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Much that once was, is lost, for none lived who could remember it. Some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth." These words are from the opening scene of the phenomenally successful film The Fellowship of the Ring, based on the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien's classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. But when this devout Catholic first penned these famous and famously cryptic words, what did he have in mind? Perhaps the philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard captured something of his meaning when he lamented, "Presumed familiarity of Jesus and his message has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt, and contempt has led to profound ignorance."
What once profoundly shaped communities and changed lives has today been sidelined in society. The radical message of Jesus is now seen as nothing more than an ancient myth containing little, if any, historical truth or contemporary relevancy. Misleading potted versions of the story of Jesus have been filtered down to us through bland civic religion, caricatured snippets from the mouth of Ned Flanders, Homer Simpson's nerdy Christian neighbour, and the sickly sweet, saccharine-flavoured version of Christmas presented to us by retailers and the media each October through December.
But if society at large has grown ignorant or indifferent to Jesus and his message, surely all will be well in the Church, the guardian of the gospel. Sadly, the reality turns out to be very different. In truth, thousands of despondent, disappointed and disillusioned Christians stagger under the burden of "spiritual expectation" that they cannot meet and the so-called "good news" they hear week in week out from the pulpits and platforms of their churches. And even more worryingly, the problem is massively compounded by the lack of opportunity people have to articulate genuine doubts and questions. They struggle to give voice to the niggling feeling that they aren't even certain that what they hear preached really is the message of Jesus at all!
In the film The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays the central character Truman Burbank, who leads a happy, carefree life in an idyllic town on a small island. He has lived there all his life - and there's nowhere else he'd rather be. But Truman's "perfect world" is actually a complete fabrication, for he exists within the confines of a vast dome-like TV studio created by a mega-rich media mogul. He is the unwitting star of a reality-TV soap opera that is beamed around the world 24 hours a day, 365 days a year - and he's the only one who doesn't know it. His wife, his friends, his neighbours, even the people he passes in the street - everyone is acting a role. Everyone, that is, except Truman. For him it's all very real.
But things slowly start to change. Chinks begin to appear in Truman's "ideal" world. And the more he thinks about the inconsistencies, the more troubled he becomes. Somehow things just don't add up. Initially he tries to ignore the clues to the truth and carries on regardless. But as time goes on, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable and restless. Eventually, the evidence that something is seriously amiss with his world becomes overwhelming. However, as he starts to ask questions and airs his doubts among his peers, they simply close ranks on him - reassuring him that this is just the way things really are.
In the end Truman's desire to know the truth gets the better of him. Feeling trapped in his small and confining world, he attempts an escape via a journey of discovery across the sea - the thing he fears most. Having survived a fierce storm in a small boat, he heads towards the horizon. Eventually, and very unexpectedly, he collides with the outer wall of the giant TV studio, which is camouflaged to look like the sky. Just when he thinks all hope is gone, he finds an exit door, leaving him with one question: Does he fear what might lie beyond it more than staying locked in his false existence for the rest of his life?
Without a doubt, huge numbers of Christians feel more than a little like Truman. The longer they have been part of the Church and have listened to its teaching and preaching, the more they have come to believe that things in this "perfect" world just don't quite add up. For some it's no more than a nagging doubt; for others it's a deep unease. Many have already voted with their feet and found the exit door. As the author and pastor Brian McLaren observes in A New Kind of Christian, "Either Christianity itself is flawed, failing and untrue, or our modern, Western, commercialized, industrial-strength version of it is in need of a fresh look, a serious revision."
An Aching and a Longing
A decade ago, I conducted an interview for the BBC's prime time religious television programme, Songs of Praise, with a very successful businessman. The filming went well and we kept in contact for a while, but both our lives were very busy and we eventually lost touch. Then years later and completely out of the blue, he called and invited me to stay with him for a few days. He wanted the opportunity to talk some things over. I was surprised to hear from him, but was more than happy to catch up with him and listen to what he had to say.
As I thought about our upcoming visit, I wondered what the problem might be. Perhaps his marriage was on the rocks, or possibly he was struggling with business or financial troubles. However, on arrival it soon became obvious that neither of these issues was the problem. His wife was there to meet me and they were still enjoying married life. As for business - well, he had just moved into a massive house with acres of land and he had his own lake stocked with salmon, a Ferrari sitting on the driveway and a private helicopter in a huge hangar by the swimming pool complex.
The following morning we had breakfast in the conservatory. As we sat surrounded by the most amazing luxury, I couldn't resist commenting to his wife about their incredible lifestyle. Her reply, however, rather stumped me. "The trouble with John," she said, "is that he has been seduced by all his possessions. He has abandoned Jesus and replaced him with a helicopter and a sports car."
So this was the trouble - John had lost his faith and he wanted me to help. Over the next couple of days we had several long, deep and honest conversations. And I discovered that John hadn't lost faith in Jesus at all. In fact, all he did was talk about God. He never once mentioned his business or his financial trappings. The reality was that his possessions were substitutes for Church, not for Jesus or for God. He had become disillusioned and simply wanted and needed something meaningful and exciting in his life, which he hadn't found in his helicopter or car.
For many people, Church has become a barren and unfulfilling experience, which fails to address, let alone answer, life's deepest questions and concerns. People haven't stopped going to Church because they are too modern-minded, too scientific, too rational or too enlightened to be spiritual. Rather, when they apply the formulated message proclaimed by so many preachers and evangelists to the tough realities of day-to-day life, they become disillusioned. On first hearing they may be convinced, but later many find it full of holes. As one young woman put it, "I just can't bridge the gap between the reality of my life and the message that my pastor and church elders teach. I want to shout out that the emperor is wearing no clothes. And yet, even though I sense that there are many more people like me, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence that no-one is willing to break."
Christian belief for many people seems increasingly like a huge jigsaw puzzle. The preacher tells us on Sunday that struggle and hardship are part of the Christian experience, but the evangelist on cable TV, sporting the Italian designer suit and gold jewellery, assures us that untold wealth is ours if only we have enough faith to believe. The teaching tape tells us that healing is always within our grasp through prayer and faith, but our best friend, for whom we prayed constantly and fervently, just died of cancer. We read a best-selling book that tells us that the latest world crisis is proof that we are headed into the "end times", which will bring doom, gloom and persecution and act as a precursor to the imminent return of Christ. But the very next week our Bible-study leader waxes lyrical about the revival that is coming, heralding a period of unprecedented opportunity for the Church around the world and preparing the way for the Second Coming. We are taught that God is love, but no-one explains how this teaching coheres with the reality of those whom we know, love and respect but who don't know Christ and so, as the preacher tells us, are bound for eternal torment in hell.
We feel we have been handed loads of jumbled-up pieces and we just can't work out how they all fit together. The one thing we lack is what we need most - the lid with the picture on it. Without that big picture, all we have are the random pieces of "theology" that we have managed to pick up along the way. And we are often at a loss to see much, if any, relevancy or relationship of the separate pieces to one another. They just don't seem to fit. In fact, without the big picture we can't even be sure that all our pieces are part of the same jigsaw. Perhaps some are from completely different pictures and were never meant to fit together at all.
So how do we rediscover that joined-up, seamless message of Jesus? The one that makes sense of God, the universe and life for the sick and the healthy, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, the men and women, the lonely and the loved alike? The message that his followers confidently announced to a weary world as genuine, authentic and unique good news? Our task is to reclaim the true but lost message of Jesus.
Building the Bigger Picture
It has been said that every great leader or teacher has one core message that permeates everything they do and say; one central vision that can be summed up in a sentence; one key note that provides the framework and unifies every other statement they make and action they take. It was true of Karl Marx, of Gandhi, of Martin Luther King Jr, of Freud. And it's equally true of Jesus. It is this overarching "meta" theme that gives context to each of the separate pieces of the jigsaw that makes up their lives and teachings. To grasp this big picture is the beginning of understanding the person; to miss or ignore it will almost inevitably end in misunderstanding, misrepresentation and ignorance.
My aim in the chapters that follow is to demonstrate that the core of Jesus' life-transforming, though often deeply misunderstood, message is this: The Kingdom, the in-breaking shalom of God, is available now to everyone through me. I will draw together some of the scattered pieces of the jigsaw and help provide a glimpse of that all-important picture from the lid of the box. My prayer in all this is simple - that this book might provoke thoughtful debate, pose fresh questions and shed a little new light, but more than that, stir our hearts, fire our emotions and fuel our imaginations.
In order to do all this, our task is to pursue Jesus back to his original context. Thus rather than starting with the question, What does this mean to me today? we must take Jesus seriously enough to attempt to understand him in his original setting. We need instead to ask questions like, Who did Jesus think he was? What did his first audiences understand when he spoke to them? What was everyday life like for Jesus and those who encountered him? Why did Matthew, Mark, Luke and John describe his message as "good news"? What is this Kingdom Jesus constantly spoke about and how did his hearers think they might enter it? Only as we do the hard work of "contextualizing" Jesus in his first-century setting and ask the question, What did it mean then? will we be in a position to answer the issues of contemporary "re-contextualization" authentically and begin to discover what it means now.
In the following chapters we will encounter Jesus in his world. We will discover how his message responded to, and was shaped by, first-century Palestine, with its specific political, economic, social and religious practices. We will view him from the perspective of the powerful and the disenfranchised - through the eyes of the priests and the prostitutes, the privileged and the poor. We will follow how, from his cradle to his grave, he radically challenged centuries of popular Jewish understanding and teaching about God's character and his agenda for humanity. Focusing on some of the key episodes, events and issues of his life, we will see how too often the message we preach has been influenced more by the culture we live in than the radical, life-changing, world-shaping message Jesus brought to the people living in Palestine two thousand years ago.
The Search for Jesus
The last few years have seen a massive craze in some church circles of badges and bracelets bearing the letters WWJD? an abbreviated form of the question, What would Jesus do? Some critics have dismissed this initiative as nothing more than a tasteless exercise in consumerism. But many who have supported the idea feel there is a more noble purpose: to encourage young Christians to think about their actions within a moral framework. In a sense it is a crash course in Christian ethics. But it relies on the assumption that we have a clear understanding of Jesus and his message and so are able to appropriate it here and now. The reality is that so many Christians, young and old, don't actually know enough about Jesus and his message and so can only guess what he would do.
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A theological professor was giving a lecture about Jesus to an auditorium packed with students. The main thrust of his argument was that we are constantly learning new things about Jesus and the world in which he lived that in turn have a huge impact on our understanding of his message. "We need to constantly search for the real Jesus," declared the bespectacled theologian. Incensed by this explicit accusation that Christians don't really understand Jesus or the gospel, a young man, unable to keep quiet any longer, stood to his feet and at the top of his voice shouted, "If you academics in your ivory towers have lost Jesus, that's your problem. I've not lost him. I know him. I love him. I don't need to search for him."
Excerpted from The Lost Message of Jesus by Steve Chalke Alan Mann Copyright © 2003 by Steve Chalke. Excerpted by permission.
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