Is Jesus’ Message Dead?

I can’t believe that Jesus’ message is dead.  I think that, rather, what Christian churches have done with it may be dead.  Churches and church services are not necessarily what Jesus’ message is all about.  I say this as a Christian minister.

I’ve recently been reading carefully the Gospel of Matthew, focusing on Jesus’ words.  Jesus is about looking at the heart.  Jesus is about spiritual values, not materialism.  Jesus is about forgiveness.  Jesus is about opening up to foreigners and outsiders.  Jesus is about helping those less fortunate.  Jesus is about healing.  Jesus is about love.  Jesus is about connection with God.  I can cite chapter and verse for these assertions.

Is our society opposed to these messages?  I don’t think so.  I think that society basically would agree with these ideas.

What kind of world would oppose ideas like this?  It would be, one by one, a society that doesn’t look at the heart, that only looks at outward acts, that wants only more and greater status symbols and material goods, that lives for revenge, that hates foreigners, that only cares about one’s friends and family and no one else, that cares nothing for the poor, weak, and orphaned, that hurts instead of healing, that hates, that disbelieves and cares only about self.  Is this the world we live in?  Maybe.  But I hope not.

It is true that the world sends us messages, largely through TV commercials that run counter to Jesus’ message.  Expensive car commercials show people who are superior to others, or are superior by some standards.  That is a dual message: 1) buy an expensive car; and 2) be better than everyone else.  There are many movies whose plots turn around revenge.  It’s not “good guys versus bad guys.”  Rather it’s more and more, “You killed a loved one so I’m going to get you.”  So there are messages in the world that run counter to Jesus’ message.

But driving around town, I see a lot of Hondas and Fords on the road, so it’s not true that the world is populated by ubermenschen driving expensive cars.  I think most of society is people living with a beloved partner, or a circle of friends, going to work and coming home and trying to do the right thing.  Then there’s the issue of God.

A lot of people, I think, don’t have much room for God.  It’s not that they disbelieve, it’s that they have no time for God, no need for God.  You can’t separate God from Jesus’ message.  Maybe that’s why it may look like Jesus’ message is dead.  It’s certainly true that self-sufficiency is a strong drug.  Making it on your own; self-made man or woman.  Top of the heap.  Number one.

Then there’s the issue of church.  I think about young people clubbing to those insipid songs with pounding rhythm, overpowering bass tones, monotonous melodies.  Then I think about the 17th and 19th century hymns that we typically sing on Sunday.  And the notion of sitting still for an hour listening to me pray, read from the Bible, and preach.  It’s not surprising that some people would have other things to do.  And none of that is a necessary part of the Jesus message.  It is true that Jesus taught in synagogues and read the Scriptures in them.  And I think that Biblical literacy is important.  But that doesn’t mean the traditional church services that have evolved over millennia.  Nor does Christianity mean the vocal, politically-motivated proselytizing, self-righteous right-wing form that seems to get all the attention and would define all Christianity by their own style.  Indeed, all religion.

I think that society has been shaped by Judeo-Christian values.  We think that soup kitchens, Habitat-for Humanity, health care, minimum wage, friendliness, doing a good turn daily are good things.  While there are counter-messages to the Jesus message, I think that a lot of people would be attracted to what Jesus says, if they read His words freshly and without the lens of tradition and church.  While some churches exclude unbelievers, Jesus included everyone He contacted.  He even dined with a Pharisee on at least one occasion.  While churches are dwindling, I still think that Jesus’ message lives.

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Jesus Christ Superstar Revisited

I remember hitch-hiking to the lake my uncle lived on, one summer in 1970.  I got picked up by a car with four girls in it.  As a male adolescent, I couldn’t believe my good luck, riding in a car with four girls in it.  They had the car radio tuned to the FM rock station (back then there was AM radio, which played “bubble-gum” pop music, and there was FM which played acid rock like Hendrix, Clapton, Ten Years After, and Jethro Tull).  “Jesus Christ Superstar” came on the radio.  I asked the girls, “Is this Jesus Christ Superstar that everybody’s talking about?”  They didn’t know.

The fact is, everybody was talking about Jesus Christ Superstar in 1970.  It was one of the most popular rock-operas next to Tommy, by The Who.  And it launched Andrew LLoyd Webber’s illustrious career, who wrote the music for Jesus Christ Superstar.  Everybody had to have an opinion about Jesus Christ Superstar–stoners, clergy, church-goers, theater buffs, everybody across the board.  It was that much of a sensation.  Life Magazine devoted a whole issue to it.

Jesus Christ Superstar challenged religion, which happened a lot in the late ’60’s/early ’70’s.  The very title, calling Jesus a superstar, was a challenge.  And Jesus Christ Superstar was good rock music.  We listened to it over and over again because we liked the music.  But this rock-opera also took the Jesus story seriously, and engaged with the story seriously.  I remember one evening while there was a social event at our church’s divinity school.  One minister offered to listen to the whole rock-opera with any church goers who wanted to do so.  Then, after we heard the piece, he opened up the floor for questions and comments.  We took it that seriously, and the minister took it that seriously.  Some thought it was sacrilegious; some thought that it brought the Jesus story into the modern world; some thought it was a holy opera; some thought it was too strange a mixture of religion and rock.  But everyone had something to say about it.  Godspell came out later, but it wasn’t the musical masterpiece nor as sensational as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

What occasions these reminiscences is my TV.  On the retro channel, due to the Christmas season, they just played Jesus Christ Superstar.  Watching it so many years later, I had many feelings.  But I was mostly struck with the thought that they could never make this album and movie today.  Back in 1970, religion had a strong enough influence in society that you could make an album about religion, and it would mean something.  There is so much religious apathy today that Jesus Christ Superstar would largely be ignored.  And Andrrew Lloyd Webber’s career wouldn’t be launched by it today.  Consider two films, The Passion of the Christ in 2004; and The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  I thought I should see The Last Temptation of Christ.  It was a  shocking movie in its day because it depicted Jesus and Mary Magdalene in a sexual relationship.  I didn’t see The Passion of the Christ, and didn’t think I needed to.  These films came and went but weren’t the sensation that Jesus Christ Superstar was.  And they were only movies, they weren’t music and film and theater all, as was Jesus Christ Superstar.

It would largely be ignored today because religion is largely ignored today.  An opera that engages seriously with the Jesus story wouldn’t catch on because of the so few people who also engage seriously with the Jesus story.  Or with religion itself.  W. H. Auden writes, “But on earth indifference is the least/We have to dread from man or beast.”  I think today’s indifference to religion, though, is indeed something we do have to dread.  If we still can dread anything–other than something that threatens self-interest.  Apathy and indifference is more of a threat than we may credit it to be.  I’m glad that the abuses and ridiculous and hurtful ideas from religion are being denounced and done away with.  And if apathy is the remedy for this, well and good.  But by the same token, the bland world I am finding myself in today, is still frightening.  To me, it is a deafening silence.

Parliament 3–The Star Teaching

For an hour and a half, I was afforded a glimpse into the world of First Nations.  I attended a talk about the Star Teachings from an elder of the Mi’kmoq Nation, David Sanipass.  When I went to the seminar, I thought I was going to hear some ancient First Nations lore and stories.  I was waiting the whole time for the Star Teachings.  Instead, his wife opened the seminar by telling a story.  She said that David had encouraged her to go to the bank with a twenty-dollar bill she had, and change it into single dollars.  Then she was to start giving away the dollar bills.  That proved more difficult than she had imagined.  She went to a grocery store and tried to give the cashier a dollar.  But the cashier exclaimed, “I can’t take that!  I’d get fired!  But you could go to the next cash register and give it to the woman in line there.”  So she did.  Then she went around the store giving out the dollars.  In the long run, giving these dollars out got people talking about why she was doing it.  It transformed the whole atmosphere of the store.  While she was telling her story, I was waiting for the Elder to start talking.  And I was waiting for the Star Teachings.

The Elder did speak.  He opened with a 24,000-year-old story about Creation.  As he spoke, the Elder would pick up his flute and play tunes.  The story began before Creation.  There was a great bird who had the most wonderful song.  Since humans couldn’t speak, the bird was going to give them the gift of his song.  But his grandfather came to earth in the form of an old man and coaxed the humans into talking.  The bird got mad, thinking himself duped, and decided to hide his song in a cedar tree at the centre of a swamp.  He returned to the swamp later, but couldn’t find his song.  David asked his father if that was a true story, or just a legend.  His father told him to go to the swamp and listen.  He did, but a woodpecker kept pecking at the tree.  This bothered young David because it was interfering with the song he was trying to hear from the primordial Great Bird.  But when a woodpecker pecks a tree, he makes holes in it, like the holes in a flute.  Young David missed the song.

David told two more stories.  One about him giving last rights to a woman pinned in an overturned car.  When he was young, David had been authorized to give the Catholic Last Rites.  Once, there was a woman pinned in a car that had overturned from an auto accident.  David climbed in the car and gave the woman the Last Rites.  All the while, gasoline was dripping onto his shirt, and the First Responders tried to get him to leave the overturned car before it exploded.  “No,” David said.  He stayed with the woman until she went into infinity, back to the stars.

His last story was the longest.  It was about a bear hunt.  Feeling excluded from the other elders at a story-telling gathering, because he didn’t have white hair, David went to an elder for advice.  “Go on a bear hunt,” the elder said.  David decided he would shoot the bear with a camera.  Trying to photograph a bear, despite the dangers, occasioned many hilarious adventures.  The story ends with David running from the bear which he awoke with the flash from his camera, running through the forest and getting bent double by running into a fallen tree, climbing another tree to escape the bear.  But the bear sniffed and followed him through the field, climbed up the tree and stared him face to face.  The bear talked, “You lost your camera when you ran into the tree in the forest, I came to return it to you.”  So saying the bear climbed down the tree and walked into the forest.  Shaking with fear, David discovered that the film had all fallen out of the camera.  When he got home, David looked in a mirror and saw that he had white hair!  He held the whole lecture hall in rapt attention.  In the telling of his story, David had carried us all into a special collective experience of love and interconnectedness.  By the time the bear hunt story was over, we’d run out of time.

David said he would give us the Star Teaching.  All he said was, “Don’t let the moment end now.  Bring this message out into the world.”  I was left to wonder what the Star Teaching is.  What I came up with, and I’m not sure I got it right, was that David’s wife’s story about giving away dollar bills, and the story about staying with the woman in the overturned car, and the bear hunt were all the Star Teachings.  It is a teaching about love.  It is a teaching about going out of our way to bring love into the moment, onto earth.  It was about the power we have to make the world a more loving place.

I was personally and professionally transformed by my experiences at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.  And I have more experiences to narrate in the upcoming days.  After the intense seminars, the guided Vedanta meditations, the Indigenous stories, the Nithya healing I underwent, I came away a different person.  It will take some time to integrate everything I learned with my own Swedenborgian faith tradition.  For learning something new, even personal transformation, doesn’t mean abandoning what we know about religion.  Rather, it means accommodating, and integrating it all together.

I’ve been practicing my understanding of the Star Teachings lately.  I’ve been buying food for homeless men, confronted convenience store clerks who didn’t understand why I was doing it, meeting the barrister at my local coffee shop, trying to make all my relations a real human interaction.  Spreading the message of love, the Star Teachings as I understood them.

I knew these teachings from my Christian background.  But for some reason, they never spoke to me the way they did when David Sanipass spoke.  Hadn’t Jesus said, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. . . . But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High” (Luke 6:30-35).  For some reason, it took David’s stories to energize me to act.

Perpetual Spring

As I age, the world ages with me

As it always has

Things I treasure go out of style

Live music, blues, jazz, the symphony

Peace and love

Mozart went out of style

And nobody knows where he is buried

Who performed for princes, kings, queens

High art, technique, form fail

Churches dwindle, consolidate, close

Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus shrugged off

They follow Zeus, Apollo, Heracles

 

There is no perpetual spring

There follows summer, autumn, winter, and spring again

As I autumn, I can’t see spring again

No, I don’t see spring

I will be leaving this world

And I look toward another

And as my world dies, perhaps it is well that I also with it

I think less of my legacy than I do my potential

In my autumn I see perpetual springtime

The Trouble with Social Action

Eco-justice is a movement that is growing in popularity and importance.  And there are other justice issues that have already become nearly established.  Some of them would be homelessness, bullying, hunger, domestic violence, LGBT issues, and others.  Social justice organizations have been created to address these issues.  There are homeless shelters, soup kitchens, shelters for abused women, and bullying is a matter of consciousness raising.  Religions as far back as the ’60’s became active in social issues.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one prominent theologian who championed social justice as a religious issue.  Another was Reinhold Niebuhr.  Niebuhr once said that theology should be done with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.

But there are problems with religion understood as social justice.  In its history, religion has also been concerned with character development.  Moses, Jesus, Paul, and Mohammed have all taught that a person needs to be moral and good.  For instance, Moses gave us the 10 Commandments, which are all moral rules.  And Jesus and Paul both teach a religion of love.  These teachings are about character virtues, or becoming a good person.

The trouble, then, with religion as social justice is that becoming a morally good person can be forgotten in social action.  One doesn’t need to be loving to be an advocate for ecology.  The worst case view of eco-justice is that a person can be concerned with ecology for selfish reasons.  We save ourselves when we save the environment.  Or we save our children or grand children when we save the environment.  We certainly do need to take dramatic action to save nature, but does doing so make a person loving, and good?  The same can be said for other social programs.  I know many self-righteous Christians who are all in favour of homeless shelters–as long as they aren’t  built in their own neighbourhoods.

A morally good person, a loving person, will care about his or her neighbour.  Such a person will want impoverished and homeless persons to have warm, safe homes and enough to eat.  Such a person will care about God’s created order–Nature.  But social issues will be one action flowing forth from a good-natured heart.  Just as honesty, sincerity, and friendliness will inform their relationships with others.  But the converse may not necessarily be the case.  I’m not sure that social consciousness will render a person loving and morally good.