The problem nowadays is that every Christian claims to have a Christ-centred theology. Not that a Christ-centred theology is a bad thing, mind you. I would argue that if Christianity is not Jesus-centred it is absolutely worthless. The problem is not with the concept of placing Jesus at the centre of our sense-making when it comes to God. The problem is with the Jesus that we place at the centre in the first place. The sad truth is that most of those Jesuses we so glibly base our faith around bear absolutely no resemblance at all to the Jesus of the gospels. One of the most popular of these is a Jesus whose followers will grudgingly concede that he may have been merciful and loving the first time around, but is going to undergo a radical personality change and come back as a ruthless tyrant, wreaking bloody vengeance on the enemies of God in an apocalyptic slaughter that will make today’s warzones look like playtime at the crèche. Can anybody say “cognitive dissonance”? The fact is that the Jesuses preached from Protestant and Evangelical pulpits week after week, the ones who represent a God who demands blood justice, the ones who refuse to tolerate the presence of anything “unclean” because they are offended by “sin”, the Gods who are happy to let an innocent scapegoated victim die in the place of the guilty so long as their sense of honour can be restored by blood, these Jesuses who come with dire warnings that at the end of time they will return to initiate a world-wide massacre, these Jesuses whose mercies have an expiry date, whose forgiveness is conditional, who will ultimately demand that every knee bow on penalty of death, look nothing like the peace-loving, vengeance-forsaking Jesus of the gospels, who dined with sinners and tax-collectors, refused to abuse power, pardoned even those who killed him, and not only preached peace and enemy-love consistently but actually lived his values. Today’s “Christs” represent exactly the opposite values to the Jesus of the gospels. They are, in a very real sense, anti-Christs.
Part of the problem, I have argued in recent times, is that we are lazy readers and lazy historians. Because of the belief that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, and thus timeless and faultless, and the tool through which God clearly communicates with us in the here and now, we feel free to completely ignore the way that context and language shape meaning. We are content to assume that our English translations and our postmodern paradigms have not distorted our understandings of the gospels in any way. After all, God wouldn’t want to make things difficult for us, to obscure meaning, so it is only logical that the Bible can make complete sense without our having to do any work to get at the meanings. We deny that our understandings of the gospels and of Jesus have been shaped by the paradigmatic frameworks of our time and place; in fact, we deny the very existence of these paradigms at all. And so we land up with an anti-Christ, a bizarre blend of the values of Reformation thinkers’ conceptualisations of justice, of post-modern egocentricism, of global capitalism, of retributive justice-oriented warmongering. We steadfastly refuse to see that there is a distinction between God and thinking about God, so when our theologies are questioned we respond as if God Henself was being challenged. We are a narcissistic people living in a world that values people and objects and experiences only to the extent that they fulfil selfish needs. And we remake Jesus in our image.
But history matters. In the run-up to Easter, I want to relook at Jesus by mapping his life, as narrated in the gospels, onto Jesus’s own context. I want to illustrate that if we want to understand why Jesus said the things he did, taught the things he did, challenged the things he did, we need to understand something of the context in which he lived and taught and died. And I hope that once we have done that, we will have a clearer idea of why we need to reject the poisonous theology that is contained in Penal Substitution Atonement theology and embrace the restorative eschatology that Jesus offers.
Today I want to briefly introduce the concept of the metanarrative. A metanarrative is an overarching interpretation of history that helps us make meaning out of events and experiences. It is the grand plot, so to speak, of life. We tend to think of history as moving towards some predefined point. Events that may make no sense in and of themselves are given meaning by their location within this grand narrative. For example, most of us will comprehend that in and of itself the death of a child is senseless and tragic and unjust. We know that poverty and disease and violence are fundamentally wrong. Yet they happen. And for many of us, they happen despite our conceptualization of a God who is loving. We learn to live with these wrong things by subsuming them within a metanarrative of “God’s plan”. If God is loving, there must be a good reason for this wrongness: all will make sense in the end.
The dominant metanarrative in Protestant and Evangelical Christianity today runs something like this: God created a perfect world, but when Adam and Eve ate the apple and disobeyed God they brought sin into the world, rendering all of humanity sinful and separating us from God, who cannot abide sin in His presence. This sin needed to be punished for divine justice to be done and the relationship between God and humanity restored, so God took the punishment upon Himself, in the form of Jesus, so that whoever accepts that Jesus died in their place is no longer guilty under God’s Law. They escape the fate that awaits those who choose instead – by denying Jesus – to accept the guilty verdict and condemn themselves to Hell. The chosen live in Heaven with God eternally.
It is through this metanarrative that we interpret Scripture. It is through this metanarrative that we make sense of suffering and death, of prosperity and fortune, of all of life’s trials and triumphs. It is through this metanarrative that we understand how to relate to other people, that we form a sense of self, that we decide what our lives mean. It is from this metanarrative that we infer the nature and character of God, which in turn influences how we live and relate. Metanarratives are powerful. They determine how we relate to others .And we are our relationships: to quote Jean-Luc Nancy, there is no Being without Being-with. Metanarratives matter.
The problem with calling yourself Christian and adopting this metanarrative is that this looks nothing like the metanarrative of Jesus. It is, among other things, a weird mixture of 4th Century Augustinian theology (who formulated the doctrine of original sin and was a key proponent of the “just war” thinking prevalent today), of 11th Century feudal ideas of honour projected onto God under Anselm of Canterbury, of Reformation notions of divine justice, of post-Enlightenment rationalism, of postmodern subjectivity and of global capitalist consumerist culture. What it isn’t is 1st Century Jewish, And Jesus was a 1st Century Jew.
The trajectory of the Jewish metanarrative does not follow the line: Creation-Fall-Redemption. And while the Jewish metanarrative does refer to the Present Age and the Age to Come, the Age to Come entails the restoration of the Present Age, and as such is an extension of it, not an escape from it to another reality altogether. Things do not culminate in the righteous going to some otherworldly Paradise and the wicked suffering eternal torment in an otherworldy fire. Such a line of thinking does not exist in any of the older Jewish scriptures, appears only after Jewish culture interacts with Greek and Persian culture, where such ideas are prevalent, and even then is not accepted by all. Rather, the Jewish story is of the establishment of the people of God, their exile, and the promised return.
There are key differences between the Protestant and Evangelical metanarratives and the Jewish metanarrative of Jesus. For one, the Jewish metanarrative focuses on people in community, not on individuals. The issue of personal salvation is not a Jewish one, and the need to atone for personal sins in order to gain personal access to the presence of God is not part of the Jewish metanarrative. That is not to say that personal sin is unimportant, only that its ramifications are not felt in that access to the Divine presence is denied. The ramifications of sin are linked to the notion that the Jewish people are the image-bearers of God, and sin tarnishes that image. Sin, in the Jewish metanarrative, is a communal problem, not a personal one. It is personal only in as much as it is individuals who make up the community. Exile is a community issue, and sin and exile are linked. Consequently, it follows that in Jewish thinking salvation is a communal concept, not a personal one, and made personal only because there is no Being-with without Being. In the Jewish metanarrative the key relationship is between people (as community) and God, not between separate and discrete individuals and God. This is the metanarrative through which we need to attempt to make sense of Jesus.
Jesus’s metanarrative follows a Jewish line, not a Protestant one. I hope to establish this in further posts, but I will leave you with what I think is one of the most powerful if subtle illustrations of this point in the gospels. It comes from Luke’s description of two of the disciples encountering the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. When they are struggling to integrate the crucifixion and resurrection into their metanarratives, Jesus uses the Scriptures to explain things to them. It is easy to overlook the significance of the description of this to our discussion:
“And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” (Luke 24:27)
Did you see it? Look where Jesus begins his explanation. If Jesus is operating from a Creation-Fall-Redemption metanarrative, the one upon which Penal Substitution Atonement (PSA) theology depends, then the only logical starting place is with the Garden of Eden. Indeed, modern Christianity insists on a literal interpretation of Genesis largely because the notion of original sin entering the world through the Fall is integral to its metanarrative. But in interpreting his life to these two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus bypasses Genesis altogether. He begins with Moses. That is where Jesus believes we need to start if we wish to understand his part in the metanarrative.
And the implications of that should be obvious, but I will spell it out for you. If Jesus can bypass the story of the Fall as described in Genesis, effectively rendering it unimportant, then PSA cannot be considered central to understanding Jesus, by Jesus’s own admission.
But this makes perfect sense if we make the logical assumption that Jesus would have operated from within a Jewish metanarrative. If the starting point of the story is the calling of a chosen people, then beginning with Moses makes perfect sense. And for us that means that as we attempt to make sense of Jesus, like the two on the road to Emmaus, to understand the significance of his life, his death, his resurrection, we need to put aside the PSA metanarrative that seems so normal to us, but which was clearly foreign to Jesus, and attempt to read the story of Jesus through a Jewish metanarrative of Chosen People-Exile-Return/ Present Age-Age to Come. And I have a feeling that once we do that, once we start to understand Jesus on his own terms, Second Temple Jewish terms, then – like those two disciples on the road to Emmaus – we will come away from the encounter with the feeling that our “hearts [were] burning within us”.