Friday 26 August 2011

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (2)

Not long before he left LICC to take up a post at A Rocha, Nigel Hopper (Lecturer in Contemporary Culture and Communications Manager at LICC) asked me some questions about the Bible’s impact on culture and the implications for Christians and churches today. A trimmed version of our ‘electronic’ interview will appear in September 2011’s edition of EG, LICC’s quarterly magazine, but I will also post the transcript of the whole conversation over a series of entries here.

Earlier entries:

A Conversation on the Bible and Culture (1)

Nigel: It seems to me, looking around, that the Bible – and the gospels in particular – increasingly serve as a foil for contemporary re-tellings, or re-imaginings of its story (usually of a sensational nature), Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ being a recent example. Do you think this is helpful inasmuch as it puts the Bible in the limelight, and how can Christians ‘rescue’ the story of Scripture from contemporary interpretations?

Antony: Yes, it’s interesting to see how the figure of Jesus, however much he might be misunderstood, is deeply ingrained on our collective cultural consciousness. In The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (London: Canongate, 2010), Pullman uses the idea of Mary having twins, one named Jesus and one named Christ, as a literary device to explore what he sees as the difference between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the ‘churchly Christ’. In part this becomes a way of Pullman representing the leaders of the future church who make sure that the ‘truth’ recorded in the gospels is what they consider it should have been. But he’s clear that he’s writing a piece of fiction, even if he also seems to be wanting to make a point by doing so.

More recently and perhaps more controversially, we’ve had James Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible (London: John Murray, 2011). The promotional blurb asks what you would do ‘if you discovered the messiah was alive today, living in New York, sleeping with men, impregnating young women, euthanizing the dying, and healing the sick’. And the cover asks us to ‘be enraged’ as well as to ‘be enthralled’ – so Frey knows that his book will shock and upset people. And it’s received mixed reviews so far.

Interestingly, there are clips on YouTube of James Frey, and via his own website, where he talks about his goal being ‘to create a new mythology, one that is relevant in a world of nuclear weapons, fast physics, the internet, genetic testing and manipulation; a world in which we know homosexuality is not a decision and a world where women have the right to choose how they live’. So, he’s upfront about his social and political agendas; and, as some reviewers have said, the fundamental idea behind the book is that love conquers all and organised religion is the source of all evil.

Of course, that message of love found on the lips of Jesus himself in the gospels, but there is a danger of severing the message from the larger story of Jesus to which it belongs.

And that, fundamentally I think, is the big issue with re-tellings of the story of Jesus. What seems to happen is that the story of Jesus becomes about something else – an exploration of the human need for love, for instance, or a critique of ecclesiastical authority – and it’s this ‘something else’ that becomes all-important. And in the telling of that ‘something else’, the gospels get left behind and (somewhat ironically) Jesus gets left behind!

Even well-meaning Christian readers can sometimes be in danger of abstracting ethical truisms or theological ‘nuggets’ from the gospel accounts of Jesus, as if the accounts themselves are just a convenient vehicle for those things and can then be left behind once we’ve worked out what the gospels are really all about. Except, of course, that the gospels are about Jesus, and we can’t separate the abstracted truths (about justice or love, say) from the larger story of Jesus – indeed, the larger story of Israel which the gospels say Jesus has come to fulfil.

So, books like those by Pullman and Frey might be helpful in that they shed light on certain contemporary aspirations and fears, and hopefully they’ll drive Christians back to the gospels again to see what Jesus is really like – not what we’d like him to be like, but as he really is. But, as I’ve tried to suggest, who Jesus is emerges out of the story which shows and tells his proclamation of the kingdom, his words and works, his death and resurrection – and it’s through the gospel narratives that his identity is revealed.

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