Thursday, January 26, 2006

A review/summation of James Dunn's "A New Perspective on Jesus"

If you are interested at all in historical Jesus studies and the issues surrounding them, you will definitely want to consider checking out James Dunn's new book. It's serves as an excellent, succinct, and readable introduction to the basic issues of historical Jesus studies, while offering Dunn's own unique contribution to the discussion. The basic gist of Dunn's book is that much (in fact pretty much all) of the work done by various scholars in search of a "historical" Jesus has failed to take into account some important factors that would have shaped the earliest Jesus traditions. There are two which stand out to me as being the crux of the book's arguments.

First, Dunn argues that Jesus life and teachings made an impact on his disciples that was faith-creating. The first disciples would have remembered Jesus words and actions precisely because of the impact he made on their lives. Therefore, the Jesus tradition as we now have it does not begin with the post-Easter faith of the disciples, but with the initial impact Jesus would have made on the lives of his hearers. As Dunn states, "Only the Jesus whom we can see and hear through the influence he had, through the impact he made on his first disciples, as evidenced by the traditions that they formulated and recalled, only that Jesus is available to the quester." (34)

Second, most questers have failed to seriously take into account the oral nature of the culture Jesus lived and taught in. This is because the quest has been carried out in a literary culture whose basic assumptions about the transmission of knowledge and ideas have been shaped by the printed word. Therefore, most questers have failed to understand the way knowledge is preserved and passed on in an oral culture. Dunn lists five distinctive features of oral tradition, the most important, to my mind, being that of its communal nature.

Given the impact he had on their lives, Jesus disciples would have formed communities gathered around his teachings and actions. These communities would have preserved, recalled, performed and celebrated the teachings and actions of the one who had so impacted their lives. The communal nature of this recollection would serve as a check against any radical innovation, as the community would operate within a "horizon of expectation" concerning what Jesus said and did. The community would be familiar with the teachings and deeds of Jesus, and would recognize anything that did not broadly fit with this tradition. Thus there would be an entire core of material that would be recognized as characteristic of what Jesus actually said and did.

What this means, in short, is that before any of the gospel accounts was ever written down, there was a well attested to, substantial body of material concerning Jesus teachings and actions that would have gone all the way back to the first disciples whose lives were so powerfully impacted by Jesus. It would be these traditions that the Synoptic gospels arose from. Therefore, there is good reason to believe that the traditions found in the synoptic gospels provide us with a reliable account of what Jesus said and did. Variations in details of the different gospels, far from being an insurmountable problem or embarrassment, would simply reflect the different emphasis of those who performed the tradition in varying communities. The recognized core of the tradition would remain the same in every community.

In my opinion, Dunn's book provides an excellent introduction to historical Jesus issues and an excellent argument for the reliability of the gospels that actually makes sense of the gospels as we now have them. It also explains in a simple, common-sensical way why the life and teachings of Jesus would have been preserved at all. Jesus made a faith-creating, life changing impact on those who knew him, an impact that continues to affect the course of human history, even down to the present day. In the words of Dallas Willard, "I think we finally have to say that Jesus' enduring relevance is based on his historically proven ability to to speak to, to heal and empower the individual human condition. He matters because of what he brought and what he still brings to ordinary human beings, living their ordinary lives and coping daily with their surroundings."

Monday, January 23, 2006

Great quote of the day

We're all bastards, but God loves us anyway.
--Baptist minister and social activist Will Campbell's summation of the gospel in less than ten words. Taken from David Dark's book The Gospel According To America.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Seinfeld, Fight Club, Walker Percy, and Modern Nihilism

Whenever I've watched Seinfeld, I've always been struck by how deftly it exposes the shallowness of the way so many of us live in the modern world (intentionally or not). I can't help but notice how so many of the ridiculously hilarious plot situations the characters find themselves in seem to arise directly from their own self-centeredness and bad character. For a long time, I failed to make the connection between this fact and the claim that Seinfeld was "a show about nothing." Now, though, I think I get the connection.

The characters on Seinfeld are people whose lives literally are about nothing. At least nothing that matters. Most of the world's population throughout human history has spent its days engaged in activity which was necessary for survival. Huge portions of the world's population still live wondering where their next meal will come from. Meanwhile, blessed with material abundance and life opportunity beyond the wildest dreams of most people who have ever lived, the characters on Seinfeld continually pursue the most superficial and petty of goals.

This raises a question. Is this as good as it gets? Have we finally achieved a state of existence free from the worries of daily survival only to find that there is nothing serious left to live for? Is this what the vast majority of humanity is still looking forward to? To reach a state of wealth, comfort, and security only to find that the only thing left to be concerned about is our own petty schemes and desires? This is the nihilism at the heart of Seinfeld, and by extension, at the heart of modern life.

In the movie "Fight Club," the character of Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) expresses exactly this view. As he sees it, once humanity got beyond the struggle for daily survival, started building a civilization, and asking questions about the meaning of life, everything went bad. The solution? Destroy civilization and return humanity to a primitive state. So Durden starts an underground army with the goal of overthrowing the "developed" world and taking humanity back to the hunter-gatherer state, where we can escape the emptiness and pettiness of modern life.

The 20th century novelist Walker Percy also saw this as the plight of modern people. Percy spent a lifetime chronicling, in both fiction and non-fiction writings, how technologically sophisticated, well-off, comfortable moderns could be among the most unhappy, displaced, poorly adjusted people in history. For Percy, however, the solution to the problem was found in the cosmic scope of the Christian vision of life. In the Christian vision of life we are invited to be a part of something bigger than ourselves and our own small and superficial obsessions. Percy identified this something bigger with the phrase God Jews Jesus Church. This phrase offers a neat summation of the ongoing, continually unfolding narrative of God's work in history that we are invited to become a part of.

So, what is it we're living for? Do our lives testify to something bigger than our own superficial schemes and desires, or are we acting in a show about nothing?

Monday, January 09, 2006

Malcolm Muggeridge, Sex, and The Da Vinci Code

The great and witty Christian writer Malcolm Muggeridge once observed that, in the west, the 20th century's affirmation of being fully human could be found in a revised version of Descartes famous Cogito (I think, therefore I am). According to Muggeridge, the 20th century version could be renamed the Copulo (I have sex , therefore I am) in order to reflect our continual obsession with all things sexual. I believe it was also Muggeridge who made the observation that "sex is the mysticism of materialism."

Just the other day, it occurred to me that Muggeridge, were he still with us, would find the success of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" to be a rather amusing affirmation of his observations. "The Da Vinci Code," of course, claims that ancient Israelite worship included ritual sex as a means of getting in touch with the "sacred feminine," which it identifies with the Shekinah glory (the physical manifestation of God's presence in the holiest part of the Hebrew temple). It wasn't until latter that the mean spirited, pleasure hating, patriarchal misogynists of the early Christian church came along and suppressed this view through political power plays that this original version of Judaism/Christianity was lost. To a culture obsessed with the pursuit of personal pleasure in general and sexual pleasure in particular, this surely reads as good news. "The Da Vinci Code," far from offering something new, is simply a reflection/affirmation/justification of one of our culture's primary values packaged in the form of a novel.

Somewhere, Malcolm Muggeridge is laughing.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Back from vacation

Hello everyone (all three people who read this blog). Hope you all had a great Christmas and New Year's holiday. I had a great time at home with my family in Virginia. My whole immediate family was together, which is rare these days, since I live in Chicago and one of my two sisters lives in Malaysia. Anyway, It was a restful couple of weeks and it was great to be with them all, especially to see my three lovely nephews. I just got back here yesterday morning and I miss them all so bad it hurts.

I got some great books for Christmas, including John Stackhouse's "Finally Feminist," and also picked up Bem Witherington's "The Problem with Evangelical Theology" at Inklings Bookshop, a local, independantly owned bookstore that I like to support whenever I'm in town. I'm reading through both of these now and will comment on them when I have the time. So far I'm enjoying both of them a lot.

At home over the Christmas holidays.