We're having a national conversation about Jesus, thanks to a few books and a movie. One of the books is Richard Fox's Jesus in America: A History (HarperSanFrancisco). The movie, of course, is The Passion of the Christ. This conversation is a good thing—much better than talk about exactly what got exposed at the last Super Bowl.
Unfortunately, some pundits wax eloquent about this director's or that writer's interpretation of Jesus, whether it makes sense to moderns or brings much solace.
But the biblical Jesus sometimes made little sense to those in his day and didn't always leave people uplifted. In the Gospel of Mark alone, for example, we find a Jesus who speaks openly of a Last Judgment that entails the rejection of many people. He also speaks of a sin that God will never forgive (3:29), of horrific consequences for misleading children (9:42), and of God being ashamed of, or even severely displeased with, some at the judgment (8:38, 13:36).
This Jesus rebukes Peter as being in league with Satan (8:33); he is "indignant" with the disciples (10:13-14); he says the Sadducees are biblically and spiritually ignorant (12:24); and he describes his entire generation as "faithless."
He says that following him will entail suffering and death (9:35-37; 9:43-50). The end times, he says, will come sooner than anyone thinks and will be so severe that even the faithful will beg for death (12:5-37).
His teachings and miracles elicit not love and peace but shock and awe. Onlookers are "amazed" at his first healing (1:27), "overcome with amazement" after he raises the dead girl (5:42), alternately "amazed" and "astonished" at his teaching on wealth.
Even worse, the disciples are frightened after Jesus stills the storm (4:35-41) and "terrified" at the Transfiguration (8:6). On the first Easter morning, the witnesses respond with "trembling and astonishment," and they run from the tomb "for they were afraid" (16:8).
This is not a Jesus fashioned in our image, let alone the Balm of Gilead. This is Jesus the consuming fire, the raging storm, who seems bent on destroying everything in his path, who either shocks people into stupefaction or frightens them so that they run for their lives.
We had thought this holy Deity was under lock and key and confined to the Old Testament. But to find him roaming the pages of the Testament of love and forgiveness—well! And yet there he swirls, a tornado touching down, lifting homes and businesses off their foundations, leaving only bits and pieces of the former life strewn on his path.
Annie Dillard writes, "Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews."
If, in this national conversation, we do nothing more than blithely discuss Jesus and his adaptable cultural presence—well, we will have missed the real Jesus. We need to talk with biblical honesty about the One who would not only love and forgive us but also demolish all our cultural images of him. And we need a good supply of crash helmets.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Jesus in America is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
Discussion about The Passion is available from CTMovies's special section.
Past Jesus talk includes:
Jesus' Sword | Longing for peace in tumultuous times. (May 07, 2003)
The Jesus Scandal | The church has a long history of discomfort with Christ. (Feb. 19, 2002)
No More Hollow Jesus | In focusing so intently on Jesus the man, Peter Jennings' report missed the big picture. (July 3, 2000)
Jennings on Jesus | ABC anchorman Peter Jennings discusses what moved him as he filmed a special on the life of Christ. (June 26, 2000)
Desperately Seeking Jesus | A review of "The Epic Miniseries" (May 12, 2000)
Lights, Camera, Jesus | Hollywood looks at itself in the mirror of the Messiah. (May 12, 2000)