If, as the Chinese say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, it’s that first misstep by writer Andrew Sullivan that throws him so many miles off course in his cover story assessment of current Christianity in the April 2nd edition of Newsweek.
Sullivan launches his extended diagnosis of the crisis enfeebling the Christian faith in America with an admiring salute to Thomas Jefferson’s Jehoiakim-like approach to the Gospels. Penknife in hand, Jefferson simply cut out those portions of the New Testament he didn’t agree with. “He removed what he felt were the ‘misconceptions’ of Jesus’ followers, ‘expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves,’” Sullivan explains. Jefferson, he says, found the more worthy teachings of Jesus to be sullied by the “embellishments” of His disciples (i.e., the miracles, the Virgin birth, and the Resurrection) like “diamonds” in a “dunghill.”
Sullivan himself, while affirming his personal belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, lends a strong amen to Jefferson’s criticisms. He chides those who cling to “a rigid biblical literalism, adamantly wishing away a century and a half of scholarship that has clearly shown that the canonized Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ ministry, and are copies of copies of stories told by those with fallible memory.”
Faced with such unreliable sources, Sullivan, like Jefferson, suggests that we can ultimately set aside the Incarnation and Resurrection, and that even “the cross itself was not the point. The point was how he conducted himself through it all – calm, loving, accepting, radically surrendering even the basic control of his own body and telling us that this was what it means to truly transcend our world and be with God.”
“The message of Jesus was the deepest miracle,” Sullivan says, and that message is explained best “in stories, parables, and metaphors – not theological doctrines of immense complexity.”
Trouble is, of course, that the “stories, parables, and metaphors” were preserved and made known by those same contemporaries of Jesus whom Jefferson and Sullivan regard as too a-swoon with delusions of His divinity to be trusted with the rest of the story. Matthew and John are to be taken as, well, Gospel, when they report what Sullivan likes to hear, but rejected when they record doctrines or miracles or interpretations he finds far-fetched, or unsettling.
Mr. Sullivan joins the increasingly vocal ranks of those determined to convince Christians that they could more successfully accomplish the aims of the God of the Bible by ignoring the Bible.
Their argument seems to run along these lines: Jesus’ spiritual authority is magnified when it’s distanced from the character of God, as revealed in the Old Testament … when it’s divorced from the miracles that underscored His credibility … when it’s disentangled from His own distasteful assertions of His own deity.
In other words, the sooner we can all agree that Jesus isn’t Who He said He was, the sooner we can all get down to taking Him seriously.
Read Part 2 of Sullivan’s Travels on the SpeakUp Church blog