Since the beginning of Christianity there has been the need for reform of one kind or another of the church. The letters of Paul attest to that. Some would argue, and I would generally agree, that refocusing on Jesus as the foundation of Christianity (are not Christians followers of the Christ?) is the most direct and most powerful catalyst for change and reform. This concept interests me a great deal. I am fascinated by the idea of setting aside much of what we Christians cling to and then turning only to Jesus and, with him as our sole example, examine our lives, actions, and worship. With this in mind I give you two quotes to ponder:
A great deal would have been achieved if it were remembered today also that Christianity is obviously not some sort of world view nor a kind of idealist philosophy, but has something to do with a person called Christ. But memories can be painful, as many politicians have discovered when they wanted to revise a party program. In fact, memories can even be dangerous. Modern social criticism has again drawn our attention to this fact: not only because generations of the dead control us, have their part in determining every situation in which we are placed and to this extent man is predefined by history, but also because recollection of the past brings to the surface what is still unsettled and unfulfilled, because every society whose structures have grown rigid rightly fear the “subversive” contents of memory.Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 1974, p. 120
In deconstruction, one sets out in search of, or rather, one is oneself searched out or called on by whatever is unconditional, or undeconstructible, in a given order, and it is precisely in virtue of this undeconstructible x, which does not exist, which does does not exist yet, which never quite exists, that everything that does exist in that order is deconstructible. Whatever exists, whatever is present, is contingent, historical, constructed under determinate conditions—like the church or the Sabbath—and as such is inwardly disturbed by the undeconstructible, unconditional impulse that stirs within it—which for the church is the event that occurs in the name of Jesus. To “deconstruct” is on the one hand to analyze and criticize but also, on the other hand, and more importantly, to feel about for what is living and stirring within a thing, that is, feeling for the event that stirs within the deconstructible structure in order to release it, to set it free, to give it a new life, a new being, a future.John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, 2007 p. 68
Oil on wood, 16 1/4 x 13 1/2″ (41 x 34 cm)
Musée du Louvre, Paris
I like Küng’s concept of the ‘”subversive” contents of memory.’ That there is something subversive in the very person and teachings of Jesus is a powerful idea. What would the church (I recognize that’s an unwieldy and overly broad term) do with Jesus today? In my more cynical moments I am inclined to believe he would be crucified again and again. Though the name of Jesus is prominent in Christian churches I doubt that name represents the true Jesus as much as one might assume. My fear is that I would be part of the mob that called for his death. My desire is that I would know the truth instead, that my life would be conformed to Jesus’ example and, if faced with the physical (living, breathing, walking, talking) Jesus, there would resonate deep within my soul an unqualified and unchangeable “YES!”
Of course, in a profound way we do have Jesus among us. Remember the words of Jesus, like in the following famous passage from Jesus speaking to his disciples:
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.'”
“Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?'”
“The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.'”
How is it that Jesus is a subversive force within the church? In films like Lord, Save Us From Your Followers: Why is the Gospel of Love Dividing America?, and books like They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations we find that most people have a fondness for Jesus, though many express a dislike for Christians or Christianity or organized religion in general (most especially if it’s Christian). This makes sense to me, but I know there is a difference between a “Jesus is my homeboy” approach and a “Jesus is my lord” approach. I understand the dichotomy, but I also know that those outside the church will just as likely have wrong ideas about Jesus as those within.
If Jesus is subversive then he must challenge the very foundations of the “truths” we cling to, of that with which we are comfortable, of what we claim even in his name. If Jesus is a comfortable idea then we have missed who he is. The irony of modern evangelization is that to begin with Jesus straight away may be the path of least resistance, and yet many Christians may mean something entirely wrongheaded when using that name. This I cannot say for sure, but my intuition says it must be likely.
Oil on panel96.2 x 81.5 cm
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Caputo argues for Jesus as a kind of deconstructing force within the church. When I set Jesus and the church side by side in my mind and ponder the connection, I cannot think of a better concept than deconstruction with which to understand the force of Christ amongst our religious structures. Caputo sees Jesus as “the event” within the word Christianity. (I know I am not doing the depth of his argument justice.) The idea of “the event” he takes from the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. Think of the word “democracy.” There are democracies and then there is democracy the ideal (not in a Platonic sense, but in a Derridian sense). That ideal calls to us when we think about, speak of, or participate in doing democracy. We don’t ever see the ideal, but we know it is there. Democracy the ideal is the event within the word Democracy. Think of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He is a kind of force, a man who quotes Lincoln and Washington while entering the cynical world of real politik. In the end he becomes a kind of savior-like figure who sacrifices his life for what he knows to be true. Jesus, who’s name is spoken countless times in churches around the world is like Mr. Smith. But rather than just speaking of the truth, he is the truth, he is the image of God, he is the event within the word Christianity.*
Oil on canvas, 62 x 46 in. (158 x 117 cm)
Hermitage, St. Petersburg
What I fear is that I live my whole life as a “good Christian” only to one day confront the actual event (Jesus) within this thing (Christianity) I am doing, and to be told “I never knew you.” The fact is I confront the event every day. The question that I must answer is to what am I finally committed, Christianity or the event within.
Back to my original questions. I don’t think Jesus would give our organized versions of Christianity the thumbs up, though I don’t think he would give the thumbs down to all of it. I do think, however, that we would all be surprised by his presence beyond reasons of “wow, he exists!”. I think he would challenge us deeply in ways that get at those very things that we use to convince ourselves of our own wisdom. I think those individuals and groups deeply embedded within the church would have trouble with Jesus on many levels. And I’m not referring to the obvious examples of those who claim Christianity but spew hatred. I am referring to the good, ordinary, run-of-the-mill Christians who try to live good lives and get along with others. They would have trouble with Jesus as much as anybody. But I also think those outside the church, who say they like Jesus but not Christians, would also have trouble with Jesus. Jesus hung around with sinners but he was not their homeboy. He was not their revolutionary either. He is God’s revolutionary, whatever that means – which is something we could spend the rest of our lives figuring out.