by Matthew Raley
The name “Jesus” has been a blank screen in America for a long time. If I embrace the name, I acknowledge that “Jesus” is the epitome of goodness. But, in a neat trick, I can project onto the name whatever righteous shape I hold dear.
Evangelicals, among whom I count myself, are some of the most skilled projectionists, and many people are now wary of our “Jesus.”
We evangelicals are quick to deplore the progressive “Jesus” who thought up socialism before there was even a proletariat, or the Buddhist “Jesus” who did a semester in India. We rejected the self-doubting “Jesus” of “Godspell,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” molded to match faddish ideals of personal authenticity. More recently, we’ve inveighed against the gnostic “Jesus” who had a child with Mary Magdalene — a savior for conspiracy theorists.
Our culture only accepts gods it has re-imagined in its own image. We’re right to dismiss all these Jesus-projections. But we can’t seem to reject the blank screen itself. We’ve profited too heavily from it. If we were to set the bar at intellectual honesty, we’d undermine our salesmanship.
For the last forty years at least the evangelical “Jesus” has looked as close to the American consumer as possible. Consider the Jesus-projection you are most likely to watch in an evangelical church.
In appearance, he is an Anglo-German woodsman with great hair. In attitude, he’s way non-threatening. In manner, he uses open gestures. He doesn’t lecture or argue. He uses sports analogies when talking to men and tear-jerking stories with women. He says, “Dude!”
This “Jesus” can be narrated like a sitcom in 18 minutes (minus commercials). Each week, the live studio audience laughs at the right times, but there comes a moment when they feel really bad for “Jesus,” maybe shed a tear. They realize how nice “Jesus” is to us, and how mean we are to him, and this hushed epiphany motivates them to try harder at being positive.
The Jesus of the New Testament is nothing like this.
The real Jesus is ancient. He cannot be understood, much less received, without a basic knowledge of his culture and history, and that is why pastors used to think of themselves as teachers. Many Christians see that Jesus is not the Now Guy evangelicals project, and the good news for them is that he can still be known. We know him through the ancient method by which our minds labor in the Bible’s words and in prayer, interacting with the real one who rose from the dead.
Furthermore, the real Jesus had a message about the outworking of history. He did not give inspirational chats about living positively, like some huckster from Houston. The classic distillation of his teaching is, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God is driving events toward his goals, and those events can sweep an individual away no matter how positively she thinks. That word repent is almost illegal in churches today, probably because it contains the one message contemporary people can’t abide: “God’s plan isn’t all about you.”
But there is more good news for the people who already know this. Though the projection of the hyper-compassionate woodsman who is on call for you 24/7 is bowlderized, there is still the real Jesus. He is our Sovereign, whose power has swept us into his plan. The injustice and violence of our world will dissolve in the heat of his stare, and the new city we hope for will be built.
Ultimately, the real Jesus defied those in his own time who wanted to use him as a blank screen. Many people followed Jesus, John reports, but had agendas for him to fulfill. Jesus “did not entrust himself to them.” (John 2.24) When many wanted him to overthrow the Romans, for example, “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6.15)
So there is still more good news. In the swirl of efforts to re-imagine Jesus after our likeness, the real Savior has a mind of his own. And he’s still commanding, “Follow me.”