Who is Jesus and Why is he important?
Brian begins this section with a good reminder that we must beware of the temptation to remake Jesus into our own image. I wish he had followed his own advice, for his Jesus ends up looking a lot like a beefed up Brian McLaren. This section reminded me of Gilligan warning the professor and skipper to “watch out lest they fall into the tra-a-a-a-p” (sound of the disappearing Gilligan).
Brian observes a potential problem with the Bible’s depiction of Jesus. Rev. 19:11-16 says that Jesus will appear riding a white horse, leading the armies of heaven to make war. A sharp sword from his mouth strikes the nations, whom he then rules with a rod of iron as he treads “the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” Most perplexing is that this passage comes at the end of Scripture, so unlike the Noah narrative in our last post, John’s vision represents a more fully evolved God. Brian can’t explain it away with later revelation.
Brian solves this problem by declaring that Revelation is an apocalyptic of the oppressed whose point is that the way of peace modeled by the suffering Jesus will ultimately triumph over evil and its perpetrators. There is some truth here, but it’s characteristically lopsided in Brian’s hands. He ignores the part about Jesus treading the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God and insists that Jesus will not return to this earth as a conquering hero who destroys his enemies. Instead, Jesus will never be anything other than “the poor unarmed Galilean riding on the donkey.” The point of Rev. 19:11-16, if you can believe it, is “that God’s anointed liberator is the one we beat up, who promises mercy to those who strike him….”
1. Brian’s God is too small. He really needs to let God evolve beyond the Jesus meek and mild. God is as loving as Brian says—and more, but he is also holy and just and has a fair amount of wrath which he will unleash on sin and those who commit it.
2. In two chapters on the question, “Who is Jesus?”, it is disturbing that Brian nowhere says that Jesus is God. This is the most important thing we can say about Jesus (alongside he is human), and it’s troubling that Brian never got around to saying it. Especially since he professes kinship with Marcus Borg, Harvey Cox, Pete Rollins, and John Crossan, folks who either deny or refuse to say whether Jesus is God, he needs to clearly say that Jesus is ontologically God and man. He doesn’t, leaving us to assume that at the very least Jesus’ deity does not excite Brian as much as his example of patient suffering.
3. Brian’s Jesus seems to be a mere human who liberates us from violence by providing an example of peace for us to follow. Brian writes that “Jesus matters precisely because he provides us a living alternative to the confining Greco-Roman narrative” of violence. This is wrong. Jesus matters precisely because he is the God-man who bore our sin in our place on the cross and rose again. His non-violent example is an important application of our salvation, but it is not the main thing.
4. Brian’s Jesus is not new, nor is he a third way which transcends the liberal-conservative divide. Brian follows a liberal Jesus, one remade in his image and according to his liking, whose mere example is not enough to save us in this life nor in the life to come.
If Brian’s theology is new, then how did H. Richard Niebuhr so aptly describe it in 1959? Niebuhr wrote that liberals believe that “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” History may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
5. The most damning indictment of Brian’s theology is that Jesus isn’t absolutely necessary for it to work. If Jesus is merely our example of patient suffering, then other examples may do just as well. As such, Brian’s theology is an unintended assault on Jesus. Brian has unwittingly begun to marginalize Jesus, and it won’t be long before an unnecessary Jesus becomes an absent Jesus. How ironic that Brian’s concern for the excluded and the marginalized leads him to exclude and marginalize Jesus!
Here is an essential question which Brian and all of us must answer: How and why is Jesus essential for our salvation? Could God save us in any other way? See Anselm, Why God Became Man, for an orthodox answer from the 11th century.