Andrew Sullivan on Jesus

Tue, 03/04/2012 - 16:20

I imagine Andrew Sullivan’s Newsweek cover article on Christianity in Crisis will attract a great deal of interest. He castigates the modern church in all its forms for its corruption, hypocrisy, loss of moral authority, materialism, obsession with sex, intellectual obscurantism, and collusion with political power. He thinks that Jesus would have been baffled by North American religion and by culturally dominant North American Evangelicalism in particular. In place of the “the supernatural claims that, fused with politics and power, gave successive generations wars, inquisitions, pogroms, reformations, and counterreformations”, he portrays a Jesus who looks very much like Francis of Assisi—the real Francis of Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, not the fashionable “erstwhile hippie, communing with flowers and animals”.

Sullivan’s Jesus would not have condoned the torture of terror suspects; he taught his followers to love, not fear, the other; he had nothing to say about homosexuality or abortion; he condemned divorce and forgave adulterers; he did not focus on the family; he had no personal interest in sex; he eschewed politics; he was homeless; he told people to sell their possessions and give the proceeds to the poor; he “anticipated an imminent End of the World where reproduction was completely irrelevant”; and he demonstrated his complete rejection of coercive force by “his willingness to submit himself to an unjustified execution”.

I can appreciate the appeal of this Jesus to Andrew Sullivan—and to the large numbers of young Americans who have lost faith in a complacent, overbearing church but still need a handle on God, a clue, a landmark, a sign, a road, still need a humanized icon to reveal the “ineffable Being behind all things”. As Sullivan points out, atheism is a very unnatural and inhuman creed.

I also think it is reasonable to hold up a radically unchurchlike—even un-Christian—Jesus as a foil to organized religion. That makes for good polemics and arguably for good prophetic critique.

But I don’t think that the only way to address the current crisis of Christianity theologically is by remaking Jesus in the image of St Francis or Thomas Jefferson or Ghandi or Martin Luther King or Andrew Sullivan.

1. We will not arrive at a better understanding of the Jesus who lived and died in occupied Palestine a little under 2,000 years ago by cutting the radical teacher from the narrative in which he is embedded—and then further eliminating most of the “supernatural claims” that he made. If critical scholarship is currently teaching us anything about the historical Jesus, it is that he was a thoroughly political figure who cannot be taken out of the story of Israel. The only Jesus we have—and the Jesus to which the church must profess allegiance—is a fully contextualized Jesus.

2. Jesus’ “practical commandments” were not given as universal spiritual-ethical teaching. Jesus was not a Stoic philosopher. They were given to a relatively small community of followers who would have to make the difficult journey of eschatological transition from second temple Judaism to a new age when Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations. We can learn from them, but not by picking out the best bits, and not by ignoring the story.

3. Sullivan believes in “Jesus’ divinity and resurrection”, which is one of the reasons why he is such an interesting writer. But Jesus’ divinity and resurrection are also narratively determined: his resurrection on the third day certainly cannot be separated from the story of judgment on Israel and the restoration of the people of God (cf. Hos. 6:1-2); and I would argue—and intend to do so at some point—that belief in Jesus’ divinity can be arrived at only by way of apocalyptic expectation. And while we’re on there subject of apocalypticism….

4. Jesus did not anticipate the imminent end of the world. He anticipated the imminent end of the world of first century Israel, and he was not in the least mistaken when he told his followers that some of them would live to see the reign of God coming in power, both to destroy and to recreate. I think the apocalyptic Jesus has to be taken very seriously.

5. The narrative-political-historical dimension to the whole story about Jesus—including the story of the exalted Jesus—means that the believing community matters as community. Church cannot be dissolved into an incoherent swarm of idealistic Jesus followers. The historical Jesus, no less than Paul, affirmed the continuing relevance of a chosen, holy people, a people for God’s own possession, a kingdom of priests. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the church today should not be troubled to the core by the crisis that Sullivan describes.

6. There is divinity, resurrection, radical love and forgiveness in Andrew Sullivan’s Jesus, but seemingly no atonement. The observation about how Jesus conducted himself through it all doesn’t count—”calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God”. Jesus died for the sins of the people of God (see yesterday’s post), and that brute fact continues to resonate through the long history of this people.

Comments

Andrew,

Great post. Could you point me to any additional writing you’ve done that elaborates on point #4? Thanks! Very helpful stuff.

If you would be open to doing a new edition instead of just a reprinting, I’d appreciate it if you could address Preston’s points in “Who is this Babylon” as part of your argument that Babylon is the Roman system.

Doug

You can nitpick Sullivan’s cry. You could even say that some of what he attributes to Jesus is in fact his own political agenda. Nonetheless, we would do better to simply acknowledge the fundamental validity of his fundamental point: “God, the church is spiritually bankrupt; please give us Jesus!”

When the cover story of a major newsweekly in the US gives voice to such a cry, shall we who know and love Jesus muffle it?

Mike, I was actually trying quite hard not to nitpick, but I guess things don’t always come across the way you think they do. This was my attempt to acknowledge the force of Sullivan’s argument:

I also think it is reasonable to hold up a radically unchurchlike—even un-Christian—Jesus as a foil to organized religion. That makes for good polemics and arguably for good prophetic critique.

So I don’t mean to muffle the cry—in fact, I don’t really imagine that my modest critical response would make much of an impact on the readership of Newsweek.

But what do we do if we recognize that the church is spiritually bankrupt and falls a long way short of the glory of its Lord? Surely part of our response has to be to put the authentic Jesus back at the centre of his people, or confess again that he is Lord over his people, and deal with the consequences? If we are going to proclaim a ‘King Jesus” gospel, we have to reckon with the fact that a king rules over and judges his people. The answer is not to give up on the church and exalt Jesus. The answer is to change the church.

Andrew, no one can serve two masters. We can either serve the church or we can serve the Lord. Those who choose to serve the church will know how the defenders of Jerusalem felt in 69 AD. Those who choose to serve the Lord will be His church wherever they go and whatever they do.

Hmm, I suppose that’s one way of putting it, but I would prefer to the keep the corporate and communal identity of the people of God in the foreground. I don’t think AD 70 was a judgment on the corporate existence of the people of God, to be replaced by a bunch of individuals following Jesus wherever they go. There is some point to that, but I would argue that new creation existence is necessarily social.

If the new creation required social cohesion, there would have been no need to replace the old creation. Second Temple Judaism in its Diaspora with synagogues near and far welcoming God-fearing Gentiles provided substantial social cohesion - in fact, much more than is possible in today’s institutionalized, yet simultaneously Balkanized church(es).

Moreover, Jesus taught us that the sacrifice of our social relationships (“If anyone does not love Me and hate his own…”) was a price for entering the kingdom.

Perhaps the earliest, if not most notable example, of putting social identity and cohesion above obedience to God’s command occurred at a construction site called Babel - which was nothing if not a type of Jerusalem 70 AD, and of efforts to “fix” the church today.

Jesus taught the renunciation of relationships for the sake of the kingdom, but also promised new relationships in the age to come (Mk. 10:29-30). Paul has a great deal to say about the social cohesion of his communities, who are identified by the fact that they are one body, with one Spirit, determined by one baptism, under one Lord or king.

What is the basis for your view that Babel is to be regarded as a type of Jerusalem AD 70. Jerusalem did not have a tower, it had a temple; Babel was not destroyed; there is no reference to Babel in the New Testament.

Paul rightly emphasized social cohesion to his churches because that was the generation that was preparing for the coming of the Lord. That cohesion was to last until the Lord came to take charge of His people, at which time the sheep were separated from the goats, the wheat from the tares. “The Lord knows those who are His.” Thus Paul preached that social cohesion was to last until divine cohesion was offered (Peter agreed in 1 Peter 5:1-4). But if the Lord did not return in that generation as promised, then, alas, He is not the Lord and we are still in our sins, without hope and without God in the world. There’d be no point in talking about cohesion of any kind.

Babel and Jerusalem were the works of builders rejecting the chief cornerstone. Babel is not only a type of Jerusalem in 70 AD, it is a type of the NT church in its closing days when apostasy began to prevail - a state of which Jesus and all the apostles warned (Mt 24:10-12; 2 Thess 2:3; 1 Jn 2:18). The earlier NT documents warned of it, the later NT documents bore witness to it. To the institutional church as to the nation Israel, Ichabod was ascribed. They became as Shiloh, just as Jeremiah had prophesied (7:14).

As for Babel being referenced in the NT, have you never considered the import of the coherent cacophony in Acts 2?

I don’t see what you’re getting at in the first paragraph, and I don’t see how Babel, which surely stands for the imperial instinct of humanity as a whole, can be a type of apostate Jerusalem, which faced destruction by a Babylon-like empire. I don’t see any reference to Babel in Acts 2. The multi-lingual reference is to diaspora Judaism, not to the whole of humanity. In my view.

Andrew,

I’m not sure how to rephrase the first paragraph to make it any more clear. I guess I’ll just say that social cohesion was stressed in the NT in anticipation of the coming the day of the Lord (Heb 10:25). If you think the day of the Lord still has not come, then you have a problem that social cohesion won’t solve. To wit: A prophet who has failed the Deut 18 test.

The issue with Babel wasn’t empire but rather that the Lord had said, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it,” and they said, “Let us build…lest we be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” They were resisting the will of the Lord and preferred their social cohesion to cohesion with Him. Salt does not season the food when it’s in the bag - it needs to be “scattered” on the food.

In Acts 2 the Lord turned the curse (of Babel) into a blessing (of Pentecost). Sure, there was a practical dimension to it. But if you cannot enjoy the Lord’s sense of irony in that moment, then there’s not much more I can say.

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