Friday, May 4, 2012

Resisting the Message of the Gospels

In an article posted on Internet Monk, Tim Gombis, professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, addresses the ways that Christians resist the Gospels.  He writes:

I think that reading the Gospels for what they’re really saying threatens to upset and destabilize our church community dynamics that have become predictable and comfortable.  Contemporary Christians—evangelicals included—are too threatened by the Gospels to read them for what they’re actually saying. ...

I can recall our Gospels-resistance reading strategies from Bible studies in high school and college.  We would encounter a challenging statement of Jesus, such as that in Luke 14:12-15:
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Realizing that Jesus very clearly says to invite the poor and those of shameful social status, we would fall silent and then ask, “what do you think Jesus means by this?”

Inevitably, someone would say, “I think Jesus is referring to our hearts—that we should have willing hearts in case we’re ever called to serve.”

This is a familiar strategy, one I’ve encountered (and used myself) many times.  We stare at the clear words of Jesus that challenge our well-established social patterns and community dynamics, and we flinch.  We relegate Jesus’ commands to motive-purification, ignoring that he’s calling for purposeful transformation of actual social practices.

So where does this evasion strategy come from?  According to Gombis, it's grounded in the demythologization program of Rudolf Bultmann:

N. T. Wright is dead-on when he says that evangelicals are Bultmannian when it comes to the Gospels (How God Became King, pp. 22-23).  Bultmann sought to strip away the “husk” of the historical details of the Gospels in order to get to the “kernel” of theological truth the Gospels writers were really communicating.
We strip away the “husk” of Jesus’ clear words to find the spiritual “kernel” that we apply to our hearts and motives.

This is a reading strategy whereby we keep Jesus safely tucked away in our hearts, self-satisfied with our piety.  But we intentionally avoid doing what he says with our bodies, social practices, and community dynamics.

It’s too threatening.  If we actually did the things Jesus says to do, we’d have to change, and we just don’t want to.

Perhaps we who contrast ourselves with so-called fundamentalists by invoking the phrase "taking the Bible seriously but not literally" use that phrase to sometimes play an evasion game, too?

There's much more in Gombis' article, so read it all.

 In their book Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, Glen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee seek to address the resistance and evasion of the Gospels.  They write:

Christian churches across the theological and confessional spectrum, and Christian ethics as an academic discipline that serves the churches, are often guilty of evading Jesus, the cornerstone and center of the Christian faith.  Specifically, the teachings and practices of Jesus - especially the largest block of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount - are routinely ignored or misinterpreted in the preaching and teaching ministry of the churches and in Christian scholarship in ethics.  This evasion of the concrete teachings of Jesus has seriously malformed Christian moral practices, moral beliefs and moral witness. ... And so it is no overstatement to claim that the evasion of the teachings of Jesus constitutes a crisis of Christian identity and raises the question of who exactly is functioning as the Lord of the church.  When Jesus' way of discipleship is thinned down, marginalized or avoided, then churches and Christians lose their antibodies against infection by secular ideologies that manipulate Christians into serving the purposes of some other lord.

All of this reminds me of Søren Kierkegaard's stinging critique of "Christian scholarship" in which (among other things) he writes:

Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

I open the New Testament and read:"If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come follow me." Good God, if we were to actually do this, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the entrepreneurs, the whole society in fact, would be almost beggars! We would be sunk if it were not for Christian scholarship! Praise be to everyone who works to consolidate the reputation of Christian scholarship, which helps to restrain the New Testament, this confounded book which would one, two, three, run us all down if it got loose (that is, if Christian scholarship did not restrain it).

Regardless of where we fall on the theological spectrum, Gombis, Stassen, Gushee, and Kierkegaard invite us to reflect on the ways that each of us who claim to follow Jesus evade and resist his claim on our lives and loyalties.

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