In His Steps? I Think There’s a Better Path

I just finished a book that ends with a rather silly notion. But it’s a pervasive notion in our contemporary world, so it’s worth a comment. The book is Philip Yancey’s, The Jesus I Never Knew. In this study Yancey follows the venerable tradition of Romantic writers who consider the implications of the historical Jesus on life today.

I’m sure the tradition is as old as  Christianity itself, but I am familiar with it from the perspective of what might be called modern liberal man. The first, and probably most famous, work that invented the genre for Protestants was Hermann Samuel Reimarus. (To my knowledge, his book on the life of Jesus is only available in German.)

This desire to uncover the real Jesus took two distinct paths after Reimarus. On the one hand there were attempts by Charles Sheldon (In His Steps) and the more contemporary revival of Sheldon in the “What Would Jesus Do” movement, to apply Jesus’ earthly life to our modern earthly life. Yancey’s book fits quite neatly into this sort of perspective.

The more notorious offspring of Reimarus’ Romanticism is the Quest for the Historical Jesus. The venerable old Germans, such as Wrede, Schweitzer, Bultmann, and Kasemann are certainly the most vilified, but we cannot leave off of that list Montana’s own Robert Funk nor the member of the Seminar whom I met and worked with a tiny little bit, Alan Culpepper, a Southern Baptist who taught at Southern Seminary (across the street from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where I went to school — We LPTS’ers were proud to point out that while LPTS had a couple of world class biblical scholars as faculty, we didn’t suffer the ignominy of having anyone from our school as part of the Jesus Seminar, like the Southern Baptists across the street.) In fairness to Culpepper, he eventually resigned, do to procedural differences.

But back to the topic at hand: Philip Yancey, Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today and author of a myriad of books, among which is The Jesus I Never Knew. He begins the last chapter with this rather shocking (from an Orthodox perspective) and naive contention:

Icons of the Orthodox Church, stained-glass windows in European cathedrals, and Sunday school art in low-church America all depict on flat planes a placid, “tame” Jesus, yet the Jesus I met in the Gospels was anything by tame. (p. 258)

Yancey demonstrates in this book (and in previous works) that he is quite ignorant of Orthodox life and theology. This is not a knock on Yancey. He doesn’t claim to have knowledge of Orthodoxy and this is not a book that concerns Orthodoxy — it’s only orbit is Protestantism and a particularly Protestant reading of the Bible. I mention it, rather, to point out that when he claims Orthodox icons depict a placid and tame Jesus, he has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. He’s out of his depth on that one.

What Orthodox icons do portray is the world that is both “within” and “beyond” the world. When Jesus tells Pilate that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, and when he tells the disciples that the kingdom is “within” (or “beyond”) them (that word is deliciously vague and suggestive), Jesus is expressing the same spiritual nature of the Kingdom of God which icons seek to portray and illuminate.

So, while it is true that Orthodox icons appear not quite realistic by Western artistic standards, and the people portrayed have an uncanny “not quite of this world” look, etc., the effect, for those who have eyes to see the icon, is to reveal that utterly awesome and mind-boggling world that exists here and now, but is just beyond our conceptual reach. There is nothing tame about a well conceived and expertly painted icon. Rather, they are deeply unsettling; and because of their unsettling nature, they are equally comforting.

Yancey’s book, on the other hand, offers up an utterly tame Jesus who is completely predictable by the values of the early 21st century. Yancey explicitly says he is exploring the life of Jesus “from below” rather than “from above.” And the problem with that is that the Kingdom of God is never from below. It is something that tears at the fabric of reality and breaks in. It is something (like new wine) which bubble from within until it explodes all conceptions of what God might be. Considering the human life of Jesus (as the human life of Jesus) simply cannot take seriously this characteristic of Creator-creature relationship. All such attempts to consider the life of Jesus from this perspective (including Yancey’s most recent attempt) fail miserably to address the real issues of the kingdom.

Yancey says, “I certainly have not succeeded in taming him, for myself, let alone for anyone else. I now have a built-in suspicion against all attempts to categorize Jesus, to box him in.” (p. 258) Unfortunately, Yancey’s book was every bit as predictable as a James Lee Burke novel. In other words, it was a thoroughly boxed in and Protestant-ly categorized Jesus which wandered the pages of the book. In other words, just as Reimarus’ Jesus looked suspiciously like a bourgeois 19th century German, so Yancey’s Jesus looks suspiciously like the “out-of-the-box” Evangelicals who are busy developing “a new paradigm” for Christianity in America. (At least that’s what they were doing the week Yancey wrote this book; I have a hard time keeping up, and they might be doing something different this season.)

So what’s the point of this rant? History — both the history of Jesus and the history of the church from Moses the Lawgiver to martyrdom of the faithful during the embarrassingly misnamed “Arab Spring” — is not there to show us how we’re supposed to live today, it’s there to show us unequivocally that “the hidden God” is present, striding through his creation as Lord and King, ultimately in control, but never coercive. God is always entering into this world and through that, always transforming both this world and those people who are able to say, through faith, “may it be to me according to your word.” Of course, while it’s happening, the transformation is almost completely impossible to see. The Arab Spring, from my perspective reading this month’s news, looks like a death knell for the church along the southern and eastern Mediterranean. But from the perspective of history it will be recognized as God prevailing against the nations that rage and plot a vain thing. How do I know this? Because history has told me so over and over again.

God doesn’t want us to do what Jesus did. God doesn’t want us to do what Paul, or Pope Gregory, or John Calvin, or Martin Luther King, or Fr Nikolai Velimirovich did. God wants us to do what he has called us to do. If we get distracted from that very specific and personal divine calling by following in others’ footsteps, if we speculate about WWJD?, we end up getting caught in trivialities and therefore missing the presence of Jesus Christ here and now, whom we are to serve every day.

The problem is not “the Jesus I never knew,” the problem is that as much as I get to know my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I never know him; and if I ever dare get comfortable with what I’m supposed to do because I think I know what Jesus would do, I will end up getting the surprise of my life when I start paying attention again.

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