Tag Archives: christology

Dr Who, Jesus and the Blurflurgh

Our family enjoys the BBC’s flagship family sci-fi series Doctor Who (I’m pretty sure, though it is available on the BBC site, you have to be in the UK – I’m told it also airs on BBC America). This I share with several other bible bloggers. It was the end of the series this week, and unfortunately it ended with a staggeringly Blurflurgh plot. A very sad way to end a series with some significant high-points*

On the Imminent Destruction of the Universe

As a student, watching Star Trek, The Next Generation, my friends and I came up with the concept of the Blurflurgh plot. It goes like this:

“Oh no, there’s a blurflurgh!” “What’s a blurflurgh?” “A blurflurgh is the only thing that can destroy the universe, we can’t let the blurflurgh flemmoxate”. “It’s flemmoxating.” “Its okay, I have a praxindoodle, which prevents the flemmoxate of the blurflurgh destroying the universe”. “But the praxindoodle only works in the presence of gamma-umithrons.” “We can desedrify the ship’s jimgraxle to generate a stream of gamma umithrons to power the praxindoodle that will prevent the flemmoxate of the blurflurgh from destroying the universe. But the only button is on the inside of the jimgraxle room.” “But that will kill you.” “Yes, but its a sacrifice I must make. Goodbye everyone” …5 minute FX shot… “Wait, you’re alive? How.” “I realised that the only way to survive the desedrification field is to finally understand the meaning of love.” “Cool – what’s next?”

As you can see it is a pretty lame plot, although by the frequency of its use you would never know. There are lots of subtleties to how bad this plot is (I could, literally, talk for a couple of hours on it), but for today’s lesson, here’s two.

1. It relies on almost nothing you know or could reasonably anticipate. It makes a nonsensical mortal problem in order to provide the heroes with an opportunity to supply a nonsensical solution. All the time having to tell you why the solution solves the problem, because the nature of Blurflurgh plots is that the connection is so arbitrary, you simply could never guess.

2. The ‘twist’ in the tale bears jarringly little relationship to either the problem or solution. It is a form of Deus Ex Machina, only with the Deus being a magical link between the emotional and the physical world. The less egregious Blurflurghs at least make the desedrification-survival-technique use a Trakanemnon Gun that was given to the hero as a token of universe-healing love. The worse skip the Trakanemnon and just make Love itself do the work.

If you think about the Christian atonement story as a narrative structure, it is a Blurflurgh plot. To tell the story, you have to first create just the right kind of God, then describe the fall, then original sin and universal guilt, then the principle of substitutionary sacrifice, then wrap that around Jesus and his untimely death, and the hero saves everyone but dies himself. But no, “Wait, you’re alive? How.” “Because Death cannot defeat perfect love.” “Cool – what’s next?”

If you’ve ever seen the evangelism story using the cross as a bridge, this is the Blurflurgh plot laid bare. 99% of the story is spent telling the hearer of all the invented rules of the fantasy world that make it so the conclusion is understandable.

On the Best Way to Polish a Poor Plot

I have a vivid memory of discussing the first Wheel of Time book with a fan. I found (and still find) this kind of fantasy narrative very derivative, and more than a little Blurflurgh. You have to create a bunch of arbitrary peril, then a bunch more arbitrary solution, and laden the end with cheap and shallow sentimentality. I was trying to explain this to the fan (before I had the word Blurflurgh). They insisted the story was logically compelling, and did make sense, because, you see, Rand obviously had to have no parents, because, as we’ll see later in the series, such-and-such happened to them. And with the Aes Sedai so powerful, that means that he has to stay on the run, and so on. Layers and layers of post-hoc rationalization built around a Blurflurgh plot with the sole purpose of making the underlying preposterousness seem less preposterous.

If you talk about substitutiary atonement enough it can seem pretty normal too. Hell, even I have fallen into the trap of having long, detailed discussions about its minutiae. Forgetting the obvious, and not well hidden truth: it is a preposterous fantasy and by being utterly arbitrary, is also utterly unamenable to reason.

* Among which have been, for me – the question of whether there is knowledge you would want yourself not to know, and the sublime (and I hope intended) statement on the impotence of fame that was bringing Vincent Van Gogh to his own exhibition in the Louvre in 2010, only for him to still commit suicide when returned.

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Jesus as a Boy? — John 2:1-11

I’ve been doing a little bit of study on infancy gospels recently. They are early Christian writings about the life of Jesus before his public ministry. Works such as the Protoevangelium of James and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, both (we think) second century texts. These got me thinking again about the NT, however, and an interesting thesis that I think has some merit. I’d like to share it.

First, some background on Christology. The various writers of the NT texts had different ideas about what it meant to be the Christ (which is just the greek word for Messiah), and the way in which Jesus fulfilled that label. One variation that is often cited is time. A very simplified version goes like this:

Paul – (the author of the earliest NT texts, around 60AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ through his death and resurrection.

Mark – (the earliest gospel, around 70AD) believed that Jesus became the Christ at his baptism.

Luke and Matthew – (the next tranche of gospel writing, around 80AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from conception.

John – (the last gospel, from after 90AD) believed that Jesus was the Christ from before creation.

So during the first century, Christology got pushed back through the life of Jesus and out the other side.

The first and most significant push-back gives motivation for the gospels. Paul isn’t interested in Jesus’s life. The man Jesus isn’t as important as the Christ he becomes. It takes a theological shift, putting the Christ-event at the baptism, to give Mark the reason to write his life of Jesus. Now Jesus the man is important because he is the Christ on earth. Then another key change is that between Mark and Luke. At this point the Christ-event gets pushed back beyond the unknown.

[Can I stress again that this is over-simplified, the gospels and Paul are more nuanced and there is Christological variation on other axes than time!]

So the unknown is intriguing, and potentially juicy. If the boy Jesus was the Christ, he must have had his divine powers then, surely? If so how did he use them? Was he born with the mind of an adult? Or was he a petulant youth with the power of the creator of the cosmos at his fingertips? This is the speculation that gives rise to the rather comical tales in some of the infancy gospels (including Jesus cursing another boy he’d fallen out with: the boy dies and his parents are struck blind). By the second century this speculation had got really far fetched. But it was pretty modest in the first century when the gospels were being written.

I think (and this isn’t a majority position, as far as I can tell) that there are two such stories surviving in the NT. They are evidence of the emerging tradition that started out of that theological innovation: to push back the Christ-event to before Jesus’s baptism.

The first story is pretty clearly in this category (though some scholars don’t share my view that it predated the gospel that contains it). It is the story at the end of Luke 2 where a 12 year old Jesus is teaching in the temple. Jesus’s parents have set off for home after the passover and they find Jesus is missing, they return to Jerusalem and find him teaching in the temple – amazing the priests and scribes with his knowledge. The text even comments that his parents share their amazement.

The second is more controversial. It is the story of the family wedding in Cana (start of John 2), where Jesus turns water into wine. This story could be read as having taken place during Jesus’s public ministry (John places it after the baptism and calling of the first disciples), but the details don’t quite work in that context. It makes more sense to read it earlier.

Both these stories work on their own. They have no significant context or relationship to surrounding material. Luke 2, coming at the end of the birth narratives seems to contain yet another revelation to his astonished parents that Jesus is the Christ, even though Luke has already given us two (possibly independent) accounts before. The wedding story doesn’t make theological sense in terms of Jesus’s ministry – turning water into wine is domestic, hedonistic, it is out of kilter with the more obvious theological points of John’s other miracle stories. John’s setting is odd – it takes place out of the area that John (and the synoptics) want to portray Jesus’s ministry. Both stories use an ‘three days’ mnemonic (Jesus is lost for three days in Luke, and the wedding happens ‘on the third day’ in John), which is characteristic of Christological concerns, and suggests the stories are self-consciously written to that end. Both have linguistic characteristics that could suggest they are independent from the surrounding text.

I support the idea that both are pre-existing stories (not necessarily written sources) that Luke and John use and wind into their narrative. None of these bits of evidence is a slam-dunk, all can be contested. But there are answers to these objections (we can go over them in the comments if anyone wants to), and I am drawn by the balance of evidence.

I think many such stories circulated in the early church. Their number and impressiveness increased as the early church developed its theology and ‘realized’ that Jesus was the Christ from the beginning. These tales spread and these two early tales were successful enough to gain literary attention from the gospel writers, who found use for them and worked them into their texts. This same process continued over the next 300 years, and gradually taller and taller tales were spun, turning the pre-baptismal Jesus from an unremarkable tekton (skilled laborer), into a magician of the ages.

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Jesus, The Mirror

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.

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