselves for authentic discipleship, instead of worshiping the real, living God in the real, resurrected person of Jesus Christ.
Here's one personal test I subject my own reading of the Gospels to (which actually works quite well when reading any Scripture):
Is it freaking me out? :-)
Am I convicted, challenged, impressed, scared, or inspired? Am I moved?
The Word of God -- both the living Word and the written Word -- is transformational revelation. If we are not being transformed by Christ and Scripture, we are not reading them right.
And if we constantly find them confirming our sense of self and our prejudices, leaving us unrepentant or unmoved, we have the chief indication we are looking down the deep, dark well of our own heart and seeing our own reflection.