Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Terminator Jesus

Andrew Sullivan pointed out a NYT piece on a hip and macho Calvinist preacher, Mark Driscoll. Sullivan took exception with this excerpt:
What bothers Driscoll ... is the portrayal of Jesus as a wimp, or worse. Paintings depict a gentle man embracing children and cuddling lambs. Hymns celebrate his patience and tenderness. The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”
Naturally, Sullivan is disgusted with the derogatory and homophobic sentiments here, especially when portraying the Christ. While Sullivan is right to be upset in these terms, I think there is something more disturbing here.

Driscoll, and apparently other evangelical ministers, blame the consumerification of Christianity for the "effeminate Jesus," where churches preach upbeat, lovey-dovey messages - over and against talk of hellfire and brimstone - to grow and maintain church numbers. I can't adjudicate that theory one way or another, but I do know that I hate hearing sermons on sin and damnation. I would argue, however, that the image of Jesus Christ, rightly or wrongly, is influenced by our sociological self-perceptions.

Interestingly, cultures re-image Jesus from his socio-historic Middle Eastern identity into an identity that characterizes the (ethnic) norm of that culture. For example, you can see pictures of an Asian Jesus in Asian cultures, an African Jesus in African cultures, and statues of a white, blonde, blue-eyed Jesus in Sweden. America is guilty of this transformation too; we have a white, bearded Jesus with long brown hair. I would argue that this inculturation of Jesus is generally a good thing. This re-imaging allows us to more easily identify with Jesus and relate with his humanity. In doing so, we create a deeper understanding of the Divine, one that fosters and strengthens an intimate relationship with God.

Driscoll is actually pointing to a subtle transformation in the image of Jesus within our culture, a movement away from the parental, relational Jesus towards a divinely muscular Jesus. Take for example, the title of the aforementioned NYT's piece: "Who Would Jesus Smack Down?" Jesus is becoming more manly, less feminine, able to take an earthly beating and provide an eternal one. Think Passion of Christ. In an age of cowboy diplomacy and unilateral militarism, this Jesus stands behind us, intimidating demon and unbeliever alike. Joe Six-pack has six-pack chiseled Jesus.

What does it say about us that a portrayal of Terminator Jesus is emerging?


Anonymous said...

I'll BE Back?

Darren Staley said...

Back in the days of my youth every Sunday was a fire and brimstone sermon. If my cousin wasn't there to play a discreet game of Hangman (an odd choice of game under the circumstances, I now realize) I eventually learned to sleep through it with my eyes open.

Of course the funny thing was the benediction. This is a small church made up almost entirely of seniors (I always went with my grandmother). There was rarely ever a new face and most congregants had been regular since the church was built.

Yet every Sunday, every single Sunday, the preacher would ask for the lost to come to the altar and be saved, and every Sunday the same group of people, people who had been saved for decades, came up to pray and be re-saved.

And every time it was that same song.."softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, calling all sinners come home." The average congregant needed help walking from the pew to their car. What sins could they possibly commit?

Anyway, just an anecdote. My real point is that a tender, forgiving, kind Jesus may not be crazy about torture, war, poverty, etc. He may even GASP want us to let "the gays" get married and EGAD take our guns!!!

I don't know who Jesus would vote for, but if you put Jesus' teachings into a political platform, most conservatives in this country never vote for Him.

Drew said...

Exactly Anonymous, exactly.

You too Darren: My real point is that a tender, forgiving, kind Jesus may not be crazy about torture, war, poverty, etc. He may even GASP want us to let "the gays" get married and EGAD take our guns!!!

Jason said...

I read this article online before I saw this post, and I have a bit of a different take on it. I don't think that Driscoll is preaching a cultural image of Jesus that he has come to find most meaningful for him, but has instead begun to portray a Jesus who can front for his particular brand of "new Calvinism." There has been a resurgence of this variety of theological cat over the past two decades or so (see William Estep's laments from the mid-1990s on its resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention). But Driscoll's particular articulation of if is a strange amalgam of classic Calvinism and the pervasive evangelical(and generally non-specific) Christianity of the Focus on the Family variety from the 1980s and 1990s. Classical Calvinism's first premise is the sovereignty of God, and Calvin (and his pedigree's) theological efforts strive maintain that premise--even to the point of God condemning children to eternal punishment (see Spurgeon's remark that the road to hell is strewn with the skulls of dead babies). But this preoccupation with the sovereignty of God does not sit well with the "Jesus is my personal savior"/family values core of the evangelical theology from the '80s-'90s. A more "masculine" Jesus, who isn't afraid to stare down demons and cast them out, is Driscoll's lynch-pin to hang Calvinism and non-specific evangelic theology together. A "masculine" Jesus can tow Calvin's theology with the evangelic language of Jesus being a personal savior. Or, and even taking it a step further, in order to maintain Calvinist theology within the amorphous emergent church movement/avant-garde culture, Driscoll had to dress it up by portraying a more masculine Jesus couched in missional-sounding language.
That just leaves a bad taste in my mouth...

Drew said...

Jason, yes, that was a thrust of the article - a new-aged approach to Calvanism - but I was intrigued by the image of Terminator Jesus at the expense of meek and loving Christ.

Maybe this is a chicken-and-the-egg argument, but couldn't Driscoll's theology be justification for our muscular self-perceptions, vis-a-vis our perceived American exceptionalism?

A faithful reader said...

Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, has lost it's relevance in our worship and our religious thinking if our only options for the physical image of the Christ are "Barney Fife” or “The Terminator.”

Gentility is an attribute of breeding and self-control, not an attribute of fear or incompetence. Meekness is best portrayed as a stallion with all the strength of a wild horse, but tamed to the master's command. If the stallion is sickly and weak, that is what it is, sickly and weak. Mildness is balance, harmony in the midst of disharmony. A presence that proclaims protection rather than surrender.

What there seems to be is an unneeded tension between the character traits (manner) of Jesus and the physical attributes of Jesus the man. Jesus could be nurturing and compassionate, feminine traits in his culture, and not be seen or need be portrayed as, physically effeminate. He could forcefully scold a disciple for “not getting it” while cuddling a small child in his arms. He could treat all persons equally - male and female, rich and poor, slave and free – which were cultural taboos, and still adhere to his culture by blessing the bread at the start of a Passover meal. He could endure hours of torture on the Roman Cross and still remain compassionate enough to ask his disciple John to take care of his mother.

If we must conjure a physical image of Jesus, let the image be the one most likely true, a carpenter who lifted great beams and worked long days with his hands, a man who walked great distances to teach large crowds before venturing on, an inspiring figure whose very presence made people trust him as the Messiah and as the Savior of all people. Not the image of "The Terminator" (pumped up and over intimidating) nor of "Barney Fife" (weak and unable to inspire the feeling of being protected), but rather, a well-toned Jesus, who as you point out, stands behind us, beside us and ahead of us, facing down our demons and those who would wish us eternal harm, and whose physical presence caused his followers to neither fear nor distrust him.

Yet, with all that written, if Jesus is "God that walked among us" and if we are truly created “in God’s image” then his face and physical attributes can resemble the images of the people that worship him without harming our God image a bit.

With that, there is only one other thing that needs to be written – Good balanced and thought-provoking piece Drew! Thank you.

Matt F. said...

I have to take slight issue with Drew's comment that each culture making Jesus look like them is a good thing because it makes people relate to him better. I think the ability to make Jesus "one of us" and other people "other" is easily used by religious people to sow discord. Wouldn't it be better if depictions of Jesus taught all people to relate to all other people, regardless of ethnicity?

The second fact, of course, is that we know that Jesus, if he existed, was of a certain ethnicity. So we know roughly what he would have looked like (or not looked like). I don't know that we should support the attempts by insecure people to make Jesus one of their ethnic group because it makes them feel better.

As for a faithful reader's description of Jesus as "well toned", I think we can all agree that Jesus had a swimmers body and was sexy to us. Hence the musical interlude, "Rock Me Sexy Jesus."

Drew said...

Very interesting point Matt. I would say that Othering is a cognitive necessity, both individually and communally. I am me, you are not-me. Othering isn't part of our functioning.

And, I said that this re-imaging of Jesus is generally a good thing. When we use Jesus as a tool to trample the dignity of the Other, it is obviously sinful. This is to your point.

So Othering is important for self-definition, and the re-imaging of Jesus into these definitions is okay - read "a faithful readers response." But, Othering, and using this image of Jesus as a weapon, can increase the likelihood of violence, if you begin to demonize the other, view the Other in good/evil terms, etc.

So cultural re-imaging of Jesus isn't bad in and of itself, but, as I argue provide a deeper relationship with God.

Drew said...

I meant, "Othering is a part of our functioning." Not "isn't."

I wish we could edit comments.