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I saw on Amazon a British sports-arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar. The acting, singing, choreography, integration with giant video imaging, and the clever use of intentional anachronisms made for good entertainment for those who like drama. The lyrics and movement showed a keen familiarity with the Biblical text even though the writers clearly spun the narrative in directions completely unintended by the original authors. But then, since when had honoring the meaning and intent of the original authors meant anything to those in the art community?
While I enjoyed the entertainment, I did not find Webber-Rice’s version of an anguished, tormented, self-doubting, and annoyingly whiny Jesus to be very compelling. (If only he had listened to Judas!)
The problem of who Jesus was is by no means a new one. Pick up any book on church history and the first four hundred years or so seem dedicated to fighting to getting the story of Jesus right. Was he Creator or created? Was he human or God? If both, how does that work? And how do we reconcile this with Hebrew Scripture and monotheism? The creeds such as the Apostolic and Nicene creeds were kind of statements that said, “We have looked at this from every possible angle and this is the best language we can use to answer these questions.”
But the questions come even earlier. Many in the church advise new believers to start with the gospel of John. The book starts out fair enough with a dissertation here, a substantiating miracle there. But then the story breaks out into a community conflict so polarizing you would have thought someone brought up at a family Thanksgiving dinner the question, “Who is Donald Trump?” The answer would range from the most deceptive scoundrel ever to the savior of the world. (Note: I’m making an analogy about polarization here, not implying that Mr. Trump and Jesus are in the same category.)
Some in John’s gospel argue that the facts and history of Jesus just do not line up. Others point out that his teaching and his corroborating works of miracles could only point to the true Savior of the world. John, the writer, makes it no secret that the latter is the very place he is trying to take his reader. (See John 20:30, 31). At the end of John 7, after bitter but hushed debate (where the wrong statement could get you excommunicated or possibly killed), people throw up their hands and returned to their homes (John 7:53).
The Christian faith is fundamentally about Jesus. “Who do you say that I am?” While Christianity has its doctrines, its rules, and its metaphysical elements, it has this obsessive “Jesus is everything” quality about it. Even Marian theology among Catholics is set forth as a means to preserve the veracity of who the church believes Jesus is.
Those who evangelize Jews, such as Jews for Jesus, will likely argue how the life of Jesus line up with the laws, rituals, and prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Those in the early church were less inclined to “prove Jesus” by how many prophecies He fulfilled (they weren’t moderns, after all) but would read the Hebrew Scriptures as if Jesus was indeed the interpretive key to everything that has come before.
Those who push back, such as Jews for Judaism, would point out that Jesus had not fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies (no universal rule of the throne of David, for example). Christians would retort that prophetic scriptures work outside of time, often having near fulfillments and far fulfillment, and in that spirit, it is perfectly consistent to argue that Jesus showed forth some of His Messianic qualities in the Incarnation and will fulfill the rest at his second coming. Jews for Judaism would argue that this seems more of a justification of a Messiah that fell short and that it would be simpler and perhaps more honest to await a Messiah that clearly fulfilled everything.
It is the same back and forth in the gospel of John, and like John 7, after a night of debate, all throw up their hands and returned to their homes.
Liberal Christians try to solve the problem of who Jesus is by assuming (as they generally do) that we are much more enlightened people than those in the past. We have science, textual criticism, and historical analysis methods that are far superior, so we are better equipped to get at the Jesus of history without being sidetracked by the Jesus of faith. But the fruit of their efforts only brings forth a tearing down of the Jesus that the church historically embraced without producing a viable alternative. One historian may say that He was like this and another may say He was like that. In the end, the varying views come down to what assumptions and biases the interpreter has. Often Jesus looks a lot like the current moral vision and wildly popular cultural trends that we already possess.
To no one’s shock and surprise, Jesus Christ Superstar portrays Jesus looking a lot like a sensitive soul leading a group one might find in an Occupy Wall Street rally while the religious elites dress remarkably in conservative business wear. It certainly makes a left-leaning audience feel more just without having to bother to change anything about themselves.
While Liberal Christians are free to pursue this route, I find this religious direction boring. The best you can say for such ilk is that their churches believe the same thing as Starbucks but makes no meaningful statement on who Jesus is over against the self-aggrandizing, secular movements they have already been conditioned to embrace.
In the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, Peter proclaimed the simple statement “Jesus is Lord” and remarkably thousands of Jews (and later Gentiles) believed. It was not a message of how to be saved, or how Jesus can give you peace, or how to use Jesus’ principles to win in life. It was more akin to after a military victory when a Centurion would come into a Roman outpost, set up a banner, and proclaim “Caesar is Lord.” It wasn’t a question or invitation. It was a non-negotiable proclamation. A “good news,” if you will, unless you happened to be opposed.
For 2,000 years, the church has been attempting to work out exactly what it means that Jesus is Lord. Some have done it well, others horrendously.
Nevertheless, regardless of what the church has done or not done, the question always traces back to the same place: Who was this Jesus anyway? The Biblical gospels themselves don’t give a whole lot of advice but just tell the story of his life, death, and crucifixion and gently asks the reader where they are in the story. Are you a follower or a detractor? Do you watch from afar or actively push back? Do you truly believe or pretend to believe in serving your own purpose? Are you for Him or against Him? Is he, as Rice put into Mary Magdelene’s mouth, “just a man” or is he something much more?
Wherever one stands or doesn’t stand religiously (and there is no judgment or condescension here), the one who embraces the claim that Jesus is Lord and aligns their life accordingly is what it means to be called a Christian, a follower of Christ. Those who don’t buy into such a claim are not.Published in