bits from bob....

Are We Preaching the Gospel?

by Robert J. Young
February 18, 2004
©, 2004, Robert J. Young
[permission is given to reprint with credit noted]

In his book, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, Steven Prothero, professor at Boston University and noted scholar of Asian religions, observes that "we have a culture that highly values religious toleration and even, I think it's fair to say, diversity. In such a culture, Jesus won't become a national figure unless he can move outside Christianity."

While Prothero's primary intent is to consider the significance of portraits and concepts of Jesus outside Christianity, and how such differ from the American portrayal and concept of Jesus, he has much else to say about which we would do well to think. Prothero argues that the position Jesus has historically had in the history of our nation has caused us to develop a uniquely American view of Jesus, and that we in the United States have to this point in time largely controlled the image of Jesus in our world in a virtual monopoly. The image of Jesus has shifted according to the cultural mores. Prothero surveys the concept of Jesus in the United States moving from the detached version of the Puritans, through the non-establishment history where Jesus was more "principle than person," through the rationalist Jesus developed by and surviving the Enlightenment to the humane, friendly Jesus who dominates the current evangelical movement. Most readers will agree with some of Prothero's characterizations of the influence of particular cultural events on the concept of Jesus and disagree at other points, but the value is understanding that culture does indeed shape the contemporary view and that the view of Jesus in our North American culture may be as much based on our various cultural experiences as on clear biblical texts. While some may wish to argue the sociological validity of Prothero's observations, many would agree that the North American culture in the first decade of the 21st century is indeed a world of religious toleration and diversity.

This cultural shift is significant. As the Enlightenment with its value on rationality demolished the monopoly the Catholic church had maintained over the interpretation and meaning of Scripture, so post-modernity is loosening the grip the churches have had in explaining Jesus' identity and significance. While many Christians may decry such a shift, the presence of Jesus in our world, divorced from the public and political power of Christianity in our nation, may be the exact antidote needed to allow the simplicity of Christian faith apart from human trappings to permeate our world. Would to the God that the pure and simple gospel story of Jesus might be heard and understood apart from human traditions--even mine!

To the extent that we in churches of Christ bemoan such a move, we likely reflect our involvement and identification with the status quo, the extent to which we have lost our emphasis on the ability of individuals to find faith based solely on the message of Jesus without our help, and the extent to which we have developed a distinctive identity that the world generally identifies as denominational regardless of our disclaimers.

Building on Prothero's observation that we have developed a restrictive North American view of Jesus, I would suggest that we have no less developed a restrictive, uniquely North American view of the Bible. The challenges before us are great. When we conceptualize Jesus and read the Bible through the glasses of our own experiences and culture (especially while denying that such occurs), we have little appreciation for the ability, even necessity, of allowing those of other cultures and backgrounds to read the Bible for themselves and apply the message in their own world to their own lives. A major challenge in missions is those well-meaning brothers who, apart from any significant cultural understandings of a world much different than our own, are quick to clarify precisely what is the appropriate response to a large number of very complex issues. Further, the implication is that we are wiser and that those we have converted in other nations are less capable intellectually of determining how one responds to Jesus in our world. (See my article, The New Face of Missions.)

May God give us wisdom as we strive to discern the nature of our world and how the gospel can spread effectively to the uttermost parts of the earth. May God help us understand, and share the simple gospel with saving power.

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Last updated February 18, 2004.