I recently saw a brief debate on line, from the show “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell”, featuring a debate about the existence of God. The debate paired two stand-up comedians, Jamie Kilstein (arguing for atheism) and John Fugelsang (arguing for theism and belief in Jesus). Although lacking in intellectual punch, the debate was good-tempered and funny in spots, as you might expect when it is arranged for two stand-up comedians to debate an issue. John Fugelsang, a “Jesus believer”, must have had an interesting upbringing, since he described himself as “from an abnormally Christian background”, since he was the son of an ex-nun and a Franciscan brother. Perhaps not surprisingly John was more keen on Jesus than he was on His Church. Or, in his words, “I view Jesus much the way I view Elvis: I love the guy, but a lot of the fan-clubs really freak me out”. In fact Mr. Fugelsang’s defence of Christian theism involved a not-so-subtle denunciation of the Church as a way of distancing the figure of Jesus from the actions of others done in His Name. It is a common-place in apologetics to admit that much that is done in Jesus’ Name and under the Christian banner has been appalling and is in no way expressive of authentic Christianity. But as Mr. Fugelsang continued his rapid-fire apologia for Jesus, it was apparent that the Son of God had undergone a rather dramatic and extreme make-over.
When John hit his stride, he asserted that the “fundamentalist Christians” (left unidentified, and cowering in the shadows) overlook “the fact that Jesus was pretty much the most extremely liberal guy ever, in history”. By liberal, our apologist meant that Jesus “scares the hell of the conservative, even today” because He was a “peaceful, radical, non-violent revolutionary who hung out with lepers, hookers, and crooks…[He was] anti-wealth, anti-death penalty, anti-public prayer…never anti-gay, never anti-abortion, never anti-premarital sex…a homeless, Middle-eastern, Jew!” It was quite a performance. I wish I could preach like that. People were impressed. Even Mr. Kilstein admitted that he would like to hang out with someone like that Jesus.
The problem is that the Jesus proclaimed by Brother John has undergone such an extreme and total make-over that He is hard to recognize as the One we read about in the Bible. I grant John’s point that many people in the American religious right have co-opted Jesus for some of their causes in a way that is not appropriate, and that it is at least possible that Jesus might not bless every single right-wing position. But the irony is that Mr. Fugelsang is doing the exact same thing in the service of the left-wing. Where, the Bible-expositor in me asks, did Jesus say anything about the death penalty, or public liturgical prayer? Where did he talk about homosexuality or abortion or pre-marital sex in such a way that one could conclude that He was “never anti-gay, never anti-abortion, never anti-premarital sex”?—though concerning this last, we might conclude that since He condemned looking lustfully at a woman (Mt. 5:28) we might expect Him to be decisively unenthusiastic about pre-marital sex. In fact Brother John has re-cast the Biblical Jesus to conform to the Jesus he would like to have, one who supports the left-wing causes so dear to him and to liberals generally.
It is an old strategy. It seems that everyone who hates the Church loves its Founder, and everyone wants Jesus on their side. Thus the Communists hailed Jesus as the first Communist, and the Nazis hailed Him as the first National Socialist (and an Aryan at that). In this venerable Search for the Historical Jesus, everyone re-makes the Lord into whatever suits their current fancy, by both suppressing some parts of His teaching and blowing up and intensifying other parts. And of course all players in this game assume without argument that the historical Church is out to lunch, and has of course misunderstood and distorted the true Jesus. Thus one can make a Jewish Jesus, a Muslim Jesus, and now a Liberal Jesus. If one is desperate enough for attention and book sales, one can even make a Zealot Jesus.
I would suggest that the method whereby Jesus is made over is fundamentally flawed. That is, one should not airily assume that the movement which He created and the men who wrote down His words and preserved them without a break for two millennia have nothing to say about what Jesus was actually like. The cavalier dismissal of the first and second century Church is a little weird, when you think about it. At the very least one could conclude that if the apostles who actually knew and wrote about Jesus could not understand Him, then it is unlikely that we can understand Him two thousand years later simply by reading their (supposedly) flawed apostolic memoirs. If the first century apostolic Church could not “get it”, there really is no hope for anyone else getting it. But as it is, there is no reason to think that the men who spent time with Jesus day in and day out, who were trained by Him and entrusted by Him with His mission and message, were incapable of “getting it”. It does not take a great deal of faith to conclude that the apostles were able to preserve an authentic picture of Him, for after all, they were with Him for quite a while. I would rather therefore trust the Church’s consistent and two-thousand year old picture of Jesus, than trust the most recent make-over. Mr. Fugelsang may be a great comedian. But here I find that it is his portrayal of Jesus that is the most funny.