Who was Jesus? (pt I: A prophet mighty in word and deed)

A few years ago, I read N. T. Wright’s brilliant work on the historical Jesus––Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG). I began asking myself how I would share some of the same of what he shares there, but on a lower shelf (not the 900-page scholarly work that is JVG). In the next series of posts, I’m going to share some points inspired by Wright about the historical Jesus. I aim to share these in an accessible way for normal people. I hope you find it interesting and helpful.1

These will be chapter-length, way longer than my normal posts, so you’ll need some time if you want to get to the bottom.

Last year, you probably heard all that you care to hear about polls and favorability ratings. I’m going to share one more set of polls with you, though. About five years ago, a group called Public Policy Polling had done a survey about Aaron Rodgers’s favorability in Wisconsin. He got the highest rating they had ever seen—an 89%.

If you don’t know who Aaron Rodgers is — this may help: 

Now you recognize him, right? He’s the discount double-check guy! The commercials were really big at the time. He also plays quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, and they had just won the Super Bowl, so that could have something to do with it, too. 

So the polling group decided to do one more poll. They wanted to know if anyone could be more popular across America than Rodgers was in Wisconsin. Did anyone hit 90% favorability? They surveyed 800 Americans, and they found three winners!2

#2 was Abraham Lincoln. He had a 91% favorability rating. Which makes sense. We all like Honest Abe, right? Or at least 91% of us do. (Who in the world were the 9%?)

Right behind Lincoln was Jesus, with a 90% favorability rating. This is interesting to me. Jesus has been a hotly debated figure through time. He’s been divisive. He told his disciples, “You will be hated by everyone because of me.”3 He said men would turn against their fathers, daughters would turn against their mothers because of him.4 He told his disciples that the world hated him because he testified that its works are evil.5

And the divisions didn’t end in the Bible. Some of history’s longest and fiercest debates have been about Jesus—whether he was truly the Son of God, what Jesus would do, what Jesus would approve of… So how could someone so divisive in his time and through history have a 90% favorability rating? 

Well, I have a few suggestions. One that I don’t want to make light of: many of us worship him as Savior, God who has taken on flesh and given us his great grace at his expense. We view Christ not just favorably, but with ultimate reverence and devotion. “Favorable” is far too small. We’ll come back around to that.

But I wonder if there’s something else going on here, too. I’ve given you #2 and #3 in favorability in that poll, but I haven’t given you #1 yet.

Number one was… #1. The poll also asked people how favorably they viewed themselves, and 93% gave themselves a positive rating. The most esteemed person in America… is each of us in our own eyes. This isn’t shocking, is it?

I think that also has something to do with why Jesus’ ratings are so high. Several people have suggested that our search for understanding Jesus—the real, historical Jesus—is like looking down to the bottom of a deep well. And from the bottom, we see an image come back to us that we’re sure is Jesus, but it looks a lot like our reflection.6

The Jesus in our minds supports the sort of morality that we support—strict about the things that we’re strict about, lenient and full of grace about the things that we’re lenient about. He probably would vote the way we vote, because the issue that we’re most passionate about is surely the one that he cares most about. For some people that’s war.

For others it’s abortion.

And to be sure, we should look to Jesus and his teaching and example for our moral lives, but we might admit that we rush to him more quickly on some issues than others.

It’s no wonder, then, that we even re-make Jesus physically in our image. Asians have depicted Jesus as Asian.

Africans have depicted him as African.

And of course, white Westerners have depicted him as a white Westerner.

Those physical depictions are just small evidence of the bigger ways that we make Jesus look like us. If our calling is to be imitators of God, imitators of Christ, we’ve found that the easier way of coming to look like Christ is when we make him come to look like us. 

Some people have seen us paint these false pictures and reacted by running the other way—saying we can’t really know anything about Jesus. A famous Bible scholar named Rudolf Bultmann said it this way: “I do indeed think that we can now know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus.”7

And then there’s a third group of people—those who say Jesus doesn’t matter. We’re spending too much time on a historical figure who’s irrelevant today. You can see that in this survey of the Church of England that talked about the different reasons people don’t go to church. Why don’t more people go to church?

Part of the reason is simply a lack of belief that the death of Christ was the turning-point of history… It all seems less and less likely to be true, the more you discover about those maniacs in the first century who were expecting a Messiah and getting ready for the end of the world.”8

According to that survey, our interest in Jesus is pointless. It was created by a few maniacs in the first century. Time to move on.

Whether you fashion Jesus in your own eyes, or as someone who can hardly be known about at all, or as someone irrelevant for us today—the product of a few maniacs from the first century—we can say this: “What you say about Jesus affects your entire worldview. If you see Jesus differently, everything changes. Turn this small rudder, and the whole ship will change [course]. To put it bluntly: what if the maniacs turned out to be right?”9

In some sense, that’s the question we’ll be asking throughout this series. It becomes two questions: “Who was Jesus?” and “So what?” We ask because the answers to those questions have the potential to change everything—our entire worldview (the way we see), and our entire course (the way we live). We ask because we believe that Jesus looked very different from a lot of our conceptions—and if we really want to know him and imitate him, we need to dispense with the false portraits we’ve sketched in our minds and instead see him as he was. We ask these questions because we disagree with Bultmann when he says we can’t really know anything about Jesus. We believe we can! Because we believe this record we have in Scripture tells us about him, how he lived, what he did and said. 

In this first post, especially, we’re going to spend a lot of time on that question, “Who was Jesus?” We’re going to spend a lot of time in his world to see Jesus in his real time and place, and then we’ll come out at the end to ask, “So what?” So we go to Scripture to see Jesus in his time and place.

Jesus’ setting: Renewal movements

Look at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, as Matthew presents it:

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him. (Matt 4:17–22)

Something sometimes unnoticed about Jesus throughout the gospels is that he was leading a movement. He went around announcing that something new was happening. He gathered a following of people around him—disciples. Whatever he was doing, he was leading people somewhere; he was starting a movement.

A lot of the images in our heads about Jesus’ time and place are serene, peaceful, Jesus going around and just “loving” people, standing beside some body of water and speaking in ethereal tones: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.” That doesn’t give you a real sense of the atmosphere at this time and place in the world. For the Jewish people, recent history involved violence, uprisings, upheavals of government. It involved movements and leaders who would gather people to their cause.

Here’s a sketch of the time leading up to Jesus… About 160 years before he was born, there was a Jewish rebel army that took control of Judea. They’re known as the Maccabees. The Maccabees said that the Jewish people were living in the Promised Land, and God’s people shouldn’t be under foreign rule. So they revolted, and they actually won and took over. After their long time under foreign rule, the Jewish people ruled in the promised land for 100 years. But then the Romans came in and conquered them. That happened about 60 years before Jesus was born.

We have records of some of the abuse these Jewish people suffered during those times. Here’s one instance from the book of 2 Maccabees:

Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh.

[This is, of course, horribly offensive for Jewish people who didn’t eat pork.]

But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as all ought to go who have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life. (2 Maccabees 6:18–20)

This is the kind of oppression and suffering that the Jewish people of Jesus’ time would have experienced and talked about. The pagan nations persecuted the Jews back in the days of the Maccabees, and then the Romans took over, and there was this continued foreign military occupation. They imposed weighty taxes, ones that could be crippling for people who lived on the edge of poverty. (A reason tax collectors were thought of so poorly—and why people asked Jesus at one point about whether he supported the imperial tax: “Are you with the empire? Or are you with the Jewish people?” Either answer would get you in trouble with someone.)

So what happens when people are oppressed like this? When their backs are against the wall and they feel like they have no hope? This is when revolutionary movements arise. You get social bandits—“Robin Hood” types who would perform raids to harass the upper classes and provide for the peasants. There’s one occasion where King Herod assembled an army to track down a group of bandits, and they retreated to hide in caves. Look how a historian recorded what Herod did:

With ropes [Herod] lowered [over the cliffs] the toughest of his men in large baskets until they reached the mouths of the caves; they then slaughtered the brigands and their families, and threw firebrands at those who resisted… Not a one of them voluntarily surrendered and of those brought out forcibly, many preferred death to captivity.”

- Josephus, The Jewish War10

You had bandit uprisings, and you had the rulers stomping them out. This is how the Romans kept peace. The Pax Romana worked by stomping out any uprisings.

And then after Herod died, some time shortly after Jesus was born, Herod’s son sent armies into Jerusalem and massacred thousands of Jews on pilgrimage to worship there. Because of that, peasant revolts rose up all over the kingdom, a lot of them with leaders that might be referred to as messiahs—promising to overthrow Herod’s dynasty and the Romans’ rule.

This is the kind of political setting that Jesus came into. And that’s only a small taste. It wasn’t getting better. After Jesus, it got much worse, actually.

In all of it, the Jews had this great hope that they wouldn’t live under Rome’s thumb forever. They were God’s special people, and God had made promises to rescue them and make everything right again. Specifically, God would come and establish himself as King over all the earth. He would bring justice and peace and set the world right.11 And a lot of them would look to movements like these as the answer.

So where would their minds go when they heard something like, “the kingdom of heaven has come near”? This was a major political statement. A revolutionary statement. “God is renewing his covenant with Israel, he’s restoring creation, setting Israel free. God is returning to be known as King!” The people would hear those as fighting words. We have to understand this bit of background to understand so much of Jesus’ life.

Mighty in word and deed

So look at the next part of that passage in Matthew now:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him. (Matt 4:23–25)

You can imagine curious people watching from their doors, gathering to hear what he had to say, gossiping about what they had seen, wondering whether what he said was true. You can imagine them bringing people to him on stretchers and seeing them healed—flocking to wherever he was, so they could keep seeing and hearing what he was up to.12 13

He spoke differently from the other teachers of the law, like someone who had authority. He spoke like a prophet! If you don’t think of Jesus as a prophet, it’s interesting to see just how often the New Testament calls him one. 

It’s how the crowds view him. When people ask who he is, they say he’s the prophet from Nazareth.14

It’s how his disciples viewed him. After his death, they tell a stranger (who turns out to be Jesus!) that he was “a prophet, powerful in word and deed” (Luke 24:19).

Jesus even refers to himself as a prophet.15

And he backs up his prophetic words with his actions—he’s a prophet powerful in word and deed. His only miracle that’s recorded in all four gospels is when he went out in the wilderness and fed people.

Does this remind us of any stories from the Old Testament––God feeding Israelites in the wilderness? That’s what God did during the exodus from Egypt. Jesus’ miracles weren’t just some magic to prove that he was God. If he just wanted to prove he had divine powers, he could have… I don’t know, floated. These were more than signs of miraculous powers, they were announcements—this was about God rescuing his people, a new exodus! 

When he healed people, it announced the same. What’s it like when the kingdom of God comes? Faithful people are healed, the curse of disease and decay is broken! And this isn’t just about physical healing. So many of the people who were healed had been ostracized. If you were blind or lame or deaf or dumb, people assumed that somehow sin was involved. You were less of a human—not a full Israelite—because of those physical problems. Jesus healed a woman who had been bleeding for years, which would have made her perpetually unclean. He healed lepers who had to stay away from the rest of society and yell, “Unclean!” as they went by. Those healing miracles were restoring people to community. It wasn’t just physical healing—it was social healing.

For a people who have long been under someone else’s thumb, what good news! This was release to the captives and recovering of sight for the blind. The day had come when God would save his people!

If it were this simple, we would expect Jesus’ favorability rating to blow Aaron Rodgers’s out of the water, wouldn’t we?

Why would people hate Jesus?

But it wasn’t just curious and excited crowds who flocked to hear Jesus. Almost anywhere he went, there was tension. They accused him of being demon-possessed. One crowd took him to throw him off a cliff.16 At least twice, people picked up stones to stone him.17 And it seems that everywhere he went, Jesus was being confronted by the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. 

If you have any idea in your head that most of Jesus’ time was peaceful, you’ve been fed a false narrative. This movement he was leading was highly controversial.

N. T. Wright says it this way: 

The fact that he was not arrested sooner was due to his itinerant style, and to his concentration on villages rather than major cities, not to anything bland or unprovocative about the content of his message.”18

His message wasn’t some nice, timeless truths for us to live by. It was a passionate and provocative message that people heard and had strong reactions to—some of them reacted by following Jesus, even leaving behind professions and families. Others picked up stones to stone him or tried to throw him off a cliff.

Two reasons that people didn’t like Jesus’ message: 

First, he was giving a revolutionary message, and not everyone wanted revolution. Can you imagine some of the Jewish people who were doing okay in this setting? The ones who were okay with things as they were? The worst thing that could happen for them would be to upset the Romans with rumors of another uprising. They would say things like this:

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” (John 11:48)

These prophetic announcements about the kingdom of heaven coming near were not good news for the people already in power. Later, when Pontius Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your king?” the chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Don’t mess with Caesar. Times are good. Caesar is Lord.

Second —  even if a message of revolution was good news for you, you still may not have liked Jesus. In Jesus’ world, when someone announced the kingdom of God coming, whose side would God be on? Israel’s! And who was God against? Israel’s oppressors—the Romans! But instead, Jesus went around talking about a lot of Israel as outsiders, and others—Gentiles—as those who would receive the kingdom. When he talked about judgment day, it wasn’t all the Jews who were in and all the rest who were out. He kept warning the Jews that they might find themselves on the outside, knocking on a closed door.

N. T. Wright observes about it all: 

Someone who is telling strangely familiar stories and meaning the wrong things by them will land up in trouble. The parable about defilement, about the things which come out of or go into a person, in which the former defile and the latter do not, is a cryptic invitation to abandon one of the most cherished cultural boundary-markers of Israel, a social and religious symbol which people in recent memory had adhered to even when the result was torture and death.”19

Remember those Maccabees who died rather than eating swine flesh? This parable would be a slap in the face to them.

Even with his healings, Jesus didn’t announce the kingdom the way they would expect. Who does the messiah bring healing to? His people, right? But then in maybe the most audacious of all his healings, Jesus healed the servant of a Roman centurion. Here he was providing healing to the enemy––one of the stationed officers of the occupying army. What do you do with this?

Jesus’ miracles weren’t finally the kind of miracles the people were looking for. They weren’t miracles that delivered them from their captivity to the Romans. Instead, his most powerful miracles targeted a different enemy. He drove out demons, forgave people of their sins, and raised people from the dead. Why?? These attacked the real enemy—and it wasn’t Rome. It was the devil. And when Jesus came driving out demons and announcing forgiveness, it was a direct attack on the devil.

When Jesus announced that God’s kingdom was coming, he meant something different from what the people expected. They wanted deliverance from Rome, just as Israel had been delivered from slavery in Egypt. Jesus was announcing a deliverance from the devil, from slavery to sin and death.

This second group didn’t understand Jesus’ revolution message because it wasn’t how revolution messages were supposed to sound.  In fact, what he was saying sounded almost opposite a revolution message. He sounded a lot like a prophet from the Old Testament, Micaiah son of Imlah. And you know what he was like… 

No? Let me tell you his short story.

Jesus, the new Micaiah 

The king of Israel, Ahab, wanted to go to war against another country, to take back some of Israel’s land. This was the promised land—it belonged to Israel—surely God would want them to have it back. (Is this sounding familiar?) So Ahab called together 400 prophets (these were prophets of other gods, not the God of Israel), and they all answered the same way: “Go! Yahweh will give them into your hands.” But another king—the king from Judah—asked, “Isn’t there any prophet of Yahweh around here?” And Ahab said, “Well, there’s one… but I hate him because all of his prophecies are bad. His name is Micaiah son of Imlah.” 

So they went and got Micaiah, and the messengers all said, “Look, the other prophets are unanimous on this. They’re all predicting success for the king. Don’t screw this up!” But instead, Micaiah went in and said this: 

I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’ ” (1 Kgs 22:17)

He was saying, “You think you’re going to victory—that this is how you’ll gain back the promised land—but you’re going to your death.”

And after that, Ahab turned and said, “Didn’t I tell you he only prophesies bad things about me?” So what do you think Ahab did? You already know, don’t you? He ignored the prophecy and went to war. And what happened? You already know, don’t you? They got routed. Ahab was killed. You can imagine the bodies scattered on the hills. Whoever escaped alive saying, “We have no master now, no King”—sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus came like a new version of Micaiah son of Imlah. He came to people who were ready for war, certain that God would give them victory, and he warned them that their way of revolution wasn’t how they would achieve peace. He had compassion on the crowds because they were like sheep without a shepherd. 20 As he went into Jerusalem, about to be crucified, he wept and said:

If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” (Luke 19:42–44)

A few decades later, that prophecy came true. The Jewish people went to war against Rome, and the Jewish rebels actually took Jerusalem. They occupied it for a few years, but then the Roman army came back and crushed them. They hemmed them in on every side and slaughtered them and tore down their temple.

So many of those people thought they would bring the kingdom of God by their own revolution. And in the process, they missed the real revolution, the one that came through Christ in an entirely different manner.

So what?

This takes us to that second question—“so what?” This isn’t just about interesting history. For each of us, there’s a personal question: are we willing and ready to see Jesus as a prophet, one who does not look like us and does not affirm each of our agendas, but comes and calls us to his? Are we willing to listen when he says that the way that we’re choosing leads to death, even when we so want it to be the right way?

As the Church, we ask questions about Jesus because he is our founder. For us as the Body of Christ, Jesus is our head. For us as the bride of Christ, Jesus is our bridegroom. So for us especially, who Jesus was has enormous implications for who we are.

The mighty words and deeds that we see in Christ continue. Christ is present today in the world. Where Christ is, the kingdom of God has come—there’s freedom and announcements of good news! And where is Christ present? Most specifically in his Body, the Church!

The Church as the Body of Christ… that’s something interesting to consider when we think of Jesus’ favorability ratings. How do they compare to the Church’s favorability ratings?I’ve looked for statistics, and they’ve been harder to find. Here’s my general experience, though, and I think you’ll agree… the Church’s favorability ratings are not at 90%. I’m not sure they’re as high as 50%. We even have books like They Like Jesus but not the Church. You have in your mind reasons for this, don’t you? Let me suggest two…

First — there’s this important reminder. People wanted to throw Jesus off cliffs and stone him when he walked this earth the first time. He was bad news to the people who wanted to continue saying “Caesar is Lord.” He was bad news for people who were pretty comfortable in Roman culture. Those people—even their religious people—were okay to say, “We have no king but Caesar.” Don’t rock the boat.

For the church to be the Body of Christ in our world today will surely mean that we refuse to say, “Caesar is Lord,” when the rest of our culture wants us to affirm its conventions. We’ve been accused of Marxism for calling for social justice and working for it in our world. We’ve been accused of bigotry for making different claims about sexuality than the world around us. (To be clear, that’s not primarily about debates over homosexuality. Before we can even go near those, we need to acknowledge that our world’s claims and practices about heterosexuality are far different from ours.) If we are like Jesus, it may be that the world will hate us because we continue to testify that its works are evil, that its ways are not Christ’s ways.

I’ll share another brilliant quote from N. T. Wright that captures this:

If we are announcing the Kingdom in such a way that it simply echoes what certain groups in the world are saying, we have climbed one wrong mountain; if we announce it in such a way that it challenges nobody and nothing in our world, we have climbed another wrong mountain.”21

Because of all this, I would be skeptical if the Church ever achieved a 90% favorability rating. If we did, we would probably be a church re-made into a false image of Christ, not the image of a messiah who people wanted to stone and throw off cliffs because he wouldn’t conform to the images they wanted him to fit.

Because of this, our first questions can never be about how to get people to like us. We can’t succumb to the kind of pressures I so often hear in church world—“Don’t you think that will turn people off?” “Don’t you think that’s a little too extreme?” Imagine the people who said the same to Jesus.

But that’s obviously only one reason the Church’s favorability ratings fall short. You know the second one all too well… We’ve had problems not just for being too much like Jesus, but often for how much we’ve failed to be like him. While Jesus healed the sick, we’ve many times been communities that inflict undue harm on people. While Jesus fed the hungry, we’ve too often allowed ourselves to become social clubs who care only for ourselves. While Jesus ate with sinners, we often won’t even consider breaking bread with anyone we disagree with. People we regard as sinners often receive scorn rather than compassion.

Where this is true, we must go back to Jesus for his grace. The Church is the greatest sign and the greatest reality of God’s kingdom come on this earth today. The Church is the greatest sign and the greatest reality of the Body of Christ walking this earth today. Where we have mucked that up, we go to Christ for the grace of his forgiveness. And we go to Christ for the grace of his restoration––that he would restore us to the true embodiment of the kingdom of God come on this earth, the true embodiment of Christ on earth. We rely on the grace of God, knowing that our efforts to “bring the kingdom of God” on our own will be an utter failure, and an affront to our God.

For our world, good news to the poor! Because with God, the church actively works to reduce growing disparity between rich and poor. Good news to the outcast! Because with God, we delight in diversity and difference. Good news for creation, because with God, we care for the integrity of creation.

When the Church has been this good news, much of the world has been able to look on us with favor, even when we look so different from the world. Where our favorability ratings are low because we have failed to announce and live this good news, we can be better. We must be.

The Bible says that Jesus came full of grace and truth. The same one who testified that the world’s deeds were evil was the one who ate with sinners. Our calling is to be the same. Not to be so set on grace that we get soft about truth. Not to be so set on truth that we withhold grace. Full of grace and truth.

——————

  1. I should make two important notes here. 1) I don’t intend an uncritical regurgitation here. I have some critical points of disagreement, or at least where I’m suspending judgment, concerning Wright’s points and conclusions. So this series has Wright’s work as its primary inspiration, but doesn’t attempt to be wholly faithful to what Wright has done. 2) Wright has also written much of this into popular-level books, especially Simply Jesus. I don’t pretend to do it better than he already has––just to provide a different introduction for you. Go pick up one of his books if you want more.
  2. You can see the results at http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2011/11/americans-love-jesus-lincoln-and-themselves.html
  3. Matt 10:22
  4. Matt 10:35
  5. John 7:7
  6.  This analogy was first used by George Tyrrell in Christianity at the Crossroads, 1909, though it’s most commonly attributed to Albert Schweitzer.
  7.  from N. T. Wright in JVG, 3.
  8.  Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Church Hesitant (1993), p. 129. As found in JVG, xiv.
  9. JVG, xiv
  10.  all of this from “Revolutionary Movements, Jewish” by W. J. Heard and C. A. Evans in Dictionary of New Testament Background
  11.  adapted from Wright’s Matthew for Everyone, Part One, pp. 28–29.
  12.  This idea of Jesus traveling from village to village and teaching might help us see the writing of the gospels differently. With a traveling prophet who is constantly in front of new crowds, how many times would he say some of the things that he said? For his most popular teachings and parables, he probably said them dozens of times, at least. So when you see a teaching in several of the gospels, and perhaps it’s in a different place and worded slightly differently in them, it’s likely that these are each different occasions. And for his followers to later record some of these with accuracy, it probably wouldn’t be that hard. Can’t you imagine them saying, “Oh, it’s the parable of the sower again…”?
  13. Wright describes the scene much like this in Matthew for Everyone.
  14. Matt 21:11
  15. e.g. Matt 13:57; Luke 13:13
  16. Luke 4:29
  17. John 8:59; 10:31
  18.  JVG 172
  19.  JVG, 179
  20. Matt 9:36
  21. in For All God’s Worth, Kindle Locations 1425–1426

A word to my congregation on the election

I shared a note about the election in my weekly email to our congregation. A few people have encouraged me to share it publicly. This is only a brief word. I think there’s much more that can and should be said pastorally and theologically.1 But it’s the start I offer.

——

Hi friends,

I know from conversations with several of you already that some of you are excited or relieved because of the results on Tuesday––and for sincere reasons, ones that we as a Christian community can affirm. I know that others of you are hurt, angry or scared because of the results––and for sincere reasons, ones that we as a Christian community can affirm.

As for us, we will continue to be a church that seeks to love God and our neighbor (taken in the broadest sense––to include especially our “enemy,” as Chuck Gutenson highlighted for us last week), a church that surrounds each other with love and forgiveness and continues to learn from each other in our differences, and a church that then acts in our world accordingly.

We will be a church that submits to our governing authorities whenever we can and a church that resists governing authorities if submission would require sin, injustice or blasphemy.

We will be slow to cry “sin,” “injustice,” or “blasphemy” until we have listened and learned carefully, especially from those who disagree with us. We will be fast to understand and defend the cause of anyone hurt by public policies, actions or statements.

We will pray for our leaders.

And of course, we will fall short of all this. Still this is my hope and prayer for us as the Church, whose head and leader is always Christ. Barack Obama is our president now, Donald Trump will be our president soon, but Christ is our King now and forever.

I hope this is at least a mutually-agreeable starting point for all of us in our political conversations. Because of the divisiveness present throughout this political season, I know many of you are hurting, regardless of preferred candidate, and some of you have had relationships strained. I’d be happy to talk and pray with you more, if it could be helpful.

——

  1. These two terms are redundant. Or at least should be. But we often attempt to separate them, as if a pastoral word could be anything less than theological, and vice versa…

The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith, catechesis and other wisdom on theology and ministry: An interview with Dr. Philip Tallon

Philip Tallon

Picture courtesy of philiptallon.com

 

I want to introduce you to Philip Tallon –– for two reasons.

First, Philip is one of the most perceptive and creative theologians I know. He works on heady topics like theological aesthetics and chairs the apologetics department at Houston Baptist University. He also served as a director of student ministries and writes about Spider-Man, Fight Club, and The Legend of Zelda.1 I know several people doing deep, scholarly theological work. I know several people who are comfortable talking to teenagers and discussing pop culture. I know very few who live in both of those worlds––and combine them––as well as Phil does. I think his wisdom and practical insights below will be worth your time, even if you never read the book or watch the videos we discuss. His reference to “pastor-as-king” and his discussion of “mankind” and gender-inclusive language were alone worth the whole interview for me.

The second reason I want to introduce you to Phil is because of the book and videos I just referenced. He recently put out a new resource called The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. One of my greatest interests is to communicate deep theology (i.e. beyond superficial or flawed pop theology) in a way that normal people (i.e. not academics) can understand and apply it.2 The Absolute Basics is a great example of that. I think a lot of you would find it useful. Maybe on your own, but much better if you could use it with a group.

Here’s our interview about that resource and more…

basics

You’re so interesting to me for the variety of work you’re doing. Your other two books were an aesthetic theodicy and the philosophy of Sherlock Holmes. And you’re contributing essays to books like The Legend of Zelda and Theology and Tarantino and Theology. How does this project fit in with all your other interests? And how do those other interests affect how you approached this project? Would this be different if it weren’t created by someone who’s also thinking about aesthetic theodicy and if Jesus could save aliens?

It’s funny that you ask this question, because I’ve often felt like The Absolute Basics was a bit of a side project for me, but now I realize that it’s more deeply connected to my other projects than I thought.

In pointing to all these other projects (my book on aesthetic theodicy, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) I guess the abiding interest is how theology and the arts talk to one another. There’s nothing I like more than thinking about how the arts enrich theology and vice versa. This is one of the reasons why C. S. Lewis is such a fascinating figure for me and many people. He did all this work in what we might call “public theology” and then he also went and wrote amazing stories that speak to what it means to live in God’s world. The avid Lewis lover gets the pleasure of thinking about how the two modes of discourse differ and connect. Since a pastor (Jeff Hoy) mailed me a copy of The Great Divorce when I was in middle school, while I was away for the summer, I’ve been enchanted with imaginative Christian writing. If anyone hasn’t read The Great Divorce and has to choose between two books to buy, his or mine, the choice is an easy one. Lewis all the way.

But back to the subject at hand, most of my writing has been meta-level reflection on theology and the arts, not an attempt to do theology through the arts myself. The Absolute Basics was an attempt to dip my toe into that. Specifically, I wanted to lay out some Christian theology for beginners in a way that was unapologetically doctrinal (speaking from the church) but was also creative. In this regard I was helped greatly by finding an illustrator who was a serious Christian and could help translate the ideas into images. I really can’t speak too highly of Andrew Chandler, the artist who helped me. Without him, I don’t think the book & videos would have had the reach they’ve had so far. He was able to take these images I had on the page and translate them into visual form with deft lines and a deep understanding of the Gospel.

Again, this synthesis of word & image, of conceptuality & creativity, is what I’m most interested in academically. I think sometimes we’ve regarded concepts as primary and creativity as a secondary ornament. Images being the biblia pauperum (the Bible for the illiterate) as it were, with spoken or written theology occupying pride of place and the arts being a secondary medium for filling in the margins, but of course the New Testament offers us a more integrated model. Jesus is the “Word made flesh,” the “express Image” of God incarnate. Therefore images and the imagination are already bound up in God’s self-communication. It isn’t that Jesus tells us about God with his words. He is God in very flesh. When we look at Jesus we see God. And Jesus, of course, used word pictures to talk about the Kingdom of God. This isn’t an accident. Aesthetics is bound up in the business of theology.

absolute-basics

I love the medium: a set of videos rather than just a written catechism. What inspired that?

The idea was there from the beginning. I was working in a church and knew I wanted to make something for students to use in theological education. I love those RSA Animate videos that illustrate lectures by famous thinkers. So I wrote something that could be feasibly animated. Something short with a visual hook, but where the visual element helped to enable the viewer to see the doctrinal ideas clearly.

In this sense, The Absolute Basics is really properly “read” by watching the videos, rather than just reading the text, because the illustrations are meant to be their own kind of faithful visual systematics (though a very minor systematics), where the images themselves can carry the content and help us to see the beauty & truth of God’s work in the world.

I loved some of the analogies you used. They were so easy to apprehend—trying to reconcile with friends after you ruin their Thanksgiving meal… except you can’t cook, or waving a white flag as analogy for justification. In fact, in almost all of your videos, your explanation is heavy on analogy and then you say something like, “That’s what happens in Acts…” Is this just how your mind works, or did you choose that approach for a particular reason?

Well, yes, this is just how my mind works. And I suppose it is probably how most minds work. We’re sensate, incarnate beings. Eugene Peterson says something like “stories are verbal acts of hospitality.” Most preachers get this intuitively or explicitly, and try to hang big slabs of ideas on meat hooks of the imagination in their sermons. I know some philosophers who prefer pure argumentation with premises lined up in straight rows of valid reasoning. And I appreciate this too. But even philosophers will often use analogies or thought experiments to engage our intuitions to support the plausibility of the premises. So analogies are just part of the work of communicating ideas. Again, back to Jesus, the parables invite everyone into Jesus’ way of seeing the world with unmatched economy.

Many of the extended analogies I used have theological precedents. Of the two you mention, these are nothing more than examples used by other thinkers with a fresh coat of paint. The Thanksgiving analogy–you wreck the dinner but can’t cook a new one yourself–is basically ripped from the pages of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (man ought to repay the debt of honor but can’t) and repurposed for an age that isn’t well acquainted with the feudal honor system. The white flag image is stolen from N. T. Wright’s discussion of repentance, where he talks about how Josephus commanded the rebels that tried to kill him to “repent & believe” in language that is basically identical in NT Greek to Jesus’ same words. Basically just “surrender and follow me.”

Maybe one thing more should be said about the analogies. One of the most common bits of feedback I get on the book is “great analogies.” I take this as the best kind of compliment, because I think analogies are so fundamental to understanding anything. Our language is shot through with analogy and metaphor even when we don’t realize it. We talk about good people as being “upright” or “solid.” We talk about bad people as “crooked” or “slippery.” We think about things in connection with other things. Nothing is ever really comprehended on its own, conceptually. Even God has to be grasped through analogy (as Aquinas articulates). God is best known to us through the metaphorical language of Father, Son, and Spirit. These metaphors are truthful, they show us who God is, but they also connect to us by way of analogy.

Anyway, this all went into my approach (intuitively or otherwise). The rhythm of the book is just a constant movement between ideas and analogies for this reason. If, in the end, the readers & viewers remember the analogies exclusively, I’ll still consider that a success.

A few questions about what you’re doing here as it relates to catechesis… You have 16 questions and answers and memory verses, too. Is your intention that people memorize the catechism answers and also the memory verses? Why the emphasis on memory?

It was my intention, at the very least, to offer something that was memorizable, and encourage that in the book. Hopefully churches will use it in this way. It’s certainly doable. If people can memorize the many, many lyrics in all 47 songs in Hamilton they can handle my 16 questions and answers. I mean, it’s good to ingrain the words of scripture on our hearts and minds, and to be able to repeat formal theological language. It’s even scriptural, as we read in Deuteronomy 6. It’s also not as hard as we often think. Once you get rolling, memorization becomes easier. And, of course, memorization isn’t just about getting down the content, it’s an act of meditation on God’s revelation. We’re delighting in scripture & theology through memorization & repetition.

There’s also, of course, a necessary role that memorization plays in the life of the church. If we want to be certain that Christians have really learned what the church believes, then accurate memorization is a clear way of testing that. We live in an age, at least in the American church, that has poured more resources than ever before into Christian education, but I’m skeptical that we’ve produced better educated Christians as a result. Part of this is that we put all the emphasis on top-down teaching–clear communication, engaging activities, and so forth–but very little on bottom-up responsibility for learning. On cloudy days, this strikes me as a flaw in our conception of the role of the pastor. We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king. A responsible reflection of Christ’s threefold office should at least reckon with the ways that pastors have a duty to ensure that new Christians have truly learned what Christians believe (not to mention how Christians live). What all this looks like in practice is fuzzy to me, and I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and critique the coach, but it seems that at least part of Christian education should include real examination of the theological literacy of church members and, if wanting, insist on some kind of basic standard. At least in doctrinal terms, some kind of catechesis members can faithfully repeat from memory seems to be a fitting expectation. I’m still working through all this, but my sense is that our bar for real learning (not to mention living) is far lower that of other great periods in the church.

You and I have talked before about the benefits and drawbacks of creating new catechisms. Seedbed alone has four different catechisms available. Part of me wishes we could all use just one so that we could have that language in common among a larger group of people. What’s the benefit, in your mind, of creating a new catechism rather than all rallying around one that’s already available?

Right now it does seem like “of the making of catechisms there will be no end.” There’s your revised version of an older Methodist one. And more on Seedbed. And newer ones in books like Key United Methodist Beliefs. And now mine. And yes, I agree that there is something seemingly contradictory about having a bunch of different catechisms. It’s a bit like having a bunch of different sets of traffic laws taught in different driver’s ed classes. Not that the various catechisms necessarily contradict, but it is odd to say, “Here are the basics” when in fact there are other lists with expanded or contracted sets of basic ideas. This was very much on my mind & heart when I wrote up my 16 Qs & As. With this in mind (and without trying to sound too defensive) I reviewed most of the other extant catechisms so that I was working with these other, wiser voices. Hopefully they fit together in the way that various “longer and shorter” catechisms work together, like Luther’s catechisms or the Westminster catechisms.

I was, at least, encouraged in reviewing the UMC Book of Discipline to note that the Articles of Religion already contain a complimentary plurality in that the articles of the Methodist Church and the articles of the Evangelical United Brethren were both included, rather than being unified into a single set. And of course Wesley himself edited the Church of England’s articles for Methodism. All of this suggests a healthy underlying logic, that these doctrinal statements are attempts to faithfully express God’s self-revelation in scripture, and by that they are judged, and are therefore open to revision and re-expression in the life of the church as the Spirit and wise judgment lead us.

All that being said, hopefully anyone using this catechism in the church would come to these other longer catechisms with greater understanding and appreciation.

You’re especially recommending this for use in confirmation. I know that was your initial use for it. What inspired you to create it for confirmation? Was there something you found missing or insufficient in any of the other confirmation curricula?

Indeed. This all started from a pastoral context. I was charged with the teaching part of the confirmation process and tried to figure out how to do it faithfully and well. There’s a lot of material out there, much of it good, some of it not-so-good, but nothing that I thought would work for my confirmands in our situation. Sociologically speaking, confirmation is still an important rite for many in the church. Most of the parents in our church thought it mattered that something happened with the students, and I wanted to make sure we seized the opportunity. I care about theological education and if I muffed this opportunity to invest the talents given to me I’d feel that as a failure.

But there was also a deeper, objective purpose. Confirmation is the moment when people reaffirm their baptismal vows and commit to discipleship. That’s huge. And a key part of that is knowing what Christians believe. (Here I should note that the confirmation process is about more than that. It is also about Christian living, but we’re talking about theological education mostly, so I’ll focus there.) I wanted to make sure that my confirmands really knew their stuff when they stood up and affirmed their belief in the Triune God. This was the reason behind the catechism & memory verses, but more distinctly, it was the driving reason behind the image-rich videos. We were catechizing 6th-graders, and I wanted to make sure I offered an act of “intellectual hospitality” to them in meeting them where they were, but also not leaving them where they were.

Most of the other resources (to my mind) were either a) theologically astute or b) fun & engaging, but weren’t both. Some resources were neither. (Though, of course, nothing in Seedbed’s catalog would ever fail to be theologically astute.) Given the response I’ve gotten from other youth leaders, it seems I’m not alone in wanting something more than what was on offer for students especially. In this regard, I’ve been fortunate to have accidentally-yet-providentially stumbled on a widespread need. And that need seems to go beyond youth ministry, as there seem to be many adults who are looking for something that is unapologetically doctrinal while also being engaging and accessible.

Saying all of this puts my temperamental self-effacement on edge, because it sounds to my own ears a bit like bragging. To put my nerves at ease, I will add that I never intended to put my work in the conversation for fundamental Christian education, but the needs of ministry at the time seemed to call for it, and a publisher wanted it, and the reports I’ve gotten suggest that it’s been a help to ministers in the field. Hopefully God approves as well. (This also sounds kind of braggy in a faux-humble way.)

You used the NIV translation for your Scripture passages. That includes the use of “mankind” in some passages, like the ones you use for creation. I know some people have a problem with “mankind” not being gender inclusive. Any reason you chose to stick with that translation?

I used the NIV because it is a common translation, and, although imperfect, as all translations are, it is clear and yet not too wooden. It works well enough, and it was also the version in our church’s pews. I also have some specific gripes (probably uncharitable) against some other translations that have denominationally-unhelpful theological underpinnings or are hard to memorize. Specifically, I didn’t want to use the ESV because the Study Bible version reiterates a lot of Calvinist theology in the notes. So I didn’t want to initiate students into that version. This is where the (perhaps) uncharitable bit comes in. But maybe not. Calvinism is, in my view, a seriously flawed theological tradition that is fundamentally opposed to the core of Wesleyan teaching. Other versions just don’t flow nicely for memorization, such as the NASB or the CEB. I strongly considered the NRSV. The KJV is a work of beauty, but is so removed from common language that it requires additional ‘translation,’ which is a problem for contemporary church use.

Regarding traditional gendered language, I have no quibble at all. In this regard, the NIV’s use of “mankind” is a strength, one could argue. First off, gendered usage reflects more closely the original Greek. Secondly, words like “mankind” or “man” (referring to humans) are just part of standard English usage. I don’t tend to use “man” or “mankind” in my own writing, but I don’t object to their usage, and I don’t think we need to exile the word to the dustbin. “Mankind,” properly understood, refers to man and woman inclusively. Now that I say this, I’m regretting my own capitulation to standard academic usage by not using the term more. Further, outside of academic circles, I’ve rarely met anyone who raises the issue. So I don’t think it’s a relevant pastoral issue. At least, it hasn’t been one for me.

So as not to end answering this question on a rant, I’ll say that I am at least philosophically committed to preserving traditional language. Returning to the KJV, there is something that is lost, I reckon, in losing the formal addresses (“Thou,” “Thy,” etc.). Looking back at the distance between our common language and the variety and beauty of older English expression makes me wish that we had done more in the past to preserve it. I suppose this suggests I should have opted for the KJV as my translation of choice (or something akin), but again, one wants scripture to speak clearly now, and so as a pastor, using such an old translation seems imprudent. These are the tensions one lives with.

I’m curious, what did you learn from doing this project?

Thank you for asking this question. It’s an easy question to answer, though with a harder resultant implication. There are two key things I learned in the process. One is that, in working with confirmands, we had not dedicated nearly enough time to the process. The default schedule was only 8 weeks. Even covering what I took to be the basics of theology requires, in my view, at least double that. Secondly, I focused on doctrine (as befits an academic egghead), but a faithful confirmation process needs to attend as much to Christian living. This is a gap in my work. There really should be a second part to The Absolute Basics focusing on spiritual disciplines, Christian morality, and so forth. Not to mention there’s a need to talk about Methodism specifically, its history and distinctions, which my work largely overlooks. Perhaps we’ll be able to create some supplementary materials in the future, but until then I hope that anyone using the material in churches will be able to make up for the deficiency.

Have you heard any good stories from people who are using this yet? Anything that surprised you from how you expected it to be used?

I’ve been flattered by the good feedback. Many folks are using it much like I have, for confirmation mostly. But I’ve also heard it is used for adult education classes or in new member initiation. The reality is that most churchgoers really don’t have much of a theological grounding, so it seems to be a help in a range of contexts. Probably the most unexpected use was its adoption in a systematic theology class at HBU (not taught by me). The professor used it to get all his students up to speed with basic doctrine in the first few weeks before they dove into heavier material. This was a bit surprising because the book looks so unassuming. It has cartoons on the cover and throughout. I never expected the book to be on a college syllabus. But it seems to be helpful to the students. Honestly, I never expected this to go much beyond confirmation class. It’s a helpful reminder, I suppose, that sometimes the best things you do aren’t the things you expect to have an impact.

I conducted this interview in association with broader questions I’m asking this year related to theology and catechesis. Thanks to the Louisville Institute and their Pastoral Study Program for grant support that has enabled this work.

 

I hope you enjoyed this interview. Now two things:

1 — Go to Seedbed and check out The Absolute Basics of the Christian Faith. You can see the catechism, a book preview, the first two videos in the series, and several leaders’ guides.

2 — Click here to subscribe for my blog updates. My goal is to provide thoughtful articles on theology and ministry and to introduce you to others who are doing the same.

——

  1. That’s a small sample. See his CV for more, or to see where you can find those articles.
  2. As part of a grant I received through the Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project, I’m having several conversations this year with people who are doing this kind of work––work I call catechesis.