Friday, October 2, 2009

Pure Religion

I sometimes hear people exhorting our return to a version of Christianity less tainted by modern culture and influences, as if there were a moment when the undefiled faith was easily discernible as directly revealed by God. An understanding of history (or even a broad reading of the Bible) will quickly unravel the supposition that this might ever be possible. The history of both Christianity and Judaism repeatedly demonstrates how religions are influenced by and adapt to surrounding cultures - sometimes in acquiescence to those cultures, sometimes in rebellion against them.

There is no single moment in time, to which we might long to return, when Christianity has been perfect. The Christian faith is continuing to evolve, as it must, along with the times and places in which Christians exist. Christianity today varies significantly, not only from denomination to denomination, but from country to country. The questions that inevitably arise from this situation become 'is there a core that must not change?', 'what is that core?', 'how do we discern it?'. This is where disagreements often arise as people mistake doctrines that are only a couple of centuries old for ones that originated with Jesus. Any search for the authentic core of Christianity must take into account the history of the church across cultures, the quest for the historical Jesus and the development of Judaism.

In most cases, the result will be something simple like love God and love your neighbour.


David said...

Is that you in drag, Jason?

Expensive looking wig.

JDK said...

The photo is courtesy of illustrating that I am not above self-deprecating humour :-) Sadly, my actual hairstyle in the 80's was not much different...

David said...

Is there a difference between what Jesus taught and the "theologised" faith of Paul and the epistle writers?

And just who is the historical Jesus? Looks like he is hidden behind a bunch of sayings that are partially reproduced in the gosples and embroidered with pseudo-narrative, pop culture miracle stories (for a first century audience) and an atonement "scoop" that grows more theologically complex over time.

Where is the pure religion then?

JDK said...

Great questions David. Given that we don't have any direct writings by Jesus, all of our New Testament could be described as 'theologised' representations of what people thought about Jesus. How much of that goes back to the historical Jesus of Nazareth is hotly debated, though the work of the Jesus Seminar is now reasonably established in contemporary scholarship.

I used to be quite disatisfied about Paul's transformation of Jesus' message (about the Kingdom of God) into a religion about Jesus. However, that's probably an unfair characterisation of Paul about whom I still have much to learn.

An understanding of the development of the Biblical tradition has been a major breakthrough in the past century particularly. Unfortunately much of this information hasn't made it from academia to the pews, so it has been largely left to people like Jack Spong to popularise it.

True religion? I'm increasingly convinced this has more to do with how we live than what we believe.

Regards, JDK

John T. said...

Hello Jason,

John Tracey in Brisbane here. We previously had a conversation on my old blog "Paradigm Oz".

Finding the historical Jesus is not just a matter of looking at the stories of Jesus in the context of culture and social values, although this is important. Jesus and his movement were tribal indigenous people and I believe this aspect of the culture of the bible has been washed out by the culture of the imperial church and so-called "civilisation".

However, to understand the historical Jesus, perhaps it would be worthwhile to look at - history.

The Old Testament we have now is based on the Septugaint which was translated into Greek at about the same time as the Macabees revolt against Greek colonisation. The New Testament is written about events of the times of Roman colonisation, from Herod the Great to Pilate. The New Testament itself was written in the the second half of the first century or perhaps a bit later, either way it was during the times of the indigenous nationalist revolts against Rome in the second half of the first century and the first half of the second century. These Jewish revolts also occured throughout the Roman empire, not just in Israel.

To understand the meaning of the stories of Jesus and the Jerusalem church after pentacost, we must look at them through the prism of history, and in so doing we find an insurectionary underground movement in hostile opposition to the domination of the Roman empire. It is no co-incidence that this resistance is in accordance with the Old testament's recounting of indigenous nationalist resistance to the empires of Egypt and Babylon. It is no co-incidence that Jesus was understood in the Messianic tradition of his name-sake Joshua who reclaimed the land of Abraham for the people of Israel.

Crucifixion was not unique to Jesus, it was the typical mode by which Rome publicly executed the indigenous resistance movement. When Jesus calls us to take up the cross he calls us into this insurectionary movement in resistance to colonial domination.

The sayings of Jesus and the stories about him have enourmous meaning when read in the light of indigenous resistance to empire.

To look at the relevance of the Jesus story to our own situation we non-indigenous Australians should not (as the church has done) identify with the faithfull Jews of the N.T. such as the disciples or the Acts community, rather we need to identify with the gentiles, tax collectors and centurions who are a part of the imperial, colonial regime. Just as the ancient land covenant of Abraham was central to the Jerusalem church and its resistance to empire, we need to understand the ancient covenant(s) between God and the indigenous people of this land who have been sustained by God for much longer than the Hebrews in Israel. Like the gentiles, in particular the Samaritan population that was converted in Acts, we have to join the indigenous church to be part of the Kingdom of God

Just as the centurion Cornelius had a faith greater than anyone in ISrael, there is no barrier to gentile Australians following God in this country, however our faith must lead us to join the kingdom of God, which in the case of the New Testament, was a matter of the institution of the Jubilee, the freeing of slaves, the dropping of debt and the return of land to its original tribal owners.

We cannot find out too much about the historical Jesus from the bible if we read the bible in isolation. If we read the bible in the context of history however, we can find out a lot about the historical Jesus.

I know the notion of a historical Jesus is often rejected in favour of a notion of a Jesus narrative created and maintained through tradition. However the Jesus narrative also must be understood in its historical context - the official religion of the brutal Roman empires. The civilised Jesus that speaks to civilised western european culture is just a colonial myth.

That's wot I reckon,


Nicky said...

Thanks JT,

I don't think I have ever looked at it that way (which is probably because I am a white fella). Jason I really like the way you put that as I have just been watching Compass on the ABC (Aust) and it is sad to see what happens when people (Christians) don't want to acknowledge the range cultural diversity of the Christian and Hebrew Scriptures. I just had a discussion today with some people from the congregation that I attend in regards to the ways in which we as Salvos can't use the same methods we used in the days of the Booths as they would be considered illegal today. Our values are the same but our methods and living out of those values, as you say, must be different.


dallian said...

In my opinion the one solid core of Christianity is, or should be, love. that's what Jesus commanded us to do. Love Him, and love our neighbour. I think as long as you have that, everything else will work itself out, (ie. you won't want to cheat or steal or lie because you love whomever you would otherwise be cheating, stealing and lying to).
Does that sorta make sense??

cool blog by the way :)