Rescuing Jesus from the Christians

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Rescuing Jesus from the Christians

  1. Review

    When I read the title of this book, I instantly thought, " a book from a Fellow of the Jesus Seminar." Imagine my amazement, when I received the book, to learn that Clayton Sullivan, is a Southern Baptist minister, who served for five years as the pastor of a congregation in Tylertown, Mississippi. Then he joined the faculty of the University of Southern Mississippi where he been a Professor of Philosophy and Comparative Religion for over three decades. As one begins to read, however, it becomes clear that a gulf exists between his point of view and the Church in which he was raised, causing him "great sorrow and dismay."

    The author states that he wrote this book "out of the conviction that we are living in an era what requires a reconceptualization of the Christian faith." It is written particularly for "reflective laypersons," who have difficulties with the belief system of orthodox Christianity encountered in creeds and doctrines, in liturgies and hymns. It is his thesis that the results of the "quest" for the "historical Jesus," developed over the past two hundred years, can help in the task of reconceptualization.

    Part One of the book is focused on "The Recovery of the Historical Jesus." The author states that the central message of Jesus was that the Kingdom of God would soon be established on the earth. His position derives from Johannes Weiss’s book, Jesus’ Proclamation of the Kingdom of God, published in 1892. Sullivan writes that Weiss was "the first modern New Testament scholar to take seriously the understanding of the kingdom that dominated the opening centuries of the Christian movement." Weiss affirmed that the Kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus, was to be understood as an imminent, eschatological, intervention of God. When the Kingdom arrived on the earth, the tribes of Israel would be reconstituted, the temple would be destroyed and rebuilt, and a new social order would be inaugurated, ruled by Jesus and the Twelve. Weiss’s understanding contributed to a consensus, which dominated Jesus research until the 1980’s, that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet. Many contemporary scholars hold this understanding of Jesus and the Kingdom of God to day, but the consensus of almost a century has collapsed. Other scholars maintain that Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet, but proclaimed by what he said and what he did that the Kingdom was a present reality. Since Sullivan writes, "Jesus’ preaching ministry concerning the kingdom was predicated on a mistake," it would have been helpful if he had explored this alternative position.

    Several brief, provoking chapters complete this part of the book, focusing on these questions, What was the attitude of Jesus toward non-Jews? What were the circumstances surrounding the birth narratives, Did Jesus believe he was God? What about his ethical teachings? Why was he crucified by the Romans?

    Part Two, suggests four strategies for rescuing Jesus from orthodox Christianity. Since orthodox Christianity tends to "blend or homogenize" the pre-resurrection and post-resurrection Jesus, Strategy One, is to perceive and take seriously the difference between the two, which are "related but not the same." Sullivan writes, "Without the historical Jesus the post Easter Jesus would be an ideological mannequin." He does not discuss the relevance of the distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus for understanding and interpreting the four Gospels. Many scholars identify the historical Jesus with the pre-Easter Jesus and identify the post-Easter Jesus as a product of the early Christian movement, a distinction which influences whether they consider Jesus an apocalyptic or non-apocalyptic prophet.

    It is Sullivan’s opinion that there is "A gap wider than the Grand Canyon exists between what Jesus believed and what orthodox Christianity believes." Strategy Two is to help "reflective Christians" "realize that they are not obligated to believe everything early Christians believed." A chapter is devoted to exploring some of these beliefs. One of the beliefs he considers optional is a pillar of Christian orthodoxy, the "belief that Jesus’ death was a sin sacrifice."

    Strategy Three is to "beware of two distorting, and contradictory, tendencies existing within Christianity: (1) the tendency to sentimentalize Jesus and (2) the tendency to aggrandize Jesus." These tendencies relate to the humanity and the divinity of Jesus, which must be kept in balanced tension in order to avoid either distortion.

    Strategy Four is "accepting and rejoicing in religious pluralism." It is a fact, of course, that Christianity exists in the midst of many other faith traditions. The issue for Christians is whether we not only accept the reality of religious pluralism, but also affirm the validity of other traditions and regard them as "worthy colleagues in the religious quest."

    It is obvious that this is a highly provocative book by a man with the courage of his convictions. Sullivan makes a strong case for the need to reconceptualize the Christian faith and his book is an important contribution to the task.

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