"It's about all the Christian charity you'll ever get out of these priests," cried Cockspur bitterly. "That's their only idea of pardoning a poor fellow for a piece of folly; to wall him up alive and starve him to death with fasts and penances and pictures of hell-fire. And all because a bullet went wrong."
"Really, Father Brown," said General Outram, "do you honestly think he deserves this? Is that your Christianity?"
"Surely the true Christianity," pleaded his wife more gently, "is that which knows all and pardons all; the love that can remember - and forget."
(The Wisdom of Father Brown, G.K. Chesterton)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said "Who is Jesus Christ for us today?", and the popular imagination has constructed a kind of "folk Jesus" who answers that question. This is the Jesus painted as a goodly child by the Victorian hymns:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.
The cattle are lowing
The poor Baby wakes
But little Lord Jesus
No crying He makes
What is notable about this portrayal of Jesus is that people are all to ready to tell you "what Jesus said", which often turns out in practice to be what they think, and by a remarkable coincidence, is in agreement with Jesus. As Richard Robinson, author of "An Atheist's Values"(1975), puts it: "Jesus never recommended anything which we think bad".
The opening passage, a quotation from a Father Brown story, illustrates this well. Lady Outram has her own idea of the "true Christianity", and it is very much her own picture of what Christianity should be about; Christianity with all the hard edges smoothed away.
Robinson illustrates his own thesis by takes the example of the saying of Jesus about thrift and worry for tomorrow:
Then Jesus said to the disciples, "And so I tell you not to worry about the food you need to stay alive or about the clothes you need for your body. Life is much more important than food, and the body much more important than clothes. Look at the crows: they don't plant seeds or gather a harvest; they don't have storage rooms or barns; God feeds them! You are worth so much more than birds! Can any of you live a bit longer by worrying about it? If you can't manage even such a small thing, why worry about the other things? Look how the wild flowers grow: they don't work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers. It is God who clothes the wild grass---grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, burned up in the oven. Won't he be all the more sure to clothe you? What little faith you have!
And he cites a Commentary by Dr Longsdale Ragg which shies away from the sense and say that "it cannot really be intended as a a counsel of improvidence". Robinson says: "It is obvious what reason he had in his mind: he was saying to himself: 'Improvidence is bad, and Jesus never recommended anything bad; therefore he never recommended improvidence; therefore this passage is not really a recommendation of improvidence though it seems to be."
Robinson notes that: "in interpreting the gospels so that they always agreed with our valuations, we should be teaching Jesus rather than learning from him"
And this is precisely what the "picture postcard Jesus" does. It is not a historical portrait of Jesus; it is a religious or spiritual portrait of Jesus. So it softens or tones down anything that doesn't fit, because the abiding principle is that Jesus cannot be wrong. This is at the heart of the problem: a belief about Jesus can present a barrier to understanding Jesus historically.
But this is not a problem that is wholly related to Jesus. The rise of "New Age" Spirituality and NeoPagan beliefs have the same kind of conundrum.
Owen Davies in his book on Paganism (2012) makes a quite valid differentiation between the Ancient Paganism, and its modern reconstructions. There are similarities, but also differences that are quite notable: ritual sacrifice of animals is not widespread today, and post-70 AD, Judaism also has no blood sacrifice. The stench of blood would be something that we would quite repellent, and the temples would stink as strongly of that as any abattoir. In a way, it would be like having a religious ceremonial ritual in an abattoir. But to the people of that time, the smell of blood from slaughtered animals would be part of the experience, and something beautiful.
Also different is the kind of idol worship, with the construction of carved emblems of deity in stone and wood to prostate oneself before which were so common in the Ancient Paganism. While symbols such as Artor the Great Bear, Epona etc may feature in modern Pagan rituals, they are not seen as aspects of mighty forces to be placated with votive offerings lest the gods become angry and destroy the harvest.
So the mismatch between the ancient and modern is not unique to Christianity, because those elements of Ancient Paganism that people find unpleasant are often also forgotten or dismissed as those parts which historically conditioned by their time. There is a "picture postcard Modern Paganism" as well.
How do we deal with difficult passages in the gospels? For believers, it is very difficult to say "if Jesus intended to say that, and it is reported correctly, then I think he was wrong."
Another other option is to take the road of literal exactness, and to conform one's life to what one thinks one reads in the gospel passages. Here is a path which fundamentalists take, where intolerance and bigotry is not seen as such, because it has a religious justification. Not many Christians go as far as the Puritans in Cromwell's Protectorate, where one Puritan, a Mr Barbon, was named "Jesus-Had-Not-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Wouldst-Be-Damned Barbon", but the attitude beneath the surface is the same.
[Incidentally, on the restoration of Charles II, he sensibly renamed himself Nicholas Barbon (d. 1698)!]
But should we take - as Robinson does, and the commentary he cites does - everything that Jesus said as precepts to follow? Give the oblique and strange nature of the sayings, perhaps this is more akin to a Zen saying, something intended to provoke thought, rather than a precept for living.
There is a strong tendency to read the gospels as a set of precepts for living, no doubt because of the dominant effect of the "Sermon on the Mount", and perhaps Jesus just threw out statements to challenge preconceptions, to make people think. Certainly, there is evidence that his own ministry, though itinerant, was supported by wealthy patronage, and it would have been rather hypocritical to bite the hand that was feeding him.
But there are other passages which are not so easy to understand or accept:
And if some home or town will not welcome you or listen to you, then leave that place and shake the dust off your feet. I assure you that on the Judgment Day God will show more mercy to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah than to the people of that town! (Matthew 10:14-15)
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)
What are we to make of these? I'm not providing any answers, but these are the questions that have to be considered if we are to answer Bonhoeffer's question, and I would pose this question: for Christians, can they be understood outside of the Picture Postcard Picture of Jesus, or apart from the Fundamentalist response?
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