Why I Don’t Care Much for Jesus
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.
Let 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.