It’s Hallowe’en 2012! How Will We Dress Jesus Up This Year?!

“A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

~ Clive Staples Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1952

It was a full 60 years ago that these words first appeared in print after a series of BBC radio talks between 1942 and 1944 by the man who would go on to write about Aslan, Lucy, and Mr. Tumnus. I believe that I still have Mere Christianity in my possession.  I also believe that someone has tried to use these words against me as I argue for a Christianity or spirituality that does not lead to featuring a Jesus who claims to be Lord and Saviour of all mankind. My answer to them: Is this all you can come up with? Really? A poached egg, devil, or a lunatic? These may be the only choices that Lewis saw for Jesus, but many scholars from his time and on to today believe there are many other possibilities when it comes to identifying who and what Jesus actually was.

I don’t collect a lot of clutter, but yesterday I came upon an issue of Maclean’s magazine from March 31st, 2008, with its main cover being a face of Jesus and the title “Jesus Has An Identity Crisis.” I found it quite interesting and it only re-enforced my view that over the course of 2,000 years we have shaped Jesus – who had already been shaped by Biblical writers and church orthodoxy – into our own preferred images. For 20 some-odd years I had blindly taken what the Christian scriptures said word-for-word, with little use for historical accuracy or how the Bible was constructed. After all, I didn’t need to! As the old hymn says,

Trust and obey, for there’s no other way,

“To be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey.”

This is okay if blind faith works for you, but if it doesn’t, the question of who Jesus was gets a lot murkier – and more interesting. A few ideas of who Jesus might have been:

  1. A rabbi with a new approach to Jewish law who was hijacked and “Christified.”
  2. A teacher of great insight
  3. Someone who said less than 1/5th of what we read in Scriptures (according to The Jesus Seminar, a popular and controversial group of Jesus scholars).  Jesus did not refer to himself in an exalted way (“I am the way, the truth and the life,” for example), about the church’s hierarchy, and about an apocalyptic end to the world. Instead it was more about how to establish the kingdom of God on earth.
  4. According to author Rex Weyler, who draws on what some scholars have defined as the oldest versions of three “collections”: the Gospels of Mark and Thomas, and the Q sayings, Jesus speaks of seeking his kingdom within yourself, forgiving others, and loving your enemies.
  5. Human prophet
  6. Political revolutionary
  7. Radical feminist
  8. Radical liberator
  9. Much of the supernaturalism surrounding Jesus was fabricated. For example, modern historians sweep a lot of conservative biblical belief away: there was no virgin birth (it is only found in 2 Gospels, and St. Paul, with his earlier writings, had no time for it); There were no wise men, no choir of angels – all were retroactively applied by his followers.

“After his death, it took more than three centuries of often violent contention, suppression, and historical contingency before answers emerged that still define mainline Christianity: Jesus was the Messiah, the son of God and the Virgin Mary, both fully divine and fully human; crucified for our sins, he rose from the dead and will come again to judge humanity. That legacy still dominates Western responses to Jesus today.”

And here we’ve just talked about Jesus; we haven’t even touched upon Christ, a whole other topic.

For a long time, a vast expanse of Christians sitting in their pews were happy to be spoon-fed what the Bible and their pastor/priest was telling them about Jesus. For many, that is simply not good enough anymore. There is a heightened curiosity - no, need – to do their homework and to answer for themselves the question that the New Testament has Jesus himself posing to us: “Who do you say that I am?” Here’s what I can come up with this afternoon off the top of my head:

  • I’m not even sure that Jesus actually lived, but I’m going to go with the belief that he did.
  • Jesus was born to two fully human Jewish parents with brothers and sisters.
  • Jesus was not perfect.
  • Titles such as The Son of God, Messiah, King of Kings, and Redeemer were placed onto Jesus by his followers either while he was still alive or well after he had died. I still find it curious that we give him theses titles even though he always seemed to deflect praise when people tried to heap it upon him.
  • Jesus did not see himself as dying for the sins of the world.
  • Jesus, I like to think, was a humble teacher who said things to groups of people that made them stand up and take notice (i.e. love your enemies).
  • Jesus was a Christ. I understand that to mean that he had the divine spark within him, just as we each can have the divine spark within us. This quality was not unique to Jesus, though it may have stood out to those around him. The language that “the kingdom of God is within you” is antiquated for us, but that may have been Jesus’ essential message.

Many people still find a lot of value in being followers of Jesus. I am currently on a journey to discover anew who or what I think Jesus was. But he will not again be the person that makes me acceptable to God or who saves me from a doomed eternity. There are oh so many other intriguing options than for me having to throw myself at the feet of a man who we know so verifiably little about.

Mark Andrew Alward is a former conservative, evangelical Christian who now attends Grand River Unitarian Congregation in Kitchener, Ontario. He blogs @ The Loving Room.

Review & Commentary

7 thoughts on “It’s Hallowe’en 2012! How Will We Dress Jesus Up This Year?!

  1. In having read your article I guess it comes to as to how one views the accepted canon of Scripture. Personally I am of the school that believes it is “God breathed” (ala 2 Timothy 3:16) and would join with the famous evangelist Billy Graham in saying “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” You of course would see that as intellectually naïve. Well if you are right and I am wrong the worst that can be said is that I (and millions and millions of others including men of the highest scholastic order) have lived according to a most splendid albeit false thesis. However, if I am right (and of course I believe I am) and you are wrong, then I tremble on your behalf.

  2. Re the Rob Porteous reply: I couldn’t have said it better. Rob said he “trembles for you”. I say “One day you’ll find out the truth but then it will be too late. I’m sincerely sorry for you.” I wonder if “blaspheming the Holy Spirit” would be considered appropriate in this case? There being no forgiveness in such.
    I’m sure Rob prays for people like you; that your veiled eyes will be opened to the truth.

  3. Agnus, I am quite curious why people such as yourself and Rob frequent a site like this one, one that openly challenges orthodoxy and is so open to a new, progressive way of seeing Christianity. Perhaps it is in order to try to change minds such as mine. Not gonna happen my friend.

    1) Rob, your disdain for intellectualism is frankly embarrassing, and your trembling on my behalf is of your doing and yours alone.

    2) Angus, you sound like the boogeyman and I will never respond to a gospel of threats, no matter how cloaked in love they may be.

    I hope you both find websites that are more conducive to your fear-mongering.

    Mark Andrew

  4. Rob wrote: “Well if you are right and I am wrong the worst that can be said is that I (and millions and millions of others including men of the highest scholastic order) have lived according to a most splendid albeit false thesis.”

    Argumentum ad populum (appeal to the people). Also known as an ‘appeal to popularity.’ That is, if many people believe it, it must be true.

    This is a common, but intellectually stunted tactic used by well-meaning, but under-developed apologists. Christian claims are not true because many people believe them. In the same way, the claims of the Nazi’s were/are not true because many people believed them.

    Rob, you would do well to actually deal with the content of Mark’s article, rather than using the tactic noted above, and then following up with a cloaked form of Pascal’s famous wager: better to believe and find out it’s not true, than not to believe and find out it is. Or, as you put it (in summary), if Mark is right then you’ve lived by a splendid but false thesis; but if you’re right and Mark is wrong, then so much the worse for Mark.

    That wager is an appeal to fear, and implies a false dilemma: attempting to coerce a conversion or change of mind from Mark by propagandizing a certain horrible idea (namely, the notion of hell) is not a logical argument; it is emotional manipulation. Moreover, there is another option between believing and being wrong, and not believing and being wrong: there are also the possibilities beliving and being right, and of not believing and being right.

    Your implied wager, coming off the tails of your appeal to popularity, is poor form and insulting, regardless of how contrite you may feel having written what you did.

    While you may be a reasonable person overall, I tremble at the illogicality of your above comment.

    ~Kane

  5. Mark – you have misunderstood me. In my view intellectualism is a gift from God and it’s a wonderful thing to observe same being used for His glory (eg RC Sproul, Norman Giesler, Ravi Zacharias et al). However, I’m dead against intellectual pride. So also was Jesus during His earthly ministry, something clearly expressed in Mark 10:15 “Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.”

    I believe the Apostle Paul was an intellectual (eg just read his letter to the Church at Rome) – while yet also a man who became a sold out servant to the things of Jesus Christ and whose writings are as precious jewels to me. Yet intellectualism was not his driving force. It was something far grander – ie none other than the Holy Spirit. This connects with Agnus’ comment re that same Spirit ( thank you for your support Agnus). Paul himself defines the situation perfectly in 1 Corinthians 2:14: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

    So it is that a genuine Christian is one whose soul has been supernaturally regenerated by the work of Holy Spirit, it is not a construct of the intellect or the emotions – though such are obviously affected. This is what happened to Paul as then a dedicated enemy of the Gospel on the road to Damascus and transformed him into becoming its greatest champion. My prayer (as intimated by Agnus) is that you will enjoy a similar conversion (you are absolutely correct in stating that my own persuasions will have no effect on your thinking – but I’m “speaking” of something far greater than mere words).

  6. Rob–

    Mark has gone through all the same tumblings and considerations you’ve just outlined above. He’s worked through all the propositions you’ve stated, and even attended an evangelical bible college (with me) with a battery of brilliant professors/theologians to seek deeper understanding of the matters you bring up.

    In the end, Mark, just like me, left Christianity — though, I suppose in Mark’s case, he didn’t go as far as I did and become atheist (which is entirely fine, Mark).

    My point is that you can have all of the wistful, sentimental, biblically-based intercessions you’d like for Mark. You and Agnus both. However, Mark is an intelligent young man who has listened to the thrums of his heart and found that they aren’t moved by the dead message of a dead god.

    Your fervor for Mark’s soul is a tad sappy, and a bit overbearing. But whatever. I think I’d just like to see you deal with the content of Mark’s article rather than writing about how much you wish he wasn’t the way he is. It’s a bit insulting to Mark, and a bit beneath the biblical charge to defend your faith and have legitimate reasons for believing what you do (1 Peter 3:15-16).

    ~Kane

  7. Hi Kane,

    Thanks for your thought provoking responses. I do apologise for any offense caused to you and to Mark.

    I should have also explained the circumstances of coming upon Mark’s website. I write from Darwin (you may find that somewhat of an amusing paradox) – the provincial capital of the Northern Territory, Australia. In recent times two churches within this city (one Anglican and the other Uniting) have embraced the “Progressive Christianity” package. Such has caused no small concern among the many Bible believing congregations within the general area. I personally wanted to know why a person or group of people under the banner of Christianity should depart from the Biblical position. So it was that during my investigations I was directed to this website.
    I have to admit I was shocked – as those “ideas’ of Mark and the teachings of “Progressive Christianity” in general, simply turn the Biblical Gospel (the core message of Scripture) on its head. Furthermore, if the teachings of the “Jesus Seminar” et al were authentic the Bible would have long since been completely discredited and we would all have cast away our Christianity and followed the old maxim, “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”

    I do, however, understand that the doctrine of hell is off putting. Many have given Biblical Christianity the thumbs down on that issue alone. You would know the common statement, “How could a loving God send anyone to a place of everlasting torment?” Well the fact is that this is something God does NOT want to do. We are informed in Scripture that, “He would have all men (and women) to be saved and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) and “that He is long suffering towards us and not willing that any should perish, but that all should come unto repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). That’s why He sent His Son to die for our sins (Romans 5:8) to spare all would receive Him from that dreadful destiny (ala John 3:16). .

    The fact is that sin is an anathema to a holy God and requires His judgment upon it – and that judgment was performed upon His Son at Calvary. Such can be described as a “double imputation” – the imputation of Christ’s righteous upon those who embrace His work of redemption (so rendering them eligible for heaven) and the imputation of His wrath (for our sins) upon His righteous Son. I personally believe that only those who have consciously rejected His work of redemption will find themselves in hell – in having denied His gift of substitionary atonement, they themselves must take the rap for their sins. As for those who have never heard the Gospel, I draw upon Abraham’s famous statement, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25).

    Perhaps at this point I should share my own story? I’ll try to be brief. I entered my teens as a dedicated atheist. I remember when coming upon a street corner evangelistic meeting in the city of my youth (Perth, Western Australia) feeling decidedly squeamish and would give same the widest possible berth. I had tried reading the Bible but found it tedious and obscure. It did absolutely nothing for me.

    One night just short of my 16th birthday I was preparing for bed when completely unexpectedly, and for absolutely no explainable reason, I fell to the floor on my knees and begged God through tear stained eyes for mercy – not for any particular sin, but for having rejected Him. I was shaken and decided to attend the nearest church (High Anglican). Two months there rendered me none the wiser as to what had happened within my soul. Around about that time an evangelistic crusade visited Perth. I was invited to come along. The preacher (an American by the name of Grady Wilson) preached the Gospel. He preached on life and death, and on heaven and hell. I was totally transfixed and didn’t hesitate to go forward once the invitation was given. Incidentally the theme of the Crusade was “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). In retrospect I see the bedroom event as the action of the Holy Spirit convicting me of my parlous spiritual state and the preaching of the Gospel as explaining the whole deal. “The old had passed away and behold all things had become new” – and so it has remained, though 50 plus years have since come and gone. Likewise, the Bible came alive (along with the One who is its Centre piece) and has continued to evermore excite the deepest aspects of my being as the years have unfolded. I love to tell the story of the big picture of God – His perfect creation – the Fall (courtesy of Adam’s sin and its dreadful consequences) – the promise of a Redeemer – the arrival of that Redeemer – His finished Work upon the cross – His glorious resurrection (the “first fruits” of that which one day will happen to all believers) – the final consummation (“a new heaven and new earth where God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain.”). It all hangs so marvelously together despite being penned by 40 different authors over a period of 1 500 years – the Holy Spirit being the connecting element. Not surprisingly the Wednesday Bible Study night is my most favourite night of the week.

    So it is that I firmly believe that genuine Christianity can only be explained by supernatural means – the Bible supernaturally inspired by the Holy Spirit and true conversion likewise inspired by the same Holy Spirit. I know that you, along with Mark would strongly part company with me on that.
    However, I would have you consider that all but one of the Apostles were martyred for the cause of the Gospel. Would they give their lives if they really knew that Jesus’ death and resurrection was a “fabrication”? So it is many others have likewise had their lives foreshortened for the same cause down through the centuries and continue to do so to this very day (a number of us meet together month to pray for those imprisoned and tortured for their faith – their stories are remarkable). How dreadful to think that their suffering and martyrdom was for a falsehood.

    Likewise those many missionaries who made a one way trip to hostile and distant lands, driven by a burden for the lost. Would you say that their self sacrifice was based on a grotesque fable?
    I think of changed lives for the good. John Newton immediately comes to mind – a former slave trader who became a minister of the Word and of course penned that iconic hymn “Amazing Grace”.

    Another changed life is to be found in the story of Joe Focht. Joe grew up in a dead church. He despised it. Once free from his parent’s oversight he embarked upon a life of sexual immorality, booze and drugs. At the age of 22 he experienced a genuine conversion whereby Jesus became a living reality to him. He commenced a Bible study which has since blossomed into a fellowship of some 10 000 souls (Calvary Chapel, Philadelphia). I have a CD set of his sermons which are delivered expositionally all the way from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21. He has the God given ability to render the Word vibrant and meaningful – and has in his congregation, in addition to university professors, former druggies, alcoholics and prostitutes.

    So it is I accept and even respect those who would call themselves atheists (ala Richard Dawkins) as with yourself. My greatest difficulty is with those who misrepresent true Christianity – and isn’t history littered with same – the Crusades, the Inquisition, the ecclesiastical corruption in high places over the years. And then today the pedophilia within the priesthood, the hypocrisy, the “blap it and grab it” crowd etc etc. Likewise I am greatly troubled by those two aforementioned local churches which preach a non Scriptural Gospel. I would say to them, “It’s all (the whole Scriptural record) or nothing (atheism)”. Please don’t add on or take away (ala Revelation 22:19).

    Thank you for reading this far.

    Farewell.

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