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How Do We, Each of Us, Grow Up the Baby Jesus?

December 16, 2010

I will start a partial answer to my question of yesterday.  One of the biggest problems in American Christianity might be called an identity crisis.  And could it have started over 1900 years ago, never getting really resolved? A close look says “Yes!”…

It stems from a question not settled harmoniously and productively during the first century: Was “real” Christianity to be the following of a Jewish messianic claimant from within an observant Jewish framework? Or was it to be a whole new religion superceding Judaism–building upon it in tactical ways but really more suitable to, compatible with Greek and pagan concepts already popular… faith in a cosmic divine Savior sent by God on a rescue mission? And this mission not mainly for a restoration and elevation of the true theocracy of Israel (the Kingdom with a decendant of David on the throne, and all nations coming to/through Jerusalem to be blessed). 

No, this was the rescue of struggling, often tormented souls, like the mission’s first missionary, Paul himself.  The vision was grand, as it included both Israel (if believing) and all others (Gentiles), united through faith with no ethnic, social-status, or gender-privileged categories.  Something grand and inclusive enough to become the world’s largest religion, eventually.   

A Jewish messiah was an “anointed one” in any of several normal religious/political roles, specially appointed by God but definitely only human.  This Savior, Paul-style, could be virgin-born and resurrect, either spiritually or bodily, or both.  (Paul himself seemed to not care about a virgin birth or physical  resurrection, as he never really claims either, when read carefully).  His Christ could even share godhood, a concept probably never even seriously considered by Jesus or his direct disciples or Apostles (i.e., excluding Paul). 

Of course, in the Gospels, at least clearly the one attributed to a “John,” Jesus is shown to claim deity.  But there is no reason to believe that this or any of the Gospels was written before the massive upheaval, total “game-changing” event that even many serious Bible students nearly overlook, or seriously “misunderestimate”: the destruction of the Jewish socio-economic-religious center, the Temple, along with most of Jerusalem (69-70 CE). 

For most of its long history, Christianity has operated with varying, often strained combinations of these visions.  Now, a flash-forward to the present: As hinted at yesterday, the effects of Enlightenment scholarship and religious pluralism in the West has created a “liberal” branch of Christianity that has, in part, tried to return to Jesus’ original teaching minus the Jewish observance and most of the lifestyle demands.  They want nothing of Paul’s original sin, eternal damnation or mystical identification with the cosmic Christ.  (Well, maybe some of the last, but in controlled doses.)

Now, let’s look at more traditional or “conservative” Protestantism.   (Somewhat similar, in broad stroke, is Roman Catholicism, which I will leave largely aside, never having been Catholic, as I have Protestant, nor studied it deeply.)  This Christian branch has tended to examine carefully and extol the life and teachings of Jesus.  But then it grafts in Paul’s and John’s concepts of a divine Christ savior for individuals (vs. the nation in Jewish visions and apocalyptic preaching of the time, like that of Jesus).  This savior is also the revealer of divine mysteries and the scope of cosmic history.  This mindset (mainly “Evangelicalism”) then demands not only faith in such a Christ but also acceptance of  broad strokes and the details of all the Gospels claim about his life, death, and resurrection…. It is generally taught and taken to be incumbent, for salvation, to believe in such details.  With that comes their outworking: the atonement (or “substitutionary atonement.” ) This is thought to be accomplished by Christ to provide reconciliation with God–necessary for our rescue, as laid out by Paul, particularly in Romans.   

Ever so briefly for now: Trends in Evangelical thinking and practice in recent decades has led to a “movement” of sorts that may or may not have yet peaked: The Emerging Church (or Emergent).  It has several points of significance. For our purposes here, particularly that at least some of its leaders and participants seem to have noted the important differences between the movements of Jesus and his direct followers and of Paul and his.  They seem unsure just how to effectively harmonize the two.  Though, in one sense, this has long been accomplished, they are looking with a bit more critical eye than most.  

I don’t think the Emerging Christians can really keep all they hope to, in an effective way, knowing what we do today via over two centuries of detailed “critical” scholarship of the New Testament and earliest Christianity.  The Jerusalem “Church” (misnomer) of Jesus followers and Paul share some common roots, language and concepts, but they are really two distinct religions.  This is observable at times, barely beneath the surface in the New Testament itself, our only significant source fairly soon after the events.  Luke in Acts (the major knothole through which we can squint to see some real developments in the first-century Jesus movement and eventual Christianity), must relay some of it.  At the same time, close observation sees Luke spinning like a top to build a Jesus Movement-Paul bridge…. Remember that Jerusalem was uninhabitable for some time after 70, and never became a Christian (vs. a Jesus-as-Jewish Messiah) center, either before then or later.   But the success of Paul’s vision and mission required continuity with Judaism–a bridge. (More on this on some later post.)   

So Emerging Christians (and similar ones who may not even know the term), struggle with what Jesus’ Kingdom vision was, what it can/should be for Christians today; also what to do with the prominent “soul-sorting” emphasis astutely so labeled by some of them, which I believe comes directly out of the Pauline “new religion.”  This religion Jesus would have been shocked to observe, either during Paul’s lifetime, or certainly what it became in Proto-Orthodox and later Roman Catholic/Protestant Christianity. 

Where do you “stand,” struggle, wonder, wish, etc. in all this?

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