A Crash Course in Jesus Studies (by Phyllis Tickle)
Sojomail - July 24, 2008
Our nation, that I love, is like a great giant that can deal with a problem when it focuses on it. But it seems like that giant of a nation is like a Cyclops, with but one eye, that can focus only on one problem at a time.
- Col. Dean M. Esserman, police chief of Providence, Rhode Island, commenting on cuts in criminal justice programs as federal support has shifted from crime-fighting to antiterrorism. (Source: The New York Times)
Editor's Note: We've been delighted to welcome Phyllis Tickle as a God's Politics guest blogger for a special series each Sunday of this summer, from solstice to equinox. Below is her post from last Sunday. Visit the blog for the continuing series each Sunday, and read the great posts you may have missed!A Crash Course in Jesus Studies
by Phyllis Tickle
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 ....
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.
During this election cycle, we have heard candidates talk about ways in which we can work to end poverty. John Edwards has a new initiative to cut poverty in half in 10 years. These and other initiatives are certainly admirable ideas and much-needed programs that could help millions of men, women, and children. In addition to programs and needed policy changes from our elected officials, we are also hearing about personal responsibility. And yes, inasmuch as we should look to our elected officials to address the needs of a growing "underclass," those in need must also do something to change their circumstances. However, as we work to address the needs of the poor through policy, programs, and personal responsibility, we must also take into account that something is missing from this dialogue.
So how do we help people who have been hurt so much psychologically and emotionally that they don't believe in themselves and don't believe they deserve better? How do we help children who have never heard a parent say, "I love you, you are special, talented, and will do great things one day"? Or those who watched their parents harm themselves through substance abuse or alcoholism? Is there hope for these men, women, and children? If we believe in God and the power of God to give us beauty for ashes, then the answer is yes!
I've been on a real art binge of late. Reading, watching, listening to, experiencing, and creating as much as I can. Good art isn't just creative, it's generative -- that is, it inspires creative acts in others. It gives us hands to shape the world in new and living ways. And I've been thinking a lot about how much this world we share needs more of it. Like any other act of love, I believe art is fundamentally contributive, not transactional. It's not an if-you-do-this-I'll-do-that proposition. By my experience, as soon as it becomes transactional, art more often than not simply becomes entertainment. The difference is the bottom line.
And that is my back door into discussing the recent exploits of Rene Marie, an artist based in Denver, Colorado. (I wanted you to understand my presuppositions and how I define my terms.) Rene Marie was invited by the mayor's office in Denver to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the mayor's State of the City address in June. Her artistic offering turned out to be the words of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" to the melody of "Star-Spangled Banner" (how's that for a good gut check). Her arrangement is the third movement of a broader, evocative, and elaborate "love song to America."
The new atheism reflects a certain intellectual zeitgeist currently fashionable in Britain and America (which are of course also two quite different cultures), rather than those of European cultures, which have been more deeply influenced by Catholic and Jewish thinkers, and where there is a greater concern for language and symbolism than science and fact in the construction of meaning. Continental atheism has its roots in philosophy and psychoanalysis rather than the material sciences (e.g. Nietzsche, Freud, Lacan), but it also arises out of the trauma of the 20th century and the Holocaust. I think it's fair to say that many Christian thinkers -- myself included -- have little difficulty reconciling Darwin's theory of natural selection with a Christian understanding of the world, but Auschwitz poses a much more fundamental challenge to the history and values of our faith.
Until the mid-19th century, the institutions and values of English public life were to a very considerable extent dominated by the Anglican church, and theologians and clergy were custodians not only of knowledge but of considerable power and influence. When scientists sought autonomy from theology, they had to struggle against the vested interests of a church that wielded considerable power, and not surprisingly the struggle was sometimes expressed in militant and hostile terms. However, just as today militant atheism masks a much more fertile and mutually informative debate between science and religion and often involves scientists who are themselves religious believers, so in the 19th century, the vast majority of those caught up in the debate did not see it in terms of an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, but as a struggle for meaning that was capable of encompassing both the truths of the Christian religion and the new discoveries of science, even if the latter demanded considerable rethinking of the former.
My great-grandfather was one of the first Christians in a village near Pyongyang. God's grace was poured over his entire family, but they experienced intense persecution because of their faith. As a result, he "escaped" one night with his entire family from what is now known as North Korea. My father was 5. Not everyone in his family survived the journey south that one chaotic night. North Korea, as some may know, is one of the most isolated nations. Subsequently, some of the gravest human rights violations and suffering go unnoticed -- including approximately 200,000 Christians who are in prison labor camps simply because of their faith in Christ.
From my experience, the progressive Christian movement has shown that it can advise its constituency on how to assist in uplifting burdened communities, but I've noticed an absence in acknowledging what got us -- a collective "us" -- into places of suffering in the first place. Effective movements all have two key elements: first is a thorough understanding of the root causes of their issues in order to heal whatever the "disease" may be. The other is an unrelenting commitment to be a cure and not a treatment. Where we are right now in history begs the question: Do we want to be a cure or just a painkiller?
I don't get a lot of the hoopla. Much ado has been made over whether the cartoon is funny, how easily it can be misconstrued, who it should offend, and how else the cartoon shoulda-woulda-coulda been drawn. The reasons I think the piece works? First, whether or not satire is funny is irrelevant. The question is: Does it succeed at poking fun? Ridicule and provocation are the objectives of satire; humor is just an often-used means to those ends. As for the fear of it being misconstrued, the point of the cartoon is that so much is so often willfully misconstrued.
This past July 1, we celebrated the 46th anniversary of our independence from Belgium. We celebrate our Independence Day every year, but not every year has been cause for cheering, parades, and national pride. As a matter of fact, the past 15 years have been painful for Burundians, and the holiday seemed to be a reminder of what had gone miserably wrong with our country in the wake of colonialism. Back in 1992 our government, after much pressure from Western nations to quickly implement democracy, introduced a multiparty political system. The following year elections were held and the people elected a president. This was the first time a Hutu would be the president of Burundi, reflecting the majority of the population of the country. You can imagine the celebration! However, the joy was short-lived. Four months after taking office, our president was killed in a coup d'etat. This plunged the country into a bloody civil war that has lasted for 15 years.
In the first weekend of June I watched some au naturel how-to videos on the oldest profession in the world. Anyone who's read The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, knows that I'm talking about the ancient practice of women supporting other women in childbirth. The assisting woman, whom today we would call either a midwife (medical training) or a doula (comfort techniques training), makes her first appearance in the Bible in Genesis 35 for Rachel's labor with Benjamin. And everyone knows of the heroic midwives Shiphrah and Puah, who in Exodus 1 defy the pharaoh's orders to kill every Hebrew male infant they deliver.
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The religious right was one of the key factors in George W, Bush's election to the White House, but after eight years, the opinion polls suggest that its fabled power has dissipated. Religion may become more of a force on the other wing of politics. The Reverend Jim Wallis certainly thinks so. He's in Australia promoting his book, Seven Ways to Change the World: Reviving Faith and Politics. +read more
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