‘God helps those who help themselves.’ ‘The family that prays together stays together.’ ‘You can’t take it with you when you die.’ ‘And now for a time of worship.’ These popular sayings are more than mere proverbs – they’ve become modern-day creeds for us to live by. But in his new series, Steve Chalke asks if they’re the kind of statements that would ever have crossed the lips of Jesus.
It caused a scandal. In fact, many readers of the USA’s leading Catholic newspaper, the National Catholic Reporter, must have registered shock levels high on the Richter Scale when they saw the cover of the special Millennium issue. The paper had earlier launched a competition to find a new painting of Jesus for the New Millennium, and the cover featured the winning picture. Picked from 1,700 entries by a panel that included British art critic and nun Sister Wendy Beckett, it was painted by Janet McKenzie, who claimed she had tried to make it ‘as inclusive as possible’. But many of the NCR’s more conservative readers felt positively excluded by the picture, which depicts Jesus not only with what the artist calls ‘a subtle feminine dimension’ (though the face is male, the model was a woman), but also as being poor and black. It goes against the grain for most of us. We’ve become used to seeing Jesus portrayed as a middle class white man in everything from early Roman and Byzantine icons to Renaissance paintings and big budget Hollywood movies. Even Agape’s much-vaunted Jesus film and the famous painting of Jesus standing at the door and knocking (‘The Light of the World’) by William Holman Hunt, featured in Holy Trinity Brompton’s massively successful Alpha course, both picture a white, attractive, respectable, educated, wholesome and middle class Jesus. In short, the Jesus we normally encounter in art and films is the kind of man you’d feel comfortable with, the kind you’d invite home to meet your mother. He’s not the kind of person you’d imagine ending up on Death Row. And yet, as the Gospels tell us, the truth is that’s exactly where he did end up.
Of course, we all know full well that Jesus wasn’t white, just as we know that the early first century culture he lived in – the one that bursts out from the pages of the New Testament – was totally different from our own early twenty-first century one. We know that he was an olive-skinned, Aramaic-speaking, circumcised Palestinian Jew from what’s known as the ‘classical’ period of history. Nevertheless, most of the time we behave and act as if he were modern, suburban, Western and well-to-do. We tend to think of Jesus as exactly being like us … so much so, in fact, that it’s easy for us to forget just how different his world really was, and end up imagining that the kind of things we do and say are the kind of things he did and said. As a result, we often use him to rubber-stamp values and ideas he not only didn’t believe in, but wouldn’t have believed in. What’s more, most of the time we’re not even aware we’re doing it.
Tony Campolo remembers being interviewed by the Draft Board for military service back in the 1950s. Finding out that he was a Christian, an Air Force officer asked Tony if he was a ‘Conscientious Objector’. Tony had no idea what that meant, so the officer asked him, ‘If you were in a bomber flying over an enemy city, and you knew there were civilians down there, would you still go ahead drop the bombs?’ ‘I’m not sure,’ Tony replied. ‘I guess I’d have to pray, and ask Jesus what he’d do.’ ‘That’s ridiculous,’ exclaimed the Air Force officer, mentally dismissing Tony as an idiot and marking him unsuitable. ‘Everyone knows Jesus wouldn’t drop bombs!’ The experience made Tony think. Why, he asked himself, do we naturally assume that the rest of us, even those of us who call ourselves Christian, are allowed to do things that we know, deep down, Jesus would never do? The last few years have seen a massive craze in Evangelical Christian circles of badges or bracelets bearing the letters WWJD, an abbreviated form of ‘What Would Jesus Do?’. Some critics have dismissed the initiative as nothing more than a tasteless exercise in making money, but many of those who’ve supported the idea feel there’s a more noble purpose: to encourage young Christians to think about their actions within a moral framework. In a sense, it’s a crash course in Christian ethics. But the problem is, many Christians – young and old – don’t actually know enough about Jesus to know what he would do.
A recent poll revealed that a third of all churchgoers hardly ever read the Bible, and some have never read it at all … ever! But tragically, even those of us who read it regularly often do little more than skim the surface. We never really let it disturb us. Instead, we tend to scoot over the difficult bits rather than wrestling with their meaning. In fact, not only do most of us have huge gaps in our knowledge of Jesus and the Gospels, but we then unthinkingly tend to fill in these gaps with our own, very modern and Western imagination. ‘God created humanity in his own image,’ seventeenth century French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal said, wryly adding, ‘Unfortunately, humanity decided to return the favour.’ Two hundred years later, the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach tried to prove him right by arguing that what we call ‘God’ is really no more than a cosmic projection of what we think the ideal human should be. The famous French sociologist Émile Durkheim picked up on this idea, suggesting that God is a ‘collective representation’ of the human mind: our beliefs, values and opinions. Every society, Durkheim argued, unconsciously shapes and develops its concept of God over time, so a particular society’s concept of God is really a mirror image of its own core values. There’s more than a grain of truth in this. As Greek philosopher Xenophanes remarked in around 500BC, ‘The Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black, the Thracians that theirs have light blue eyes and red hair.’ The Greeks’ muscle-bound, virile gods and slim, sensual goddesses were part fantasy, part mirror-image of their worshippers’ own culture. But tragically, in the last two millennia, Christians have also been guilty of doing the same thing.
The Willowbank Report from the Lausanne Convention on World Evangelisation defined culture as ‘an integrated system of beliefs, values, customs and institutions which bind a society together and give it a sense of identity, dignity, security and continuity’. In his book Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, social historian Richard Tawney shows how Christians of all denominations have consistently, but unintentionally, endorsed and even helped create our Western, capitalist culture. Durkheim is blunt: ‘Western Christianity is no more than a religionizing of capitalist culture.’ Of course, as Christians we know from personal experience that Western Christianity is far more than a ‘religionizing of capitalist culture’. Unfortunately, if we’re honest, we have to admit that Christianity has all too often accepted and swallowed huge doses of a culture that is far more capitalist than Christ-like. God is a real, eternal, transcendent being, but the fact remains that our understanding of him – and his unique Son, Jesus – is often coloured by the values that lie at the heart of our society. As Lesslie Newbigin noted, ‘Our culture issues us with a pair of glasses through which we see and understand the world.’ If we’re not careful, we only ever see and understand God through these glasses as well.
A few years ago, I had the chance to meet the famous anti-apartheid campaigner Bayers Naudé. Though his work eventually won him the Nobel Peace Prize, he’d been brought up a firm supporter of apartheid. As a young preacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, he’d positively enjoyed preaching about white superiority and the separation of the races, which he’d considered ‘ordained by God’. Apartheid was so much a part of his understanding of God that he couldn’t see how it could be wrong. As a result, until the ‘scales fell from his eyes’ in his mid 30s, he not only used Jesus and the Bible as a rubber stamp for his racist ideas, he even attacked as ‘anti-Christian’ all those who criticized his position. As American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once put it, ‘The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan values and ends is … the source of all religious fanaticism.’
This may be an extreme example, but the truth is that we all do the same every time we unthinkingly assume that What Jesus Would Do is more or less the same as what we would do in any given situation. Without aiming to, we recreate Jesus in our own image, enlisting him as an ally in whatever we want to justify. If we’re not careful, we jump to conclusions about what he’d say, do and think based on a hurried and superficial reading of the Gospels, and perhaps even a rather generous dose of wishful thinking. All too often we merely give a thin ‘spiritual’ veneer to values and agendas that in reality have little or nothing to do with genuine Biblical concerns … and may even run entirely contrary to them! When Paul took his Christian gospel to gentile cultures, he insisted on adapting his way of expressing that gospel to the surrounding culture. In fact, he was prepared to use all means at his disposal to help him explain what a Christian was – even going so far as to enlist the aid of pagan philosophers, poets and an altar to an ‘unknown god’ (Acts 17). But whilst Paul was a contemporary of Jesus, fully versed in the cultures of both pagan Rome (being a Roman citizen) and Jewish Palestine (having studied under Rabbi Gamaliel in Jerusalem), who was concerned to make sure that ‘nothing got lost in the translation’, many of those who’ve followed in his footsteps have been nothing like so well-informed or conscientious.
When Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in AD312, the Church seized the opportunity to do more than just communicate the gospel to Roman culture and society, and began actively trying to influence it. Tragically, by this time it was becoming increasingly difficult to know what was authentically Christian and what was just Roman. As a result, from the role of vicars and bishops to the basic view of God, authority and the Kingdom, pagan Roman society left its indelible mark on the Church. British missionaries faced an identical problem in the nineteenth century, when imperial colonial ambitions gave the Church an unparalleled chance to take the gospel to previously unexplored parts of the world. Men and women arrived on the ‘mission field’ in their thousands, spreading ‘the gospel’ and starting churches. But few of them had any real skill in discerning what was genuinely ungodly in the native traditions and cultures they encountered, and what was just a different way of doing things. All too often, they made no real effort to distinguish what was ‘Christian’ from what was ‘British’ – it was something they’d never had to do in the UK. Instead, they simply assumed that since Britain was a Christian country, British ways were inevitably Christian ways, and vice versa.
Tragically, the legacy of that mistake is still obvious today in a great many churches in what were once British colonies. I’ve visited churches where congregations are all dressed in suits in sweltering temperatures, where services are in English rather than the people’s indigenous language, and where the music seems to have undergone a rhythm bypass operation. Many have hardly changed their format since the day the missionaries left. More than anything else, they’re a dull echo of old-fashioned Victorian society half a world away and 100 years on. Over the coming months, I’m going to be taking my cue from Martyn Joseph’s song, He Never Said, and looking at a number of the popular slogans, sayings and proverbs that reflect some of the core values not only of our society, but also quite often of the Church. I’ll be examining a few of the modern myths and philosophies that characterize society, and asking, Did Jesus believe that? Would Jesus say that? And to answer these questions, I’ll be taking a closer look at some of the things that Jesus not only would say, but actually did.
Prepare to be disturbed.