Sunday, April 24, 2011

To Believe in Jesus

Concluding The Wild Reed’s special 2011 Holy Week series, I share today an eighth excerpt from Albert Nolan’s groundbreaking 1976 book Jesus Before Christianity.

Throughout this series each installment has been accompanied by images of a different "movie Jesus." This final excerpt is accompanied by images of Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in Nicholas Ray's 1961 film King of Kings.

(To start at the beginning of this series, click here.)


Jesus did not claim divine titles or divine authority, but he did claim to know the truth and to know it without having to rely upon any authority other than the truth itself. He claimed, at least by implication, that he was in immediate contact with the truth, or rather that in him the truth itself was finding expressing. Thus his audience was not expected to rely blindly upon his authority, but to catch from him the truth which he was and spoke, the truth which he had not received from anyone else. By learning from him they were in fact making the truth itself their authority. Those who were convinced by Jesus were convinced by the persuasiveness of the truth itself. Jesus was uniquely in harmony with all that is true and real in life. His spontaneous compassion for people precluded any kind of alienation or artificiality. His spontaneous faith in the power of goodness and truth is indicative of a life without falsehood and illusion. One could say that he was absorbed by the truth, or, better still, that in him the truth became flesh.

Jesus himself would have experienced this as being in complete harmony with God. He must have been aware of the fact that he was thinking and feeling as God thinks and feels. He therefore felt no need to refer to, or rely upon, any authority or any power outside of his own experience.

But how are we to know whether this claim to truthfulness was an illusion or not? There is no scientific or historical way of proving it or disproving it. Like the proverbial tree, it can only be tested by its fruits. If the fruits, Jesus' sayings and doings, ring true for us, then the experience upon which they are based could not have been an illusion. Once we have listened to Jesus with an open mind, and once we have been persuaded and convinced by what he has to say about life, we will know that his claim to first-hand experience of the truth was no hollow boast. As soon as Jesus has been able to awaken in us a faith in what he stood for, we shall respond by putting our faith in him and making his unique truthfulness our God. In other words, the faith which Jesus awakens in us is at the same time faith in him and faith in his divinity.

This was the experience of Jesus' followers. This was the kind of impact he had upon them. They would not have articulated it in this way; but then it is, after all, not a matter of theories about Jesus or the Godhead. Words and theories will always be inadequate. In the last analysis faith is not a way of speaking or a way of thinking, it is a way of living and can only be adequately articulated in a living praxis. To acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior is only meaningful in so far as we try to live as he lived and to order our lives according to his values. We do not theorize about Jesus, we need to "re-produce" him in our time and our circumstances. He himself did not regard the truth as something we simply "uphold" and "maintain," but as something we choose to live and experience. So that our search, like his search, is primarily a search for orthopraxis (true practice) rather than orthodoxy (true doctrine). Only a true practice of the faith can verify what we believe. We can refer to traditional authorities and theological arguments, but what we believe can only be made true, and be seen to be true, in the concrete results which faith achieves in the world – today and tomorrow.

The beginning of faith in Jesus, then, is the attempt to read the signs of the times as Jesus read the signs of the times. There are similarities but there are also differences. We cannot merely repeat what Jesus said; but we can begin to analyze our times in the same spirit as he analyzed his times.

We would have to begin, as Jesus did, with compassion – compassion for the starving millions, for those who are humiliated and rejected, and for the billions of the future who will suffer because of the way we live today. It is only when, like the good Samaritan, we discover our common humanity, that we shall begin to experience what Jesus experienced. . . . Faith in Jesus without respect and compassion for people is a lie (compare 1 Cor 13:1-2; James 2:14-26). To identify with Jesus is to identify with all people.

Searching for the signs of the times in the spirit of Jesus, then, will mean recognizing all the forces that are working against humanity as the forces of evil. Is the present world order not ruled and governed by Satan, the enemy of humanity? Is the system not the modern equivalent of the "kingdom" of Satan? Are the powers of evil not dragging us all along to our destruction, to a hell on earth? We shall have to try to understand the structures of evil in the world as it is today. How much have we been basing ourselves upon the worldly values of money, possessions, prestige, status, privilege, power and upon the group solidarities of family, race, class, party, religion and nationalism? To make these our supreme values is to have nothing in common with Jesus.

To believe in Jesus is to believe that goodness can and will triumph over evil. Despite the system, despite the magnitude, complexity and apparent insolubility of our problems today, humanity can be, and in the end will be, liberated. Every form of evil – sin and all the consequences of sin: sickness, suffering, misery, frustration, fear, oppression and injustice – can be overcome. And the only power that can achieve this is the power of goodness and truth, the power of God.

There is a power that can resist the system and prevent it from destroying us. There is a motive that can replace, and can be stronger than, the profit motive. There is an incentive that can mobilize the world, enable the "haves" to lower their standard of living and make us only too willing to redistribute the world's wealth and its population. It is the same drive and incentive that motivated Jesus: compassion and faith. It has generally been called faith, hope and love; whatever you choose to call it, you must understand it as the unleashing of the divine but thoroughly "natural" power of truth, goodness and beauty.

– Albert Nolan
Jesus Before Christianity
pp 168-171

Images: Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus in the 1961 film King of Kings.

Mick LaSalle:

Almost half a century later, this is still the most inspiring of the mid-century Bible epics, with Jeffrey Hunter a mesmerizing Jesus, in a story that covers everything, from his birth through his ministry, crucifixion and resurrection. . . . Designed to appeal to both Catholics and Protestants, the film walks a careful line in terms of doctrine. At one point someone asks Mary (Siobhan McKenna) if she might relay a message to her son, and she says, "Intercession?" (The movie leaves open whether she will take the Catholic course and intercede or take the Protestant course and not.)

. . . [T]his is an inspiring movie, with director Nicholas Ray, who started in film noir before becoming known for Rebel Without a Cause, offering remarkable sequences, including an epic Sermon on the Mount. Ray's film noir cred allows him to tap noir heavy Robert Ryan to play John the Baptist, an example of unexpected casting that results in a lovely performance. In the movies, beauty is mistaken for a spiritual condition, a confusion put to good use here: With his unbelievably handsome face, eerie blue eyes and clear, resonant voice, Hunter is the movie ideal of spiritual perfection.

For The Wild Reed’s 2010 Holy Week series (featuring excerpts from Andrew Harvey’s book Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ), see:
Jesus: Path-Blazer of Radical Transformation
The Essential Christ
One Symbolic Iconoclastic Act
One Overwhelming Fire of Love
The Most Dangerous Kind of Rebel
Resurrection: Beyond Words, Dogmas and All Possible Theological Formulations
The Cosmic Christ: Brother, Lover, Friend, Divine and Tender Guide

For The Wild Reed’s 2009 Holy Week series (featuring the artwork of Doug Blanchard and the writings of Marcus Borg, James and Evelyn Whitehead, John Dominic Crossan, Andrew Harvey, Francis Webb, Dianna Ortiz, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Paula Fredriksen), see:
The Passion of Christ (Part 1) – Jesus Enters the City
The Passion of Christ (Part 2) – Jesus Drives Out the Money Changers
The Passion of Christ (Part 3) – Last Supper
The Passion of Christ (Part 4) – Jesus Prays Alone
The Passion of Christ (Part 5) – Jesus Before the People
The Passion of Christ (Part 6) – Jesus Before the Soldiers
The Passion of Christ (Part 7) – Jesus Goes to His Execution
The Passion of Christ (Part 8) – Jesus is Nailed the Cross
The Passion of Christ (Part 9) – Jesus Dies
The Passion of Christ (Part 10) – Jesus Among the Dead
The Passion of Christ (Part 11) – Jesus Appears to Mary
The Passion of Christ (Part 12) – Jesus Appears to His Friends

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Why Jesus is My Man
Jesus Was a Sissy
The "Wild Gaiety" of Jesus' Moral Teaching
Jesus, Sex and Power
Jesus and Homosexuality
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 1)
Jesus and the Centurion (Part 2)
Revisiting a Groovy Jesus (and a Dysfunctional Theology)
When Expulsion is the Cost of Discipleship
Christ and Krishna
The Wounded and Risen Christ

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