Friday, May 26, 2006

The "Christ" is Jesus' Last Name Problem

What if we took a break from saying "Jesus Christ" and instead went with "Jesus the Messiah" or "Jesus the Anointed"? Here's my rationale: Technically, when we say "Christ" we are merely transliterating the Greek noun "christos" rather than really translating the word into English. That is, "Christ" doesn't have any meaning in the English language outside of a moniker for Jesus, which is why some people, understandably, think it must be just part of Jesus' given name. "Christos" translates the Hebrew word "messiah," and comes into English as "anointed-one." All to say, when the Bible calls Jesus the "Christ," it is actually communicating something about Jesus' mission, the purpose that the Father had appointed for him. To start calling him "Jesus the Anointed" would remind us that Jesus was called and equipped by God for a specific kingly, priestly task (kings and priests were both anointed in the Old Testament). Many people these days are rightly acknowledging that the most recurrent theme in Jesus' own teaching about himself is that he had arrived to inaugurate his Father's kingdom, to put-the-world-to-rights (as N.T. Wright likes to say). Whenever the New Testament writers call Jesus the "Christ," they are reminding us that Jesus is God's chosen-one, Israel's messiah who was sent to be the world's rightful Lord, that this Jesus has personally brought the beginning of the end of history, as all the old prophets had anticipated. To many people, the untranslated word "Christ" does not communicate any of this rich meaning (though certainly, we can train ourselves make such an association in our heads whenever we hear "Christ"). To start calling Jesus "the Anointed" would immediately raise the question "anointed to do what?" - and of course, the answer to that question is what matters most about Jesus. Any thoughts, readers?

Friday, May 19, 2006

N.T. Wright at City Church of San Francisco

As promised, here's a short review of the event last Monday night. I drove up to the city in time to catch dinner with Rev. Mike Hayes of City Church, then over to the Russian Center. N.T. Wright, the Anglican bishop of Durham, spoke to a packed house of mostly twenty and thirty somethings. To see some five hundred young people cram-in to hear a lecture about theology from a former Oxbridge don, in San Francisco no less, is surely good news for the future of the world. The lecture was mostly Wright summarizing his new book, Simply Chrisitian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, which has a chance at being the next Mere Christianity in terms of its hyper-accessible, smart, appealing introduction to the Christian faith. The hook of the talk (and the book) is Wright's observation that all human beings hear four "echoes of a voice": a desire that the world be more just and fair, a drive for some spiritual connection, a yearning for relationships, and an awe before real beauty. While these voices are universal, they are mere whispers, since none these yearnings are ever quite satisfied or explainable on their own terms. From here, Wright shows how the story of God's creation of the world, its fall, and its recreation through Christ and his kingdom makes the most sense of these vague yet persistent voices. Because God's new creation has been inaugurated in the arrival Jesus Christ in Palestine, God's justice is on its way, a path to spiritual union with God has been opened, the possibility of a renewed human commmunity has begun, and a glimpse of the truest beauty has appeared. These are different ways to introduce the old Christian doctrines, but (especially in the book) Wright gets around to the Trinity, person and work of Christ, etc. Of course, new creation themes make up the dominant doctrinal framework for Wright, which sometimes to me seems reductionistic when it comes to the atonement. The book is worth the read though, and especially good for post-modern types who might be specifically suspicious of traditional Christianity. Is it the Mere Christianity of the 21st century? Time will tell.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Gettin' on the Bus for N.T. Wright

If there was such a thing as a rock star of theology living today, it would be N.T. Wright. The slightly plump, bearded, vestment-wearing, sixty-something Anglican bishop might not say so himself, but the fact is that he inspires groupies as well as super-fans, those who swear he's reinventing the study of the New Testament. I, for one, am not quite a super-fan, but I am about to inconvenience myself and my family tomorrow in order to drive four hours to hear him speak in San Francisco (heck, even moderate fans of U2 would drive that far to hear them play). Beyond the rock-and-roll analogy, N.T. Wright is a serious scholar at the fore-front of what has been called the "Third Quest for the Historical Jesus." In case you missed the first two quests, they began in the 1700's and are just recently winding up. These quests, as they are known, tended to conclude that the Jesus of history was either a "pale Galilean" who was very sweet and mostly talked like Robert Schuller, or, a New Age guru who tried to get everyone to wake up to their inner deity. He certainly did not do miracles or rise from the dead. The interesting (and amazing) news is that many of these conclusions about Jesus are no longer in theological vogue, giving way to a Jesus that looks a lot like a first century Jew who might have actually known something about the Torah (how uncouth!) and, the biggest surprise, may well have been painted fairly accurately by the Gospel writers (at least Matthew, Mark, and Luke). What's more amazing is that this family of scholars is simultaneously academically respectable even to those who disagree with their conclusions, and, their conclusions about Jesus are relatively orthodox. I've tangled a little with N.T. on this blog, but I'd still agree with the super-fans that he's the most widely influential scholar in theology today. I'm heading up to hear him speak to a fairly small group of folks at City Church of San Francisco surrounding the release of his new book Simply Christian. I'll make a report here later in the week.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Da Vinci Code Absurdity of the Week

This week's selection comes from page 240 of the illustrated edition: Dr. Teabing says, "Don't get a symbologist started on Christian icons. Nothing in Christianity is original. The pre-Christian God Mithras-- called the Son of God and the Light of the World-- was born on December 25, died, was buried in a rock tomb, and then resurrected in three days...the newborn Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Even Christianity's weekly holy day was stolen from the pagans."

Well. Scholars distinguish between two periods of Mithraism, the early Persian original, and a much later Roman version that appeared in the West at the end of the first century, at the earliest. So, the only version that early Christianity could have conceiveably borrowed from was the Persian variety. The Persian Mithras was a cattle herder who was born of a woman who got pregnant by swimming in a lake that happened to have the 400 year-old sperm of a god in it. This Mithras was not resurrected from the dead. The Roman post-Christian Mithras may have had more similarities with Jesus, but the charge of copying is as easily reversed in that case, since the canonical Gospels were in circulation far earlier than Mirthraism. Teabing's reference to Mithras' burial and resurrection on the third day (and Krishna's birthday gifts) seems to be lifted in toto from Kersey Graves' discredited The World's Sixteen Saviors, an outlandish book of undocumented claims published in 1875 (for example, no Hindu texts before 300 AD even discuss Krishna's birth, and the later Harivasma Purana, which does, makes no reference to "gold, frankincense, and myhrr.") Is the Christian Lord's Supper a rip-off of a Mithraic "god-eating" ritual, as Teabing also suggets? While Mithraism features a ritual consumption of bread and water (possibly wine), there is no evidence that it was interpreted as an act "god-eating." Even if it was, the Christian Lord's Supper is obviously rooted in the much more ancient Jewish Passover meal which predates any form of Mithraism, Persian or not. As for Sunday worship being "stolen from the pagans," Jesus resurrection on Sunday, as reported in the Gospels, is the real source for that day being hallowed. Again, remember the timeline: the honoring of Sunday as "the Lord's day" (cf. Rev.1:10 and 1 Cor.16:2, for example) arose within the first century, centuries before the pagan Emperor Constantine created a "hybrid-religion" (Teabing's words) bewtween Christianity and paganism. One wonders if Dr. Teabing's doctorate was really issued by a diploma-mill!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Newsweek, Judas, and Me

I was surprised to find a letter I wrote to Newsweek appearing in their May 1st issue. You faithful readers at enormoushippo were the first read my praise for Newsweek's Gospel of Judas coverage in my April 16th posting. After I blogged about the Newsweek article, I sent a letter to the editor, which then appeared two weeks later in print. Since Newsweek has a circulation of 3.2 million, I have likely now experienced the peak audience that anything I write will ever reach. That fact is simultaneouly exhiliarating and deflating. For the remaining 277 million Americans who don't get Newsweek (as well as you international readers), here's the letter they printed:

"Your good coverage of the Gospel of Judas puts the brakes on our readiness to grasp at any newly discovered ancient text that happens to mention Jesus as a reason to rewrite his whole history ("Sealed with a Kiss," April 17). As David Gates reminds us, the Gospel of Judas was written awfully late to play any such revisionist role. Don't get me wrong -- I'll be interested to eventually read the Gospel of Judas -- but as a study of a later variant on the earlier form of Christianity which was based on the much older canonical Gospels, not as a new source for what really happened during the days leading to Jesus' crucifixion."