Mainstream Christian denominations are facing critical decline in the United Kingdom. Church leaders call for new strategies for growth but will these be effective? In this book, Adrian Alker calls for an honest look at the life of Jesus and the faith of the Church and suggests a radical and more honest reshaping of the churches to enable them to face the challenges of the present day. The author has been ordained as an Anglican priest for over thirty years and recognises the important contributions which church congregations can and do make to their communities and the wider world. He passionately believes that the Church must become more Jesus shaped and less concerned with its own structures and beliefs in order to attract new members.
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About the Author
Adrian Alker has served in four dioceses in the Church of England. He founded the St Mark's Centre for Radical Christianity in Sheffield and currently is Chair of the Progressive Christianity Network Britain. He was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Sheffield for his service to the community.
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Is a Radical Church Possible?
Reshaping its Life, for Jesus' Sake
By Adrian Alker
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Adrian Alker
All rights reserved.
Would the 'Real' Jesus Please Step Forward?
Whilst working in the Diocese of Ripon and Leeds, there were two images of Jesus which I deliberately kept next to each other on the windowsill of my office. One image was an iconic representation of Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary, a gift from Russian friends in St Petersburg. Jesus, with adult face, looks adoringly at the rather doleful Madonna. Such depictions of Jesus in the world's art galleries must number millions. Madonna and child, nativity, crucifixion and resurrection portrayals understandably dominate the Christian art world. But the second image of Jesus on my window ledge was a postcard replica of a painting by Max Ernst. I saw the original whilst holidaying with a German friend in Cologne and just had to buy the postcard. In 1926 Ernst created 'The Blessed Virgin Chastises the Infant Jesus Before Three Witnesses: A.B., P.E., and the Artist', to give the painting its full title. A muscular Mary is spanking the infant Jesus whilst the artists Breton, Eluard and Ernst look on. In stature, Jesus looks more like a seven-year-old; his halo is on the ground. The archbishop of Cologne at the time denounced this icon of surrealism as a 'blasphemous narrative'. For how could a sinless Christ be spanked?
These two very different images of Jesus remind me of that search for the 'real' Jesus, which, in a way, began from the time when Jesus called his disciples to join with him in his mission. In the earliest of the canonical gospels, Mark has Jesus putting this question before his disciples, 'Who do people say I am?' (Mark 8.27) It's a question which the New Testament writers and others sought to answer in those early decades after the death of Jesus.
But what do I mean by the 'real Jesus' and how might this differ from the historical Jesus? Most Christians today would claim that Jesus is 'alive' for them, that the 'ascended and glorified Christ' is a real living presence in their lives. In proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus, the Church sings that Jesus Christ is alive for evermore. A popular song opens with the line, 'Jesus stand among us at the meeting of our lives.' I have sung it many times. Nevertheless such statements of faith have not dulled the search for the Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died in Lower Galilee at a certain time in history. That search has been and is undertaken by scholars and theologians, many of whom profess no Christian faith and who would regard Jesus as an important and yet very dead man of history, certainly not one to stand among us except in the loosest of metaphorical senses.
Since the Church has always invited its followers to affirm the humanity of Jesus, it would seem obvious that the search for this historical Jesus would always be a part of Christian theology. So who is this Jesus? Is he the sinless Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, risen from the dead and declared to be the world's Saviour and Redeemer by the councils and creeds of the early Church? Or was he a human being, like you and me, whose halo could slip, a remarkable prophetic man of his time and for his time but whose bones lie somewhere in the dust of Palestine? Or could he indeed have been both human and divine? Or is Jesus whatever we want him to be – a dying saviour, an exemplar of justice and compassion, a God presence in our lives, a name to swear by?
Whatever we think, the world will not let go of this Jesus. Not only in art but in film and literature this Jesus captivates and intrigues generation after generation of people across the planet. When the world's athletes descend on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the 30 metre tall statue of Christ the Redeemer will be there, overlooking the city. There's no getting away from Jesus!
I doubt that the name of Jesus will ever be unknown to human civilization. Have you ever wondered how much music has been written in the world in connection with Jesus and the gospel stories? From early plainsong, through to music of Bach and Handel, from hymns and gospel songs, from musicals such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, through to the exciting compositions of Karl Jenkins, musicians have been inspired by the New Testament accounts of the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Film-makers and film audiences are still captivated by the Jesus story. We look back to the American blockbuster 1965 film 'The Greatest Story Ever Told', or Piero Pasolini's 'The Gospel according to Matthew', also produced in the 1960s with a cast of ordinary Italians including Pasolini's mother playing the part of Mary. More recently, Mel Gibson's 'The Passion of the Christ' first screened in 2004 gave rise to criticism by some reviewers who claimed that its extreme portrayal of the violence and torture inflicted upon Jesus obscured the message of the film.
Across continents and cultures the person of Jesus continues to intrigue Christians and people of other and no religious faith. In the 1990s the Anglican mission societies, CMS and USPG (now Us) produced a resource entitled 'The Christ We Share'. This contained 32 images of Jesus, drawn, painted, sculptured from across the world. Like many colleagues, I have often used these images to stimulate discussion. One picture, for example, is of 'The Angry Christ', an image from the Philippines, which places the historical reality of the Marcos regime in the biblical context of the Overturning of the Tables in the Temple (Mark 11.15-19). In contrast is an image entitled 'Lesser Brethren', which pictures a Jesus in a clean white robe, surrounded by animals and birds set in the English countryside! The resource also has 'Christa', a sculpture made in 1974 by Edwina Sandys, the granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill, for the United Nations Decade for Women. This depiction of a female Christ on the cross was created to represent 'the oppressed and devoured women of our jails and prisons, any woman forgotten, hidden, abused or thrown away, the suffering woman in all of us' commented the artist.
So in part one of this book I am attempting to summarise, albeit inadequately but in all honesty, how the Church and Christian Faith has come to understand Jesus, this Jesus of history who became after his death the Christ of faith, a distinction first made by Martin Kahler in 1964 in his book, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ. Many scholars and indeed the teachings of the universal Church implicitly argue that such a distinction cannot be made since it is impossible to know the Jesus of history without the lens of the Christ of faith. Yet for most of Christian history, from the Gnostics of the second century declaring Jesus to be all divine to the Arians of the fourth century declaring Jesus to be all human, through to Islam's insistence on Jesus being a human prophet, through to the deists of the eighteenth century, the Unitarians of the nineteenth century and up to Philip Pullman recreating Jesus into the twins, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, there has been a constant challenge to orthodox belief that somehow the early church retrospectively 'glued Godhead on to poor Jesus'. Certainly religious sensibilities in the United Kingdom were stirred up both in 1963 with the publication of Honest to God written by a serving bishop of the Church of England and, later, with the publication of the Myth of God Incarnate' a collection of essays edited by John Hick and published by SCM Press in 1977.
The 'quest' for the historical Jesus has and still is, I believe, an important part of the honest search to discover who Jesus was and is. Trying to discover more and more about the lives of great figures of history has always been a favourite stock-in-trade of writers, theologians, novelists and playwrights. In the popular television programme, Who Do You Think You Are? celebrities try to trace their family trees, to find out more about the lives of their ancestors. When I came home on my first Christmas vacation from Oxford, my father would have none of my newly acquired airs and graces (long since gone!). He asked, 'who do you think you are?' For hundreds of years the theologians and historians have asked this and other questions in their searching: who is Jesus, who did he think he was and who did others think he was?
Many books have been written recounting this search and attempting to give an overview of the search for the historical Jesus. Such books often summarise a journey from the Renaissance, through the Reformation and on to the Enlightenment and the modern critical scholarship which continues to this day. One of the more recent and helpful summaries of this quest is given by Professor James Dunn in his book, Jesus Remembered, published in 2003. Alongside an analysis of the work of historians and theologians, Dunn also adds to the complexity of our task by asking who Jesus thought he was and how Jesus saw his own role. An earlier publication by Lion Publishing, The Jesus Debate by Mark Allan Powell (1998) also gave a very accessible summary of this quest and is worth sourcing. Other contemporary writers such as N.T Wright in, Jesus and the Victory of God (1996), Maurice Casey in, Jesus of Nazareth (2010), Craig Keener in, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (2009) also give considerable space to recounting and analysing the quest for the historical Jesus.
Why is it important to search out the 'real' Jesus and can this ever be possible? I think it is vitally important because of the claims of Christian faith, important because of the worship and life of the churches and the inspiration which Jesus has and does give to millions of people, be they Christian believers or not. We are able to make such a search because Jesus was an historical figure, living in a certain place and time, in a particular culture and context, whose life was talked about and written about in documents which we can subject to the rigours of enquiry. In the words of James Dunn, Jesus will always be someone 'remembered' and the challenge is to get to grips with all the evidence, the memories, the eyewitnesses and their testimony, the tales, the stories and sayings, so that we might arrive at a point when we can say that in our honest opinion this is who we think Jesus was. Honesty and modesty will be at the heart of this search.
It would be wrong to deny that for many people their understanding and experience of Jesus as a 'Godly' presence in their lives is sufficient for them. Equally, however, a scholarly assessment of the life of Jesus gives important correctives on the many untruthful ways in which people can enlist Jesus in support of their particular cause.
Albert Schweitzer concluded that Jesus will always come to us as 'one unknown' (Quest of the Historical Jesus, p.403, first published 1906) and laid aside his search for the historical Jesus. Whilst I do not think that we should lay aside this searching, we do undoubtedly have to recognise that all scholars come to their subject matter with their own preconceptions and their own context. E.H. Carr's seminal work, What is History? published in 1961, reminded generations of history students that all history is interpretation. This applies to our gospel writers, to the Fathers of the Church, to Rudolf Bultmann, to Geza Vermes, to Dom Crossan, to Jack Spong, to Tom Wright. Through their work we might end up with an eschatological Jesus, a Jewish prophet, a peasant philosopher, a wisdom teacher, a failed messianic figure. Professor James Crossley has recently suggested that: Borg's 'mystical, Buddhist-esque Jesus effectively ends up looking internally the ultimate capitalist subject', pleasing to American liberal Christians. The search for the real Jesus can seem to lead us in a very merry dance.
However, we do see some agreement by scholars in a number of aspects of the life of Jesus. In recent decades, with new insights from the discoveries in archaeology, from the sociological analyses of the gospels and their world, we are invited to reach a reasonably consensual understanding of the historical Jesus. It is this consensus which I will try to outline in the coming chapters. This is important in rescuing Jesus from the misconceptions often held. When I have discussed Christian faith with sixth formers in the local comprehensive school, they were often dismissive of a Jesus who seemed to be more like a fairy story figure, with a miraculous birth, someone who walked on water, who represented a 'thou shalt not' life-denying religion. I had to say that I too didn't believe in that Jesus!
I am excited by the opportunity to 'meet Jesus again for the first time' to quote the popular work by Marcus Borg. Thanks to the work of historians and others we can rediscover a Jesus who can be and is, an inspiration to people, a Jesus by whom the Church and Christians can be shaped and formed, a Jesus who leads us further to be honest about God, the Bible and the Church itself. But such a discovery will, in my view, need a radical reassessment by the Church of its doctrines and its worship as they relate to Jesus Christ.
Alongside those two images of Jesus on my office window ledge I carry in my mind and heart three other images. The first is a depiction of Jesus the Good Shepherd, with a lost lamb in his arms. It is in the stained glass east window of the tiny church of St John's in the Vale in the Lake District. This image of the care and compassion of Jesus shown in his earthly life speaks out of and into that rural setting in the fells of Cumbria. Here I was a youth officer in the Diocese of Carlisle for a number of years, sharing with others the privilege of experiencing the love of Christ with those teenagers who came for weekends to St John's in the Vale youth centre. The second image which I carry in my heart is of Jesus on the cross and in particular the 'Taize' cross, the original being in the Taize community in Burgundy, France. On one visit, when family health problems were on my mind, I can long remember the power of silent prayer amidst a couple of thousand people, as I looked on the suffering Christ and brought to God my personal concerns. Thirdly, another stained glass image of Jesus, this time in the east window in St Mark's Church Broomhill, Sheffield, where I had the joy of serving as vicar for twenty years. This image, the work of artist Harry Stammers, is of a Christ in glory, a majestic Christ whose arms of love are held out to all who turn to him. That Jesus reminds me of the Church which in his name can be a beacon of love and inclusion of all human souls. In all these examples, Jesus bearing the lamb, Jesus bearing his cross and Jesus in glory, a lens is offered to us on to God, the ground of our Being.
In the following chapters, I offer then what I honestly have come to believe to be the essence of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and from this search I will try to draw out, in the second part of the book, the implications for our faith, for the Church and for our lives.CHAPTER 2
Veiled in Flesh, the Godhead See?
Greg enjoyed dressing up as a king for the Christmas Eve children's service. Of course this wasn't the first time he had taken part in a nativity play but in the previous year he had been a lowly shepherd, so this was a definite promotion! As Greg left the church he turned to his grandfather and said, as only a child of seven could do, 'Grandpa is the Christmas story true?'
The grandfather was a member of the congregation in Broomhill and told me of this question posed by his grandson. The 'truth' of God becoming human in the babe of Bethlehem, the uniqueness of Christianity as an incarnational faith, has been at the core of Christian teaching from its early days. Yet Greg's straightforward question demands an honest answer. Are the birth stories in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which form the substance of our carols and our Christmas services, 'true', in the sense of 'did it happen like this?' Were there really angels singing in the night sky to startled shepherds? Did Joseph and the pregnant Mary really travel to Bethlehem and was Jesus really born in a manger? And was it just good fortune that those astrologers from the east (no mention of their number, simply three gifts) managed to arrive in time for the tableau to be complete? And did the Holy Family really travel all the way to Egypt, with Mary in her post-natal state of health?
For over thirty years as a parish priest, I have had the joy of sharing Christmas not only with my own family but with the many children of the church communities in which I have served. I enjoy and value Christmas despite its commercialisation. Moreover, Christmas seems to be universally loved as the major secular festival across the world, an excuse for family gatherings, serious retail therapy, cities and towns festooned with lights, and a respite from work. I remember leaving Bombay for home on a muggy December evening in 1985. I had accompanied a group of twelve young people to Madras to build a small school in a village four hours out of that city. Now, after five weeks away, we were on our way home from a country where, despite British missionary endeavour, less than 4 per cent of its peoples had ever adopted Christianity as their faith. But in the heat of that Bombay night, groups of people were touring the city singing carols, sending rockets into the air. Christmas was coming!
Excerpted from Is a Radical Church Possible? by Adrian Alker. Copyright © 2015 Adrian Alker. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
Foreword John Shelby Spong, VIII Bishop of Newark, The Episcopal Church of the USA 1
Introduction - The Enemy Within? 3
Part 1 Being Honest about Jesus 9
Would the 'Real' Jesus Please Step Forward? 10
Veiled in Flesh the Godhead See 18
Jesus! My Shepherd, Brother, Friend, My Prophet, Priest and King 34
Execution and Vindication 51
Marrying Academy and Pulpit for Truth's Sake 64
Part 2 Being Honest about the Church 71
The Church's One Foundation 72
People of the Book? 87
In the Beauty of Holiness 101
Round-Tabled Church 120
Passionate People for God's Sake 131
Journeying Deeply into the Mystery of 'God' 141
Is a Radical Church Possible? 152