Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Crossan, Christ, and Church History

Finding time to read is becoming a real challenge these days, and finding time to write even more so. On the train this morning I started John Dominic Crossan's latest book: God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now.

Crossan (see page about him at the Westar Institute site) is probably my very favorite
Christian writer ...more of a favorite, if possible, than Marcus Borg, whom I just love to blog about. I've read quite a few books of the "quest for the historical Jesus" variety (although I've never read Albert Schweitzer's book which bears that very title). Of the Christian authors of this genre that I have read, Crossan is the only one who is not afraid to take questions to their logical limit, even if the conclusions he comes to contradict traditional Church doctrine concerning Jesus Christ. If I remember correctly something I heard Crossan say in a radio interview once, he decided to leave religious life because his superiors kept warning him that he was going too far in his probing of Scripture and traditional teaching. He said something to the effect that he finally decided that, if he had to choose between faith and scholarship, he would choose the latter. Or, as he says in his brief online autobiography: "I wanted to be free from the irritation of thinking critically, as I had been trained, but being in constant trouble for doing so."

I must be in Crossan mode these days, as I just finished reading his Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (1994), which is a briefer version of his earlier book The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (1991). In these books Crossan, using the historical-critical method of analyzing the Gospels (both canonical and other), discards many traditional Christian beliefs, not the least of which are the Virgin birth, the Nativity stories of both Matthew and Luke, and the empty tomb tradition.

Crossan complements Borg, I find, although the latter doesn't specialize in debunking traditional Christian beliefs. Well, at least that's not what he claims he's doing, although the end product turns out to be just as stunningly "revolutionary" as Crossan's. Borg --using what he likes to call the "historical-metaphorical" method-- places Christian doctrines in the historical context that gave rise to them, then returns to the original scriptural passages and breathes back into them the wonder and mystery that the writers were trying to express before their words got "defined" by centuries' worth of church councils and myriad theologians...or reduced to the literal meaning of their English translation. Borg, of course, is also an eminent scripture scholar, and his interpretations tend to coincide with those of Crossan. However, Borg usually goes a step further, presenting his interpretations in the light of what they mean to him as a practicing Christian. In contrast, Crossan's prose has a bit more edge (as well as the occasional mordant comment), and he generally refrains from "confessing" his own personal Christology...at least in so many words.

So...in the next few days or weeks, unless something more urgent comes up that I just have to blog about, I plan to reflect out loud on my reading of Crossan's newest work.

Commentary #1, or, My-- but Church history sure has changed!

I can still remember studying what was called "Church history" way back in what would today be called middle school. I can even see the Benziger Brothers textbook, complete with illustrations, in my mind. If I remember rightly, the History of The Church began with the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and continued with the retelling of events recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. After that, the rest of the book pretty much explained, one after the other, the principal heresies and how they had been soundly defeated by this or that Church Father, Pope, Council, or even --mirabile dictu!--some enlightened monarch who became the strong right hand of God by sending his army to crush the heretical horde. In other words, we studied How the Catholic Church Defeated Heretics and Reformers and Preserved the Apostolic Succession Through Many Dangers, Toils, and Snares. OK, it was a point of view. Or, as Paul would say: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child...

Something I never remember reading in my Church history book was any instance of Church leaders rethinking or reformulating any position or doctrine. Church history was the story of the unfolding of Divine Revelation in an ever forward-moving progression from the time of the Apostles right down to our day. The Church just got better and better. The Holy Spirit saw to that. Only the heretics ever made mistakes. (In all fairness, this is no longer the view of the Church -- if it ever was. Sometimes I wonder if I wasn't taught heresy!)

So, this morning I read the following:

In a magnificently parabolic scene in John’s gospel, Pilate confronts Jesus (or does Jesus confront Pilate?) about the kingdom he proclaims. “My kingdom,” says Jesus in the King James Version of the incident, “is not of this world; if my kingdom were o fthis world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now is my kingdom not from hence” (18:36)....

Had Jesus stopped after saying that “my kingdom is not of this world,’ as we so often do in quoting him, that “of’ would be utterly ambiguous. “Not of this world” could mean; never on earth, but always in heaven; or not now in present time, but off in the imminent or distant future; or not a matter of the exterior world, but of the interior life alone. Jesus spoils all of these possible misinterpretations by continuing with this: “if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered” up to execution. Your soldiers hold me, Pilate, but my companions will not attack you even to save me from death. Your Roman Empire, Pilate, is based on the injustice of violence, but my divine kingdom is based on the justice of nonviolence. (God and Empire, p.4)

Well, I don't ever remember being taught that Jesus' kingdom was "
based on the justice of nonviolence." After all, wasn't it Christ who appeared to Constantine in a dream and said "In hoc signo vinces?" Freely translated, vinces means "you'll kill more of them than they will of you."

I've been reading more and more of this nonviolence message lately in the writings of certain Christian authors. However, it wasn't until this morning that it struck me that the doctrine of nonviolence, if interpreted in the light of unfolding revelation, amounts to quite a revelation indeed. And to think that it took us over 2000 years to "get it!" Also makes me realize how ahead of their time spiritual teachers like Menno Simons and George Fox were...

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