“We believe in Jesus Christ.” So begins the second clause of the great baptismal creed of the ancient church at Rome, whose structure so informs the great creed of Nicaea that is recited around the world every Sunday and back through time for at least 1700 years.
Like the early church, we too have a fascination with the Rabbi from Nazareth. Our modern fascination with Jesus often stems from intellectual curiosity, whereas the early church transformed fascination into adoration and was motivated by the great love they saw demonstrated in Him on their behalf.
Though 2,000 years separate us from the apostles, we are just as close to Jesus as they were, thanks to the gift of the Spirit being poured out on all flesh. The Spirit is not just any spirit, but the very Spirit of the Creator of heaven and earth. And the Spirit sent from the Father bears the image of Jesus. Soren Kierkegaard calls this ‘being a disciple at second hand.’ The nice thing about this business of contemporary discipleship is that it affords us the luxury of looking back and seeing where mistakes were made so we might not repeat them. In that sense, we will always be better off than our predecessors. (And those who follow us will be better off than we are!)
It does us little good to ignore the modern preoccupation with Jesus that occurs apart from faith. Over the past 200 years, the modern intellectual quest for Jesus has come to some astounding conclusions, argued some silly hypotheses, and bequeathed us a massive, enormous library of information that has become absolutely impossible to get handles on. Degrees of specialization run deep in the marrow of this intellectual journey.
It is thus with some trepidation as well as respect for both the church and the academy that we venture these remarks about Jesus. We confess our faith in the Living Lord up front. What we wish to do is to suggest that modern scholarship, for all of its fragmentation, does not leave us in the dark with regard to Jesus. Not everything that is written is on the money, but it is all profitable.
When we stand up on Sunday mornings we are compelled to tell our congregations about Jesus and His God, the God the people Israel knew as the One with the Unpronounceable Name. Jesus calls this one ‘Papa.’ Through his life, death and resurrection we are invited to become children of this God as well. We do not preach Jesus dispassionately as though he were just an historical figure. We have taken the step to believe and we acknowledge that this changes our readings, we think for the better.
Are the gospels historical? Honestly, it all depends on what you accept as evidence for that which is historical. Scholars are all over the board on this one. While they may talk about the ‘assured results’ of criticism, we can all rest “assured” that what is trendy today will probably be gathering dust tomorrow. We only need to examine the modern quest for the historical Jesus to see that just about every thesis has a counter-thesis that generates other counter-theses, all of which have adherents. There is hardly a single verse in the New Testament that somewhere does not have a dissertation written about it. When we use the historical critical method, we make literally scores of decisions in our exegesis, often without realizing that we make them. Text criticial, linguistic, syntactical, structural, form critical, redactional and sociological decisions are just some them. Decisions we make in our exegesis of one text then inform all our future exegesis.
The contemporary quest for the historical Jesus has had some attempts to stand back from the trees of academia so that it may see the forest. Unfortunately, where some see towering redwoods, others only see scrub oak. We prefer those writers who have a bigger vision of history and thus the ‘historical Jesus.’ Since we have to choose a perspective, we choose one that includes a sense of the beauty of what God has accomplished in and for us through Jesus.
Theoretically speaking, mimetic theory does not need to make any of these decisions prior to reading the gospels. They are informative even in their translated state. But here we must recognize that translators have made their hundreds of interpretive decisions as well, decisions influenced largely within a sacrificial theology. And the fact remains, the Bible has been both poorly and well translated. This is the entry point for us to use modern critical scholarship. It is about giving the devil his due.
There is a real problem with the ‘Western’ Jesus and the ‘Western’ God. As preachers we must always be vigilant that we continually point our people to the Living Lord, for they will always have a tendency to reduce Jesus to themselves, particularly to justify their anger and outrage. And much of what is believed in popular christology has little to do with the Crucified and Risen One.
Over the past 200 years we have split the historical Jesus from the dogmatic Christ, with the church and the academy vying for the top bunk. If it was only an either/or proposition we might well have to choose, but it isn’t. Mimetic theory allows us to see just where there is convergence between the Living Lord of the church and what can be known about Jesus historically. The most important discussion on this integration is found in the research of Father Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. Schwager’s appropriation of historical critical research in the light of mimetic theory allows him to draw important conclusions for systematic theology. He closes the circle that was sundered following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment between faith (the dogmatic Christ) and history (the historical Jesus). The fact is, the historical Jesus is a corrective to much of the mimetically shaped theology that we have learned from the pulpit.
One of the most important insights in this regard has been a growing recognition that Jesus is not to be associated with violence, revolutionary or otherwise, in any way, shape or form. This is not to say that a ‘revolutionary’ Jesus doesn’t capture the imagination of the people, he does. He wields a terrible swift sword. He makes the cover of TIME magazine. He permeates much of Christian theology in one form or another. But the theory of ‘the revolutionary Jesus’ as simply another mimetic double of all the saviours and heros who have ever existed is just that, a theory. In other words, non-violence as a life expression is truly revolutionary because it is revelatory; it reveals the character of God. It comes from outside the box.
Thankfully, the twentieth century, as well as being the bloodiest century on record, also gave us great non-violent luminaries, particlularly in Mahatma Gandhi and the Rev Martin Luther King, Jr. Non-violence was brought into our collective social consciousness. Prior to that, to be sure, there were plenty of witnesses to non-retaliation; Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonites, Franciscans to name a few. The problem is, if you read the newspapers, you might think that non-retaliation as a way of thinking about ourselves in relation to others is either traitorous or cowardly. It is definitely a minor player on the global scene in terms of civil rights protests. Nobody really wants to be a grain of wheat anymore.
Over the last twenty years we have grown far more aware of the victim in terms of abuse and human rights. Some have felt that there has been an over-hyping of the ‘cult of the victim.’ Perhaps. In such litigious societies we aren’t surprised that victims desire redress. They are, after all, functioning within the same violent paradigm as their persecutors. Here especially, it must be pointed out that we are suggesting something quite different in our use of mimetic theory. Jesus is the victim, raised from the dead, who does not bring retaliation but the message of the peace of God. His blood speaks a better word than that of Abel’s. The announcement? God is not ever going to take us to court and sue us. God wishes befriend us. He created us and He forgives us.
The association of Jesus with violence, as a historical construct, must be laid to rest. Though it may rear its head from time to time, it is not a viable hypothesis. There is just too much evidence against it. With admiration for the work of Richard Horsley, we respectfully disagree with him when he says, “We have no evidence that he [Jesus] ever directly or explicitly addresses the issue of violence. Certainly nonviolence was not a principal theme in his preaching and practice” (Richard Horsley, Jesus and the Spiral of Violence, San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987). Horsley is correct only if violence and non-violence are construed as an ends in themselves. However, when violence is viewed as a generative mechanism it can be seen in the gospels that Jesus is taking apart the victimage mechanism all over the place, in everything he does and everything he says.
It is easy to see how this insight, on which there is a growing awareness, could be put out to pasture. It does not fit our sacrificial thinking, but it is the ‘stone which the builders rejected’ and has become ‘the chief cornerstone.’ The announcement that ‘God is not violent’ is both a hermeneutical presupposition and a testimony. The only way to take God out of the framework of sacrificial theology is to differentiate God from all the other gods. And it is on the Cross that God is differentiated. God is not the persecutor, God is the victim. This theology of the cross is our testimony. Indeed, as Nietzsche said, “we have killed God, we have murdered him.” This insight drove Nietzsche mad, the passive god of the Christians was a sucker. In comparison to the gods of violence (e.g., Dionysius), the Christian god was a wimp.
On the other hand, we tell our children that it takes more courage to walk away from a fight than to fight, don’t we? Why is the same not true of God? Is it possible that in the world of religion created out of human violence the way of the cross took more courage than just simply destroying the world and starting over?
So it is possible to conceive of God as non-violent, non-retaliatory. And this is the God of the message of Jesus. This is the providential ‘abba’ who feeds his children and hovers over them as an ‘imma.’ This One is all about love and forgiveness. We note that at this point clergy might reply that even Jesus talked about hell. We observe in return that when he talks about hell, it is not to the sinners but usually to the clergy! (On interpretation of the judgement sayings see the literature cited in Year B First Sunday in Advent).
The gospels are for us then, wonderfully textured documents that have undergone scrutiny unlike any other documents in the history of humankind. No other literature has had so much written about it. No other literature has undergone the rigorous testing that the gospels have. If the same strictures were applied to other literature that have been applied to the gospels we might come away with a huge headache. The fact remains that the story of Jesus is still the big story. That is why it is called good news.
Where can we see mimetic theory displayed most vividly? In the news. No matter what the media, we can observe the dynamics of varying mimetic crises. We are heirs of the most violent century in the history of recorded warfare. Today we pray for the best and prepare for the worst. The news is daily filled with growing violence both abroad and domestically. It is as though every conflict is on display for all to see. Some of the big ones are entering into fights with pretty big stakes, namely the survival of the human race. We live in a time of great risk. At times it may even feel apocalyptic. Now isn’t this the story of the gospels and the passion of Jesus?
It’s all about news. What does the news report? It reports that the ‘Christian’ god is under attack. It reports that the ‘Christian’ god is held responsible by some, but by others he is called upon to justify the desire for retaliation. The gospels, as good news, are saying the same thing that is reported every day in the news media, except that Jesus’ God, according to his news, was a God of Peace. In short, the Christian god that has long been associated with violence and power and glory is under attack, not the Creator, not the Father of Jesus. Now is the time for the church to take a stand on the God of Peace and to live courageously in the world as witnesses to His peace.
A final observation on the news: Karl Barth said that we should read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. We heartily agree. But it is folly to do this seeking to discern the future before its time, as in done in dispensationalism around the world. We note the popularity of the Left Behind series. The problem with this method is that it presupposes a violent God, as though God took sides! We prefer, therefore, to read literature, including the news and the good news, through the lens of mimetic theory, to read with Bonhoeffer, from below. The gravity of the moment can be grasped without resorting to apocalyptic gyrations and predictions.
The gospels are literature, then, which we believe bear authentic witness to Jesus. Not every word recorded in them comes from Jesus. Nor do they have to. At stake are not the details but the big picture. The historical critical method which has inspired fear in the hearts of clergy and laity everywhere need not supply the hermeneutic by which the gospels are read. Even so, the many insights yielded from the greater discussion can be utilized when reading the gospels through mimetic theory.