Monday, January 20, 2014

Loaded Question

The laconic hero, the man of action who says little, is an American icon. From John Wayne to Gary Cooper to Clint Eastwood, the idea of a guy who rarely speaks but says what he means is major trope in movies and TV, where the emphasis is more on showing than saying. The term “laconic” comes from Laconia, a region of Greece the capital of which was Sparta. A classic example of laconic communication can be found in the Urban Dictionary. Phillip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great, sent an ultimatum to the Spartans. He said, “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city.” To which the Spartans replied, “If.”

One would hardly accuse Jesus of being a man of few words, especially in the gospel of John. But that's what we get in today's lectionary reading. John the Baptizer does much of the talking and Jesus only has 3 lines. But there is a lot of significance in the first 2 of the lines.

John points out Jesus to 2 of his disciples, calling him “the Lamb of God.” So the disciples follow Jesus. He notices them and asks, “What are you looking for?” The disciples call Jesus Rabbi and ask where he is staying. Jesus says, “Come and see.”

It seems to me that both Jesus' question and his response are relevant today. They need to be asked of all, seeker and Christian, if we wish to find where and who Jesus is.

Even people who are leery of the church are usually interested in Jesus. They want to know more about him. And there are a lot of versions of Jesus out there. A recent bestseller makes Jesus out to be a zealot, a fanatic in the original sense of that word, a devotee of the Temple. Other versions are that of a peasant sage who only spoke in enigmatic aphorisms, an apocalyptic prophet, a very political champion of the poor, and a hippie somehow transported from 1960s America to 1st century Judea. How is it that people, including scholars, see Jesus so differently?

As way of illustration, let me bring up the case of Sherlock Holmes. He is the most portrayed fictional character in films and TV. But up until recently, everyone was trying to portray the character as found in the original stories. But now we have Holmes portrayed as an action hero by Robert Downey Jr., as a recovering addict by Jonny Lee Miller, and as a high-functioning sociopath by Benedict Cumberbatch. Why so different? Part of it is the modern audience's desire for greater psychological depth in its heroes, as seen not only in Holmes but also in the recent versions of such oft-portrayed characters as James Bond and the Doctor of Doctor Who. We want to know what makes our heroes tick.

Part of it is novelty, though. We all know Holmes and to give us another standard version of these characters is considered boring by the creative people behind the scenes and before the camera and presumably by the audience. This is belied by the fact that the the most authentic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is nearly universally acknowledged to be that of Jeremy Brett. His version was also extremely popular, probably because of his faithfulness to the complex character we find in the stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Still novelty sells, especially when the audience is not likely to know the original sources. So scriptwriters tend to overemphasize Holmes' mastery of boxing or his then legal drug use or his coldblooded approach to people's problems. Ignore the fact that, in the original stories, we rarely see Holmes fight and never see him strung out on drugs nor ever see him show any romantic interest in anyone, and “Voila!”--a new variation on a classic character.

Something similar I think is at work with Jesus. A lot of the written portraits we get of Jesus arise from academia. You'd think there would be a scholarly consensus but no. And I think I know why. I used to be a researcher for one of my Bible professors at Wheaton and what struck me was how inventive scholars can get when toiling in a field that has already been picked over by a legion of scholars for many centuries. A frequent technique I spotted was that a scholar will notice some small detail no one else has noted or fully explored and then try to make that tiny discovery the key to a reassessment of a major topic in the field. I read a paper that tried to do that with a Greek preposition. I read an article which went so far beyond the Biblical text in reconstructing the new Jerusalem in Revelation as to speculate on the money people of the new creation would use! Nor is Jesus immune to such treatment. And ironically I recognized the logical overreach of these efforts because of the Baker Street Journal, a repository of Sherlockian pseudo-scholarship.

In the 1930s Monsignor Ronald Knox, a biblical scholar, decided for fun to apply the then popular Higher Critical methods of analyzing the Bible to the 60 stories of Sherlock Holmes. And other Sherlockians have gleefully joined in what is called the Great Game, using ingenuity and some disingenuousness to infer all kinds of things about Holmes and Watson. (Accounting for Watson's wandering war wound has given birth to a lot of clever and fun theories.) Every year the Baker Street Irregulars meet in New York in January because some have deduced that Holmes' birthday falls on the 6th. At one memorable meeting, Rex Stout, the author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, presented a paper claiming to prove that Watson was a woman. The reaction of his fellow Sherlockians was to pick up Stout, carry him outside and dump him into a snowbank. 

For Sherlockian scholars, it's all done tongue-in-cheek but it still shows that the less than rigorous application of biased scholarship, combined with ignoring some data, (eg, Watson married women, still an exclusively heterosexual rite in the Victorian era), leaps in logic, transforming speculation into fact and a large amount of looking for what you want to find, can allow you to prove just about anything.

I submit the same process is at work in some of the more sensational examples of biblical scholarship. Although I think most scholars are sincere, I do think the “publish or perish” pressure found in academic circles, where being notable can help one get tenure, is a major reason. It drives a lot of Bible or religious studies professors to seek and assert startling and new interpretations in a field where everything truly significant has probably already been said.

The other factor is that people see what they want to see. In psychology this is called “confirmation bias.” If you give, say, people who disbelieve in global warming, articles on the science behind climate change, they will scrutinize and pick holes in them and come out of the experience more convinced of their position. That was an actual experiment. The same thing happens when researchers present those who believe in global warming articles rebutting the science. It's why conservatives tune to Fox news and liberals to MSNBC. People like to have their biases confirmed and even inconvenient facts don't always change minds.

Nobody, not even people in church, likes everything they find in the Bible about Jesus. He talks entirely too much about hell, divorce and sexual immorality for progressives' tastes and entirely too much about giving to the poor, the immigrant, the imprisoned and about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven for the tastes of conservatives. There is a Poverty and Justice Bible you can get, highlighting all the passages concerning those issues and including a 56 page study guide and “practical suggestions on how you can make a difference in the lives of the poor and the oppressed.” And Conservapedia has a project to translate the Bible without “liberal translation distortions” and to “use powerful new conservative terms,” including “explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning.” I'm not taking sides; I'm just pointing out that there are sides and each one is looking for validation of its position.

Which brings us to Jesus' first words in today's gospel, “What are you looking for?” In the context, he is simply asking 2 of John's disciples why are they following him. But in a wider sense, this is a question to ask anyone coming to Christ.

If you are looking for a Jesus who doesn't hold to a high standard of moral behavior, who believes in letting people decide for themselves what they feel is right or wrong, you are going to have to ignore or explain away his teachings on chastity and marriage, on how being angry with a brother is tantamount to murder and calling him a name can put you in danger of hell and how Jesus says he did not come to do away with the smallest detail of God's law.

If you are looking for a Jesus who is unrelentingly hard on sinners, who would be standing alongside the Westboro Baptist Church at one of their protests, then you are going to have to ignore or explain away his teachings on forgiving a person 70 times 7, his own disregard for the strict interpretations of the observance of the Sabbath and the rules of ritual uncleanness, his forgiving those who did not first confess their sins and his not condemning the woman taken in adultery. (In fact, that last story is one of the targets of the Conservapedia's translation, citing its absence from many early manuscripts. But it certainly is in line with the character of a man who did not condemn the oft-married and now cohabiting Samaritan woman at the well and his forgiving a woman whose sins were so notorious that folks cringed to see her touch Jesus' feet with her hair and tears.)

If you are looking for a Jesus who wants to show the poor tough love, to let them sink or swim on the result of their own hard work, who is against handouts, then you are going to have to ignore or explain away his admonition to “give to any who beg of you,” his command not to “store up riches for yourself here on earth,” his telling the young rich man that he must sell all he has and give the money to the poor and, of course, that “camel through the eye of a sewing needle” thing.

If you are looking for a Jesus who hates the rich, who is primarily a social activist, who would support the violent overthrow of current society and the setting up of a different political system, then you are going to have to ignore or explain away his saying that in this world we will always have poor, his eating with the rich and tax collectors, his refusal to take sides on the hot button political issues of his time in order to bring people back to the realization that the origin of their problems were not external but internal and that moral and spiritual change were necessary.

If you are looking for a Jesus who is mainly interested in granting personal happiness and prosperity, you are going to have to ignore or explain away his words about serving him not through withdrawal from the problems of everyday life but through taking care of the naked, hungry, sick, imprisoned and immigrants, of his predicting the inevitability of persecution, and of the blessedness of being poor in spirit, mourning, or starving and thirsting for righteousness.

If you are looking for a Jesus who agrees with you 100% on any given subject, then you are not really looking for a Rabbi or teacher. You don't want to learn anything new about God or humanity or morality or spirituality. And Jesus is a teacher, someone who not only imparts knowledge but leads us to see things differently. If you're looking for a Jesus who parrots what you already think you know, then you really aren't looking for Jesus as he is.

But if you are looking for the real Jesus, the complex and challenging Jesus who exists, instead of the oversimplified and comfortable Jesuses people create in their own images,
if you have no preconceptions but will let Jesus be Jesus, then the best response is his own: “Come and see.”

Following Jesus is not meant to be a routine tour of the familiar landmarks of your thoughts and opinions. It is an adventure, taking you places you never anticipated. Those 2 disciples never thought that 3 ½ years later they would be shattered by brutal death of their teacher. Still less did they suspect that 3 days after that they would be be confronted with a resurrected Jesus who would make them rethink everything they thought they knew about him, about the role of the Messiah and about the nature of God. And they never saw themselves traveling the world, preaching Christ even to Gentiles and fearlessly facing death at the hands of those they had once thought their Messiah would overthrow, causing them to redefine victory and life and joy.

So what are you looking for? Is it a mirror image of yourself, your desires and dreams and fears? Or is it the true light which enlightens the world and which you were made to reflect? Where are you going? The same old circuit of self-selected mental and spiritual dead ends and enslaving habits? Or you following Jesus? It's scary because while he will never leave you or forsake you, and while the final destination we are all journeying toward is set, you won't know the exact path or the specific itinerary he has prepared for you. So where Jesus will lead you? The only way to know is to come and see. 

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