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Western Christianity Must Change or Remain Irrelevant

One of the indisputable findings of Jesus scholarship is that Jesus was planted deeply in the soil of first century Judaism; in other words, Jesus was a good Jew. The New Testament as a whole and the Synoptic Gospels, in particular, show the emergence of the Jesus movement within the milieu of Jesus’ Jewish heritage and the connection between Israel’s story and Jesus’ first followers. But Jesus did not adopt hook, line, and sinker every aspect of his Jewish faith and culture.

In many ways Jesus was a deconstructionist, but not simply for the sake of deconstruction. Jesus’ critique of his own religion was motivated by a passion for God (who, he believed, had entered into covenant with the Jewish people for the sake of humanity) and for the good of Israel and all humankind. Jesus deconstructed the faith for the purpose of reconstruction.

Jesus offered new readings and fresh interpretations of the Torah, particularly in regard to divorce, Sabbath law, and the nature of holiness.

Jesus confronted the popular Deuteronomist claim that wealth was a sign of special favor and a reward for obedience. He undermined such teaching by proclaiming that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor, while announcing judgment upon the rich. Jesus clearly exercised a preferential, prejudicial compassion and regard for the poor and oppressed.

Jesus disturbed the Jewish religious establishment, refusing to concede to their authority and claim to be gatekeepers of the tradition, which they employed for the purpose of determining and distinguishing between the “insiders” and the “outsiders.” Jesus interpreted the tradition in ways that were more inclusive and universal. His practice of table fellowship with all kinds of people—tax collectors, prostitutes, and “sinners” (those who did not keep the Jewish law for whatever reason)—and his healings and acts of mercy toward Gentiles subverted traditional Jewish exclusiveness.

Though first century Jewish culture was pervasively patriarchal Jesus was refreshingly egalitarian in his view and treatment of women, calling women disciples, violating cultural taboos, and elevating women to a level of gender equality and mutuality.

While Jesus acknowledged God as a “transcendent Other” familiar to traditional Judaism, Jesus most frequently spoke of and related to God as an intimate “Abba” (loving Father, merciful Parent), who was dynamically engaged in the world, caring immensely about the creation, especially God’s children.

Jesus, in contrast to most traditional Jewish teaching, considered all people to be children of God gathered within the embrace of God’s unconditional love. Jesus pushed the limits of forgiveness and love, instructing his disciples to love their enemies, because in reality, they are their sisters and brothers.

So while Jesus was clearly a first century Jew, living and ministering within that tradition, he refused to accept all the popular and traditional teachings of his Jewish faith. Instead, he charted new territory, broke down barriers, overstepped boundaries, offered courageous interpretations of Israel’s sacred Scriptures, lived a contagious faith, and in significant ways re-imagined God.

I believe that the current state of traditional western Christianity may be comparable to the state of first century Judaism (as it is depicted in the Gospels). And now, as then, critique, deconstruction, and renovation are needed. Jesus’ continuity and discontinuity within his faith tradition, his deconstruction for the purpose of reconstruction, are paradigmatic for emerging, progressive Christianity. There are today a number of elements in traditional, western Christianity that must be deconstructed for the purpose of reconstruction.

Bibliolatry—elevating the Bible to the status of infallibility—a form of idolatry, needs to be deconstructed for the purpose of developing healthier, more holistic and transformative readings and interpretations.

The dualisms of separate identities (“children of God” standing juxtaposed to the “lost,” “unsaved,” the “children of the Devil,” etc.) and separate destinies (heaven and hell) must give way to more inclusive, universal theologies that restore the dignity, worth, and authenticity of persons of other religious faiths or those of no faith at all.

Evangelism that is bent on converting others to traditional Christian beliefs (to one’s own group or way of believing) must give way to acceptance (not just tolerance), welcome, inclusion, partnership, and genuine Christian hospitality patterned after Jesus’ open table fellowship and acceptance of all people.

Apocalyptic ideas of the end (destruction) of the world and the dissolution of the creation must yield to dynamic approaches that affirm the value of and anticipate the renovation of the creation; approaches that emphasize our vocation of being good stewards and collaborators with Christ in the care of the planet and the advancement of universal justice and peace.

In these and numerous other ways traditional Christianity must change if it is to play any significant role in the work of God’s kingdom on earth and the spiritual, moral, and social transformation of this world into God’s new world.

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