The Common Good

A Crash Course in Jesus Studies

Summer Sundays with Phyllis Tickle

JesusA Sunday or two ago, I made mention of -- more to the truth, wrote a whole "Summer Sundays" entry more or less about -- the canonical Jesus, thereby raising a small bevy of questions and responses and polite "say-what's?" I could not be more delighted. But delighted or not, I also feel some obligation to make my case.

All of us who were reared in modernity and/or in the afterwash of its ways of conceptualizing, have known the impact of modernism. In few areas of life has that impact been more keenly felt by Christians than in discussions of "Jesus Studies" or, as it is sometimes more popularly known, of "the quest for the historical Jesus." That is to say that many of the intellectual tools and much of the sophisticated technology of modernity, in addition to its conceptual principles, a lot of brilliant thinking, and a world's worth of patient research, have been brought to bear over the last century or so on the study of just who Jesus of Nazareth was.

The bulk of the questions have focused upon what he supposedly did and/or did not say and upon whether or not he was or was not accurately portrayed by those who became the church. Those questions have assumed from the start that the Jesus of the canonical gospels might well be a man-made or human-shaped figure different from the actual or historical creature who at one time lived among us. Working from that assumption, it should be no surprise that the Jesus who has emerged from all of this professional scholarship and lay furor is as multiform and various as the scholars and concerned laity who have engaged the quest. The end result, in fact, of our dozen or so decades of scratching through history is such a multiplicity of Jesuses that one has to say, "Whoa! Let's just hold up here a minute and think this thing through a bit more clearly."

Story, perhaps, is better than intellectual argument in this kind of process. Accordingly, I wrote a small story some months ago, one that I want to re-run here today. I do so, of course, with apologies to those who may have heard it before, but also in the hope that even they will find it to be worth a few minutes this summer Sunday morning.

* * * * *

Let us suppose then. Let us suppose that there is a huge, deadly wreck on busy Main Street, USA, in the midst of midday traffic. There are, technically speaking, several hundred witnesses, albeit from very different perspectives. Some of the witnesses are immediate, so immediate in fact that two or three of them are wounded themselves by the flying glass and careening steel. Others are simply immediate enough to have been splattered by blood and dust and specks of oil. Not so immediate, but still close enough, are those who had to jump out of harm's way and, in doing so, dropped possessions or skinned a knee or simply got an adrenalin rush of significant proportions.

Other of those who saw had a less dramatic experience, of course. Some of them really did see, in that they were standing at the curb waiting for the light to change and saw the whole thing as if in slow motion. Others were walking in the direction from which the wreck came and likewise saw the whole thing, also as if in slow motion, albeit from a safer distance. Some witnesses, of course, only "saw" the deadly accident in the loosest sense of saw. That is, the space between the sound of the crash in progress and their turning their heads to look was no more than a nano-second, or so it seemed. For some even, the screeching of tires laying down rubber was so dramatic that they turned and, in point of fact, really did "see" the wreck itself, although they hardly could be said to have "seen" the whole thing, since they witnessed only its final act of culmination.

And then, of course, there are all the window-gawkers ... the office workers who leaned out from the windows of all the surrounding buildings that line Main Street. Or the store personnel who came running out of the street-level shops and commercial businesses. And there's a couple of cops who were cruising in the opposite direction away from the wreck and therefore did not really "see" it at all, except that their deep experience with wrecks let them respond almost instantaneously, just at it allowed them to reconstruct what logically must have happened and include it in their report of the wreck itself.

Assume, then, that we have some several hundred good citizens -- maybe even some not-so-good ones and a few outright liars, thieves, and ne're-do-wells on Main Street. Each of them, from the purest to the most nefarious, now has a wreck in his or her head. Each of them -- it is one of the surest bets in this gossipy world -- each of them is going to tell some other human being about this phenomenal wreck, at some point at some time over the coming hours, days, weeks, and years. Maybe even, he or she will tell several someones, And what they are all telling is true. A wreck happened at midday on Main Street, USA. Yet for every witness, that wreck is distinct, is different, is so nuanced that there are as many wrecks as there are witnesses. Oh, the tales will, in all probability, share a common thread, but they will also contain some inconsistencies and some contradictions amongst them.

Yet the truth in all of this -- the one "fact" in it all -- is that each witness, bearing home his or her story of disaster on Main Street, is reporting the actual wreck. All of them who seek to speak the truth of what they witnessed are indeed speaking the truth. The inconsistencies and contradictions amongst their various stories, were we to collect those tales into some kind of whole, would not be erroneous or deliberated distortions or violations of fact. They would be honest and true reports of what happened, because what happened did happen within the vitality and experience of each tale's teller.

Now good and honest men and women are on the horns of a dilemma. We have the expertise of the police who have brought their training to bear on what will become the more or less official assessment of what happened. In addition, we have all the technology and brilliance of accident-reconstruction specialists who, by studying the lay-down of debris and tracks and the pressure required for such impact and the points of primary as opposed to secondary and tertiary impact can be reasonably certain about what or who hit what or whom first. They can even reconstruct enough to establish with some confidence which actions had to proceed which other actions in order to culminate in the impact in the first place.

All of this is absorbing. It can occupy the news media for weeks and conversation for a lifetime. It can cause consternation among those accused and angst among those deemed to have been not at fault. Reams and reams of paper, billions and billions of pixels, yards and yards of documentation, not to mention several hundred thousand dollars, will be spent in pursuit of the facts about this wreck on Main Street.

And when it is all over, when all is said and done by expert or ordinary citizen, the only absolutely certain thing ... the only "fact" beyond conceivable question ... is that there was a wreck one day on Main Street, USA, and that there was some take-away. We will never know the sum total of all the facts about the wreck nor will be ever know all of its specific details. What we have -- and all we have -- is the actuality of the wreck and the burgeoning largesse of lives changed in some greater or lesser way by their engagement with the wreck itself or with its story.

* * * * *

A parable always reveals itself early-on in its telling, as we all know. And as I said in the beginning, I tell you this dangerous tale on a mid-summer Sunday morning for a reason. That is, it was, and still is, the way of modernism to believe that there is some means by which to reconstruct and define, with detail, atemporal constancy, and specificity, the facts and truths about the wreck on Main Street. It is the way of post-modernity to doubt -- almost to disparage, in fact -- the possibility of that absolute position. Rather, what we really have here, despite all our analyses and probing, the post-modernist might well argue, is access to only one truth: There was once a wreck and, from the instant of its occurrence, it existed only in the actuality of hundreds and hundreds of people and in their engagement of it. The wreck, from its moment of impact, is as multiform, and all of its presentations as distinct and different, as are the hundreds and hundreds of individual universes in which the actuality of it now lives. The post-modernist would argue, in other words, that we should be leery of assuming that contradictions and inconsistencies are anything other than the evidence that things really are as they are when observed ... that potentially light is a wave and light is a particle. It just depends on who is watching.

Let us go forth, then, you and I, and enjoy to its fullest this lovely summer morning but may the wreck and its story also bother every one of us this whole day through. Because the operative truth here is that every single one of us, alive in 2008 and claiming Christianity as our belief system, is going to have to decide what he or she thinks about the wreck and all the words said about it. In other words, every single one of us, if we live another decade or so, is going to have to decide what he or she thinks not only about the crash, 2,000 years ago, of Messiah into space/time but also about how we understand and engage the records of that event that have come to us over the centuries. Pray God we do it well.

Phyllis Tickle (www.phyllistickle.com) is the founding editor of the religion department of Publishers Weekly and author of The Words of Jesus: A Gospel of the Sayings of Our Lord and the forthcoming fall release, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.

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