Ian Wallis, a former Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Vicar of St Mark’s Broomhill and Chair of St Mark’s CRC, continues to teach and write in the areas of biblical studies and contemporary theology.
It was RE for year 7 in a large comprehensive school. ‘Religious leaders’ was the theme for the term as the classroom notice board confirmed – displaying an eclectic selection of spiritual all-stars: a rather ephemeral-looking Jesus keeping company with Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, Gautama, Mohammed and Guru Nanak. Wherever possible, devotees of the different ‘players’ were being invited into class to promote their respective hero and, as the local vicar, it was my turn to put in a plug for JC.
I asked if anyone had heard of Jesus. ‘Yes!’ And what do we know about him? This question elicited a more subdued response. With a little encouragement, a few details began to emerge. ‘He’s the son of God, isn’t he?’ ‘He died on a cross and rose again.’ ‘He did miracles and all kinds of stuff.’ ‘His birth was weird, wasn’t it?’
That was about the sum of it. My next tack was to ask for questions they’d like to put to Jesus. This generated a good deal more interest. Some of the offerings, such as ‘Did you have to die?’ were profound, but I was particularly struck by some of the apparently flippant ones: ‘Do you ever go to the toilet?’ for instance or ‘Are you allowed to have sex?’
Of course, these can be dismissed as manifestations of classroom silliness and perhaps that’s what they were, but they left me wondering how it was that these young students seemed more confident about Jesus’ theological credentials than about his human ones. More disturbing, I suspect, is the recognition that this may well be something they share in common with many who, week upon week, attend church and affirm Christian belief.
After all what do our liturgies actually say about Jesus? ‘Incarnate of the Virgin Mary ... crucified under Pontius Pilate ... suffered death and was buried ... on the third day he rose again ... ascended into heaven’ – according to the Nicene Creed the only noteworthy details of Jesus’ life were that he suffered and died. And he fares little better in many of our authorized Eucharistic Prayers which interpret the last supper in the light of the crucifixion whilst ignoring the role meals and hospitality played throughout his ministry. Further, Jesus’ demise is more often than not set within a Trinitarian narrative which stresses the salvific necessity of God the Son’s incarnation and sacrificial, atoning death.
All this gives the impression that ‘being Jesus’ was a means to an end and that, as a consequence, the details of his life and ministry should be considered, at best, of secondary importance. One implication of this is a radical discontinuity between Jesus and the rest of us; another, is a devaluing of human being itself. After all, if there was nothing noteworthy about Jesus’ life apart from his miraculous birth and substitutionary death, there is little hope for the rest of us!
What is urgently needed, I think, is a commitment to releasing Jesus from the theological straitjacket that has reduced his humanity to little more than a brief excursion within the story of God. We need to find both the courage and the wherewithal to risk bringing the Galilean into focus, embracing all the challenges and contingencies this entails - so that his human being is able to inform, inspire and interrogate ours.