"With so many conflicting ideas, where is one to start? Did Jesus come to abolish religion or set up a new one? Did he seek to show us a way of escaping the world or a way of embracing it? Did he die to save us from our evil or did he die because our evil could not bear his presence? Did he even exist, and what is known about him beyond the doctrinal claims of the Church?"
(Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God)
You buy your Jesus in a box. It's a package deal, and the various brands slug it out. Most of us inherited a model from our parents, some of us traded it in as we got older for something that seemed more satisfying. A few of us, following the rule "once bitten twice shy", have put Jesus back in the box and moved it to a corner of the garage or attic, out of sight out of mind.
I grew up with the long-haired calendar Jesus, a devotional Christ often pictured with small children clustered around. Later I moved to the macho-preacher Jesus, a kind of newscaster foretelling a bleak future preceding his future millennial reign. This guy definitely had short hair and a no-nonsense approach.
But the evidence is both slim and capable of multiple readings. Even with a minimal understanding of how the gospels were formed it's pretty clear that, whatever historical bedrock there might be, the details are the product of creative storytelling.
Which makes the Jesus of Progressive Christianity just as subject to critique as any other. There's a feeling that this Jesus is the Jesus we now need, and therefore simply must be the real Jesus. I sympathize, I really do. But the trouble is I've encountered explanations of "the real Jesus" before - as I'm sure you have too - and they were no such thing.
Jesus - or Yeshua - was a man of his time, living within a culture very different from any found in our own age. To imagine we can repackage him in a sanitized, organically certified version for liberal Western consumption is simply arrogant.
Even worse is to emasculate him into warm and fuzzy green ether, as Bruce Sanguin does.
"[I]f we imagine Jesus to be an emergent form of Earth - an occasion of miraculous cosmic and planetary creativity - we ground the Jesus story within the universe as we know it to be. Salt waters coursed through his blood, ancient bacteria were alive in his gut, and the neurons that fired in his grey matter were gifts of an ancient exploding supernova. He was, in short, a child of Earth and Cosmos. Before the various and necessary doctrines and dogmas developed to address the mystery of Jesus, he represented, inside and out, soul and body, an occasion of cosmic coalescence and creativity. The evolutionary pressure coursing through the whole universe also gave birth to Jesus. In short, I believe that it's important to present him as a child of Earth and Cosmos and not only a child of Heaven."(Bruce Sanguin, "When Christ is Cosmic," in Why Weren't We Told, edited by Hunt & Smith.)
Very poetic, in a vacuous sort of way. Salt waters, though, course through my neighbour's dog also, and I've no doubt that there's a full complement of ancient bacteria in its gut (you can sometimes see the evidence on the lawn). Does Rover also represent an occasion of cosmic coalescence?
When you strip the mythology away from the Jesus of the gospels, do you really end up with anything usefully biographical? My best guess, and it's somewhere along the continuum from possibility to probability, is that the historical figure was an apocalyptic prophet and an exorcist. Not a very helpful portrait for a progressive reinterpretation of Christianity. Of course you could, like Sanguin, "imagine" him otherwise. But what would be the point?
No wonder this version of Jesus in a Box isn't selling well.