Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Jesus' Life and Jesus' Death

Cafe Rozella, second asiago bagel, 14 ounces into a 20-ounce soy latte....

Been thinking a lot about the Crossan quote I posted a couple days ago. It comes in the discussion of an extended thesis about early Christianity coming in two broad flavors. One flavor emphasizes the life and actions of Jesus (which seems to be dominant in the Jerusalem church), and the other emphasizes Jesus' death and the salvific moment there (a la Paul and the Pauline churches scattered throughout the Empire). In the earliest months and years following Jesus' death there arose these two different ways of looking at Jesus and discipleship.

The thing is, this seems so natural, so obvious! Growing up Christian (however unconventional or struggling of a Christian I was), I seemed to preternaturally sense this division, this fork in the road, this bi-lingualism in the tradition, in the church. Into my early teens, I already sensed the tension between the Pauline supernaturalism and emphasis on the death and resurrection, and the more communitarian struggle to emulate Jesus' life and teachings. Probably like many my age, I was beat over the head with the teaching that salvation rests only in Jesus' death and resurrection, and confession of agreement in those. Emulation of Jesus as an example, as the radical upstart of a community that stands in contrast to the world around us was downplayed. It was the blood of the lamb or damnation, and whatever I could glean from Jesus' life apart from his being the Savior was cute but hardly salvific.

Still, persistent inside me was an awareness of the depth of insight in holding up Jesus' life. But what was genuinely threatening was the difference such an emphasis would make. Jesus' life was one of radical inclusion - different from the exclusionary "salvation" qualified by Jesus' blood. Jesus' life was one of public activism and political resistance - different from the personal and private effects of being "saved". Jesus' life was one of active and daring nonviolence - different from the institutionalized violence of nations and armies. Jesus' life was one of profound personal transformation, and giving up of control - different from a Christianity that reinforces people's preconceived prejudices and that seeks to control people under the guise of setting them free.

Emphasizing Jesus' life would encourage a dynamic and vastly different Christianity, than emphasizing Jesus' death. This was obvious within a few years of Jesus' death, and it was still obvious to a young and uneducated boy nearly 2000 years later. I wonder if it is just part of Christianity now, this tension between the earthly life of Jesus and the ultimate claims about his death.

And, of course, there's always the question of power: who is it benefiting from the telling of one version of the story or the other?

Thankfully, no matter how sanitized or prejudiced our Christianity is, there is indelible within it a note of subversion, a hint of resistance, a dissonance of waiting transformation.

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  • I have always felt like there is way too much focus on Jesus's death (and presumed resurrection) and not enough on his life. To me, the really wonderful thing about his life of nonviolent resistance to the Roman Empire and his message of the Kingdom of God are what really matter.

    By Blogger Mystical Seeker, at 11:01 AM  

  • I'm going to push back just a little on this one (surprise surprise, Shannon's pushing back!)

    I think two strands is an overly simplistic way of looking at the way people remembered and still remember Jesus. Yes, I would even challenge Crossan on this point.

    Emphasis on the life of Jesus, though helpful for those of us who are trying to re-claim Jesus in our own lives of Christian faith, is not the only constructive approach. What this two-stream perspective fails to acknowledge is that within the emphasis on Jesus' death and resurrection were a huge multiplicity of different understandings of what that death and resurrection meant and means for the life of Christians throughout history.

    Christologies span from articulations of Jesus as incarnate wisdom/word to Jesus as prophet along the lines of the prophetic tradition, to seeing Christian communities as a place where the body of Christ continues to be made incarnate.

    I wouldn't so quickly dismiss those more metaphysical/spiritual was of attending to the Jesus/Christ question. The idea that Jesus is neither dead or alive, but somehow in some third space of perhaps be-ing in some way we cannot even comprehend, is actually a life-giving one. For me, the question is how can we continue to make Christ - the divine incarnate - really actually present in our communities? That is a radical, subversive act: to claim that a dead peasant could still be alive in our communing today.

    I also don't think that the "two strands" are mutually exclusive, you can't have one without the other, and most christological formations incorporate both, it would be heretical (in the traditional sense) for either strand to exclude the other one.

    So those are my thoughts. Christian: thanks for this post, it was great because it forced me to try and articulate why it is that I was uncomfortable with your claims. I thoroughly agree with your reasoning for why the focus on Jesus' life is important, I just think that you can also use his death and resurrection in a way that will strengthen your case and deepen the christology you've begun to set out here.

    By Blogger Shannon, at 1:11 PM  

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