Gilbert Gottfried once quipped, “Why are they still talking about Jesus when I’m around?” Of course, he was intentionally drawing attention to his own insignificance by the act of ironically comparing his own “greatness” with the perennial interest in Jesus Christ. But it’s sort of a good question, or raises a good question. Why is there still so much talk, incessant talk, about Jesus? Well, obviously, Christian believers will never cease making him the talk of the town (I might say, “toast of the town,” but that might bring to mind Eucharistic impieties that I don’t intend)? I guess it’s kind of like the Elvis that will not die, even though he did. Fan worship.
Or just plain worship. In fact, the more distance I get from having any sort of “faith” in Jesus, and the more perspective I get on Jesus, it seems obvious to me the disconnect between the worshipped deity called Jesus and any historical personage who may ever have lived on this earth. For Christian believers, “Jesus” has simply replaced the name “Jehovah” for the amorphous and abstract Godhead, even though churches do not seem to mind reducing him to a cartoon character who plays softball with Sunday School kids. And that makes me wonder (though it’s hardly the only thing that does) if that is not the same thing that was going on in the early days when the God/god Jesus was brought down to earth in the mythical tales we read in the gospels.
Oh, I know full well that Christian apologists have arguments at the ready to “prove” that the gospel character Jesus really lived on earth in a datable past, but really, they might as well argue that Achilles, no, Superman, really existed. The only reason they cannot see the enormity of what they are trying to do is that they are so inextricably attached to the God named Jesus. And this makes it all the more absurd that they spend so much effort defending the very opposite: that he was a real human being. They wouldn’t even be interested in him if that’s what he was, any more than they are curious about the Buddha or Apollonius of Tyana. Jesus the ostensible man is not the Jesus deity that motivates their self-contradictory quest.
And please don’t think I do not recognize the fact that my own continuing interest in Jesus is the product of my experience as a Christian. Of course, it is a hangover, an echo, and one that may finally be fading. But nonetheless, I do keep beating the resurrected horse, mainly I guess because of the silly things that are said about him again and again in public discourse. People keep writing bad books about him. I have a review coming out soon in American Rationalist on Reza Aslan’s book Zealot. I am annoyed at this book, not because I reject his main thesis that a good case can be made for Jesus having been an anti-Roman revolutionist, but because the whole damn book is an unacknowledged rehash of a much superior work from sixty years ago by S.G.F. Brandon.
I wrote another review, this time of Bill O’Reilly’s best seller Killing Jesus: A History. His “co-author” (i.e., ghost writer), Martin Dugard, deserves much or most of the blame for it. That review is due out from American Rationalist, too, but almost the minute I finished it, I realized I could do a whole book on Killing Jesus, and within 24 hours I had a contract for it from Prometheus Books. It looks like the book may beat the review into print. My book is tentatively called Killing History: Jesus in the No-Spin Zone. The book is by no means a history, more of a “historical novel” or docudrama, merely paraphrasing and harmonizing the gospels. There are whole chapters of (novelized) historical background data. Far more than one needs in order to understand the gospel texts or the ostensible events in the life of Jesus. So why is it there? Mainly as an attempt to knit the mythical Super-Jesus into the history of the New Testament era, something the gospels themselves do not do a very good job at. The point is to historicize the myths. The authors should have done a bit of homework like reading R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History. But then, if they had, they couldn’t have written Killing Jesus. As it is, it is O’Reilly and Dugard that have killed any historical Jesus, replacing him with their Sunday School version.
The other day, I was watching FOX and Friends, as I very often do. I think you know how politically conservative I am. (And believe me, I know how stupid you think I am because of it. But that’s okay.) They were interviewing John Anderson, the spirit medium who claims to be dialing up the dead for grief-stricken suckers. It was just sickening to hear the hosts talking to this guy with the same respectful gravity they accord Dr. Mark Siegel or Dr. David Samadi on the topic of new medical advances. No difference! I cringe just as much when they talk with the priest whom I cannot help calling “Father Capon,” the Roman Catholic equivalent of Jay Carney. O’Reilly himself sits across the desk from the charlatan Deepak Chopra as if he were talking to Henry Kissinger. Of course, all this is the product of Nielsen Ratings epistemology. They at least pretend to take for granted everything their audience share believes in.
And this is why religious figures and beliefs are taken for granted on FOX, and by O’Reilly. Not exactly a pretense, but rather a party line. They seem to see conservatism as a party platform. If you accept traditional values, you have to accept belief in God and in Judaism and Christianity, ignoring their points of theological disagreement. If you are against abortion and Obamacare and gun control (I am against them all), then you must of course be a champion of conventional religion. And you will promote the traditional, simplistic image of Jesus Christ. He has become the Ronald MacDonald of the whole franchise. That, Gilbert, is why they keep talking about Jesus, even when they could be discussing you.
I very much regret this situation. But it is easy to understand. O’Reilly usually calls his enemies the “secular progressives,” and that is no caricature. I can think of choicer things Id like to call them. He is right when he bemoans the war on Christmas and on Christianity. Of course he is. It is merely secular progressive propaganda to ridicule him for that. To me, it is infuriating when “Westboro Atheists” insist on making themselves hateful by insisting that public expressions of Christianity be scoured from a largely Christian culture, ostensibly to safeguard Church-State separation, but really (I can’t help thinking) to have it their own way. More of the same bullshit propaganda is the constant suggestion that if you’re a Republican, you’re a theocratic fundamentalist.
Obviously, I don’t believe in the Christian religion anymore, either. But I don’t hate it. What I do hate is Politically Correct suppression of traditional sensibilities. It is the Secular Humanist version of the Cultural Revolution in Maoist China. That is why, and it is the only reason, I hesitate to answer to the name “atheist,” though, in the end, I do. I am.
Have I not strayed from my topic? Nope. The sad fact is that, though it’s nothing new, if you advocate a genuinely historical approach to Life of Jesus studies, you are asking for pariah status. You are perceived as using scholarly tools as one more device to undermine traditional American values.
And what makes it worse is that often this seems to be the case. It can be no accident that so many ivory-tower academics produce “historical Jesuses” in their own images. Jesus turns out to be a feminist, anti-traditional family, pacifist, socialist, environmentalist community organizer like these academics themselves. He is, in short, their “personal savior,” a ventriloquist dummy to mouth their own views and to lend them divine authority. Their Jesuses sound an awful lot like the guy whom Jamie Fox once described as “our Lord and Savior, Barack Obama.” He spoke for many Leftist scholars who would never admit what they are doing.
I am sorry I have, in good conscience, to excoriate Bill O’Reilly on his Killing Jesus, the number one source of misinformation about Jesus in the world today. But if one were to replace this book with others by Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza, Richard Horsley, or John Dominic Crossan, one would not be much better off.
Conservatives and Liberals (oh, excuse me, “Progressives”), why don’t you just say what you think and marshal your best arguments for it, if you think you have any. Just leave Jesus the hell out of it.
So says Zarathustra.