Liberal and Conservative Christianities

What I could have alternatively titled–Everybody’s Got a Myth (and its usually Modernist BS)

During Easter, MacLeans (Canadian Magazine) ran this cover story called The Jesus Problem. It’s a typical Western-centric approach to the issue. There are conservatives, there are liberals, there all rich and well educated and argue about what the Bible really means, what’s really important. Bunch of navel-gazing as usual, but it goes on so I guess it needs some comment. You’ll notice there is no Jesus Problem but rather humans with “problems” (I think that’s the wrong term, it tends to er problematize the issue unduly in my mind).

The basic distinction is around which myth you buy: orthodoxy or liberal.

The “problem” is that we want our myths to be true as opposed to transforming.

The orthodox (or conservative) myth is the picture of Christ (through Jesus) that is represented in the four gospels. Actually the four gospels present very different Jesus-es (Jesi?), so the orthodox model is a mish-mashed combination Jesus plus the doctrinal statements of the later Councils (e.g. Nicene Creed).
The so-called traditional Jesus.

That myth, at its worst, presents the solution to all (or at least the most important) questions/problems, leaving a guideplan (ahistorical in nature) that some group has access to (guys and gals with power usually) and to which everyone else stands properly judged.

The liberal myth (“The Jesus of History”) is also (surprise!!!) itself a myth. And I mean myth here both in the good sense–a story that inspires and gives meaning and purpose–and the bad sense–a crock we feed ourselves (when taken literally that is).

The Jesus of History is a Myth. A good though limited one if you don’t take it literally, perhaps even worse than its conservative cousin when taken literally. (At least when taking the first one literally you get a god outta the deal).

The liberal myth is that there is some historical truth that we today can discover through our rational super minds that gets back behind the tradition and therefore releases us from the social-cultural grip of the power-holders in the previous order: i.e. clerical power, church authorities, bishops, governments, whoever.

But here’s the problem. We have no written words of Jesus by Jesus himself. No Youtube videos. No blog from Jesus. He’s not on Facebook, tracking when he’s cooking dinner.

Both of these camps are weak because they are modernist. They believe that there is some final historical truth (The Truth) that you can get back to concerning Jesus. For the orthodox it’s the four canonical gospels (plus Creeds usually). For the liberals (as the article mentions) it is texts like The Gnostic Gospels, The Gospel of Thomas, the sayings of Jesus rather than the deeds.

Unfortunately, their Enlightenment myth notwithstanding, the liberal project has a serious hole below the water line here. The texts they cite are in fact already religious texts. The same criticisms that they rightfully use against the conservatives, they fail to use on themselves. They are in fact equally as valid. Just because groups like the Gnostics didn’t win out in the power plays of the ancient Christian Church doesn’t mean their documents were somehow less “supernatural” or “religious” and more “spiritual” or “rational” or whatever than the canonical texts. In lots of cases, you could argue the reverse actually (and that might be a good thing btw).

In other words, all of the texts cited by either side with all their fancy reconstruction are texts that were written prior to modern historical consciousness. i.e. They don’t pass the muster for such a construct–liberal or conservative. The truly freeing thing is to see that they don’t need to to be of transcendent value. And that it is rather us and our silly idealization of positivism and materialism that is at issue.

And worth pointing out that if the previously marginal/oppressed group through identification with texts of outsiders (relative to whoever became dominant, in this case mainline orthodox Christianity), then they take power and install their own legitimator regimes and shield out anyone who thinks differently. “Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss”. But that for a different time.

The key point is this: The entire project of the Jesus of History (mostly) fails at history but succeeds as devotion. (well sometimes).

Here’s two classic examples from the article:

In Vancouver writer (and Greenpeace International co-founder) Rex Weyler’s new survey of the latest research, The Jesus Sayings: The Quest for His Authentic Message (Anansi), for instance, Christ emerges as a revolutionary sage, a man for the ages whose “words and deeds are sublime.” Even in How Jesus Became a Christian (Random House), by Barrie Wilson, a religious studies professor at Toronto’s York University — which is primarily concerned with arguing that St. Paul and later “Christiï¬ers” hijacked Jesus the Jewish rabbi through a campaign of anti-Semitism — Jesus still emerges as “a teacher of great insight.”

Does anyone else find it even remotely coincidental that the Co-Founder of Greenpeace has a Jesus who is social activist? I don’t totally have a problem with that, but don’t tell me “scholarship proves this is the real Jesus” line cuz I don’t want to hear it.

And as to the second, Barrie means anti-Judaism not anti-Semitism, since Semitism (which is a racial category) didn’t arrive until the 19th century when humans began to theorize about biological race (due to evolutionary science). He means they were anti-Jewish, which is somewhat weird given every writer likely of the New Testament, and certainly St. Paul, were Jews. So they were self-haters? [Insert your favorite boundary pushing/non-PC “as self haters therefore they were really Jews line here”…].

What Barrie actually means (or should if he actually knows his stuff) is that the NT is a document of a marginalized Jewish group that lashes out at times. It is full of moments of self-pity, shame, wounding, and anger (as well as beauty, love, and profound insight) for not being accepted as the “real” Jews and eventually be dispelled from synagogue and declared heretics by the Jews who won the battle then raging over who would get to claim the mantle of authority of authentic Judaism after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The documents are not anti-Semitic nor even anti-Jewish as such, but more anti-Pharisaic (i.e. Rabbinic Judaism).

Unfortunately later Christianity came to be ruled by Gentiles who only knew one kind of Jews (the only ones around that in their day), namely the Rabbinic school, so they therefore equated all Jews with the negative portraits within the NT. And well the rest is anti-Judaism and then anti-Semitism and some would argue to today anti-Israelism.

All of which is to give some credit what is crucially important to be announced and is the best of what Barrie intends. i.e. That Christians can’t continue to promote prejudicial myths about Jewish people. And we sure as hell can’t use Jesus to defend such indefensible acts or attitudes.

And by the way, St. Paul wrote prior to not after the canonical Gospels. But never mind history when you have a myth to uphold, eh (like the myth that all Canadians say eh for example)?

I will repeat there are no documents from the ancient world that meet the requirement for our modern, Western definition of historical truth. So have a conservative Jesus, a liberal one, whatever, just don’t tell me that’s the real historical Jesus.

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