Jesus At Arms Length

<%image(20051005-godspell 2.jpg|121|119|godspell)%> After getting whipped by my wife in Settlers of Catan a few nights ago, we sat with my father-in-law and got to talking about how we understand, present, and interpret history. The catalyst for the conversation was Barry Taylor’s take on the two versions of Romeo and Juliet: essentially the 60’s version, though completely recreating the historical mood and scene, missed the message that Shakespeare was trying to send. On the other hand, the highly contextualized 90’s version seems to capture the message that he was trying to send and conveys it to us powerfully. Whether or not you disagree, I would like to change gears, abruptly step out of the world of English Literature, and take a look at how we contextualize Jesus today.

We could use The Passion or The Jesus Film (the CCC version that is) in a comparison to something like . . . Godspell. Which of these truly present Jesus?

It is helpful to point out, like a good postmodern/deconstructionist, that we can never see Jesus in the same way as his contemporaries. If someone ever figured this out, I assure you, they would make a serious amount of money.

And though we face this daunting task of reconstructing history to get a sense of the world of Christ, it is our calling as Christians to enter the world of the Bible to the best of our ability and to grapple with its message for today. My question for all who want to do this is, “When can we say that we have presented Jesus accurately?”

Many would look at the Jesus Film and The Passion as glowing examples of excellent attempts at recreating the world of Christ and his message (as a footnote, though I’ve seen clips of The Passion, I have not seen the whole film due to my sensitivity toward violence. I will attempt to restrict my comments about it to general, well-known facts about the film). They both have the wardrobe down, the scenery looks pretty authentic, and even The Passion was in Aramaic.

And then there’s Godspell. The songs are based on scripture, the story seems familiar, but the contextualization yields some wacky lyrics and a Jesus in a superman shirt. We could watch Godspell and wonder, “Did these guys even read the Bible?”

Perhaps the writers of Godspell did. What if Godspell and other highly contextualized versions of the Bible offer us something that the Jesus Film and the Passion can only meet out in a limited capacity? Think of the emotion that the songs from Godspell evoke: anticipation, joy, wonder, tragedy, and then celebration. While Jesus used “earthy” parables about farming, the songs from Godspell recreate the simplicity and “ordinary-ness” that Jesus employed in teaching deep truths. We may not get the story exactly as it was told in the Bible, but we certainly get a large portion of the message along with some of the emotion and feeling that was part of the original story. But even now, my goal is not to say that the Godspell version or the Passion version of Jesus is better than the other.

When we try to present a historically accurate Jesus, we typically only succeed in creating a historical character that we can admire and learn from, not love and die for. When we focus solely on the historical representation of Jesus we miss some things that a culturally embodied Jesus can bring to the table: offense, passion, revolution, submission, and intimacy. A world with lepers, Pharisees, and tax collectors can never be fully recreated so that we feel and know the message of Jesus in the exact same way as his listeners. But to study his world and to attempt a transfer into the present would be to not only understand his world, but to embody it, to care about the same things Jesus truly cares about. We need The Passion and the Jesus Film, but we only fool ourselves by stopping there and thinking that we have the complete picture. Team up Godspell with The Passion, and then I think we have something

What if Jesus restored a pastor who had an affair, but is now repentant, to his congregation within a few weeks of coming clean? What if Jesus encouraged us to drop the battle to ban gay marriage and sought to welcome homosexuals, even if he did not approve of their practices? What if he told us to close all of our seminaries and churches and start from scratch, to seek a new way of worship, a new temple, a new way of understanding our sacred texts and to drop the years we have invested in our scholarly pursuits and ministries? What if a young teenage girl who had been working at Wal-Mart was made the leader of seminary professors and other highly educated people? In fact, what if all of the leaders Jesus chose were not from seminaries or even from churches, but were considered liberal or even apostate before their conversion to follow him? What if he told us to sell our homes and cars and buy a Winnebago so we can follow him on a tour of the country? What if he told us to change how we spend our money, what we eat, and how we vote in order to bring about a more just world? What if Jesus chose the refugees of the Darfur region of Sudan as his chosen instruments to spread the Gospel to the entire world? What if he told us to forget about legislating America back to Christendom and to expend our energies on bringing the Gospel and a better quality of life to the Third World, if not to the poor in our own nation? What if the only place we could meet up with Jesus was in the inner-cities, save for his trip to the suburbs 3 times a year? Would we go to be with Jesus among the poor and among society’s outcasts? Or would we wait for him to come to us?

When we move away from lepers, Pharisees, and the Romans, and toward our world with AIDS, homosexuality, seminaries, pastors, Republicans, and Democrats, we start to see why Jesus was such an incendiary figure. We don’t have the complete picture of Jesus, we never will, but we have something that is more like the Jesus of his time. We feel the tug and pull of the conflicts and divisions. Jesus invades our comfortable lives and disrupts us, calling us to change our lifestyles, perceptions of the world, and daily practices in order to follow him. Jesus cannot be added to our lives as one operating system among many. Like Microsoft, Jesus does not like competition (of course all similarities stop there!). It is not enough to study the Jesus of history and admire him. He will not allow us to keep him at arms length. He despises fickle, part-time lovers. His greatest desire is intimacy with his beloved people, but we have to let him in.