What happens when you take Jesus out of church? What happens when you examine the gospel stories not merely as spiritual documents but as historical ones? When you see Jesus naturalistically, as a human being living in and interacting with society? If you are a Christian, what does that do to your faith?
Thomas Mann once wrote, "To separate Church and religion means to give up separating the religious from madness." Something like this fear seems to motivate Luke Timothy Johnson's The Real Jesus. Besides being a New Testament scholar, Johnson is a laicized Catholic priest and former Benedictine monk, and this perspective colors his withering critique of the field of historical Jesus studies. He doesn't like this broad, unwieldy, interdisciplinary movement, this unorchestrated effort by historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and others to find scraps of information about a certain human being who lived in Palestine two millennia ago. Professor Johnson's basic complaint is that this work is going on in the hurly-burly of society at large rather than in the sheltered cove of "the church and the academy," where he believes it belongs.
This is very much in line with traditional Catholic thinking. Historically, the Church has placed itself and its representatives in an intermediary role, with the task of translating the language of the Divine into a form that ordinary humanity can comprehend the middleman between God and the people. But this historical-Jesus business hasn't followed those rules. To the bewilderment of biblical scholars, who are used to beingignoredby everyone except their colleagues, ordinary people have been buying their books, sifting through their arcane arguments, attending lectures, buttonholing scholars who appear on radio talk shows. People are grappling with the issues on their own.
And they are very big issues indeed. For the whole approach of critical scholarship is naturalistic: It presumes that the Jesus of history came into and left this world according to the same natural forces that govern the rest of us. Such theologically charged concepts as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection are seen by this scholarship as not literally true, and in fact the Bible sleuths think they have an angle on where and when these mythic overlays were added to the Jesus story.
This is not to say that historical Jesus scholarship dismisses the truth of Christianity; many of these scholars (including the many who, like Professor Johnson, are or have been Christian clerics) insist that their work does not dispel the gospel portrait but rather shows the limitations of our modern consciousness, which tends to equate "truth" with scientific or literal truth.
This is where Professor Johnson's book is helpful. He considers the media attention paid to the historical Jesus, and especially to that media-savvy group, the Jesus Seminar, to be a mirror image of the attention given to so-called Christian fundamentalism in the 1970s and 1980s. In both cases delicate nuances of spirituality and philosophy are reduced to sound bites. Thus anyone with a passing interest is likely to be misled or confused.
This is a valuable point. What this field is tinkering with is our culture's definition of truth, and attempting to alter something so fundamental requires a lot of work and careful attention. Professor Johnson himself, for example, whom scholars I have spoken with regard as a theological conservative, has a view of the resurrection that does not seem very conservative to me, and which demands a great deal of attention. If I understand him, he does not believe in a literal bodily resurrection. "[T]he resurrection is not a claim that Jesus was resuscitated, that he resumed his former life after a 'clinical death' experience," he writes. He goes on to say that "A resuscitation...does not begin a religion.... It is not what is being claimed by the first Christians." Later he says, "The Christian claim concerning the resurrection in the strong sense is simply not 'historical.' The problem in this case is, however, not with the reality of the resurrection. The problem lies in history's limited mode of knowing."
In common with virtually all of the scholars whose work he castigates, then, Professor Johnson seems not to view the resurrection in the way that Christianity has long insisted as a real, bodily, historical event but as a spiritual event that history and science are not equipped to deal with. The value of his book is that it warns us not to take a Newsweek cover story or a Jesus Seminar press release as adequate treatment of these multilayered issues.
The problem I have with The Real Jesus is that Professor Johnson seems to believe that because of these difficulties, ordinary people cannot or should not grapple with these issues on their own, unaided by the church. I don't begrudge him his opinion, and he may be right: That way, as Mann suggested, may lie madness. But I would simply point out as a matter of fact that a lot of ordinary people are grappling with these historical issues, on their own or in a church setting. We are living in an era of radically individual approaches to religion. Why are people streaming into newfangled evangelical/pentacostal churches? Why are crystals and channeling and Eastern religions so popular? Right or wrong, this wandering, Road-Warrior approach to spirituality is a feature of our time.
Professor Johnson zeroes in on one small part of this vast trend the search for the historical Jesus and declares that the scholars engaged in it are leading people astray. But he's got it backwards. If anything, the scholars are playing catch-up, following in the wake of a larger cultural ship, attempting to do for traditional Christianity what people in other areas have been doing for some time: Find a way to bring scientific knowing and spiritual knowing together.
This point came out again and again in the dozens of interviews I have conducted with clergy and ordinary Christians who are drawn to historical-Jesus work. They know that historical reconstruction is only educated guesswork, that it isn't divining "the real Jesus," the Christ of Christian faith. Seeing what history and science can add to the picture has not diminished their faith, they say, but deepened it, made it richer and more complex. Professor Johnson himself has developed a personal view of the bedrock event of Christian faith that must seem contradictory to many traditional Catholics: He believes that the resurrection of Jesus was real but that it was not historical and not biological. This view is not contradictory to him because he has meditated on both history and spirituality. Why begrudge others this same opportunity to read and contemplate, to separate the wheat from the chaff and eventually reach their own redefinition of truth, one that suits a world in which science is so indubitably true and yet, we are discovering, so limited?