Our four biblical evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are artists. Each one paints Jesus the way an artist paints a model. Unfortunately, their model has died years before they start painting. However, they do have other paintings — called scrolls — from year’s past, which they copy or redact, and they have many stories that are circulating in the different communities, and so they arrive – as all artists do — with their own individual themes.
Matthew sees Jesus as the New Moses, and his portrait has Jesus going up the mountain with his new Ten Commandments. Mark paints Jesus as the Messianic Secret, performing all the traits of the Jewish Messiah but shushing up anybody who talks about him. Luke’s Jesus has him making women equal to men. And John’s portrait explodes as a picture of Yahweh himself.
But may we ask the big question? Where — beneath all this artistry—is the historical Jesus? Behind all these portraits, where is the model? Since all four paintings are entirely different images of this Galilean peasant, how can we find the original? Where is the man who inspired all this mythology and artistry? Are we allowed to ask that question?
Dr. John Morreall (pronounced: Mor-el) thinks so. He teaches religious studies at the College of William and Mary, and he just wrote an eye-opening book called “Questions for Christians.” Dr. Harvey Cox, the famous Harvard theology professor and author, reviewed John’s book and he wrote:
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“Some of us were told as youngsters that asking too many questions is a bad habit, possibly even bordering on the sinful. John Morreall takes the opposite, and I think correct position, that questioning is integral to the religious life, indeed to being human.”
And I agree. Dr. Morreall questions everything about Christianity, and he comes up with many great answers. One of his best, I think, surrounds his list of “Ten Tenets.” First, John asks the questions, then he summarizes the core teachings of Jesus. It’s a fine list and I can’t help but agree with him. But then I must ask: When did Christianity change them?
A few examples:
Love all people. But the Cardinal of New York told us during World War II to hate the Japanese because “God is on our side.”
Eat with prostitutes. But a Catholic Church refused to give Communion to a divorced Catholic and a Protestant Church fired their gay pastor.
Forgive anyone for anything. But don’t all of us good Christians feel more than justified in not forgiving Hitler?
Morreall goes on, he asks: Is the Bible historically accurate? And then he proceeds to show one historically inaccurate statement after another. He asks: Did Jesus die for our sins? And then he blows apart the atonement theory completely. When he asks for an understandable explanation of the Trinity he gets nothing but ecclesiastical babble.
Many of you will not like his treatment of war under the title: Would Jesus join the U.S. Marines? But it’s a question that must be asked and answered if we’re going to deal with Christ’s core message of pacifism.
And both Catholics and Protestants will take offense when they read his last chapter — he gives both groups a grade based on the Ten Tenets of Jesus, and both groups (except for Pope Francis) flunk.
In spite of what you may think, John Morreall is not anti-Christian. His goal, as he says in the last words of his book, is to help “reshape Christianity to be more like the Kingdom of God that was preached by Jesus.”
Dr. Bill Cummings’ blog is www.progressiveheretic.com.