The Great Debate

(N.T. Wright, Bible Review.  Reproduced by permission of the author.)

Jesus doesn’t really matter in Britain, but he clearly does in America. Why?

They came, to my surprise, by the hundreds. Serious-minded folks from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco seemed keen to spend an evening listening to two Jesus scholars–Marcus Borg and me–continue in public a decade-long private debate.  A snapshot of one moment in that debate had just been published; that was the official reason for the meetings[*].  But that by itself doesn’t explain the enormous interest.

I should perhaps explain my surprise.  Most people where I live (Great Britain), including most churchgoers, are not aware that there is a debate about Jesus and wouldn’t take much notice if they were.  True, every year yet another bestseller claims that Jesus was an Egyptian Freemason, a Gnostic proto-Rosicrucian, or an Essene who married, had children, got divorced and wrote John’s gospel.  Or something.  Those tend to be the books our major chains stock in their Religion sections, alongside the white Bibles and prayer books given as confirmation presents.

Occasionally a publisher persuades a television or radio program to feature one of these blockbuster books, and someone like me is wheeled out to explain that it’s rubbish.  But it’s all forgotten at once.  And even if it isn’t, nobody in Britain thinks it really matters.  It wouldn’t affect what people in Parliament, or in pressure groups, or in the media, or even in the church, thought or did.  What Jesus thought and said, and what happened to him, are thought of as at best antiquarian or highly specialized subjects.  The church, for the most part, shrugs its shoulders and goes on saying and doing what it always did anyway, whether that was decidedly conservative, decidedly radical or, alas, decidedly muddled.

But the question of Jesus clearly matters in America.  Why?

I don’t think it’s simply that there are far more churchgoers in the United States than in the United Kingdom, both as a proportion of the population (roughly 50% as opposed to 5%) and, obviously, in terms of actual numbers[**].  It’s by no means always the regular churchgoers who are the most interested.  Nor is it just that America’s consciousness has been raised by the publicity surrounding the Jesus Seminar.  Had such a group existed in the United Kingdom, the media would have yawned, written a short column and forgotten about it again.  (Scholars and academics are routinely marginalized in our remarkably anti-intellectual culture.) Nor is it simply, though this is more interesting, that modern America, born as it was out of the Enlightenment, takes the Enlightenment’s questions about Jesus (for example, does history show that Christianity was based on a mistake?) more seriously than countries like mine, whose history and culture have other roots.  All these factors may be contributory, but I don’t think they’re the main ones.

I think the huge U.S. interest stems from a cultural instinct that links questions about Jesus to all sorts of other questions: what sort of world we live in, what sort of country America could and should be, what sort of values matter in today’s world.  To raise the flagpole of the Jesus debate is, it seems, to set up a lightning rod that attracts the electrical storms of several other Bible debates.  It is assumed that a blow for a conservative or radical view of Jesus is a blow for Republicans or Democrats, for a fundamentalist view of scripture or a liberal one, for anti- or pro-abortion, for militarism or pacifism, and so on.  Jesus matters, it seems, in himself, but he matters also because he functions as a symbol.  Consider, for example, the huge interest in Jesus’ virginal conception.  Something that occupies a minimal space in the New Testament has come to function as a litmus test not only on “miracles” but also on attitudes to sexuality and gender.  How can the historian hope to be heard in that climate?

It is, of course, a measure of the stature of Jesus that everybody still wants him on their side.  Nobody I’ve heard recently is prepared to go the way of Nietzsche and dismiss Jesus as an irrelevant wimp.  Jews want him to be a good Jew; Catholics, the founder of the great tradition; radicals, the archetypal social prophet; the New Right (is it still new, by the way?), the teacher and exemplar of true values, the great miracle that means that miracles do happen; and so on.  Lots of people are prepared to ditch Paul, to swap Matthew, Mark, Luke and John for Thomas and Q, to jettison the creeds and most of Christian history, but they still want to hang on to Jesus.  For that, at least, I am grateful.

But it does make life confusing. Reporters have regularly tried to polarize Marcus Borg and myself: He’s the radical; I’m the conservative.  Well, we are and we aren’t, but that’s the story America wants to hear, the dual role it wants us to play.  The dangerous but exciting task of the historian in that context, I suppose, is to be prepared to set sail on the tide of public interest without being carried off course by it.  For us, that means debating as fairly and as honestly as we can, doing our best to avoid the trap of “you only say that because you’re a …”

Perhaps this is part of the vocation of the historian in the postmodern world: to be a sign of contradiction, a reminder that there is such a thing as truth, even though we all see it through our own eyes; that there is such a thing as love, which becomes more truly itself when in respectful relationship with the other.  And perhaps that is a way of saying what maybe, deep down, those surprising audiences wanted to hear: There is such a person as Jesus, and he does matter; but how we speak about him says more, in the last analysis, than what we say.

[*] Marcus J. Borg and N.T. Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999).

[**] To put these statistics in context, there are more Episcopalians (my own denomination) in church on a Sunday in Nigeria than in the whole of Europe and North America combined.