What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm?… An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it’s almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood. That sticks, right in there somewhere
-Walter Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) Inception
Inception is easily one of my al time favorite movies. Walter, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is an expert of the mind, of planting ideas. Walker it right. Ideas, powerful enough ones can overtake reality, they alter proper perception, they can replace what reality is. What we believe becomes our reality, so then, our reality may not be all the real.
Sometimes, believing in Jesus comes close to killing my faith. I know that sounds counter intuitive however, as time passes from the first time I acknowledged that I wanted to be come a follower of Jesus, my belief begins to remove me from reality, and yet it is in reality, not in belief, where Jesus lives. What I have found in my life, as I have found as I continue to work with high school students who are wrestling with and investigating their own faith, is that we so over-emphasize belief, that Jesus becomes an idea to believe in, a really nice one, but none the less, he becomes more like Aristotle’s supreme good as opposed to a living breathing human being, the every embodiment of love, and in the case of Jesus… We have turned historical reality into a nice idea. The Danger of believing in Jesus is because we make him more into a Santa figure than recognize the Real, living, breathing Jesus. We make him something he is not.
I am convinced that a majority of Christians prefer the idea of Jesus to the real Jesus. Ideas are malleable, they are not concrete, and they are subject to whims, changes, and preference. It is a very dangerous thing to turn Jesus into an idea because we control ideas, we are the one’s who generate the idea; the idea is subject to us not us to it. The idea of Jesus is easier because we get to shape and mold him into a tailor made bundle of our preferences, our ideas, and our lifestyles. I guarantee we all think Jesus would agree, for the most part, with most of our life and lifestyle, yet in reading the Gospels, he was constantly calling people, including his closest friends, to a different life than they were living.
I don’t think we do this intentionally however. We focus so much on having faith in what is not seen, we strive so hard to maintain a faith that is relevant in today’s world, we just feel that we need, consciously or subconsciously, to change Jesus, ever so subtly at first, however as we continue our faith I wonder how much the Jesus we believe in begins to resemble ourselves rather than our God.
In an oft quoted essay, Ludwig Feuerbach, a 19th century German philosopher, wrote, “It is not as in the Bible, that God created man in his own image. But, on the contrary, man created God in his own image.” Needless to say, Feuerbach’s quote was not to compliment Christianity and her believers. I think, although perhaps first met with protest, if you think hard about it, think about the Christian’s you know, think about the last political/religious debate you heard, think about the last disagreement you had… we tend to use God to prove the rightness of our actions rather than our actions to prove the grace and goodness of God. God resembles the former, not the latter. When we encounter someone who, by the literal grace of God, has managed to flip that equation on its head, to go against the grain, someone such as Mother Theresa perhaps, we see them as such an unattainable saint that we see little point in even trying.
I think the problem, or at least part of the problem remains that we being with an idea of God, not God himself. We begin with a philosophical concept, not a real, loving being. I am not one who believes that someone can be argued into faith in Christ, but after reading Simply Jesus, by N.T. Wright, I was compelled with how he began his discussion of knowing Christ not with a list of attributes but with a historical description of the actual person, the real Jesus.
The man, Jesus of Nazereth, was born likely around 4BCE. His Father, Joseph was a carpenter and likely trained Jesus in the trade. He may have had a muscular build or callused hands from working in the family business. He might have had brown eyes, and dark hair, although none of his physical attributes are detailed in historical sources. The very language used in the Gospel of John 1:14, “The word became flesh,” actually means enfleshment or to put on human skin.
Until the age of about 30 he had, from what we can tell, a relatively un-eventful life. However, around the late 20s-30AD, Jesus of Nazareth began public ministry. He traveled all around Jerusalem and surrounding areas. He preformed real, unexplainable sights, healings, and wonders that have been called and considered “miracles.” Jesus was a great teacher, who amassed great crowds in all of the places he traveled. He was extremely versed and learned in the Scriptures and he was considered and called by the title “Rabbi” or “Teacher.” Between 30-33AD he was executed by crucifixion. And shortly after his followers claimed to see him resurrected from the dead.
Historically we can prove (Christian and non-Christian sources and scholars hold no debate) that a man Jesus of Nazereth was a living breathing man who lived and traveled and taught in the early first Century. Josephus, a Jewish leader who became a Roman official and historian in the mid first Century wrote in his Antiquities of “James, the Brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ.” He recorded in his Tesimonium Flavianum:
About this time there lived Jesus, A wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by en of the highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to live him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them restored to life, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvelous things about him. And the tribe of Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.
It would seem odd for a former Jewish Pharisee (they didn’t much like Jesus) and Roman official (they didn’t care for him either) to take time to write about some guy named Jesus, unless he actually existed. There are other corroborative sources (see Tacitus or Pliny the Younger) that also discuss a real man named Jesus, who others claim did what the Gospels write that Jesus did.
The Gospels are of course the most reliable source for understanding Jesus but first lets look at a comparative study of how many manuscripts and documents we have of major sources we use from around that time period. We have 7 copies of Pliny the Younger’s History the earliest of we can trace back to 750 years after it was first written. We have 20 Annals of Imperial Rome written by Tacitus which is major primary source used to understand Ancient Rome. We can trace the earliest of those 20 copies to 1,000 years after Tacitus first penned them.
Remember this is still impressive to have 20, well before the copy machine. If you had to sit and copy word after word, page after page, it wasn’t going to be an unimportant text. For Homer’s Illiad we can trace 650 copies the first dating back to 500 years after Homer wrote the epic. That is in fact the most documented ancient work with 650 copies… except for the Gospels. In total the 4 biographies of Jesus are represented by over 24,000 copies, the earliest traced to just outside 25 years of when they were first written.
Now this man who lived and breathed and did ministry according to a multitude of early Christian and non-Christian sources made a remarkable claim… that He, in fact, was God. The very man who laughed and wept, and spoke, and taught, was God, on earth. What would it look like to not only follow an idea of Jesus, one we eventually make our own idea, and instead follow the real, living, breathing man, the real Jesus.
A.J. Jacobs, an agnostic editor for Esquire magazine wrote a book called The Year of Living Biblically in which he, despite his agnostic religious beliefs, lived a year trying to adhere to all of the commands in the Bible. When asked whether reading the entire encyclopedia (another of his books, I highly recommend both books!) or his Biblical year was more difficult, he reflected, “Living Biblically, hands down… the Bible project changed my life more deeply. If affected every part of my existence: the way I ate, dressed, talked, bathed, walked, worked, and raised my kids.” I think the problem with following the idea of Jesus instead of the real Jesus is that we can change the idea, or parts of it, depending on the journey we are on, the real Jesus however, the one we are called to follow, calls us also to change the journey altogether.