Shuck and Jive

Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

Monday, October 06, 2008

What A Friend We Have In (the critical study of) Jesus

The Jesus Seminar will hold its fall meeting next week. I am bummed that I will miss it. The Jesus Seminar has moved beyond the historical Jesus to look at Christian origins. You might be interested in the reports you can read in pdf. You will be even better informed if you subscribe to the Fourth R. I am pleased that they are putting these reports on-line. That is helpful for us bloggers.

In my sermon Sunday I mentioned that the Book of Acts is a second-century work of historical-fiction with the emphasis on fiction. Here is how the Jesus Seminar voted on this question:

* Red vote demonstrates strong agreement with the ballot item, Pink indicates agreement, Gray means disagreement and Black means strong disagreement.
  1. Acts created the myth of succession from Jesus through the apostles to Paul. .88 Red Red 70 Pink 26 Gray 4 Black 0
  2. Acts was written not later than 125 nor earlier than 100 CE. .80 Red Red 55 Pink 32 Gray 14 Black 0
  3. The purpose of Acts is to provide an apologetic response to issues that arose in second-century Christianity. .80 Red Red 55 Pink 32 Gray 14 Black 0
These statements voted overwhelmingly "red" should give pause to clergy who preach on these texts. What do we think we are talking about when we preach on Acts? If we affirm what critical scholarship is showing us, that Acts is "an apologetic response to issues that arose in second-century Christianity" and that Acts "created the myth of succession from Jesus through the apostles to Paul" how does that impact our preaching?

The question is larger than just the Book of Acts. The larger question for me is how will the church come to terms with critical scholarship of Christian origins and the Bible? Things may have changed since I was in seminary, although I think for the worse.

While we were introduced to critical scholarship we weren't given an adequate model of how to present it in our preaching and teaching. The options seemed to be:
  1. Ignore it.
  2. Resort to confessional apologetics (especially attractive to the fundamentalists).
  3. Escape into postmodern doublespeak (tell the story and don't worry them with facts).
The fourth option, which I have chosen, is to embrace critical scholarship. Be honest. Speak openly and publicly about critical scholarship in teaching, preaching, (and blogging). This option is frightening for clergy and apparently for our seminaries. Critical scholarship is viewed as a threat to faith. Frankly, I agree. It makes people question and doubt their confessional heritage. It makes them think and reevaluate what they believe and what they think is important.

In my opinion, if the church cannot handle critical scholarship then it deserves to go the way of the theory of luminiferous aether. It will become irrelevant. In actuality it will probably become more dangerous before it becomes irrelevant (ie. biblicism and its daughters, creationism, homophobia, and so forth).

Will critical scholarship change faith? To borrow a phrase from Sarah Palin: you betcha. In a similar way, our cosmological history and the theory of evolution has changed the way we think about what it means to be human.

Critical scholarship is a gift to the church. It is our friend. Whether or not the church (specifically my beloved PCUSA) embraces this friendship remains to be seen.

James Crossley (a critical scholar who is not a member of the American Jesus Seminar) is the author of Why Christianity Happened: A Socio-Historical Account of Christian Origins. This is an insightful book. He advocates for the serious consideration of secular methods in regards to the study of Christian origins. He concludes his book with this sentence:

If these and other such insights are not exploited, NT studies will retain its dubious academic status as being nothing more than the pious scholarly wings of the Christian churches, with their scholars often plying their trade in secular universities." (p. 176)
The way of aether.