Jumbled up in Jerusalem
This ‘introduction’ at the end of the story is placed here so that it doesn’t get in the way of the real story, the story of Jesus which is often not told as well as it should be. Although many of us have some idea of who Jesus was and bits of his story, or stories he told, it is becoming increasingly unfamiliar in the UK. The decline of RE teaching and of ‘organised’, mainly Christian worship, in schools has contributed to this growing unfamiliarity and distancing. We cannot any longer assume that the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ and ‘the Sermon on the Mount’, once well known segments of the Gospels, are part of our cultural heritage. There has been a huge change over the last forty years, in my lifetime.
What this means for all of us is that Jesus becomes shut up in a book, the Bible in the church pew, or perhaps gathering dust on a bookshelf in our homes. But should we happen to pick up the Bible, we may encounter archaic language, unfamiliar churchy jargon, verse numbers, small print, very thin paper. In short not like other books or stories. When Christians tell Jesus’ story it is dependent on this churchy text, though some have made great attempts to retell it in creative ways.
It will come as no surprise that the story of Jesus is often told by Christians as part of an invitation to become Christian (‘evangelism’), even in its mild forms it is not told as story but as message, even propaganda, seeking to persuade the reader. This is rather different from the original story which is very much a story to read or listen to, it’s up to you what you do with it. This is the way in which I have presented it. Evangelism, theology, the church, Christianity can do a disservice to Jesus by telling his story in such a way that it puts people off and causes a divide between those who share it and those who are unfamiliar with it. It may even put off those who are familiar with it or lead to anti-evangelism — ‘I like Jesus but I’m not keen on those who talk about him.’
It was talking to friends, as a recovering evangelistically-minded Christian, that I realised that Jesus is an attractive character to most people, just about everyone in fact. This was quite the opposite to what I heard in church — ‘we expect people to reject the Gospel’. It wasn’t hard to come to the conclusion that this was all wrong, that we (Christians) could learn a thing or two from those who did not give themselves a ‘Christian’ label, they might even be more Christian than us, more interested in Jesus as a real person than we were or than we conveyed. So often this is not how Jesus is conveyed, he is presented as a cosmic figure or a theological concept, rather than a real man.
One of the examples that I often use, and I have no ill will towards its creators, is the Alpha course, an evangelistic introduction to Christianity. I re-read the course book six years ago, at the time I started writing Jumbled up in Jerusalem, it was an important and provoking moment. I picked it up thinking: — Jesus is central to Christianity. It disturbed me that in ten sessions only 1½ of them are focused on Jesus himself, with a good portion of that being on the significance of his death, rather than what he taught or said, or his interactions. It confirmed me in my quest to tell, or retell, his story. How could any Christian allow Jesus to be sidelined in the religion that bears his name, or title? Yet this is precisely what we have allowed to happen, or worse have turned the Gospel stories into what St Paul calls ‘another (i.e. dodgy) Gospel’, though he was the first one to offer something different, he got his rebuttal in first.
It took me a long time to see this, I guess I was aware of the cognitive dissonance for some time and also that hardly anyone took the (educative) trouble to explore the differences between what we read in the Gospels and the message of other parts of the ‘New Testament’. I had, however, been thinking for a long time that as important as Christians say the Bible is, or the Gospels, it was never really read in that way, when it really should be.
But there is also the more difficult issue in the Gospel stories of attitudes to Jews, or Judaism. Reading the stories today, especially having spent time with Jewish friends, reading the Gospels together, highlights a negativity that we wish was not there. It is understandable that there were tensions between the early followers of Jesus (I don’t want to call them Christians, because they were Jews) and other religiously-observant Jews, but the motives that are ascribed to the Jews in the Gospels and the (at best) unbelievable words put into their mouths must make us ask questions, and regret the very dark history that followed, rooted in these attitudes. Attitudes that were blindly and hatefully adopted by the church and European culture, continuing to spread this poison to our own day, where a British political party is mired in accusations of antisemitism. The white-washing of Pontius Pilate in the usual story is the flip side of this. I have aimed to give a more realistic portrayal of him. Some anti-Jewish/Judaism aspects I have had to leave in because leaving a hole or dismantling the story is also not going to work, tempting as it is. What I have been able to do is make sure that the Romans, as much as possible, not the Jews, are blamed for Jesus’ death.
I could have offered some interesting and unexpected observations at the beginning but this is about telling his story first. Having told it, and ended where the reader might not have expected, I leave this final thought:
At the end of the story Jesus is missing, his followers go looking for him but he is not there. He has disappeared at the end of his own story, though there is the promise that he is still around and waiting for his followers, not that we read about this encounter.
Why is he missing? This is a question that few have asked. Unusually, it puts his first followers in the position of those who, like us, read his story much later. In his absence, we reflect on his story, and what we can learn about him, a world figure, yet known to only a few in his own time. There are, of course, also other stories, which are not part of his story here, of him meeting his followers again.
Have we met him in his story? Without doubt. At the same time we must ask where is he now? Not in the pale images which show him as a white European, nor in the stereotype of him as meek and mild. Nor yet as a figure who is more God than man. Whatever we believe about him (and meeting him must come before believing) we encounter him in his story as a real man, and real people die.
As he is missing we are left with the memory of him, just as those we leave behind will remember us. Two of my friends, who shared this journey with me — Julian Bolt and Carl Poll — died while I was writing this, one of them on Easter Sunday, we literally went through life and death together.
What is different about Jesus is that his story is shaped by his death, the impact of his death on his followers, as well as the belief that death was not the end of him. They wrote his story to show that he was still alive and to keep him present as their teacher and role model. They weren’t writing history while doing this, but, as is often tritely said, recording his story. As a story it is very human, it is not theology or a document that is just for the church, but who reads it?
He is also missing in what his followers write about him today, because he is not present as a person. Often he is something else entirely — a belief, a theory — rather than the man that was written about then. Even recent books, which feature him in the title, usually depart from what kind of man he was, because that is not their interest. Opening up his story as a man reduces the possibility of anyone taking ownership of him (and if we respect, or revere, him we should not want that), or his story. Even for his own followers, he can be too challenging, his challenge is to let him be, and then we can ask ourselves, can we be like him? And, is he like us?
Go back to the beginning and read part 1 of ‘Jumbled up in Jerusalem’ here: ‘The Devil’s in the Desert’.
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