Renting Jesus

I haven't heard a lot about the emergent church or Brian McLaren lately, Maybe the novelty has worn off. But this 2011 post is still as relevant as ever, being that we have plenty of people who still think Jesus is a theological buffet table.


"I don't own Jesus!"

So says Carl Medearis in a blog entry for (CNN), and certainly he's right. He doesn't own Jesus. Jesus owns us. But of course that's not quite what he means either. What he means, as becomes clear further on, is, "No one owns the truth about Jesus." And in that respect, Medearis does not indeed own Jesus, but he does rent Jesus.

When someone says something like, "no one owns the truth about Jesus”, it's time to raise the Law of Non-Contradiction again. Because when you say, "no one owns the truth about Jesus," you're making a truth claim about Jesus, and one that is exclusive of all others about Jesus. Which means (gasp) you're claiming to own the truth about Jesus after all.

You have to wonder if people in the emergent church have even heard of the Law of Non-Contradiction.

(Not that they're alone. On TektonTV the other day, I was accused of "labeling" because I used the word "fundies" to describe opponents. I was told that when people use pejorative labels like that, it's a sign that they can't make a good argument. Never mind that it was a a single word at the conclusion of a vid full of arguments; and never mind that the point itself is a pejorative -- against the use of labels.)

But back to Carl. Not surprisingly, it turns out his issue here is more due to rather obvious guilt over having (as he sees it) fouled up as a missionary to Arabs, after having dreamed of being one as a child and having invested much of his adult life in the project. His personal story sounds rather too much like that of fundy atheists who, having once invested their lives in the gospel, now have become anti-evangelists who push Freke and Gandy where before they pushed Hovind and Comfort. As I'm fond of saying, they may change horses, but they wear the same hats. Before, Medearis was a pushy (he says "zealous") missionary who blithely recited the Gospel message to Arabs without caring who he offended. Now he's an emergent who blithely and zealously pushes the emergent message without caring who he offends -- least of all caring about his epistemic consistency.
In all this, Medearis has fallen for a partial truth which creates a dichotomy between "religion" and the truth.

To be sure, there are forms of religious expression that ought to be avoided, but throwing them all out is a fundamentalist, black and white solution. Though he professes not to be saying "religion" can't ever do good things, his shift to "Jesus" (as he puts it) amounts to having thrown out baby and bathwater together in all else he presents (apart from the lip service....which, one suspects, is calculated to prevent offense to the religious).

But as is usual with emergents, the Jesus Medearis preaches is also severely edited -- as best as can be done – and to that extent is the way in which he rents Jesus rather than owning him. Medearis presents the Jesus who fellowshipped with sinners and challenged the religious leaders of the day, while also trying to avoid the Jesus who called the same sinners to repent and called those same religious leaders whitewashed tombs and vipers. He highlights (and does well to highlight) the Jesus who tells the story of the good Samaritan, but deftly avoids the Jesus who ordered the separation and condemnation of the goats.

To be sure, this is understandable as a knee-jerk reaction to a completely opposite emphasis which paid more attention to the hellfire Jesus than to the charitable Jesus. It was just such an emphasis which made me despise Christianity for many years. But unlike Medearis and so many others, I kept back the baby when the bathwater was disposed of.

It was just such a disposal which makes Medearis commit a blunder such as this one concerning Paul:

The big issue of the day was what to do with all the gentiles that were coming in. Should they "convert to Judaism" by receiving circumcision ... or does God accept them as they are? It was Paul who insisted that it's faith in Jesus that really matters, not converting to a new religion or a new socio-religious identity. Paul challenged me to think of Jesus not as starting a new religion, but as the central figure of a movement that transcends religious distinctions and identities. Jesus the uniter of humanity; not Jesus the divider of humanity.

Oh really? Never mind studies such as Segal's Paul the Convert, or Crook's Reconceptualising Conversion, which show that "conversion" was exactly what Paul had in mind (though I do agree it doesn't wholly match modern ideas). Never mind that Jesus hugely divided humans into sheep and goats, and that it was unity in him as covenant broker was what he had in mind (Matthew 10, anyone?). "Where does that leave me today?" Medearis asks. Let me answer that: It leaves him as much in the dark as he used to be before, but on the other side of the spotlight from where he used to be.

I have to be amused, further on, when Medearis remarks that he still "wrestle[s] with the implications of what I see in the New Testament (namely that Jesus seems to be socially inclusive, yet theologically exclusive) ... and what it means to help people follow him. But I'm confident that the same Jesus that made exclusive claims about himself is also the Jesus that liked to turn heretics into heroes." Basically, this amounts to saying that he realizes that there's a Jesus in the NT that doesn't fit at all with the image he wants to present in his new pseudo-evangelism, but rather than face up to it, he'll present Jesus as "enigmatic" in the hopes that he can deftly avoid having to answer those hard questions, like this:

Q: You say Jesus welcomes everyone, but what about Matthew 25?

Medearis: That's a good question! (Spends next 25 pages avoiding an answer as he explains how wonderful Jesus is in other passages.)

The rented Jesus of the emergents isn't going to work for anything but a few emotional converts who, like so many today, don't read their Bibles, or else resort (as Medearis does) to the non-explanation of "enigma" to explain the paradoxes and then distract themselves with emotional highs or even charitable service. Saying "Jesus is bigger than any box a religion or philosophy tries to place him in" isn't an answer to such issues but an admission that you don't want to answer and can't. Such cognitive dissonance may be "okay with" Carl -- but it won't be okay with anyone who thinks deeply on the matter and cares about a message that's consistent and believable.

In the end, that means long term -- a message like Medearis' will just dig us deeper into the hole we're in.

Which is precisely why I won't be letting up on it any time soon.


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