So, which is it? Jesus or Jeezus?
The other day, my five-year-old asked me to explain to her who Jesus was. She’s a pretty inquisitive and very precocious kid, so replying with something simple like ‘He was the Son of God’ or ‘He was sent to show us the path we should follow’ wasn’t going to fly (this is the same kid who, after her third day of Vacation Bible School this past summer, spent a better part of dinner trying to understand the concept of the Holy Trinity).
After trying to stumble through a thoroughly inadequate answer, I suggested she call her Papou (a Greek Orthodox Priest) and ask him. Her question did make me think though – who really is Christ? Do I know Him or do I only think I know Him? Is how I know Him ‘correct’ or am I making Christ an ideal that is comfortable for me alone? Am I striving to live life in the image of Christ or have I inadvertently morphed Christ into my own image?
I’m not a religious writer. I do politics. I am a practicing and (most days) a pretty devout Orthodox Christian and have always had a strong fascination with the theology. I read anything religious (though not necessarily Christian Orthodox) that I can get my hands on and feel, sometimes, that I have a pretty decent grasp of the tenets of our faith. Being a political writer, I also see the other side of religion, the side where politicians and society parade Christ to make their own points. Living in the United States, I also see Protestant, Catholic, and other Christian ideas of who Christ is. The media, movies, television, and even print use the image of Jesus within their own framework and for their purpose. For someone who strives to know the real Christ, all this leads to is confusion and some pre-conceived notions of who Christ is, whether it is a correct image or not.
Protestant Pastor David Platt, in his book Radical: Talking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, examines this very point. He challenges the reader to self-examine; do you actually know Jesus or have you morphed Him into what you want Him to be, what you wish He was? Platt posits that Jesus demanded complete and unquestionable allegiance from His followers. You wanna follow me? The deal is that I’m it in your life. Just me. Jesus. Platt goes on to state that the average American can’t really fathom that this is what it takes to follow Christ. Today’s Christian feels that he or she can follow Christ and His teachings without really having to give up much. The Jesus Platt describes asked His disciples to abandon their careers, to reorient their entire lives around discipleship to Him. He called on them to abandon their families, to leave certainty for uncertainty, safety for danger. Are you doing that? Do you think you’re doing that? I would hazard a guess that most Americans, nay most Christians around the world, aren’t.
According to Platt, we as Christians have, by and large, not heeded the call. We pay lip service to the notion of how we follow Christ but do not really walk the walk, so to speak. What we’ve created it seems is a “… nice, middle-class American Jesus. A Jesus that doesn’t mind materialism and who would never call us to give away everything we have. A Jesus that would not expect us to forsake our closest relationships… who is fine with nominal devotion that does not infringe on our comforts…” That’s a pretty heady statement, but is it true?
Take a look at the picture at the top of this article. Does it mean anything to you? Which side of the picture do you wish you identified with? Which side do you in fact identify with? The proper and correct answer would be the left, of course, but is that really the case? Fine, maybe you in fact do see the Christ for who He really is, but what about the average Christian? The Christian who doesn’t make it to church every Sunday and who doesn’t read the religious books and blogs? The ‘submarine’ Christian who only comes up for major holidays. The average everyday Christian who is bombarded with mixed messages about who Christ is, or, rather, who He should be, from politicians, from televangelists, from the media, from that Protestant channel on cable that plays “7th Heaven” over and over again? Do they see the ‘American Jesus’ or the Biblical one? As a friend of mine once asked, if people were to walk down the street and see Christ, would they bow down in humility and reverence or give Him a high-five?
This is the conundrum that most Christians find themselves in, perhaps even unknowingly. The Protestant ideal is for a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ – he’s my buddy is the outlook, I suppose. Orthodoxy takes a more academic view, it seems. Yes, we all have a personal relationship with Christ, but it’s not meant to be a buddy-buddy one. St. Athanasius said that “God became man so that man may become God.” We all should strive to become other ‘Christs’ – not in the literal sense, of course, but to strive to the same path and live a righteous life. This is the Christ, the Jesus that Platt describes, and this is the Jesus that generally we don’t seem to want to see.
Like I said, I’m not a theologian and my background in politics doesn’t really qualify me to make sweeping conclusions about what everyone’s relationship with Christ ought to be. This article is hardly going to answer any questions, questions mind you that have been asked by people much smarter than me over the past 2000 years (actually, I think I’ve asked far more than I answered). All I have is my faith, and all I can do is read, learn, discuss, and strive to better understand everything. Perhaps my assertions here are off-base, but at the end of the day, I agree with the thesis that Platt puts forth. We need to be able to separate the message we get from the media from the message we get from the Bible. Are we living the life that Christ wants His disciples to live? Are we doing it well enough? Does it even matter? Truthfully, I have no idea. All I can do, all any one of us can do, is strive to understand and do better.