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Why I Don’t Care Much for Jesus

March 7, 2009

Brad Corban posted some insightful questions about one of my recent posts, and I drafted the following in response. I thought it might be of general interest so I’m making it an official post.

commie-jesusLet me come out of the closet with this: I personally don’t think anything from Jesus’ message is particularly relevant or useful for our present social/political context.

I think he was an apocalyptic prophet who (wrongly) thought the world was coming to an end. Sure, he had what is sometimes called a “preferential option for the poor,” which I appreciate, but a few sayings about caring for orphans and widows isn’t, by itself, all that sophisticated. Lots of people throughout the ages have said vague stuff like that, but they don’t get the same attention he does—I think Jesus is of interest today not because he was a really sharp social theorist but because of the cultural authority produced for him by the Christian church.

Think about this: Let’s pretend you’ve just signed up for a social and political theory course. You’re going to read John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, Mary Wollstonecraft, bell hooks, Michel Foucault, and so on. Now, would the law code of Hammurabi belong on this reading list? How about the stories about Josiah’s sweeping social reforms in Judah? The Sermon on the Mount? In my opinion, the level of sophistication of the latter three pales in comparison to the more contemporary social critics above.

Yes, I teach about Jesus, but not because I think his ideas are particularly insightful. Instead, I’m teaching about Jesus for the following three reasons.

1) Mercenary reasons: Christianity falls within my area of expertise and that’s what I’ve been assigned to teach by my college.

2) Correcting misinformation: I teach about Jesus in order to challenge much of the existing disinformation my students have previously been exposed to.

3) To teach my students about social reproduction: I want to get students to see how the authority of Jesus and the authority of the Christian tradition has been produced and sustained. Utilizing Jesus’ continuing authority in support of one’s own social and political agendas is an old game, and, as a friend of mine recently put it, I’d rather show my students how ventriloquism works than try to out-puppeteer my political opponents.

Having said that, I’ll qualify what I said at the beginning: I don’t think Jesus’ message is particularly relevant or useful today, but it’s obvious that his authority is. That’s why I’d like to stand in solidarity with progressive theologians, for instance, even while I would never want to write theology myself.

But it would be an odd sort of solidarity—and not one I’m sure will work.

Calling all progressive theologians: will you be my friend now that I’ve shown my cards?

UPDATE: Also, and this pretty much goes without saying for those who know me, I don’t much care for Jesus because I have a contrary personality and a bit of ressentiment toward everyone who keeps trying to foist Jesus on me. I’m resentful because I have to offer reasons why I don’t care for Jesus, but would never have to defend saying I don’t care for Zoaraster, or Hammurabi, or the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or whatever. I’m resentful because I have to defend the fact that I like Marx, but people who say they like a weird Jew from 1st century Palestine who thought the world was about to come to an end get a free ride.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Roland permalink
    March 8, 2009 5:35 am

    Nice point(s). The obection I have relates to the personality cult, which is what you get with redeemer figures. The whole christological schema, in which Jesus swings down to earth and goes back up again, has managed to pick up a big bunch of redemmer figures on the way. All sorts of people get into the act – such as, to cull one or two from a long list, Martin Luther, the pope, Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin etc etc. The personality cult grows around them, they promise heaven and earth, and people fall in behind them. Makes you wonder what Christianity would like without the personality cult.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 8, 2009 7:41 pm

    Yes, when the person becomes more important than his or her message, some thing is not right. Makes me worry about the growing cult of personality around Obama.

    About Jesus and about my post: I really struggle back and forth between feeling like taking sides with Hector Avalos—let’s just throw the Bible out—and taking sides with what you say in Rescuing the Bible—wait, it’s too important to throw out and leave it to the evangelicals. I haven’t yet found a way to denaturalize the authority of the Bible that I’m entirely happy with. Any thoughts?

  3. bradcorban permalink
    March 8, 2009 10:07 pm

    Well, first of all, I’m a progressive Jesus-person, and I’ve got friends (fellow seminarians, in fact) much more odd than you. Fear not.

    If I were in a political/social theory course, then you’re probably right, the Bible might have little to say. (It’s perhaps debatable, but I’m about to make a point.) However, if I were in a course on literature (aha!), then the Bible would surely be indispensable!

    I say this because, for me, reading the bible from a “creative writing” standpoint has been very personally rewarding, and it’s a refreshing change from reading it as if it were some holy/mystical rule book or vision from above. The creative-writing lens lets me appreciate the complex humanity of the authors and first audiences, and I also enjoy some of the Hebrew wit and wisdom. Such a lens changes my understanding of ‘holy’ and ‘scripture’, but the Bible actually has become much MORE wonderful (to me) after this shift. (It’s all because I love a good/crazy story.)

    As for Obama, I think the personality cult will die off a little now that he’s in office. We’re forced to view him as more normal, and hopefully we’ll be critical when need be. I like what Cornel West said, that he’d dance and celebrate for Obama on November 5th, but after that, he’ll become the president’s biggest prophetic critic. I hope he does that, and I hope the rest of us do the same.

  4. N. T. Wrong permalink
    March 11, 2009 4:21 am

    I personally don’t think anything from Jesus’ message is particularly relevant or useful for our present social/political context.


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