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Back to Jesus

Back to Jesus

Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Daily Beast, says that Christianity is in crisis. What he says is nothing new and neither is his prescription. But that does not mean it is not radical. His solution: stop propping up the church and go back to Jesus.

The Crisis of Our Time


All of which is to say something so obvious it is almost taboo: Christianity itself is in crisis. It seems no accident to me that so many Christians now embrace materialist self-help rather than ascetic self-denial—or that most Catholics, even regular churchgoers, have tuned out the hierarchy in embarrassment or disgust. Given this crisis, it is no surprise that the fastest-growing segment of belief among the young is atheism, which has leapt in popularity in the new millennium. Nor is it a shock that so many have turned away from organized Christianity and toward “spirituality,” co-opting or adapting the practices of meditation or yoga, or wandering as lapsed Catholics in an inquisitive spiritual desert. The thirst for God is still there. How could it not be, when the profoundest human questions—Why does the universe exist rather than nothing? How did humanity come to be on this remote blue speck of a planet? What happens to us after death?—remain as pressing and mysterious as they’ve always been?

That’s why polls show a huge majority of Americans still believing in a Higher Power. But the need for new questioning—of Christian institutions as well as ideas and priorities—is as real as the crisis is deep.

Back to Jesus

Where to start? Jefferson’s act of cutting out those parts of the Bible that offended his moral and scientific imagination is one approach. But another can be found in the life of a well-to-do son of a fabric trader in 12th-century Italy who went off to fight a war with a neighboring city, saw his friends killed in battle in front of him, lived a year as a prisoner of war, and then experienced a clarifying vision that changed the world. In Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, Augustine Thompson cuts through the legends and apocryphal prayers to describe Saint Francis as he truly lived. Gone are the fashionable stories of an erstwhile hippie, communing with flowers and animals. Instead we have this typical young secular figure who suddenly found peace in service to those he previously shrank from: lepers, whose sores and lesions he tended to and whose company he sought—as much as for himself as for them….

….A Vision of Holiness

As Jesus was without politics, so was Francis. As Jesus fled from crowds, so did Francis—often to bare shacks in woodlands, to pray and be with God and nature. It’s critical to recall that he did not do this in rebellion against orthodoxy or even church authority. He obeyed orders from bishops and even the pope himself. His main obsession wasn’t nature, which came to sublime fruition in his final “Canticle of the Sun,” but the cleanliness of the cloths, chalices, and ornaments surrounding the holy eucharist.

His revulsion at even the hint of comfort or wealth could be extreme. As he lay dying and was offered a pillow to rest on, he slept through the night only to wake the next day in a rage, hitting the monk who had given him the pillow and recoiling in disgust at his own weakness in accepting its balm. One of his few commands was that his brothers never ride a horse; they had to walk or ride a donkey. What inspired his fellow Christians to rebuild and reform the church in his day was simply his own example of humility, service, and sanctity.

A modern person would see such a man as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too. He sang sermons in the streets, sometimes just miming them. He suffered intense bouts of doubt, self-loathing, and depression. He had visions. You could have diagnosed his postwar conversion as an outgrowth of posttraumatic-stress disorder. Or you can simply observe what those around him testified to: something special, unique, mysterious, holy. To reduce one’s life to essentials, to ask merely for daily bread, forgiveness of others, and denial of self is, in many ways, a form of madness. It is also a form of liberation.

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Josh Magda

Jeffrey, we need to find the golden thread of the Jesus Tradition within the annals of Christian history, because it has always been there, though hidden well for much of Christian history, and bring it forward into God's future, in traditional churches as well as outside of them.

Everything that is healing about Christianity comes from contact with the Jesus Tradition, which has managed to subvert the oppressive container it has often been "delivered" in (I'm thinking the Latin American Church, gay people in Church, the Black Church, among others, who found the Jesus Tradition, claimed it as their own, and used it to resist the toxicity of the very "Christian" system that oppressed them).

What we need to do, is stop putting anthrax in the letter of the Gospel, and just "deliver" the Gospel (the Jesus Tradition).

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Josh Magda

Also, remember that at the end of his life, Francis regretted the extremes of asceticism he put his body through (as Brother Ass), more in keeping with Jesus, who was a glutton and a winebibber.

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Josh Magda

"As Jesus was without politics, so was Francis"

Where does riding into Jerusalem in a mock imperial procession before cleansing the temple figure into the model of an "apolitical" Jesus??

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John D

I would note that Andrew Sullivan, a married, gay man, remains a powerful apologist for the very "catholic" Church that many of us love, that he continues to title himself a Roman Catholic in spite of the opprobrium heaped on gay people by the Roman hierarchy, and that he certainly has never advocated "chucking out the institution wholesale." I admire his Xian witness quite much. See his debate with Mr. Maher, if you doubt.

John Donnelly

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Jeffrey L. Shy, M.D.

I often have a double reaction with dealing with this kind of talk, both an optimism that says "Yes, that's it" and a pessimism of "No, that's wrong." The difficulty is with what is meant by getting "back to Jesus." If it means a "return" to a sola scriptura of popular interpretation, then I think that it's the wrong thing to do. This is the "mega church" evangelical approach of the "back to the basics" that is anything but.

A better approach, I think, would be to allow the church to engage more meaningfully with what the "religious" implications of higher biblical criticism and historical insights can bring to the table, along with an openness to personal religious practices of prayer, meditation, etc. Part of this might be a "getting back to Jesus" if we mean that we place, perhaps, less emphasis on the exalted, post-Easter God-Man Jesus and more emphasis, perhaps on the "teachings" of Jesus. Along these lines, it would mean paying more attention in our interaction with our fundamental texts (e.g. the NT and non-NT Gospels) to the teachings "of" Jesus than the teachings "about" Jesus. The insights, for example, provided by the "discovery" of the Q-sayings tradition, validated by such discoveries as the extra-canonical Gospel of Thomas, would be a more sensible way than the "Jeffersonian Bible" approach, but at its core having something in common, of course.

If we were to emphasize less the "supernatural" claims of the Jesus tradition and more of the practice, wisdom, ethics aspects of our tradition, this might really have a power to "pump some life" back into the church. We NEED, however, the church more than ever to act as our "instrument of discernment" rather than just a "DIY" go-it-alone approach. To destroy the church to save the Jesus tradition may leave us, in the end, with no interpretative community or community of practice. To "revive" a religion in that state would be like trying to bring back the religion of the Aztecs. There is just not enough "stuff" in the texts to make it work.

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