In Search of Jesus, Part 3

In my previous post in this series I attempted to interact with Stephen Prothero’s book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. I never made it to chapter one. Prothero’s Introduction leveled me, so I spent a great deal of time lingering there, trying to process the implications of what I had just read and then disseminate them to you in a coherent way. Whether or not I succeeded is, of course, debatable.

One of the things I wrote in my last post that can’t be attributed to American Jesus was this, “Ironically, where he [Jesus] may be most unnoticed and unknowable is in the church.” Personally, I don’t think Prothero would agree with that statement. In fact, he’d probably find it even less agreeable if he knew that I wrote it while working through the introduction to his book. And while I thought about striking it from the post, I reconsidered and thought I should let the words remain as they are. And so I have. After all, I meant what I wrote. However, I do think it’s important for me to clarify such a seemingly rash generalization. So for the remainder of this post I want to unravel what I was saying, not in an attempt to make it more palatable and less irritating, but in order to substantiate what may otherwise be perceived as a careless assertion.

I think Jesus has been hidden behind centuries of Christological creeds and formulas that may or may not be necessary to understanding who he really is. While the creeds may safeguard Jesus’ identity as the unique Son of God and prevent others from infringing on this revelation, they seem powerless to satisfy our deepest human needs. In fact, they tend to offer us God in the abstract, which, in my opinion, pushes him further away, making him seem distant and therefore less deserving of our attention. When this happens, “God with us” becomes “God beyond us,” in effect negating John’s extraordinary claim that “the Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14, The Message).

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that our dogma should be shelved or shunned; that would be disastrous. But I would argue that it needs to be scrutinized if it’s failing to invite us deeper into the mystery of God in Christ, or if it’s failing to initiate a fundamental reordering of our passions and priorities, what Dallas Willard describes as a “renovation of the heart.” If what we believe is not affecting how we live and love, then perhaps we should begin the painful process of examining our beliefs in light of the revelation of God in Christ, revisiting all that Jesus began to do and to teach prior to his ascension, while also vicariously reliving—not just learning—all that Jesus continued to do and to teach through his Spirit-empowered church. This process of “revisiting and reliving” what the earliest followers of the Way knew to be essential to knowing and loving Jesus will not allow us to reduce the gospel to a simple statement of what we believe that is divorced from the reality of how we live.

What I’m after is a community of Christians that radiates Jesus, making him known and knowable in a way that maintains the integral connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.