I recently received an email from Alfonso Armada, playwright, author and journalist, who lives in Madrid, Spain. Candyce and I invited him to Wake Forest University several years ago where he gave a theater reading and spoke of international affairs at the School of Divinity. We later visited Alfonso and his family when they lived in New York City while he was the press representative for the Spanish daily, ABC. He is now the editor of an online journal, fronterad.
The email contained a link to a December 2021 New York Times essay titled “Why Jesus Never Stopped Asking Questions,” written by Peter Wehner, vice president and senior fellow at the conservative Center for Ethics and Public Policy.
Alfonso proposed that I write an article for fronterad, choosing, he said, “the best way to give our readers your personal view on the meaning of Jesus in these odd times there (USA) and here (Spain), and how there are so many people lost and angry everywhere. You may take Wehner’s article as a starting point, but I’m very much interested in your own reading of Jesus’ teachings and how he’s been read.”
That invitation is both intriguing and daunting. Intriguing because phrases like “odd times,” and “so many people lost and angry everywhere” are succinct, perceptive assessments of the present moment in the global public square. Daunting because it requires my “own reading of Jesus’ teachings and how he’s been read.” Clearly, no single essay is sufficient.
So I’m proposing a series of essays called “The Meaning of Jesus in These Odd Times,” publishing one a month for the next few months, the number of which will be determined as we move along.
‘Meaning of Jesus’ up for grabs
Alfonso’s invitation occurs at a time, I believe, when “the meaning of Jesus” is, forgive me, up for grabs, here and yon. Jesus remains a transformative, salvific presence for many, an “interesting” teacher/guru for others, while others view him as simply one of numerous pantheons of religious “founders.” For others, Jesus is at best a vocabulary word useful for times of frustration, shock or anger.
To reflect on the meaning of Jesus is to inquire as to which Jesus we mean amid the many visions and versions of him, present within individuals, faith communities, political movements and an ever-secularized society. (By the way, that has largely been the case from the beginning of the Christian movement.)
“To reflect on the meaning of Jesus is to inquire as to which Jesus we mean amid the many visions and versions of him, present within individuals, faith communities, political movements and an ever-secularized society.”
As Alfonso Armada requests, we begin with Wehner’s vision of Jesus as Questioner. Wehner, a committed, old-style evangelical, begins by citing Martin Copenhaver’s Jesus Is the Question, documenting that in the Gospels, “Jesus was more than 40 times as likely to ask a question as answer one directly, and he was 20 times as likely to offer an indirect answer as a direct one.” In that text, Copenhaver shows that Jesus raises 307 questions addressed to various persons in multiple settings. He is asked some 183 questions but answers just three of them.
Wehner doesn’t really explore the meaning of Jesus, which he accepts as the ultimate evidence of God’s grace revealed to humanity. Rather, he surveys the method of Jesus, using questions and stories, particularly parables, not only to communicate his message, but to touch the inner lives of those who listen and follow.
Wehner suggests that the Bible itself is a great “metanarrative,” “the unfolding of a story God has entered, most conspicuously in the person of Jesus, a drama that has purpose and direction. That has been, at least for some of us, a source of comfort, especially in moments of grief and great pain.”
In a paragraph that may frustrate some of his evangelical colleagues, Wehner writes: “With his puzzles and paradoxes, Jesus is trusting our discernment, knowing that the Bible includes contrasting approaches on matters ranging from why people suffer to keeping the Sabbath to how we should treat our enemies.” He quotes theologian Kenton Sparks: “At face value, Scripture does not seem to furnish us with one divine theology; it gives us numerous theologies.”
‘So many lost and angry people’
While inviting me to respond to the meaning of Jesus in these “odd times,” Alfonso Armada added another element to the quest. Exploring the Jesus story may serve as a guide to understanding “how there are so many lost and angry people everywhere.” Perhaps that’s the most pressing contemporary reason for revisiting the meaning of Jesus here and now.
“When insurrectionists broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, some carrying ‘Christian’ flags and signs declaring ‘Jesus saves,’ who were they saying Jesus was and is?”
I begin this first installment with Jesus’ own question to his earliest followers at Caesarea Phillipi: “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15) When insurrectionists broke into the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, some carrying “Christian” flags and signs declaring “Jesus saves,” who were they saying Jesus was and is?
Next, we ask, given the religious and social distancing of the “nones” from Christian institutions, and the apparent difficulty of those communities to retain them, are Americans (and Spaniards) redefining, with their absence, the meaning of Jesus or the meaning of the institutions claiming to represent him?
And, we are compelled to ask, does the meaning of Jesus offer any hope to “so many lost and angry people everywhere?” Does such hope demand a new understanding of the meaning of Jesus in the 21st century, or recovery of earlier meanings, now lost or ignored?
What of the Sermon on the Mount?
New meanings are indeed being crafted in American society, as Wehner notes in a December 2021 commentary in the Atlantic titled, “The Gospel According to Donald Trump Jr.” In it, Wehner takes that son of a president to task for these comments at a Dec. 19 Turning Point USA rally:
“What is the meaning of Jesus in these odd times?”
“We’ve been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re (Democrats, elites, anti-Trumpers?) playing hardball and cheating. Right? We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference — I understand the mentality — but it’s gotten us nothing. OK? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.”
So much for Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. (See Matthew 5:38-42)
In response, Wehner wrote: “And the former president’s son has a message for the tens of millions of evangelicals who form the energized base of the GOP: the Scriptures are essentially a manual for suckers. The teachings of Jesus have ‘gotten us nothing.’ It’s worse than that, really; the ethic of Jesus has gotten in the way of successfully prosecuting the culture wars against the left. If the ethic of Jesus encourages sensibilities that might cause people in politics to act a little less brutally, a bit more civilly, with a touch more grace? Then it needs to go.”
And apparently that Trumpian “gospel” has gotten through, evident in the proliferation of something called “faith-based militias” across the country. That alone is reason enough to ask again: What is the meaning of Jesus in these odd times?
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.
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