Saturday, 6 February 2016

The Malleable Jesus

The current issue of Word & World (Winter 2016) has an editorial by Frederick Gaiser called The Malleable Jesus. It's a reminder that your Jesus may not be mine. Being a church publication (out of ELCA's Luther Seminary in St Paul, Minnesota) Gaiser is obligated to find a silver lining, and I can't say I blame him, but the unpleasant fact remains that we tend to create Jesus according to our tastes.
But who is the “historical Jesus,” the one sought by various “quests” of recent time? He is related to the Jesus of the “Jesus Seminar,” who seems to have spoken remarkably little, unlike the Jesus of some editions of the King James Bible, who somehow spoke in red letters.
I'd almost forgotten Bruce Barton's Jesus. He was referred to in various editions of a certain Bible correspondence course which some readers will remember. Barton's actual views weren't touched on, but the name of his book, The Man Nobody Knows, was used to great apologetic effect. (The ever-original Darris McNeely cribbed the same trick in an episode of Beyond Today.) What was Barton on about? Gaiser gives details.
So, who is this malleable Jesus? Perhaps most odd is Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows, the title of his 1925 book. Upset by the sissified “Sunday school Jesus,” “a physically weak, moralistic man, and the ‘lamb of God,’” Barton describes Jesus as “the world’s greatest business executive” who was nothing less than “The Founder of Modern Business,” the strong masculine man “who created a world-conquering organization with a group of twelve men hand-picked from the bottom ranks of business.”
You can see how this 'hard' image of Jesus might appeal to an ambitious 1930s advertising salesman turned evangelist. Barton has a lot to answer for. Somebody should tell Darris.

Gaiser spends some time (not a lot; the editorial is only a two-pager) mulling over various artists' impressions of Jesus. Now there's a study in kitsch. Thanks to really bad artwork hanging in the 'sitting room', I grew up with the door-knocking Jesus imprinted on my mind ("behold, I stand at the door and knock"), looking a bit like a zoned-out Jehovah's Witness. Even then I thought it was pretty awful. I'm sure Barton would have concurred.

There's something to be said for iconoclasm.


  1. Meanwhile in evangelical-land, the idea of exploring the historical Jesus is almost unheard of. Why bother reading someone else's theories if you already have a "personal relationship" with the guy?

  2. Those who claim to "know Jesus" and "love Jesus", sing his praises and tell of the wonderful things he's done for them, probably have not given the New Testament -- particularly the gospels -- a very good look.

    Personally, I'm not certain I'd want to spend much time around him. It's hard to say why his disciples would have such loyalty to him -- he did, after all, call them evil and treated them like stupid little children. It looks like he may have had bursts of temper and was often a bit arrogant. He seemed to be telling everyone they were know-nothings.

    So -- and if he really did -- he sacrificed himself (with a great deal of pressure from his 'Father') to provide redemption to the world. Great. But would we really want to be around him as a person.

    As for being with him forever... well... you know if a person is going to be a part of the 144,000 AND a great multitude, getting an afternoon (even in all eternity) means that as a part of his harem, you only get limited personal time with him (quality time that has to count and last you for decades at a time). You may get to be seen with him in public, but only as part of a vast crowd, sort of like the people in Vatican Square when the Pope comes out to give a blessing.

    Do people really 'know Jesus'?

    It's hard to imagine.

  3. Mikey, I think you misunderstand. My early Catholic upbringing taught me that God is everywhere at once. So, Jesus being God can also be everywhere at once. So, each of us can spend personal, one-on-one time with Jesus, all the time, all at the same time!

    Sounds like heaven to me.

  4. Bruce Barton's The Book Nobody Knows was probably my introduction to biblical criticism. I think I read it in Junior High, and it was the first book I read that did not treat the Bible as a divine book but as a book by human beings. For example, Barton said that John was a son of thunder, and that was why the Book of Revelation had so much wrath. Of course, many scholars would say a different John wrote Revelation, but Barton was my introduction to that sort of approach to the Bible.

  5. @Skeptic: That's actually rather strange theology (though I don't doubt the Pentecostals follow it as well). What could possibly mean for Jesus to be "alive", other than that he exists as a corporeal body in heaven rather than a diffuse, omnipresent spirit?

    Do such people think, for example, that the historical Jesus was also omnipresent and just *appeared* to be walking around in Galilee? That's Docetism, Patrick.