For years I have been a seeker. I’ve been seeking to understand Jesus — his person, his mission, his message. I find him both utterly fascinating and thoroughly frustrating.
Many people believe this search is a waste of time. For some, life comes down to nothing more than chemistry and electricity — biology, physics, math. There’s nothing spiritual about it for them. Just respiration, reproduction, and expiration. Live while you can. Get what you can. Put off the inevitable as long as you can. Stop wasting time searching for something more.
Others believe this search is a waste of time because they believe Jesus is simple. They’ve already figured him out. He’s been studied, charted, and reduced to their formulas — a math of a different sort. Jesus is five steps to salvation. Or Jesus is seven steps to a better life. Jesus is all right there in their books and commentaries, their sermons and creedal statements.
But I have this nagging belief that Jesus is a person, and persons are notoriously difficult to define. And I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one to think that maybe — just maybe — there’s more to Jesus than we’ve been led to believe either by the formulaic religionists or by the secular materialists.
My very first book was about the cultural phenomenon known as The Da Vinci Code. What was it about Dan Brown’s novel that captivated so many millions of people? It wasn’t just a page-turner; it was something about this version of Jesus. The Jesus hinted at in the book was far more interesting than the one talked about in churches, and it showed just how many folks have grown weary of the status-quo, male-dominated, power-brokering, institutionalized Church.
Of course, I was all too happy to disappoint them by discrediting Dan Brown’s version of Jesus as historically inaccurate and wildly unorthodox.
Did I really do them any favors? Or did they have a point? Could it be that, while the Gnostic gospels and all of Dan Brown’s other source material mislead people grossly, they also open up the possibility that the church’s historically orthodox presentation of Jesus does not always do him justice either?
White Jesus? Really? Suburban Jesus with middle class values? American Jesus?
Maybe the real problem isn’t with the stories contained in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Maybe the problem is how we’ve domesticated them, hijacked them, read them through a particular lens, insisting that others do as well — lest they be cast out from among us. We’ve failed to see Jesus as the radical visionary he was.
Over the past decade I’ve come to realize that the original Gospel of Mark, for example, is far more radical than the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas ever could be. The Gospel of Matthew blows the Gospel of Peter away in terms of believability and convicting rhetoric. The Jesus presented to us in the well-worn pages of our Bibles is a far cry from the tame and wimpy guy too many of us get in church. To paraphrase Philip Yancey, the Jesus most of us grew up with was pretty much Mr. Rogers with a beard, but nobody wants to kill a guy like that. The Jesus in the Bible pissed a lot of people off, and it got him killed. That’s pretty radical.
If only we had eyes to see and ears to hear.
People continue to find Jesus magnetic; people also find Jesus’ spokesmen repulsive. Somehow or other there’s a disconnect of gigantic proportions when the same kinds of people who were drawn to Jesus during his life on earth run away from the people who now claim to be his representatives. Clearly we’re misrepresenting Jesus and his message.
Lately, I’ve spent a fair amount of time listening to others from different traditions describe their deep and often profound spiritual experiences. They know there’s something more to this life that cannot be reduced to mathematical equations or liturgical religious practices. So many of these people have given up on “organized religion” but maintain a high opinion of Jesus himself. They get the sense that there must be something more going on with him — something that cannot be contained in and is often pushed out of large gatherings of people who call themselves Christians.
I think they’re right. I believe the person and message of Jesus is better than what we’ve been able to figure out so far. I believe the words my father used to say when he greeted the churches where he preached on Sundays: The best is yet to be.
I believe there’s still something about Jesus to be discovered. I’m not talking about silly conspiracy theories or nonsense speculations involving Jesus and women or Jesus and men or Jesus and the interruption of the time/space continuum. I’m not talking about sex or aliens or anything like that.
But I just bet that if we went back and reread the stories — the ones we’ve heard since we were kids in Sunday School, the ones we think we’ve got figured out already — I bet if we read them slowly and thoughtfully something might just emerge. And if we could take that in and not only look at it but figure out how to look through it, everything might just change for the better.
Photo Credit: Chen YiChun