So long have we exalted Jesus as the Christ and robed him in purple prose, that we forget the simple fact that he was dirt poor, living just a notch above the degraded (outcasts) and the expendables (beggars, day laborers, and slaves). Likewise, so long have we studied the record of his remarkable teachings, especially the parables, that we assume he was literate. But 95 to 97 percent of the Jewish population was illiterate at the time of Jesus, so “it must be presumed that Jesus also was illiterate, that he knew, like the vast majority of his contemporaries in an oral culture, the foundational narratives, basic stories, and general expectations of his tradition but not the exact texts, precise citations, or intricate arguments of its scribal elites.
After Constantine engineered the merger of Christ worshipers with sun worshipers in the fourth century, the creeds solidified and finalized the view of faith we hold today. Not only was this politically expedient, but it gave the church many elements of Mithraism that survive to this day. Christ is depicted in early paintings as the Sun (with rays bursting from his head), Sun-Day is the day of rest, and Christmas was moved from January 6 (still the date for Eastern Orthodox churches) to December 25, the birthday of Mithra. The ornaments of Christian orthodoxy today are nearly identical to those of the Mithraic version: miters, wafers, water baptism, altar, and doxology. Mithra was a traveling teacher with twelve companions who was called the “good shepherd,” “the way, the truth, and the life,” and “redeemer,” “savior,” and “messiah.” He was buried in a tomb, and after three days he rose again. His resurrection was celebrated every year.
Anti-intellectualism remains strongly entrenched in many parts of the church, but it is grounded in fear, not in faith. Instead of seeing the benefits of a vital conversation between the academy and the average person in the pew about how a third-millennium man or woman might still follow a first-century Jewish sage, many Christians view scholarship as a threat to church doctrine. They believe that professors who make clever arguments against the virgin birth, for example, are careless vandals poking holes in the dike of faith. To shore up that dike, they believe they need to show “true faith” by accepting uncritically the tenets of their particular tradition without question. Such defiance is captured in a popular bumper sticker: “THE BIBLE SAYS IT, GOD WROTE IT, AND THAT SETTLES IT!”Ironically, biblical scholars are actually interested in the same “trinity” of ideas, but they put question marks where others put exclamation points. What does the Bible really say? What does it mean to say it is inspired by God? And why do we believe that God’s voice is exclusively in the past tense? Perhaps, as my denomination is fond of saying, God is still speaking.
Strangely, we have come to a moment in human history when the message of the Sermon on the Mount could indeed save us, but it can no longer be heard above the din of dueling doctrines. Consider this: there is not a single word in that sermon about what to believe, only words about what to do. It is a behavioral manifesto, not a propositional one. Yet three centuries later, when the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom, there was not a single word in it about what to do, only words about what to believe!Thus the most important question we can ask in the church today concerns the object of faith itself. The earliest metaphors of the gospel speak of discipleship as transformation through an alternative community and the reversal of conventional wisdom. In much of the church today, our metaphors speak of individual salvation and the specific promises that accompany it. The first followers of Jesus trusted him enough to become instruments of radical change. Today, worshipers of Christ agree to believe things about him in order to receive benefits promised by the institution, not by Jesus.This difference, between following and worshiping, is not insignificant. Worshiping is an inherently passive activity, since it involves the adoration of that to which the worshiper cannot aspire. It takes the form of praise, which can be both sentimental and self-satisfying, without any call to changed behavior or self-sacrifice. In fact, Christianity as a belief system requires nothing but acquiescence. Christianity as a way of life, as a path to follow, requires a second birth, the conquest of ego, and new eyes with which to see the world. It is no wonder that we have preferred to be saved.
For a number of reasons, the church has become widely viewed as either irrelevant, the object of contempt, or both. The situation is complex, but two factors stand out. First, a narrow approach to the idea of salvation, as expressed in the blood atonement and with Jesus as the exclusive divine Savior, has played into the hands of a church seeking political power at the expense of the inclusive wisdom of its own gospel. “Getting saved” not only is a static and highly individualistic phenomenon but narrows and domesticates the redemptive activity of God in ways that conform all too conveniently to the worldview of the new American empire. In a land of entitled bargain hunters, salvation becomes the ultimate bargain.Second, the notion of covenant as a collective expression of gratitude and mutuality has been trampled beneath a culture whose real devotion is to private ambition. The religious impulse, born in epiphanies that awaken us to our responsibilities to and for one another, is fundamentally corrupted when it is reduced to an individual balm. Faith is always supposed to make it harder, not easier, to ignore the plight of our sisters and brothers. In short, the church must make a crucial choice now between wisdom theology and salvation theology— between the Jesus who transforms and the Christ who saves. One is the biblical ethic of justice; the other is a postbiblical invention that came to fullness only after the Protestant Reformation.