I often try to notice the way people view Jesus: who he was and what he stood for.
My observation is that Jesus is a kind of reverse fun-house mirror. When we look at him we see ourselves, but a slightly better version of ourselves. Maybe ourselves as we’d like to be, or as we aspire to be.
I’ve heard conservative evangelicals describe (with ample citations) how Jesus was an economic and social conservative, whose agenda was to bring a radical moral code to a world that had slipped into liberal degradation. I’ve heard those with sympathies for liberation theology describe (with many citations) how Jesus’s message was a powerful challenge for social justice, focussing on the poor, the vulnerable and the despised. I’ve heard those who long to be taken out of the world evoke a Jesus (again, with lots of citations) who teaches political detachment, eagerness for the life to come and a neglect for earthly duties. I’ve seen people sport pictures of Jesus as Che, soldiers wearing “What Would Jesus Do” bracelets, and unmarried women with wedding rings from their Holy bridegroom.
And I’ve been amused for the last couple of weeks as Jim McGrath walked into a flamewar on the subject of Mythicism (the idea that there was no historical Jesus), and it occurs to me that when some atheists look at Jesus they conveniently see nothing there*.
I suspect this happens whenever you have a set of texts as rich, complex and theologically diverse as the new testament. No matter what you want Jesus to be, you can read along and the things that resonate will stand out, and the things that stand out will be what you remember. We pay more attention to views that support ours, and so, by a natural process, Jesus becomes more like us.
I think there was a historical Jesus, around who’s core reality was built the various tales, doctrines and theologies we see today. I think we can have some confidence that certain things he is reported to say, he did. I think some of those are odious, some deeply profound and moving. I think he died a failure, was not resurrected and spawned a most fantastically interesting cultural and sociological phenomena.
I have very good reason to believe each of these things. I can provide numerous citations…
* Okay, so the mirror metaphor breaks down here – but you see the point. Jesus is whatever you want him to be.