February 13, 2009 by J. Madson
NT Wright, in his work Jesus and the Victory of God, makes the highly relevant point that much of our Christian worship today is more iconography than actual worship of the individual Jesus. It seems we worship a Jesus who is only loosely connected to his actual sayings and deeds and worshiped primarily for his benefits. Wright believes that our theology must be coupled with the historical Jesus. From my own perspective I have noticed a disturbing trend in Christian theology to focus on the benefits we receive from Jesus over any actual demand to be like him let alone grapple with the question of how we lived and why he lived. For example, we have adopted, consciously or not, the early reformers’ emphasis on the benefits of Christ’s works: ‘this is to know Christ, to know his benefits’ (Melanchthon, 1521). If Christians are serious in their desire to follow Jesus, it follows that they should be serious in discovering what he was passionate about.
Wright emphasizes that
“The point of having Jesus at the centre of a religion or a faith is that one had Jesus: not a cypher, a strange silhouetted Christ figure, nor yet an icon, but the one Jesus the New Testament writers know, the one born in Palestine in the reign of Augustus Caesar, and crucified outside of Jerusalem in the reign of his successor Tiberius. Christianity appeals to history, to history it must go. The recognition that the answers we may find might change our views, or even our selves, cannot and must not prevent us from embarking on the quest.” 10-11
The alternative is to end up with Jesus as an icon. Wright describes this in the following manner:
“The Divine Saviour to whom they pray has only a tangential relationship to first-century Palestine, and they intend to keep it that way. He can, it seems, be worshiped, but if he ever actually lived he was a very strange figure, clothed in white while all around wore drab, on his face a perpetual faraway expression of pious solemnity.” 9-10
In short, there is a danger that Christ can become an icon. A sort of magical Jesus much like religious icons or even amulets which offers us healing whether physical, spiritual, or otherwise but has little connection to the historical Jesus. This in no way means that Jesus did not perform acts of healing nor does it mean that there is not an atonement aspects to Christianity. Something we can debate at another time. This is more of an observation on how we approach Jesus and Christianity.
Wright summarizes and parodies the reformers view which has become common today:
“All this culminates, of course, in the event to which the gospels really do point, the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is to be understood not as the execution of an awkward figure who refused to stop rocking the first-century Jewish or Roman boat, but as the saving divine act whereby the sins of the world were dealt with once and for all. This divine act, however, did not have very much to do with what went before. The fact that the gospels reached their climax with the death of Jesus seemed to have little to do with any significance to be drawn from his life, except that the conflict he engendered by preaching about love and grace was the proximate reason for his death, which the redeemer god then ‘counted’ in a redemptive scheme which had nothing to do with that historical reason. The reformers had very thorough answers to the question ‘why did Jesus die?’; they did not have nearly such good answers to the question ‘why did Jesus live?’ Their successors to this day have not often done any better. But the question will not go away. If the only answer is ‘to give some shrewd moral teaching, to live an exemplary life, and to prepare for sacrificial death’, we may be forgiven for thinking it a little lame. It also seems… quite untrue to Jesus’ own understanding of his vocation and work.” 13-14
This view, as Wright explains, is not only inconsistent with the historical Jesus, but creates a Jesus whose purpose seems more in line with a sacrificial animal than an actual individual with a vocation or work to perform. It disconnects Jesus’ life, where we encounter his actual words, deeds, and his vision of God’s kingdom, and instead gives us an icon. It is this very logic which has allowed groups throughout history to use Jesus for their various political and social schemes which in reality bear little resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth. Whether it was the crusades of centuries past or the Nazi’s use of Jesus, all of these attempts have shared a fundamental flaw in that they de-emphasized Jesus’ jewishness, sayings, deeds, life, (ie the historical Jesus) and instead created a religious icon disconnected or at best loosely connected to an actual individual. It is not that Christianity should not or does not address social or political issues, but that the foundation for such must be found in serious historical and theological study of Jesus himself.
If we do not engage ourselves in such an endeavor we are instead left with what Wright describes as a contrivance and a lame theology.
“For many conservative theologians it would have been sufficient if Jesus had been born of a virgin (at any time in human history, perhaps from any race), lived a sinless life, died a sacrificial death, and risen again three days later…. The fact that, in the midst of these events, Jesus actually said and did certain things, which included giving wonderful moral teachings and annoying some of his contemporaries, functions within this sort of orthodox scheme merely as convenience… His ministry and his death are thus loosely connected. The force of this is lost, though, when the matter is thought through. If the main purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to die on the cross, as the outworking of an abstracted atonement-theology, it starts to look as though he simply took on the establishment in order to get himself crucified, so that the abstract sacrificial theology could be put into effect. This makes both his ministry and death look like sheer contrivances.” 13-14
I hope to follow up this post by looking at the actual sayings, deeds, and life of Jesus and to see what, if any, relationship they have to not just personal evil but systemic evil. In other words, what was Jesus passionate about? I beleive that only by fully understanding his aims and goals for society, as well as individuals, can we then properly understand why he died. I also believe, following Wright, that to history we must go even if it means changing our views and our selves.