|Brand Name Jesusâ„¢
| I remember in the mid-nineties the short-lived fad of Magic Eye images, posters that presented a pseudo-3D image if you'd stare at it long enough in the right way. It was fascinating just watching people try to get the images to work. They'd stare and stare at this jumbled morass of pixels trying to bring the image into focus. When it happened, when someone "got" the image hidden in the picture, it was quite apparent. You'd watch the confusion and frustration transform into this sense of amusement and a slight puzzlement of why it was so difficult to see in the first place. It was as if they'd discovered oil in their backyard or at least a twenty hidden in a pocket of their newly washed jeans.
I think that if you're a Christian for any length of time and you're at all serious about the gospel stories, about what Jesus said and did in life as well as death, about the way in which he talked to people and loved them and honored them, then I think a time comes in your journey when you start to realize that you've been staring at the image for a long time but not quite seeing the picture. What I mean by this is that we come to Jesus with a perspective that we've inherited, particularly those of us in western Christian contexts, about who he was and what he was all about. And, sure, we think Jesus was radical and that he made the religious people very angry and, if we're feeling especially pious, we'll admit that yes, we too probably would have been somewhat irritated with him. After all, he did spend time with some unsavory characters and he made a big mess of all those nice tables in the temple, and nobody likes a grouch. And in the process we manage to read right past what Jesus was really all about and why the religious leaders really did have to kill him. I think we miss the reasons behind his death, and as a result, we allow something far more insidious to happen to him, participate in it enthusiastically in fact, something that is the worst fate that can befall a prophet.
Prophet I say, and mean in the Old Testament sense, for that is what he was. Today when we think of a prophet we either think of some neo-Pentecostal traveling preacher or some mangy-haired, wild-eyed, bug-eating freak of a man who speaks in riddles and occasionally drools. But to be a prophet is first and foremost to be a person of imagination. It means to be able to imagine past The Way Things Are to see, just a hint perhaps, of how they might be if only we were to follow God for just a bit. Imagination is a dangerous thing, perhaps the most dangerous thing of all to those whose positions, whose lives are built on the structures that are dependent on The Way Things Are. Walter Brueggemann often calls this the "royal consciousness," and it can be found in governments, in families, in corporate boardrooms and in church communities. What it has in common, no matter where it is found, is its relentless opposition to imagination. The problem with imagination is that it involves hope, and hope requires one to believe that things are not all fine at this present moment, which is exactly what one cannot believe and remain content with The Way Things Are.
If, then, one wants to silence a prophet, how does one go about doing so? Often, it seems that the prevailing method is to simply kill the imaginative one. The problem with this approach is that too often the ideas of the prophet don't seem to stop with his or her death - they have a disconcerting way of continuing on. So the truly ingenious person who wants to silence a prophet would not do so by killing him or her - rather, subvert the message. Make it work for you. Turn it into a brand, and sell it on every streetcorner. Prophets are silenced, not through death, but through assimilation.
And this is what we have managed to do with Jesus, I think. Jesus has ceased to be the prophet who calls us to imagine greatly with him what the Kingdom of God might look like if it were unleashed in our lives, in our communities, and in our world. Instead, we've fashioned a new Jesus™, one who just wants to live in our hearts and not in our neighborhoods, one who is content with being accepted instead of being followed. It's hard to tell, really, whether we've created Jesus™ in our image or recreated ourselves in his, or perhaps some bizarre mix of the two. But the reality is that the end of this path is a faith that cannot challenge us to sell all that we have and give to the poor, to love our enemies, or to take up our crosses (unless they are gold-plated and coordinate nicely with our watch). We cannot imagine past The Way Things Are; in fact, the dirty truth is that too often we are the ones whose lives depend on maintaining the status quo, the ones who need to have prophets silenced because of the nagging voice of hope that intrudes on our consciences.
But every now and again, someone gets it. Someone stares at the picture long enough to realize that there is something else lurking in the blurred pixels. You can see it in their eyes, in the slight tilting of the head, in the puzzlement that turns to amazement as the image begins to clear and something surprising emerges. And, if you're like me, you begin to wonder why you didn't see it there before...
Scott Berkhimer blogs @ theopraxis and lives in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, PA, home of the Liberty Bell, the cheesesteak, and the Eagles. He is the husband of Joy and the father of two fantastic boys, Jason and Christian. By day he analyzes statistics for a large investment firm, by night he is a student in the LEAD MDiv program at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, PA, and occasionally...he sleeps.
What a truly great analogy!
I have to confess that I'm not entirely sure of where your concerns are directed here. You said:
before we can take a breath, some of the most widely read emergents throw the incarnation, Roman Catholicism, unreached islander conversions, the nature of the New Testament Scriptures, and a host of other Biblically established truths into mix
There's a whole pile of stuff in that list, and I'm not sure what it all references. The incarnation, for example - this is, in my experience, one of the beliefs that folks who identify with the emerging church hold most in honor. In fact, Mark Driscoll at a recent conference suggested that the emerging church overemphasizes
the incarnation (as if that were possible?) So can I invite you to either respond here with some more specific things that we can discuss, or to drop me an email so that we can dialogue about these things? Having some specifics would help me to speak more appropriately to your comment. Thanks!
"Instead, we've fashioned a new Jesusâ„¢, one who just wants to live in our hearts and not in our neighborhoods, one who is content with being accepted instead of being followed. It's hard to tell, really, whether we've created Jesusâ„¢ in our image or recreated ourselves in his, or perhaps some bizarre mix of the two."
Yes and amen. But here is what is baffling and sometimes angering the non-emergent "traditionalists" (as we are referred to) like me: Many of the lifestyle observations are right on, but, why does the statement of faith have to be revamped along with the repented fruits of our behavior? I mean let us add a renewed care for the poor, a loving but non-condoning hand to the gay community, a rejection of the ecclesiastical hedonism that is running wild, a further and somewhat dangerous intrusion into the "lost world" to bring in verbal and expressional light, but while some are convicted of the rightness of these and other "Jesus imitating" shortcomings, before we can take a breath, some of the most widely read emergents throw the incarnation, Roman Catholicism, unreached islander conversions, the nature of the New Testament Scriptures, and a host of other Biblically established truths into mix. So just as we are tentatively dipping our "historical" toes into the discussion, having been lured by the words "missional and methodology", WHAM!, out of nowhere the doctrinal issues that we were promised were not part of the "everything's on the table" exchange appear on the docket. And now, still in the embryonic stage of this emergent vision, come books and views from "theologians" like Spencer Burke which are even given legitimate reviews by men that know better.
So the toleration of overt departures concerning issues like the incarnation and salvation itself no less are accepted topics of Scripturally unmoored musings of young and sometimes unseasoned believers. And if a book like Burke's can have a forum, what will his grandson's book look like? Perhaps he will prove that the incarnation was a metaphor meant to undergird Jesus' Words that "My kingdom is not of this world", therefore revealing that Christ was an alien.
I know, calm down we are told. OK, give us what we are looking for, most of you men are very intellectual and well written, and some of you have somewhat traditional evangelical backrounds, so you know full well the issues that concern us. And what disturbs us most, is that maybe you are not telling us what we desire to hear...because you can't. These are some of the respectful questions that will continue to dog the emergent movement until they take a post-modern moment to seriously address some of the concerned members of His body. Thank you for listening, I am.