Easter time! Somewhere between the gruesome execution thousands of years ago, and the Easter Bunny, there is meaning. Or “meanings?” What is a Christian? Who would the man born in Bethlehem have considered a follower? And what of our skeptics?
As a children’s entertainer I have many clients. Among them secular schools, Christian, Jewish and what I will file under “other” to keep this sentence from going on, and on, and…
At my more “fundamental” schools I have been asked, occasionally, “Are you a Christian?”
The first time I was asked that I answered, “Yes,” but felt guilty… for a moment… because if we came down to specifics I’m sure she wouldn’t have considered me a “Christian.” But here’s a truism: I am not responsible for how everyone else defines the term. No one is. If we were, collectively, almost no one would be considered a “Christian.” And trying hard enough to find fault, as humans always seem to wind up doing, we’d probably end up excluding everyone else but ourselves, if we were honest.
Of course “honest” is the key word here. Incomplete honesty, sometimes, keeps churches and other social groups together. I’ll bet it may have saved humanity from extinction a few times. While often not recommended, it’s not always a bad thing. Besides, it helps increase the numbers dedicated to worthy causes, and a Christianity of one would be no Christianity at all.
We all have to go to our own individual definitions when deciding such things: not go to the Church of Christ (fundamentalist) definition; not the Church of Christ (Congregationalist), not some Catholic or Mormon definition. I’m sure Mormons probably consider themselves “Christian,” though many religious tongue waggers might say, “Hell, no,” if they allowed themselves to use the profanity.
Here’s the kicker: according to their own definitions they’re both right.
We “go to individual” definitions because collective definitions break down the more closely we examine them. In part that’s why being a Christian is a very personal experience.
My definition: “One who follows Christ as best they can.”
The Romans kept very good records and little was said of Jesus, or his miracles. This isn’t surprising: it was a time of magicians and others claiming they could perform miracles. Little was known of the true nature of the forces that surround us, the universe or science.
How do we know what he said? Well, the Bible is what we rely on the most. And there are many versions, even books that would have been part of the Bible if certain sets of believers had won the day after Christ was crucified, like the Gnostics, rather than who did decide. Many of these books were also, supposedly, written by Paul, Peter, James, Mathew, Mark… even Mary Magdalene.
Then of course we have various versions of what we know as the Bible over time, many interpretations and various meanings applied, often by taking passages out of context. Does the Bible stand alone as “the only” book, or is faith a collection of books? If that’s not part of faith what would purveyors of books about the Bible have to sell, not to mention Book of Mormon, the Koran, etc.. Even the number of books within “the” book is up for discussion. The Catholic Bible, for example, has two more books than the Protestant Bible.
All this is what we have been arguing about, discussing and considering for about 2,000 years, longer if you include Judaism. But let’s stick with those books that mention Jesus, since “Christian” is the topic.
What did he mean by his words?
Which books, even within that book, would be the right ones?
Most of that was decided at Nicaea in the 300s AD, but then not only do Catholics have extra books: and what became the Catholic Church arguably were those who ruled right at Nicaea, but you have additional books from offshoots like the Mormons.
What, you think the lessons Jesus taught ended on the cross and those who came after, whom Jesus criticized frequently, and thought they weren’t “getting it,” suddenly got the message, the meaning and the teachings without error? Those who decided what books go into “the Book,” were the only ones who had something Jesus might have wanted us to say to each other?
If you believe any of that I also have an old pot of tainted Kool Aid to sell you.
Yet maybe, just maybe, the problem here is our focus is wrong. Meaning gets parsed, rituals split apart faiths: to sprinkle or to dip? Should Saturday or Sunday be the day of worship, day of rest? And, of course what passages do we focus on, and what did he mean for today? The society Jesus walked, talked and breathed in was very different from today. Yet we think Jesus would refuse to alter how he taught, or what he might tolerate, or use as a teaching moment for our age so we might understand as well as we can?
Still interested in that old pot of Kool Aid? Sips from it are cheap, but very, very expensive in the end.
For example: can you imagine if someone today was following Christ closely but thought the day of rest should be Sunday, he would be told by Jesus to go away? That’s right, I typed “Sunday,” for that was the “day of rest” for the Jews in Christ’s time, and now. If Jesus were really that demanding, that anal, most past tense Christians are waiting for us too to arrive while they bake, broast, roast and deep fat fry in Hell. For most denominations choose Sunday, quite a few in the South: Wednesday.
But what if all these rather specific debates we have had over time are just nonsense? What if Jesus wanted us to find meaning where we can, using his parables, what we think we know of him, and not just some portion of the Bible called “New” that wouldn’t solidify for 300 years, post crucifixion?
What if the real focus was never meant to be that specific? If a passage from The Secret Gospel of Mark makes a believer help the poor, consider Christ and the life he is living, does it matter that that book is considered heretical by most? If reading The Book of Mormon makes a believer decide not to cast the first stone, turn the other cheek, or love his neighbor, or his enemy, as much or more than he loves himself: are they not closer to God? Wouldn’t that be what the person we’re taught about as kids called Jesus have wanted? Or still want?
Words are but a vehicle: and an imperfect vehicle at best. If we get to the same destination different ways, would Jesus say, “Damn you to Hell for finding me while traveling a different path?” You know, like tax collectors, persecutors of Christians and doubters found him back then?
If we don’t lead the right life, we persecute others, steal from them, but then we find Jesus in something someone says who some would consider theologically incorrect, is that worthless in God’s eyes?
Of course not.
Maybe this is why Jesus used so many parables, instead of just condemning and name calling like some rabid talk show hosts of our time. The tipping of the tables is all to frequently used to excuse all kinds of obnoxious behavior Jesus probably never would have approved of, and far worse that merely tipping tables. And it tis but one story compared to all the kinder parables, metaphors and similes he used.
Would you want your whole life to be defined by one moment of anger? Yet sometimes I wonder if that’s exactly the model of Jesus as defined by the strictest, sterner, forms of Christianity.
Just like some find meaning only in his suffering. So grand that they find meaning, but of course we must remember Jesus got off easy. Got off “easy???” Yes. All they did to him before was not abnormal treatment for one about to be crucified, not even as bad as it got. And he died early: most hung on, literally, for days. I suppose even the vultures got tired of waiting and started snacking early. A hideous way to die. Yet, having typed that, if through his suffering you find your way to the divine, isn’t that what’s important?
For me? Parable, metaphor, similes: this was the true language Jesus used, often where I find most meaning. So much to find, so much to ponder, so much in so many different traditions past, and present, since close to 2000 years post execution.
I have read the Bible cover to cover many times and what is claimed he said in many passages. I have read what the Gnostic Gospels claim Jesus taught. I have read many other claims about what Jesus did and meant by what he said, what he spoke of, did and taught. Of all these there is one from The Gospel According to Thomas that seems most holy…
“Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”
A tradition where we can discuss and learn together from so many different traditions and find him there, find him here, find him where no one else finds Jesus…
“Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”
That’s the true power of a savior, of someone divine.
And someone I will continue to read about, read what others have said he said, or or claim he meant by what he said…
… and then try to follow as best I can.
Inspection is a column that has been written by Ken Carman for over 30 years. Inspection is dedicated to looking at odd angles, under all the rocks and into the unseen cracks and crevasses that constitute the issues and philosophical constructs of our day: places few think, or even dare, to venture.
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