One thing that hasn’t changed much is the range of responses people have when they encounter Jesus. I don’t mean when they encounter a certain religious spin or anti-religious spin on Christianity. I’m saying that when both religious and anti-religious people in our day see Jesus more-or-less accurately for who he is and the things he is about, their reactions break down in basically the same way as one another, and its not very different from how first century people responded.
I think everyone falls somewhere on a spectrum
But one thing I have observed is that the individuals who fall more toward the extremes of that spectrum on either side, the militantly religious and the militantly anti-religious, are both far less likely to actually follow Jesus than anyone toward the middle.
The militantly hyper-religious are more unlikely to understand him in the first place, because to assume that Jesus, like them, was primarily concerned with religion, is to already start seeking answers in the wrong direction down the wrong path.
The militantly anti-religious, while more intellectually honest (at least on the surface, as we’ll see) and, therefore, more likely to at least understand Jesus’ teachings, will be damned if they’re going to actually follow him. Their reflexive contrarianism and the embarrassment that has come to be associated with Christ’s name from their life time of mocking bad religion, has rendered the humility required for discipleship impossible.
To show all this, I’ve created two fictional characters, who are more or less a composite of people I’ve observed. Neither is meant to represent any one real life person.
Pious Patricia is our hyper-religious character—the sort who is always just sort of hovering around her Catholic parish and looking over the shoulder of a long-suffering priest.
Cynical Sam is our anti-religious character, the sort who has created a fairly lucrative niche for himself writing books and going on speaking circuits where (as he sees it in the back of his mind, though it would be crass to say so) he scores points for his “side” by tearing apart the beliefs of the most naïve people he can find to debate him.
Pious Patricia already presumes that, as the central religious figure of the one true religion (which also happens to be the majority religion of the culture in which she was raised), Jesus is probably right about what he says. She just thinks that maybe he goes a little overboard at times.
The stuff about giving all one’s income to the poor and creating a world family of people, living peaceably and justly in a kingdom which transcends and often contradicts all other kingdoms of race, nation, class, etc., is a little bit too much. But if you sort of tone him down a bit, Jesus, we can presume, is certainly on the side of good, wholesome values that any God-fearing person can get behind.
Like Patricia, Cynical Sam begins most of his lectures (albeit somewhat more flexibly) under the assumption that, whatever Jesus means to say in his teachings, he is mostly talking about religious-y things. His words fall under the category of religion—the afterlife, doctrinal beliefs, divine intervention and such. Where Patricia has an affinity for such topics and is inclined to weed through the more impractical things that Jesus said about our militaries, our social hierarchies and our finances, etc. to find the religious kernel underneath, Sam, who hates all that silliness, has to take a different tact.
Since, at least insofar as it doesn’t become an inconvenience, he values intellectual honesty, the burden weighs stronger on Sam, than it does on Patricia, to first prove that Jesus was, in fact, mainly concerned with religious things (not an easy thing to do, since he never actually said much on those topics).
But rather than get into the deep weeds trying to make that argument explicitly, a more preferable debate strategy is to focus on the less concrete claims that are made throughout all of the Judeo-Christian Bible. In other words, talk about the scientific absurdity of a six day creation or a man living in the belly of a fish and then leave unspoken the assumption that Jesus must have been adamant about the literal-ness of these claims in the same way that a modern day fundamentalist is.
In the interest of winning the argument, Sam would do well not to bring a claim like “Jesus was mostly interested in whether the Earth is 6,000 or 4.5 billion years old” to the surface for analysis. Clearly, he was not. But Sam also knows that if he can just mock the these fundamentalist claims, the majority of his audiences, in a nominally religious and sparsely informed culture, will fill in that blank for themselves, thereby discrediting Jesus in a round about way without Sam ever having to do so himself.
If he should ever debate someone who is clever enough to point out that Jesus doesn’t necessarily attach himself to the literal interpretation of scripture (probably the opposite, given his love of teaching in metaphors and parables), and to pick apart one is not to pick apart the other, Sam has left himself room to quickly pivot. Instead of his normal move of lumping Jesus together with all naïve religion, he knows well how to call an audible and make Jesus the hero of the anti-religious.
After all, Jesus had a lot of conflicts with the hyper-religious in his day, and they were the ringleaders in putting him to death. So why not make this move since the target of Sam’s ire is not so much Jesus as it is Patricia?
But the important point of note here is that, even though Jesus didn’t seem to think very much of the religions on offer in his day, and perhaps even felt the same about religion in general, making him into a champion of the cynical and the angry is not the same thing as following him. Sam isn’t about to touch that with a ten foot pole.
So even though Sam and Patricia seem to be on opposite sides of our spectrum from earlier, they are perhaps not so far apart after all. One’s reaction to Jesus is distorted by an overdose of religion. The other’s is distorted by the chemical high one gets when one wins an argument. It makes little difference. They’ve both come around full circle to the opposite side of wherever authentic, meaningful discipleship is, or even wherever the real Jesus is.
Cheers and Peace,