March 26th, 2010


Listen Jesus, I don't like what I see/All I ask is that you listen to me

I was listening to this story on NPR this morning when I was straightening up the kitchen and getting ready to go to work. I actually felt like I needed to listen to it again when I got to work, because it seemed like something important was going on.
Who is Brian McLaren, and what has he done to make these people so angry?

It turns out that McLaren is considered one of the country's most influential evangelicals, and his new book, A New Kind of Christianity, takes aim at some core doctrinal beliefs. McLaren is rethinking Jesus' mission on Earth, and even the purpose of the crucifixion.

"The view of the cross that I was given growing up, in a sense, has a God who needs blood in order to be appeased," McLaren says. "If this God doesn't see blood, God can't forgive."

McLaren believes that version of God is a misreading of the Bible.

"God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering," he says.

McLaren says modern evangelicalism underplays that Jesus — who spent most of his time with the poor, the sick and the sinners — saved his wrath primarily for hard-core religious leaders.

Others, such as Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, say McLaren's view of Jesus and the crucifixion is like a shot to the heart of Christian beliefs.

"Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life," Mohler says. "Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that's a very interesting chapter of human history, but I'm not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity."
I found this fascinating not because it seemed to be a new idea, but it seemed to reinforce my life-long beliefs about Christianity. It's decidedly not a new idea to me. To the extent that I still believe, I tend to look at Jesus as the do gooder hippie, and I never interpreted the crucifixition story as one of God's need for blood. I tended to think of it more as, "boy howdy, people as a whole can really, really screw shit up on a Biblical level, and yet still, God can find a way to forgive." That vengeful God that the evangelicals love so much, in my reading, tended to reside in the Old Testament. But the Christ that makes them Christian resides in the New. And the New is full of poor and sick and socially ostracized people. And Jesus is one of them.

I've never really been afraid of God. I've never really been afraid of not going to heaven, even when I believed in heaven and hell. And I suppose my reading of "Jesus died for our sins" was "Jesus died because of our sins."

I have no idea if my ideas about Jesus are my own, or if they came from my Roman Catholic upbringing and schooling. I suspect it's a combo, especially since the Catholic thing in my upbringing was more cultural than religious. But eight years of religion class, I'm sure, left their mark. I had cool religion teachers, who were helpful in guiding me through the complicated parables and readings. I learned early on to read the Bible as parable. And I also saw Jesus Christ Superstar at an impressionable age.

I find that comment above "'Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life,' Mohler says. 'Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that's a very interesting chapter of human history, but I'm not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity.'" to be really weird. Uh, we, the human race, distort, fear and delberately misunderstand the message Son of God so much that we turn him into a political prisoner and kill him because we don't like what he has to say? God himself is also a victim of humanity's failings? If I'm reading this quote right, it's as if this guy looks only at the death and not the circumstances surrounding it. As if the crucifixion were the Issac and Abraham story with a happier ending.

I suppose it makes a little sense if one were a fire and brimstone type. Or if one's politics were so entwined with religion that it's impossible to separate the two. I think, also, a lot of Christians look at themselves as being on the side of Jesus in the story, rather than realizing that the deciples were a really tiny minority of the population. "I," they think, "know the truth, so I would have never killed Jesus." But we all go through life with incomplete information. And most of us would confess that we are unwilling to beleive or help the dirty crackpot on the street who says he has the route to our salvation.

Another part of the NPR article struck me as interesting. And again, I'm not an evangelical, and I have a lot of trouble understanding what they believe given my own Catholic upbringing AND my more agnostic/deist/secular current views. But this has been something that has troubled me in the past, and I think it very much contributes to my rejection of the Christian notion that only they can be "saved".
Mohler says McLaren and others like him are trying to rewrite the Christian story. And what alarms Mohler is that young believers are attracted to this message.

That's absolutely right, says McLaren. Consider the core evangelical belief that only Christians are going to heaven and everyone else is doomed. That may have rung true for his grandparents' generation, he says, but not now.

"A young evangelical, Roman Catholic [or] mainline Protestant growing up in America today, if he goes to college, his roommate might be Hindu," he says. "His roommate might be Muslim. His roommate might be Buddhist or atheist. So, suddenly the 'other' is sleeping across the room."

McLaren is onto something here, says David Campbell, a professor at Notre Dame and co-author of American Grace: How Religion Is Reshaping Our Civic and Political Lives. His surveys show that nearly two-thirds of evangelicals under age 35 believe non-Christians can go to heaven, but only 39 percent of those over age 65 believe that. That's because young evangelicals have grown up in a religiously plural society.

"And, it's really hard to condemn someone to eternal damnation on the basis of their religion when you know them well and have come to love them," he says.

Campbell adds that young believers are more flexible about Christian doctrine in general.

"We also know that — particularly within the evangelical community — the younger you are, the less likely you are to take the Bible literally, to believe that the Bible is the inerrant 'word of God,' as compared to a book of moral precepts," he says.

Surveys by Campbell and others show young evangelicals differ from their elders in a lot of ways. They pray less often, read the Bible and go to church less often. And they're more open to culture and social issues, such as evolution and gay rights.
The idea that people of other faiths were destined for hell made no sense to me as a child. It seemed very hubristic and based on weird assumptions. Why, I thought, can't God have several paths? I mean, Confucious communicated a version of Jesus's golden rule, too. It doesn't matter how one believes that he or she should be a good person, only that they are a good person, I thought. And "good person" in my view has always been a varient of "be nice to one another"/"treat each other with respect." Everything else is detail and context.

I think also that I was influenced heavily by a religion instructor who told me not to take the Bible literally, but to look for the deeper meaning in all of the stories. So the Creation story was "real" but it didn't necessarily happen in the exact way it was written down. It was written, instead, in a way that people could grasp and understand. (It wasn't until years later that I learned that the Bible was written and rewritten dozens of times for theological, political and philosophical purposes.) So I never took the Bible as history, but as literature and philosophy.

It's been probably a decade since I've read more than a chapter here and there of the Bible. And I'm no religious scholar or even a practicing Christian. So obviously, my thoughts on the nature of Christianity aren't really based on anything more than half remembered ideas from a fairly Catholic religon heavy upbringing.

But it always struck me as interesting that the Evangelicals, at least the politicized ones, in this country didn't rally around healthcare or poverty reduction programs. Or hit hard against the financial institutions. It seemed to me that's what Jesus did in his limited time and scope on earth. But then maybe the death is the only relevant part.

ETA: Some kind souls have put Jesus Christ Superstar on Youtube. Search for "Jesus Christ Superstar 1973" and your day will be killed.

ETA2: There is an excerpt of the book that started the brouhaha that the NPR article reported on in the website linked above. I think it's interesting.