Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Meaning of Jesus..some thoughts

I finished reading The Meaning of Jesus; Two Visions, by Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright.

Readers will remember that this was one of four books that I added to an impressive reading list. I have yet to finish, or even start, the other three, though I did renew them. Hope springs eternal, I guess.

The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions is a point/counterpoint book compiled of essays from Borg and Wright addressing Jesus' view of himself, his birth, his death and resurrection, the Second Coming and what it means to live a Christian life.

They mostly disagree, except when they don't. ;-)

I should end the review thusly.

Except, I won't because although the point/counterpoint did get a little tedious and bogged down sometimes, the book provoked several reactions in me.

I will admit that I am generally sympathetic to Borg's views and I anticipated that I would read his thoughts and find what I was looking for, a way to keep Jesus even as more and more of what I used to think of as literal truth seems to be slipping through my fingers. For the most part, I liked what he had to say, though there were times when even I couldn't take the vague, wishy-washy stances that would pop up. Even as I drift toward Progressive(?) or Liberal(?) Christianity, I still get irritated at the lack of conviction and certainty that I encounter. It's part of my make-up. I want to know what THE TRUTH is and plant my flag there. However, everyone has a different map and idea about where that location is, so I just wander around hoping that I am at least in the general vicinity.

It bugs me to no end.

I had previously tried to read N.T Wright's Surprised by Hope, but could never get past the first few chapters. He simply couldn't hold my interest in that book. I think that was partly due to the fact that I was very busy during the time that I was trying to read it. One other reason was that I couldn't read Wright without hearing C.S. Lewis. I've already read much of Lewis' work, so the unmistakeable voice echoing in Wright was quite familiar. The points about "chronological snobbery", the criticism of Enlightenment thinking, the reliance on Lewis' apologetic moves, they all seemed to be Lewis simply refitted and fine-tuned. I guess that's fine, but if I wanted to hear Lewis' point of view, I would read Lewis.

Curious if I was spot-on in my estimation of Wright, I decided to see if I could find out more about whether Wright credits Lewis as an influence and came across this article in which Wright both praises and criticizes Lewis. (I'm always surprised when I am right about something that I guessed intuitively.)

After finishing the book, I pondered an idea that has occurred to me before but I have had difficulty formulating into words.

Wright works mightily to put Jesus in a historical, literal, very Jewish context. He attempts to situate Jesus as a faithful Jew going against a corrupted form of Israel and Jewish religion. His interpretation is that Israel's desire for a national redemption, not unlike previous ones they had experienced through exile and return, was the wrong desire. Then, he claims that Jesus' teachings about the Kingdom of God were meant to portray a new way for Israel to "be Israel".

As Wright goes through his argument, I feel this version of Jesus who is concerned about "Israel" and who is trying to get Israel to become the light of the world by supplanting the current Temple and its administration with subversive truths, to be lacking appeal and cohesion for me, personally.

Why?

A Jesus who is trying to get Israel to "be Israel" in a new way, or what I think Wright implies, in the real way it was always intended to "be Israel", is a Jesus who ultimately failed. After the first wave of Jewish conversions, Judaism and Christianity split apart and Israel, as a historical, physical people, does not decide to take Jesus up on his offer.

Wright's literal, historical, mostly orthodox view of Jesus completely undermines any sense that Jesus accomplished what he wanted to accomplish.

In addressing the divinity of Jesus, Wright writes:
I do not think Jesus "knew he was God" in the same sense that one knows one is tired or happy, male or female. He did not sit back and say to himself,"Well, I never! I'm the second person of the Trinity!" Rather, as part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.
This ties in with my previous thought. Does presenting a Jesus who doesn't "know" that he is God help or hurt Wright's orthodoxy? I mean, he's presenting a Jesus who seems to be interested in getting Israel to behave and act in a certain "true" way, one which is quite different than the way Israel had seen itself throughout Scripture and history, and yet he seems to not "know" that he is God in the trinitarian sense with which many orthodox Christians are familiar.

It's unsettling.

Borg, on the other hand, presents Jesus as a Jewish mystic who was more connected with God than the average person, while simultaneously denying the literal resurrection, as it is normally understood and presented. Borg's Jesus seems bigger than Wright's Jesus even though Wright represents traditional Christian doctrine far more closely than Borg.

It has a strange effect upon me, this idea that tying Jesus into a very specific, historical mode, complete with a representative, 1st century mindset, somehow makes him less "real" to me than Borg's ethereal, metaphorical understanding of Jesus.

I'll post more on this later because I'm not quite done thinking it through.

9 comments:

Like a Child said...

Wright's views sound similar to those expressed by Polkinghorne in Faith of a Physicist. I had the same reactions you described, and resonate when you say "I still get irritated at the lack of conviction and certainty that I encounter. It's part of my make-up. I want to know what THE TRUTH is and plant my flag there. However, everyone has a different map and idea about where that location is, so I just wander around hoping that I am at least in the general vicinity."

Anonymous said...

Wright's problem is that he is trying to mix oil and water. You can try to present Jesus as he was is his time or you can present the orthodox view, but the two are logically impossible to reconcile.

That Jesus didn't realize he was the second member of the Trinity is good evidence that he wasn't. Because how can you be 100% divine (according to orthodox creeds) and not know it? It makes no sense.

If you consider Jesus' focus on the kingdom of God and how his listeners reacted, and his association with John the baptizer, then it becomes likely that he was preaching about an apocalyptic kingdom on earth.

Borg's Jesus is likewise too much based on what a 20th century liberal would like Jesus to be.

pf

terri said...

Like a Child...yes, I remember reading the review you had on your blog. It is weird that sometimes the things meant to reassure us can backfire and have the opposite effect.

pf

what's wrong with 20th century liberals? Isn't that how you would describe yourself?

;-) hehe

P.S. I just got "Joseph's Bones" from the library seeing how you keep mentioning it. Once I finish my backlog of reading, I will move on to it.

DoOrDoNot said...

I've been trying to read Wright's book The Resurrection of the Son of God for some time now. I'm glad I'm not the only one who has difficulty getting engaged in his material. I'm thinking of reading the book which is a debate on the resurrection between Wright and Crossan. I've just finished Crossan's book, Jesus A Revolutionary Biography, so I'd like to see how the 2 authors interact with each other.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Your NT Wright link goes to wikileaks.

It is odd that I have never been that interested in the what-was-Jesus's self-awareness questions, or even the milder versions of "what was the experience of scripture writers or prophets in the moment?" I just shrug. If Jesus was God, then His experience is essentially impenetrable to us. If he was not, then the subjective experience of a wise person from another era is of little consequence. Just me, perhaps. Plenty of other people seem to be interested.

Because of that, many theological discussions on which a lot seems to hinge, are opaque to me. The common explanation is that the conversation, rather than the views of any one believer, are what is important. The Talmud is written as conversation, of a sort. Jesus says that two or three have to be gathered. God didn't just drop a book off on the Temple doorstep and sacrifice some Second Person off in a corner somewhere to satisfy some technical requirement. The questioning and even disagreement seem to be an essential part of the revelation. We've tended to lose that idea since the printing press was invented.

Two lists, just for fun: Jaroslav Pelikan wrote Jesus Through The Centuries showing how He was viewed differently - not so much in disagreement, but in emphasis - throughout church history. Even the Table of Contents (click through) http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Through-Centuries-History-Culture/dp/0300079877 is fascinating. Similarly, JB Phillips' You're God Is Too Small lists some inadequate, bite-sized versions of God we tend to resort to: "Resident Policeman," "Grand Old Man," "Heavenly Bosom," "Meek-and-Mild," and "Managing Director."

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Your NT Wright link goes to wikileaks.

It is odd that I have never been that interested in the what-was-Jesus's self-awareness questions, or even the milder versions of "what was the experience of scripture writers or prophets in the moment?" I just shrug. If Jesus was God, then His experience is essentially impenetrable to us. If he was not, then the subjective experience of a wise person from another era is of little consequence. Just me, perhaps. Plenty of other people seem to be interested.

Because of that, many theological discussions on which a lot seems to hinge, are opaque to me. The common explanation is that the conversation, rather than the views of any one believer, are what is important. The Talmud is written as conversation, of a sort. Jesus says that two or three have to be gathered. God didn't just drop a book off on the Temple doorstep and sacrifice some Second Person off in a corner somewhere to satisfy some technical requirement. The questioning and even disagreement seem to be an essential part of the revelation. We've tended to lose that idea since the printing press was invented.

Two lists, just for fun: Jaroslav Pelikan wrote Jesus Through The Centuries showing how He was viewed differently - not so much in disagreement, but in emphasis - throughout church history. Even the Table of Contents (click through) http://www.amazon.com/Jesus-Through-Centuries-History-Culture/dp/0300079877 is fascinating. Similarly, JB Phillips' Your God Is Too Small lists some inadequate, bite-sized versions of God we tend to resort to: "Resident Policeman," "Grand Old Man," "Heavenly Bosom," "Meek-and-Mild," and "Managing Director."

terri said...

AVI...fixed the link. It should work now.

Anonymous said...

"Even as I drift toward Progressive(?) or Liberal(?) Christianity, I still get irritated at the lack of conviction and certainty that I encounter. It's part of my make-up. I want to know what THE TRUTH is and plant my flag there. However, everyone has a different map and idea about where that location is, so I just wander around hoping that I am at least in the general vicinity."

John 14:6a Jesus answered, "I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life."

Buz

terri said...

Buz,

I know that verse very well. And...I appreciate your attempt at being helpful.

Things are way more complicated for me than simply assenting to a particular verse.