The New Quest for the Historical Jesus


By Joe LaGuardia

In the last two hundred years of biblical research, scholars have outlined various “quests” for the historical Jesus.  Each quest accompanies new insights into historical records and artifacts that emphasize some never-before-understood facet about Jesus of Nazareth.

The first quest, around the turn of the eighteenth century, applied new approaches of historical inquiry to the Bible.  Many, like Thomas Jefferson, concluded that Jesus was a wise sage whose many miracles were an invention of the early church.

Other quests thereafter understood Jesus to be a prophet who proclaimed the world’s imminent end.

Now, with the start of a new century, we stand in the shadow of a contemporary, burgeoning quest for the historical Jesus.  Unlike years past, it combines historical research with literary criticism, specialized interpretation, and global, multicultural experiences of the Risen Christ.

For many, the freedom to marry objective inquiry with spiritual, global awakening is refreshing.

I am reminded of a book review I did some time ago on Jonathon Merritt’s Jesus is Better than You Imagined.  I noted that the book focused on Merritt’s experiences of Jesus more than the life of Christ or the many ways that historians understand his ministry, death, and resurrection.

Little did I know that this type of experiential writing tipped a hat to a new quest that makes the reading community–those of us deeply invested in the Bible and the life of Christ–a part of the interpretation of who Christ was and is.

edgarIn his book, Jesus Christ Today, New Testament scholar Edgar McKnight notes that this kind of interpretation marks one of three contemporary interpretative resources that define a new quest for the historical Jesus.

Whereas the first resource is that of experience and multicultural theology, a second resource originates in ongoing conversations with world religions.

Echoing an age-old question aptly summarized by Catholic theologian Paul Knitter, Christians are asking whether Jesus is the “name above names” or simply “the name among other names.”

Our understanding of other world religions — their dissimilarities as well as similarities to Christianity, including similarities related to a penchant towards religious fundamentalism and violence — is shaping how we read Christ’s teachings and the impact he has made on the church and history.

No matter how we answer Knitter’s question, however, we cannot deny that theological study and dialogue with other religions illuminates Jesus’ presence in our life.

A third interpretative resource consists of scholars and clergy who understand Jesus as a rabbi deeply embedded in the Judaism that shaped his teachings and understanding of God.

It was not until after the Holocaust–and the realization that much of Christian theology influenced anti-Semitic policies in the west–that scholars revisited and affirmed Jesus’ Jewish identity and relationship to the people of Israel.

Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders, and N. T. Wright are but some contemporary scholars who have mined the Bible with this field of investigation in mind.  N. T. Wright, a popular author even in conservative, evangelical circles has argued persuasively that Jesus cannot be understood apart from the Jewish worldview of the First Century.

It is precisely this type of quest that has ignited a reexamination of the Bible and inspired Christians to practice a vibrant, fresh faith in which Jesus has become all the more “relevant” in the minds of believers around the world.

It is relevant because this examination has political ramifications.  The more Christians listen to different communities of faith–be it Jewish or otherwise–the more Christians are forced to reconcile Jesus’ message of peace with the ongoing religious conflicts that detrimentally affect global politics and the Middle East in particular.

This new quest–steeped in interpretative communities that emphasize religious experience, world religions, and Jesus’ Jewish roots–has the power to add a valuable and much-needed voice in a world that is becoming more divisive and violent due to the fracturing of historical, political, and religious ideologies.

No matter where we stand in this new quest, may we faithfully seek Christ and respond to His cause for peace wherever we trod.

Review of Jonathan Merritt’s “Jesus is Better Than You Imagined”

Merritt_JesusBetterThanYouImaginedJust hot off the press, the latest book by Religion News Service senior writer, Jonathon Merritt, entitled Jesus is Better than You Imagined is worth a read because it is a profound take on one young person’s journey through the trials and triumphs that make for a vibrant Christian life.

Unlike what the title implies, the book is not so much about Jesus as it is about Merritt’s personal, spiritual experiences as it pertains to his relationship with Jesus.

All of the chapters contain the subtitle of “encountering Jesus” in some aspect of Merritt’s spiritual life.

He encounters Jesus, for instance, in the solitude of a monastery. He encounters Jesus in creation. He encounters Jesus in the midst of the grace and forgiveness after confessing to having an illicit sexual encounter with another author.

He encounters Jesus outside of the church.  The son of a one-time Southern Baptist Convention president, Merritt admits that he had become, in his words, “tired of the mundane business of professional Christianity.”

So Merritt grasps for what faith means to him after facing the hardships of breaking away from the fishbowl that was his church life, sexual identity crises, and depression.

Jesus, he claims, is to be found in Haiti, the streets of New York, and bars.

Ultimately, he finds Jesus in a renewed faith that carries him through the hardship of uncertainty:

“Faith calls me to welcome the mysterious to rest in the uncomfortable tension of a God who is both known and unknown. This kind of faith doesn’t require an explanation for why I’m wandering in the wilderness; rather, it trusts in the God of the wilderness despite the absence of answers.”

Merritt’s book adds to the tapestry of a booming Christian memoir publishing industry in an information age that prizes the self and the discovery of how that self relates to a God whom one no longer finds in the womb of the church.

It makes for profound, honest, and moving reading although it threatens to let the self–the “I”–distract readers from the very Jesus we are supposed to imagine in a new way.

Another author, the late Henri Nouwen, may have advice here. Often confronted with the wrestling match between being a popular author and simply telling others where God is at work in the world, Nouwen surmised that all of us must be aware of how our own stories have the potential of getting in the way of God’s story.

Our very personhood threatens to hinder or, at worst, tarnish, our experience of Jesus because Jesus ends up looking more like we do rather than the first-century Jew who called all people to God’s reign on earth, a reign that is both beyond our experiences of it as well as personally intimate in our relationship to it.

Merritt’s personal story is no different.

If a memoir is to be anything, however, it is to liberate us from the preconceived notion that we have everything figured out, that we have all of the answers.

Merritt is on the right track most of the time, and I consider him to be one of the leading spokespersons for my generation. But he still walks that fine line between being a Southern Baptist preacher’s son who speaks the familiar language of evangelical conservatism, while searching for a pseudo-progressive theology that seeks to let the marginalized “Other” define God in new ways.

Merritt’s balancing act places him squarely in that classic Christian “identity crisis”, what St. John the Cross called the “dark night of the soul.” We may not be in the same place as Merritt, but we will go along with him for the ride.

Original or not, Jesus is Better than You Imagined inspires growth by giving us the opportunity to live vicariously through the trials and triumphs of the author.

And, in some strange way, we read because we hope to find that transformative, life-giving Word that all of us long for, that all of us hope will help us experience–and imagine–God anew.

What’s in a name? Southern Baptists and Baptist identity

A conflict in my church’s recent history concerned a rumor that made its way through the congregation.  Some were under the belief that the staff was planning on dropping the “Baptist” in Trinity Baptist Church.

Not sure how the rumor got started, especially since staff then (and now) are more Baptist than many folks in the pew.  It points to the importance that names have, especially when it conjures notions of identity and history.

Back then, church name-changing was common; and although its been nearly a decade, churches are continuing to drop denominational monikers all over the country.

Even denominations are reconsidering.  In an article for “USA Today,” Jonathon Merritt reported that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) executive committee put together a task force to study whether having “Southern” in the name hinders its mission.

SBC execs argue that “Southern” points to an antiquated, regional identity.  The Convention no longer advocates for a “Southern agenda nor a Southern vision,” according to Albert Mohler as quoted in Merritt’s article.

That may be true in theory; but, although I do not have any right to opine on the wisdom of this latest discussion (since I am not involved in the Convention per se), it would be hard to argue that the Convention does not reflect a southern ethic.  I can speak confidently about that because I am, after all, a Yankee in King Mohler’s court.

I once visited a church that refused to identify itself as Southern Baptist.  The goal was to not turn away visitors, but ten minutes into worship and three minutes into the sermon, my wife and I knew the church was nothing less than Baptist.  It was not just the pastor’s southern drawl that gave it away.

I understand the Convention’s reasons for giving up the name.  Southern Baptists have the reputation for being too far to the right, too politically involved, and too exclusive.  Whether or not that is true of Southern Baptists in general or in particular is besides the point.   Even Merritt points to a survey in which 40% of 18 to 24-year olds would not visit a church if it was Southern Baptist in name.

Many times, perception is reality.  Trinity has had several families visit just in the past year who said they hesitated coming to church because we had “Baptist” in our name.  Likewise, if the Convention wants to focus on church planting in North America, it will be an uphill battle to found a new Southern Baptist congregation in say, Manhattan.

Nevertheless, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck…

For years, many friends and I have been salvaging the “Baptist” part of our churches to rebrand what many feel is a more mainline trajectory in church life.  Opponents of this trend have labelled many a church “liberal,” hoping to hinder our own church growth for some rhyme or reason.  We argued all along that at least we didn’t give up on our heritage.

That brings us to the heart of the matter: Is subterfuge an effective means of evangelism?   Perhaps the Convention should take it from us and not give up on what it means to be Southern.  That, and focus energy on fixing their reputation.

Don’t give up on “Southern,” just help the public discover why many thousands of individuals are proud to be Southern Baptists in the first place.  Don’t abandon an identity because of polls; rather, work hard in the years to come so that the polls reflect a different perception.

No amount of name-changing will shape the SBC in the near future.  Its reputation for good or ill still precedes it.  Perhaps its time to ask what needs to be done about those perceptions instead, because even if it quacks like a duck, one will still eventually find out that it could be a Baptist in disguise.  It’s just a matter of time.