Monday, February 26, 2007

Real Christianity

The Tomb (and Life?) of Jesus?

This coming Sunday will premiere on the Discovery Channel a program purporting to uncover the tomb of Yeshua ben Yosef, aka Jesus. Yes, that Jesus. Riding the wave of "Biblical" archeology and the resurgent ruminations inspired by the DaVinci Code craze, the Discovery Channel is cashing in on speculation about Jesus' relationship with Mary (Magdalene) and the possibility of a child of Jesus. With the taste of conspiracy and the thrill of near-heresy, there will undoubtedly be a lot of hubbub around the special show. And, if it ever shows on PBS or comes to my local library, I'll probably watch it. Don't get me wrong, I'm as interested as anybody. I just think there's a hue of absurdity to it.

Perhaps I've been burned by speculation or conspiracy theory too many times before, or some other reason for me to be cautious. But, without having seen the whole episode or their evidence, I'm a little skeptical.

The website promoting the upcoming premier goes to some lengths to claim that their findings do not directly contradict Christian dogma, but do challenge Christian traditional conceptions. With reasonable conjecture, the Discovery Channel claims that the "resurrection" does not hinge on what tomb Jesus was resurrected from (although the issue of resurrection doesn't answer the question of how Jesus' alleged remains came to rest in their tomb). They also point out, rather creatively in my opinion, that the "ascension" of Jesus to heaven isn't specified in the Gospels as a bodily or spiritual ascension. So, Jesus' spirit could have gone to heaven, leaving his body behind? Interesting. And, voila!, they've skirted the venomous and vehement criticism by Christian conservatives. Hopefully. (Is it noteworthy that the "theological considerations" only offered two paragraphs on these two questions? Those are all the theological questions brought up by this? C'mon, people... have some imagination!)

Theological considerations aside for the moment: I'm interested in the archeology of the question. My understanding from what I've read is that their claim to our Jesus is statistical... which is an interesting way to go about it. None of the names associated with Jesus' family were all that uncommon in first-century Palestine. But a tomb that contains names and relations consistent (as far as they go) with the Gospel narratives becomes more uncommon. Apparently, the calculations they've done come up with a figure of 600-to-one - odds are, that this could be Jesus' family. (I'm interested to see how they get around the idea that Jesus' family would have settled in Jerusalem, could have afforded such an expansive tomb, and why relatives like mothers and brothers would be buried there as well - just a couple questions that come to mind.) It seems to me that 600-to-one odds aren't all that conclusive - archaeologically speaking. What are the odds, after all, that the one tomb of Jesus would have remained undisturbed and unknown for 2000 years? That seems a longer shot than even 600-to-one.

What the program boasts in store gives me an idea of their priorities. They'll have some suspenseful archaeological-docu-drama, but most of the stills and promotion seems to focus on dramatic reenactments of key scenes from Jesus' life, and probably a few fictionalized scenes from his family life before (and after?) his death. I'm curious as to why the filmmakers and producers are taking on this project? (Of course, there's the money to be made on such a potentially controversial but nonetheless interesting program. But is that the only thought in these people's heads?)

I am thrilled that, at least, they hired someone vaguely semitic to portray Jesus. :-)

The archaeological discovery and excavation of the tomb was inevitable. But the social and media hype around the issue... is that inevitable? Whom does it serve to frame the questions as they are here?

Lay this alongside an article in the January issue of Rev!: "When is a church really a CHURCH?" The article nobly tries to analyze the sorry state of contemporary Christianity, and offers some perspective to helpfully approach these decisive years in the formation of our Faith. The author points out the change in the Church since its installment as the official state religion under emperor Constantine 1600 years ago. Generally, I agree with this analysis - that Christianity changed (for the worse) when it was adopted as the normative and authoritative religion linked with the establishment and maintenance of state power. It was, I have often said myself, no longer remotely resembling the movement Jesus set out to inaugurate as a first-century Palestinian Jew. And, as this author claimed, as I have said before, we'd do well to more closely model ourselves on that oppressed, loosely organized faith of the persecuted and lowly. But reading this article affords me a critical look at my own presumptions.

The magazine author writes (and this is even a pull-quote for added emphasis): "Western Christianity is nowhere near what Jesus had in mind when he sent his disciples out into the world to build his church."

This statement tells us more about the speaker than about Christianity. Words like "authentic" and "what Jesus had in mind" really tell the reader what the author believes to be "true" or "authentic" discipleship. Don't get me wrong - I agree with the author, but reading such bold statements I can see the ground of my own assumptions in (partly) my own desires for the world and my faith. (My assumptions are also - partly - grounded in faithful attendance to the scriptures, the tradition, my own experience and reasoning, as well as faithful and reverent suspicion of those.) But framing our discussions of what Christianity ought to be in talk of "original" or "normative" Christianity isn't all that helpful.

Despite the obvious harm it does to my own arguments about Christian identity, I think claiming knowledge of original or normative Christianity is unhelpful because it is dishonest - and wrong. To the best of our honest knowledge and experience, there never has been a normative Christianity - there have always been varying Christianities, even within supposedly unified and homogeneous bodies. There have always been different opinions, perceptions, feelings, understandings about Jesus, and his message. A slice of this variety is preserved in the New Testament canon: we have four different Gospels, and several different epistolary collections - all of them offering different conceptions of "true" or "authoritative" Christianity. This diversity isn't something to be covered up or ignored - it is part of the revelation of God in our faith: God speaks different languages, calls out to different people in different ways. The diversity and genuine differences in the canon and apocryphal traditions should be honored and understood, and they should help focus on our areas of shared agreement. Throughout the Bible - Old and New Testament - God is portrayed many different ways, but there are threads that run faithfully throughout. (I'd lift up "social justice as the true worship of God" as one of these consistent threads, but I'm open to discussion on that.)

We should ground our sense of identity and mission not in "originality" or as a restoration of something original, but in our common struggle to re-envision ourselves with vision transformed the way the best of our forebears' vision was transformed. My own religious tradition, the Community of Christ, can be particularly well-positioned for this leap: we have struggled with our origins in "true church" mythology, and have come through that struggle to a point where we openly value diversity of virtually every kind - wrapping up our common selves in our common struggle to be transformed the way our forebears were transformed, to see the world as radically capable of (and deserving of) transformation.

The Christian Church does need to honestly confront its past - the Constantinian changes as well as our best guesses as to the nature of the church before Constantine. But our most bold, most hopeful, most authoritative claims of what we must become, our discussions of who we are and who we ought to be, shouldn't be couched in language that claims original knowledge. Our canon testifies against us: we are contextual, we are historicized individuals, we are people and peoples muddling through - but God works with us regardless.

What does this have to do with the televised "event" featuring the possible tomb of Jesus? On the one hand, such a feature presentation should have very little "theological" consideration to pose, and very little impact on our sense of identity or mission. On the other hand, our sense of who we are is bound up with who we think we were. To broadcast a discussion of the "roots" of Christianity or the "real" fate of the epicenter of our religious movement, is to call into question who we think we are. That is a discussion not to be left to capitalist producers, individual filmmakers, and historians and archaeologists who claim not to be bound by a particular perspective.

What I mean to say is: there is no "Historical Jesus" - that is, there is Jesus that we can know without the overlay and debris of our own perspectives, or apart from historical context. In other words, I suppose, there is nothing but "historicized Jesuses."

The value or impact of this new tomb of Jesus will depend on our ability to recognize that "real" Christianity is what we do. Nothing more; nothing less.

Others will have their own motives for exploring, expanding, restricting, combatting or ignoring this archaeological "evidence." Some, I would consider "Christian;" others not. But all real nonetheless. After all, some residents near the tomb are pleased by the discovery and the attention. "It will mean our house prices will go up because Christians will want to live here," one woman said.

The Discovery Channel website featuring the tomb "evidence."
(Thanks to Jon for pointing this out to me first thing this morning.)

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  • gee, if I were a scheming first-century Christian wanting to make a few bucks, I might just build me a little tomb and label it, um "creatively" with a certain someone's name...

    By Blogger Shannon, at 6:40 PM  

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