Saving Jesus (Episode 5): Like a Virgin

This week’s installment of Saving Jesus at my church applied its revisionist sledgehammer to the doctrines of the Virgin Birth and the Incarnation. It would be too easy to make fun of the worksheet, which appears to have been written by unemployed former Soviet re-education camp counselors. So-called discussion questions included “Name some of the reasons why the virgin birth is not to be taken literally” and “What are some of the words that were confused by the early translators and writers [of the Bible]?”

On the DVD, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong averred with equal certainty that we should “stop thinking of God as a great big parent figure up in the sky — a supernatural being who is external to life” and instead imagine God as a life force that is present in all of us. The difference between Jesus and ourselves is one of degree, not of kind. As a logical matter, said Spong, Jesus could not be fully human and also different in kind from us, as the church has mistakenly considered him to be.

I’ve got to give Spong credit for understanding why the Incarnation is such a radical concept, although his anti-supernatural bias makes him reject it. Precisely because there is a separation between humans and God, such that the divine light within us is clouded, Jesus can’t be fully divine and also fully human if we understand human as meaning “just like us”, i.e. no more than us. Spong closes the gap by eliminating God, insofar as God is distinct from His creation. But at least he sees the central problem, which is that the difference between the holy God of the Bible and us mere mortals is so great that our brains freeze when we try to picture them coexisting in the same person.

I’ll confess right now that I believe in the Incarnation — as history, not just metaphor — because it makes me happy. Not because I can prove it through archaeological, textual or scientific evidence. For Spong & co., this makes me an idiot. On the DVD, Marcus Borg said the best we can hope for is “post-critical naivete”– though our critical intellect says these miracles couldn’t possibly have happened, our mature faith returns to find value in the stories as metaphor, bracketing the question of historical truth.

I suddenly felt more sympathy for the Saving Jesus project after hearing this, because it reminded me of where I was around the time of my conversion. I was totally convinced that the gospel of grace presented in St. Paul’s letters was the truest picture of human nature and our relationship to God that I could find. But was it intellectually honest to infer a historical truth from a psychological one? Ultimately I threw up my hands and said, “Well, if it didn’t exactly happen the way it said in the Bible, I still believe with all my heart that God is the kind of God who would love us enough to die for us, and that gets me most of the way there.”

Somehow since then I’ve become furiously certain that it actually happened more or less the way the Gospels said. I can’t rely confidently on God’s forgiveness unless I believe, first of all, that there is a real, personal, loving God, and when I start to doubt that, I’m forced to cling to the idea that He actually died to close the cosmic rift created by human sin. I wasn’t able to save myself, so I can’t rely on a Jesus who’s only the product of my imagination (even if I do ask the characters in my novel for advice on my love life).

Here’s a paradox for liberals to chew on: If religious truth is “what works for me,” what if the only thing that works for me is to believe my religion is objectively true?

3 comments on “Saving Jesus (Episode 5): Like a Virgin

  1. Thank you for posting on your Saving Jesus classes. As an evangelical I have trouble understanding how Episcopals can interpret the Bible the way they do. This is helping me understand them better. Thanks.

  2. Jendi Reiter says:

    You’re welcome! though I’d caution that not all Episcopalians interpret the Bible as loosely as it’s done in my church. For now, the theologians on this DVD series represent the liberal fringe of a pretty diverse denomination. The likely split in the Anglican Communion over the gay issue makes me worry that each half will be captured by more extreme elements, with the Spong followers taking over all the inclusive churches.

    As far as I can tell, the Saving Jesus approach to the Bible is quite reductionist and fragmentary. Earlier gospels are considered more reliable than later ones (thus, anything not found in Mark, the earliest and shortest one, is suspected of being a later fabrication); the pre-Resurrection Jesus is┬ástudied apart from the post-Resurrection Jesus; and we shouldn’t look at the Pauline epistles to help us interpret the significance of┬áthe gospel stories. It’s like there is this invisible line separating “fact” from “theology” and the latter can only obscure the former. Very weird.

  3. Tibby says:

    In the first chapter of ‘The Challenge of Jesus’ N.T. Wright writes, “I see the historical task… as part of the appropriate activity of knowledge and love, to get to know even better the one whom we claim to know and follow. If even in a human relationship of knowlege and love there can be misunderstandings, false impressions, wrong assumptions, which need to be teased out and dealt with, how much more when the one to whom we are relating is Jesus himself.” And he continues, “I believe, in fact, that the historical quest for Jesus is a necessary and nonnegotiable aspect of Christian discipleship and that we in our generation have a chance to be renewed in discipleship and mission precisely by means of this quest.”

    The crucial point obviously is whether or not one does indeed claim to know and follow Jesus (or at least LONGS to know and follow Jesus) as distinct from merely wanting to actualize some personal sense of spirituality that feels good in the subjective soul.

    Certainly it is possible to speak about Jesus and in some sense to draw on aspects of his teachings, while in fact pursuing the latter goal. If that is all one wants, then obviously the question of historicity is quite irrelevant. But if one actually claims and longs to KNOW AND FOLLOW JESUS, then historicity becomes very important…

    After our ‘Saving Jesus’ class one of the leaders was speaking with me about the metaphor of the elephant: blinded folk feeling around, some feeling the leg, some the trunk, etc. etc. But of course this metaphor assumes that there IS A REAL ELEPHANT there, and that what each of us discovers and feels has relevance (to the whole) only if we care to come together and pool our understandings. If we start with the axiom, “There IS no real objective elephant here, just random different amorphous parts floating about in space, each as valuable as the other for our subjective purposes but bearing no necessary relationship to one another,” then the metaphor breaks down into foolishness. I think that a lot of last night’s discussion was in fact just like that. But if there IS really an objective elephant……. For starters, we better at least admit that!

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