The Challenge of Jesus

I just finished reading N.T. Wright’s book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is. It is based on a series of lectures he gave at a conference for graduate students and university professors. It was a gift from my Friend and colleague, C. Wess Daniels. (Thanks, Wess!) Actually Wess sent it to Chris and me quite a while ago. Chris read it right away but I put it off. It didn’t really call to me when I glanced through it.

It’s probably a good thing I put it off. I wasn’t ready for it before now. But right now, the challenge of Jesus is pretty central in my life. The book jacket says it is “a double edged challenge: to grow in our understanding of the historical Jesus within the Palestinian world of the 1st century, and to follow Jesus more faithfully into the postmodern world of the 21st century.”

Probably if I wasn’t interested in the latter, I wouldn’t care much about the former. In my own spiritual journey, I am indebted to a college class on the Bible and social justice, and later, a reading of Walter Wink for his political analysis of the Gospels.

I am also indebted to Marcus Borg, and his book The Heart of Christianity, for opening space for me in the Christian world. I don’t necessarily agree with all of his interpretations, nor all of N.T. Wright’s assertions either, but Borg gave me space to not know. Because that’s my main point of view about the history of Jesus: I don’t know. I don’t know enough to dispute with any of these authors about their historical analysis. On the simplest level, I wasn’t there, and I don’t believe any one really knows what really happened 2000 years ago. And that’s okay with me. Borg empowered me to admit that I don’t know the truth about the virgin birth or the physical resurrection of Jesus. And to accept that it doesn’t matter to me, at least not right now, because my faith doesn’t rest on these propositions being literally true. My faith is built on the truth of Jesus’s existence in my own life and the transformative value of what is written about Jesus. I’m not caught up in whether it’s all myth or history or a combination of both, although I tend towards the “some of each” position, if you really want to know.

Freed of some intellectual roadblocks, I am more able to confront the second part of the challenge. And that is the most interesting part of Wright’s book for me.

Wright describes Jesus’s healings as a “sign of a radical and healing inclusivism—not simply including everyone in a modern, laissez-faire, anything-goes fashion but dealing with the problems at the root so as to bring to birth a truly renewed, restored community whose new life would symbolize and embody the kingdom of which Jesus was speaking.” (p.69) He describes the early Christians as organizing their lives as if they really were living in the kingdom of God, “the returned-from-exile people, the people of the new covenant.” (p. 133)

Our task is to do this again, not in first century Palestine, but in the 21st century, right where we live. “We in turn walk sorrowfully on the road to Emmaus [after the breakdown of our modern presuppositions], only to find our hearts burning within us at the opening of Scripture, our eyes opened to the presence of God in Christ in the breaking of the bread and our feet suddenly energized to go and tell the good news to others.” (p. 169) Oooh, oooh, me too! I know how that feels! (And so did George Fox!)

Wright closes the book with a lovely explanation and charge to the graduate students he originally spoke to, about how to be Christians in their professional as well as personal lives. Neither on a shrill and shallow level, denying the depth of the problems our world faces; nor weakly and thoroughly compromised by worldly pressures; nor by escaping to a place of idealized and isolated purity. But by going out into the places of pain and despair in the world with God’s healing love AND with all our minds and all our strength. To love as we have been loved.

This is the challenge of Jesus.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

[My Friend David sent this by e-mail. I am posting it here for him.- Robin M.]

Robin - I read your latest post and decided to comment personally for two reasons. 1. Whenever I try to post a comment to your site it doesn't seem to work, and 2. I felt to share this with you personally, not because I wouldn't share it with the world, but if you feel that I'm picking on you, I don't want to do that publicly. So, if you want any or all of it posted and know how to do so, go for it. Meanwhile...

You wrote, "I don’t believe any one really knows what really happened 2000 years ago." I wish to challenge this belief. There are many, many people, both living and dead, who know exactly what happened 2000 years ago, either because they were there and witnessed it (Peter, James, John, Thomas, etc.), or because God revealed it to them (Paul, myself, etc.) or because they accepted the reliable testimony of those who witnessed the resurrection.

My dear friend Robin, the Gospels are reliable, in spite of what Marcus Borg or any other modern day revisionist may say or do to try to discount them. The Truths they contain are no easier or harder to fathom today than they were then or at any time in between. But it is impossible to grasp the True meaning of the Gospel events, and consequently the True Power of God to restore creation, unless one has the intellectual humility to allow God the power to author those events exactly as reported by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and/or John. Of course, many of the actual witnesses couldn't believe that Jesus was who he said he was, in spite of the miracles they witnessed, because it seemed so... impossible. But for those of us who believe, it is the Power of God.

Thomas refused to believe until he put his finger in Jesus wound. Jesus blessed him, but pointed out that those who could believe without seeing were even more blessed. That, after all, is what faith is all about: believing, then seeing, not the other way around. I want you to be able to believe that I have seen the risen Lord, that He is alive, that the tomb did not hold him. I want you to believe that all the Christians throughout history who have given their lives for these Truths knew what they were talking about. I cannot explain the mystery of the resurrection or the virgin birth any more than I can explain the feeling of love that you have for your children. I just know that they are real, and because I know they are real, I know that God can do anything, and because I know God can do anything and because I can feel God's love for his children, I know there is hope for this crazy world. So I never give up trying to do my part to help restore it, no matter how feeble my effort may appear.

Why does it matter so much to me what you believe? Because it takes real resurrection power to overcome the enemies of life, and I know you are committed to the battle. To be safe and effective, I want you to have the full armor of God.

I hope you won't feel that I'm discounting your honest struggle. Rather, I appreciate your willingness to share your faith journey publicly, and the opportunity that gives me to reflect on my own journey and to encourage you in yours. Also, I recognize and appreciate that by sharing your doubts you encourage others to face their own. All good stuff, that. Now, would you just throw up your hands already and say, "Alright, I give up, I can't understand it but I believe it." I know you'll be glad you did!

Your friend David

10/25/2007 12:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing this. I am glad you connected with the book. I value NT Wright's work because it transcends the molds we've created for ourselves as Christians (conservative, liberal, etc). He takes Jesus very seriously, and takes very seriously the prophetic kingdom of God-centered work that Jesus initiated in his ministry. Both things I personally get excited about. Anyways, I am glad you're on this journey and thanks for your faithfulness in struggling with these real issues.

10/25/2007 10:30 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Wess, thanks again for the book. It was here when I needed it!

David - one of the main points of my post is that I'm not going to wrestle with all those things right now. I can't say I believe because I don't. One of the things I appreciate about Quaker practice is not having to recite things I don't believe. The best I can do right now is to say "I don't know." Maybe I shouldn't speak for others.

10/25/2007 2:23 PM  
Blogger Bill Samuel said...

Robin, I appreciate your honesty. God does want us to be real. You really wrestle with this in your heart. And if you continue to be open and explore who God is, perhaps you will some day come to the point where you find yourself believing as David and I do.

10/27/2007 8:09 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you Bill for your prayers and appreciation.

The real question for me now is how are you or I living in the Way of Jesus right now? And eventually, I suppose, I'll get around to how I think that Quakerism, in all its messy current reality, is helping me to understand and live in that Way right here, right now.

10/28/2007 11:59 PM  
Blogger quakerboy said...

Thanks for this post, Robin. I suppose I am like many Quaker Christians who, in honesty, say, "Lord, I believe...help my unbelief."

What I believe is that a follower of Jesus must obey the teachings of Jesus. Through his teachings, I believe, that we can change not only ourselves but our world.

Some, especially here in the South, see being a Christian as repeating some magic formula "sinner's prayer" and then joining the local steeplehouse while the words Jesus uttered in Matthew 5 and 6 become irrelevant at best. The funny thing is there can be no greater revisionism that a good ole' Southern preacher who has to deal with Jesus' words in the beatitudes. You'd be surprised how they can get around the whole "love your enemy" thing (especially dealing with Iraq).

I disagree with your friend David in calling Marcus Borg a revisionist. Borg is speaking to a lot of us who love Jesus, he just trys to stay away from the theological mumbo jumbo that the post-Constantian church has hoisted upon us. And while I disagree with him on many issues, God is using him to bring many people who would have never given Christianity a second thought to the foot of the Cross.

What really matters is not whether we believe Borg or Thomas or John, but "what canst thou sayest"?

One of my favorite Quaker writers is (was) Lewis Benson. He, like Penn and other early Friends, saw Quakerism as a return to primitive Christianity. And that is exactly why I think our message is so relevant to those who follow Christ today.

Christianity, as redisovered by George Fox, was a return to the early Christian understanding of progressive revelation and Truth being birthed by the Gathered Commuinity (in good Gospel Order).

Remember...Roman Catholics have the pope, Protestants have the Bible and we Quakers have what Jesus promised...the Spirit that He assured us would guide us (the Gathered Community as well as individuals within that community)into all Truth.

Your struggle with the whole "christian thing" is inspiring. There are few who open themselves up completely to the Truth and attempt to put away all the theological and philosophical baggage of the last 2000 years. You, Robin, seem to be doing just that and for that, I am thankful.

In the Peace of the Risen Christ,

10/29/2007 9:19 AM

10/29/2007 12:25 PM  
Blogger forrest said...

I was wrestling for quite awhile with the question of "What really happened?" Because I think there is more than one revelation to be found in Jesus' actual life, and in separating his true words from those of subsequent churchists (although those too can be enlightening.)

There was a joint Borg/Wright effort that I found highly useful... and one ironic twist is that I'm closer to Borg's sentiments, but felt that Wright in that book was closer to the historical truth than Borg was. Because Borg imagined that only a crazy person would think he was The Messiah, Jesus wasn't crazy, and therefore... while Wright just went with the weight of traditional alusions to Jesus being literally King (de jure, but not, alas, de facto) of Israel.

(One I think is really really good, aside from that, is William Herzog's _Jesus, Justice, & the Reign of God_. Should be edited with an ax, but wonderful content!)

Anyway... I've also been thinking about this related question, ie What is The Gospel?

& it doesn't turn out to be any particular belief about Jesus. It is simply the truth of what Jesus says about our Father. That He loves us all and does good to all (although the form of good appropriate to Wicked persons does look awfully messy sometimes.)

It doesn't even matter if you "believe" it; it's simply true.

10/29/2007 8:39 PM  
Blogger olvlzl said...

The real test of any religious teaching is what are the results of following it. By their fruits you will know them. I'm less interested in if Jesus said it than if it produces more love, compassion, justice,... We can't really know if Jesus said it, we can see how it works when put into practice. I loved reading The Historical Jesus, especially the first part presenting the environment of the Gospels, more so than the presentation of different levels of documentation. But it's the sayings and the results they produce when followed that is really meaningful.

10/29/2007 10:03 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Craig, that verse was important to me much of the summer of 2006. "Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief." I'm not sure David is wrong in calling Borg a revisionist. But then, maybe I am one too. Or maybe not. Like I said, and keep repeating, "I don't know."

Forrest, thanks for the reminder that whether I believe in God or Jesus, the Good News exists regardless.

Olvlzl, welcome! I mostly still agree with your point that it matters more if religious teachings produce more love, compassion and justice than who said them. But right now, this month, this year, it matters to me to try to live into what Jesus said. Kind of like trying to hold up my end of a conversation.

10/30/2007 1:16 AM  
Blogger John Kindley said...

Hi Robin. I was reading through the comments to this post again and noticed at the bottom of the page your request to let you know if we link here. I linked to your blog a couple weeks ago from my blog, leftlibertarianquaker.blogspot.com, and recently quoted a paragraph from this post that spoke to me in a post on my blog titled The Passion of the Christ.

10/30/2007 8:38 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Thank you, John. Both for linking here and for letting me know. It was an interesting post on the passion of Christ, and I'm glad my words were helpful to you.

10/30/2007 11:41 AM  
Blogger Allison said...

Hi Robin,

As someone raised Episcopalian, I never found room and space to say "I don't know" let alone "I don't feel the need to know" and follow my heart. I have to admit, it is not even a struggle to me. That is what attracts me to the Quakers. I sometimes joke that I got the message from the Beatitudes in Sunday School too well, so that it eventually led me to hold the institution accountable! Have you read the Political Teachings of Jesus? It draws mostly from the Beatitudes and said Jesus was a radical. The author calls his philosophy Jesusian (as Christian now has a whole 'nother meaning).

11/05/2007 6:49 PM  
Blogger none said...

Hi Robin,

I landed on this blog entry several times over the past week or so when doing a search on Wright's book.

Anyway, I just wanted to make two quick comments. I first wanted to offer a little optimism to balance out the historical skepticism in the claim: "no one really knows what really happened 2000 years ago." It's the job of the historian to know what happened in the past, whether it be 1000 years ago, 2000 years ago or 3000 years ago. And historical research is actually quite effective at reconstructing past persons and events; we can know quite a lot about people and events in the ancient world, including the life of Jesus. The old skepticism prior to the last quarter of the 20th century (what Wright and others refer to as the first and second (or new) quests for the historical Jesus) has past, and scholars now have a new optimism for what we can know about the life of Christ (although there are still some radical scholars such as Borg, Crossan, etc that are quite skeptical, but they don’t represent the general attitude in historical Jesus research). Anyway, my point is just to encourage you in your search. While you currently may not know what to make of it all, I hope and pray that you'll continue on your own personal quest and find the living Christ. :)

I also just wanted to offer a different view on whether what's most important is not whether what's reported in the gospels is historical, but whether Christianity "works." I'd have to disagree with this. I don't want to downplay the importance of how we're to live: Jesus points out, as someone else posted here, that true believers will be known by their fruit (Matt 15:17-23). Likewise, he said that those who love him will keep his commands (John 14:15). And of course James explains that faith without works is dead (James 2). So there can be no doubt that the way we live is important (of course there are many other passages which further support this); but that's not ultimately what Christianity is all about. We don't need Christianity to live good lives. There are many Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and so on, who are upright, loving, compassionate, and the like. Christianity isn't a religion of moral improvement, but a religion of redemption, of restoring our broken relationship with the living God. This is why Jesus' incarnation, death, and resurrection was necessary, and why it's those things that are central to the New Testament. Also, as Paul pointed out, if Christ wasn't resurrected, Christianity is useless, we're following a falsehood, and we're to be pitied more than all men (1 Cor 15:12-19).

So yes, how we live is no doubt important, but Christianity is ultimately about our redemption through Christ's death and resurrection.

Anyway, I hope I didn't come across as preachy or anything like that. Again, I hope you're search is fruitful!

11/11/2007 8:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

[My Friend Elizabeth sent this by email. I am posting it here for her.]

I want to let you know how much I respect your search for how Jesus of Nazareth fits into your life. Only this year did I learn that, instead of saying that "I am not a Christian in the conventional sense", I can make a positive affirmation: " I am a serious and committed follower of Jesus of Nazareth."

It does not matter to me "what really happened" 2000 years ago. I don't ponder over the Bible. I don't believe in the myths surrounding Jesus' birth, life and death. By letting himself be called a "son of God," as I see it, Jesus let us all know ourselves as children of God.

I am not a regular Christian. I am a serious, day-by-day follower of that radical guy who stood up to the evil in society. I am the follower of that fellow who taught love and forgiveness and service and communal living. I am the follower of that man who said we should love our enemies and turn our swords into plowshares.

I should be judged not by what I believe, or by what I say, but by what I do.


11/15/2007 12:14 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

A, I haven't read the Political Teachings of Jesus. Maybe Chris has. Who wrote it?

Zok, thanks for commenting. You sound respectful and caring - that's good enough. I'll say it another way: I don't doubt the fact of the living Jesus in my life, but the details of how that happened are permanently open to discussion, in my mind. And I think that's a valid historical research perspective too.

Here's another point of my personal theology to drive the orthodox crazy: I don't believe that Jesus, or Paul, or the Bible, have to be perfect, infallible or inerrant, to be valid and useful and sacred. I think we always have to use our best discernment under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. That could be a whole 'nother blogpost.

Elizabeth, thanks for sending your comment. Your respect means a lot to me. And I didn't know you'd come to this point too. Let's talk more about that next month!!!

11/15/2007 12:51 PM  

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