[Rough Draft]

A weblog about god, doubt, insomnia, culture, baseball

4.05.2004

jesus and paul

first there was the da vinci code. then there was mel gibson's tpotc. a made-for-tv atrocity about the life of judas iscariot. the annual re-broadcast of the classic (and equally atrocious, imho) the ten commandments. and tonight i came in the den to find renee' watching an abc news special, narrated by peter jennings no less, called jesus and paul: the word and the witness. a plethora of tv specials about jesus usually rears up around about holy week each year, but to any observer this year would have to be an abnormally fecund year for such fare. but what, if anything, are we to learn from these broadcasts?

allow me to preface my remarks with a disclaimer: i am not, nor am i ever likely to be, a scholar about jesus or paul. i'm not even a very good repository of information about relatively trivial matters -- auto mechanics (renee' does that job), economics (again, renee'), scotch (i'll defer to tom howard and my "scotch and theology" brethren), the cowboys (go ask dave sanders or my dad), or even the boston red sox (not so trivial, some would say -- and surely no one can honestly believe that jesus and paul, if they were corporeally present in the u.s. today, would not be die hard sox fans!). if i learn anything by watching shows like jennings' tonight, i learn just how much i do not know, and renee' has to prop me up emotionally and assure me that i'll still be a fair to middlin' priest even absent the initials p, h and d that i so desperately want behind my name. i'll never be able to stand in the modern-day areopagus and defend the faith like paul. hell, i can barely spell areopagus.

and yet i don't believe pop-theology, which is what the lion's share of tonight's prime time broadcast amounted to, is benign. and i don't think it suits christians to let such matters pass w/o notice and, if appropriate, response. it seems that the intention of the network of record was to interview practically every n.t. and pauline scholar they could get behind a mic, regardless of their credentials, then show little snippets of the interviews between breathtaking views of the near east and europe (and an overabundance of reggae-video-ish collages). a word comes to mind: "muddled." a medium like television cannot possibly exhaust the debates about who jesus and paul were, what paul's theology was and is, and what we are to make of the worldview-shifting phenomenon that is christianity. a culture that has suckled at the breast of 30-minute sitcoms and superbowl commercials (and halftime shows) for lo these many years cannot be expected to appreciate the theological complexity that one finds in the the o.t and n.t. in general and paul's writings in particular. so we get two hours of sound bites when we rather need serious, scholarly debate; we come away asking more questions when the world is begging for more answers. am i being overly cynical to wonder whether americans lap this stuff up b/c the more questions that abound, the greater the chance that no one is actually wrong about anything? hmmmm.

so, w/ that out of the way, i have only a couple of comments. i can't possibly come behind karen armstrong and marcus borg, elaine pagels and john dominic crossan and marvin meyer, and hope to comment intelligently on every little bit (emphasis on little) of their interviews that made it into the final piece. what i can do is read paul's writings myself, over and over again, and hope to be led by the spirit to the truths therein. i'd be a fool if i didn't acknowledge that the differences of opinion that i have w/ these learned personages could result from (horrors!) theological miscalculations and naivete on my part. but just b/c they are on tv, that doesn't mean that they have any particular claim to authority to give the final pronouncement on st. paul. i was pleased to see a few comments by n.t. wright on abc tonight, however, b/c i find in his books a rather comprehensive and orthodox treatment of the origins of christianity and n.t. theology as a whole (and not just b/c he's anglican, although that's obviously a plus). one tenet most of the amassed scholars seemed to assume is that paul "was just an apostle . . . he wasn't jesus." (i think dr. calvin butts dropped that pearl tonight). paul was just a man, post hoc ergo propter hoc, he and his writings are fallible, apparently regardless of the directing power of the holy spirit which the church has always understood to fuel the imaginations of prophets, evangelists and apostles alike.

for instance, it was repeatedly remarked that paul thought the world was coming to a very swift end, and this thought influenced his views on sexuality, virtue, grace, etc. but since the world obviously didn't come to an end, paul was clearly quite wrong and his writings are, by implication, suspect. "we do well not to put all our theological eggs into that basket," the scholars seem to intimate. but as wright points out, in books like jesus and the victory of god and what saint paul really said, paul's belief in the imminent destruction of the world in his own time is far from a decided issue. the scholars who find this belief inherent in paul's writing (and jesus' teachings, btw) completely misunderstand apocalyptic as a genre, thus they can't recognize that a first century jew, such as jesus or paul, could have spoken volumes about the end of the world in seemingly hyperbolic and graphic language and yet have been proclaiming a spiritual truth. simply put, the incarnation was the return of the true king, and paul was one of the most literate and persuasive heralds of that event. the death and resurrection of jesus was, for paul (and me), the pivotal event in the history of humankind. the world as we know it did indeed end in a sense. no longer do we live in the "old" age and under the curse of the law. the eschaton has come, and paul recognizes that we live in a new world, with one foot in "this present age" and one in "the age to come." we live in "the now and the not yet." thus, he wrote in titus 2: for the grace of god that brings salvation has appeared to all men. it teaches us to say "no" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope -- the glorious appearing of our great god and savior, jesus christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. and we will live in the last days until jesus does, in fact, return. but that's just one of the misconceptions that viewers could very well have come away with tonight.

so, anyhoo, i'm not sure what i thought of jennings' show on the whole. could it whet appetites for people to read the primary sources (maybe even -- gasp -- the bible) that were bantered about tonight? i hope so. can it serve the kingdom? most definitely. the spirit blows where it will, and i'm certainly insufficiently lettered to disqualify peter jennings and friends as vessels of knowledge and even grace any more than i am to disqualify the kenneth hagins of the world (that's a concession, mom, not a jab). god will do what god will do. all people (except perhaps il papa, thomas) are fallible, network news anchors and priests included. people will come to faith this year, and people will lose heart and fall alongside the way. it's our job as christians, and mine as an inchoate priest, to present the gospel clearly and w/ love, stopping all the while to pick up those who have fallen if they'll let us. and, until such time as postmodernism gives me a better explanation for the spread of christianity than the explanation the church has espoused for some 2000 years -- namely b/c all that nonsense about death and resurrection are true -- then i'll stick w/ the church. apologies, mr. jennings. i thought you did a fine job, and you cut a dashing figure in all that khaki, i might add. for my last word, i'll use renee's words (albeit, after she slept thorugh the last 15 mins of the show). she asked how the show ended, and i replied, somewhat wittily i thought: "paul died." she then spoke as a sage: "well, the book is better." ah, my wife the theologian. all that and she knows where the oil pan is, too! i am truly (i kid you not) most blessed among men. and with that, i think i'll go curl up beside her. g'night all.

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