A few experiences in the past few days have me thinking about how those of us within the church need to approach Jesus. This morning, I read this quote in The Present Future:
People may be turned off to the church, but they are not turned off to Jesus. Jesus is popular. He still makes the cover of Time and Newsweek every year (generally around Easter). As I write these lines, he’s just come out on the cover of a prominent scientific journal. Church people sometimes get excited by this but fail to understand that people in the nonchurch culture don’t associate Jesus with the church.
That last statement might seem extreme, but at the very least, I would say that many people don’t associate the Jesus of the church with what they think is the real Jesus. This was so evident to me as I was browsing at Barnes and Noble the other night. The Christian section was filled with books about the historical Jesus, but not books that most pastors would be quick to recommend to their congregations. These were books by the likes of Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Geza Vermes among others. I noticed that there was nothing on the shelf by N.T. Wright other than The Meaning of Jesus, which he co-wrote with Borg. (Wright is the probably the favored Jesus scholar of conservative evangelicals, though he is still too liberal for some.)
With so much interest in who Jesus was, I would suggest that anyone who desires to interact with others about Christ needs to be serious about developing a historical understanding of him. The cultural interest in Jesus points people back to his historical roots. We, too, must consider the true context of Jesus’ life when we look at the Scriptures. It has become too common in the church to just read Jesus’ words through 21st century eyes.
Because authors like Crossan and Borg present a view of Jesus that isn’t in line with their views, most pastors and church leaders and inclined to avoid them altogether. They view reading what these authors have to say as a dangerous practice that can distort our view of who Jesus was. While that may be true, we also must understand the views that are influencing the people sitting in our churches. More than ever, church leaders and those who want to interact with this culture must have a grounded historical understanding of Jesus and his context. We must be able to intelligently dialogue with people around us who are studying Jesus outside of church walls. We must be able to give them answers beyond simply: “You just gotta have faith.”
I’m finding that Jesus and the Victory of God is a good resource and one that I would recommend. He not only takes a good historical look at Jesus, but also shows how the views of Borg, Crossan and others fit it with each other. While less of a hiostry book, I also think The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard takes a much-needed look at the message of Jesus from a historical perspective and how it still matters today.