Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - Have we done something to Jesus?

[Rewritten after further reflection]

“We have reduced ourselves to religions, to denominations, to confessions…instead of following my Palestinian compatriot from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth.” (Elias Chacour)

“Once every hundred years Jesus of Nazareth meets Jesus of the Christians in a garden among the hills of Lebanon. And they talk long; each time Jesus of Nazareth goes away saying to Jesus of the Christians, ‘my friend, I fear we shall never, never agree’.” (Kahlil Gibran)

It is interesting that these two Arab Christians - one a Palestinian (Israeli) Melkite priest, and the other Lebanese - i.e., both from the area where Jesus lived his life on earth - should suggest that "we" (whoever we are, and I think this would include both Christians and Muslims, who have their own "take" on Jesus) have done something to or with Jesus, that has distanced our understanding (and experience?) of him from who he actually is.

To the degree that this might be so, I would suggest that it is at least partially due to the fact that as cultural beings, we understand and define reality in light of our sociocultural setting and existence and historical vantage point. Thus, there are different "Christian" perspectives on Jesus (currently and through history), ranging from Orthodox to Catholic to various Protestant (including evangelicals) to liberals.

I find myself wondering, though, is there really a problem (and what is it)? The New Testament teaching on the Incarnation – that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” – indicates that Jesus (the word of God) came into this world in a particular cultural context (as a 1st Century Palestinian Jew); and there is a basis for believing that Jesus continues to enter into different cultural contexts, transforming people and those contexts from within (e.g., E. Stanley Jones’ emphasis on Jesus walking “the Indian Road”; the fact in the New Testament that Gentiles did not have to change to become outwardly Jewish in order to follow Jesus – they could follow him in their cultural context; and the fact that in Revelation it pictures people from “every tribe and tongue and nation worshiping God,” apparently with their cultural distinctives).

I’m not suggesting that Jesus is whoever we define him to be, or that we should not keep reading the New Testament and talking with others who claim to know him, to grow toward a more clear understanding. And I’m not sure that I agree with Gibran that there is such a thing as “Jesus of the Christians.” There definitely is such as thing as Jesus as perceived by and conceived of by Christians (and by others), but this is to say something not about Jesus himself, but about us and our perceptions.

If Jesus does exist, and is who the New Testament pictures him to be (the living and life-giving word of God, come into this world, crucified but risen and alive today, and still present and at work in the world), he is quite capable of “taking care of himself,” manifesting himself in different cultural contexts and working through (and when necessary in spite of) the different ways people conceive of him.

Jesus does not belong to us, and is not contained in any of our boxes (one might say, he is not a Christian). I’m reminded of the statement in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, that Aslan “is not a tame lion.”


  1. I like this post a lot.

    It's the beautiful paradox. The deeper grace that lies beneath the truth of Chacour and Gibran's statements. That even if we have misuderstood the man from Galilee, he is still able to work within and despite our cultural paradigms and misapprehensions. The story of Jesus is the story of the incarnation. Of God working through our histories and cultures and languages. Yes we can distort what is true (and create false Tashlans), but even so, Christ can and does work amongst us.

    And for no particular reason, here's a poem from another Palestinian Christian, expressing some of the same concerns about our "christianized" Christ:

    I Feel Sorry for Jesus
    By Naomi Shihab Nye

    People won’t leave Him alone.
    I know He said, wherever two or more
    are gathered in my name…
    But I bet some days He regrets it.

    Cozily they tell you what he wants
    and doesn’t want
    as if they just got an e-mail.
    Remember “Telephone,” that pass-it-on game

    where the message changed dramatically
    by the time it rounded the circle?
    People blame terrible pieties on Jesus.

    They want to be his special pet.
    Jesus deserves better.
    I think He’s been exhausted
    for a very long time.

    He went into the desert, friends.
    He didn’t go into the pomp.
    He didn’t go into
    the golden chandeliers

    and say, the truth tastes better here.
    See? I’m talking like I know.
    It’s dangerous talking for Jesus.
    You get carried away almost immediately.

    I stood in the spot where He was born.
    I closed my eyes where He died and didn’t die.
    Every twist of the Via Dolorosa
    was written on my skin.

    And that makes me feel like being silent
    for Him, you know? A secret pouch
    of listening. You won’t hear me
    mention this again.

  2. I love that poem. It is interesting how easy it is to feel like we can (should?) speak for Jesus. Thanks for sharing this. I may repost to make sure everyone sees it.