By Ben Owens | June 21, 2019
For two thousand years, no generation has been without its share of zealous ideologues ready to hijack the name of Jesus for their own ends. These are the folks who tack a few Bible verses onto their own pet philosophy and label it the "Christian" approach. Through the ages, the name of Christ has been unjustly attached to every sort of bizarre and twisted ideology imaginable.
Some have used Christianity as a justification for racial or cultural bigotry. Anyone who's bothered to read the New Testament will know that this approach is as stupid as it is wicked. Others take what seems the opposite tack. To live as a Christian must mean to affirm the essential goodness of all people, as they are.
So, what is the Christian approach? And how is it possible to have such wildly divergent interpretations of the same book? There are a couple of ways to respond to this situation. One is to point a finger at the diversity of views and declare the whole thing an unintelligible mess. This is the view that says, "Look, anybody can twist the Bible to mean anything they want. So don't waste your time." Maybe you've run across this view.
It's instructive to note that we seldom apply this criterion to any other sphere of life. In no other domain do we conclude that a diversity of opinions renders the truth unknowable. Consider the overwhelming diversity of dietary recommendations. What's the best way to lose weight and be healthy? Keto? Paleo? Vegan? Low Carb? Low fat? And why do the official government nutritional guidelines always seem to be changing? These are good questions. But if your response is to throw up your hands, declare the truth unknowable, and decide to sustain yourself entirely on a diet of three-inch drywall screws, you're in for a bad day.
The fact that there's a variety of opinions doesn't mean that there's no truth to be known. Some things can be known. Not all views are equally valid. Some interpretations are wrong. Some are just plain dumb. We live in a world of facts. And each of us has a responsibility to do our best to determine what those facts are.
That brings us to the other way to respond to the Bible. You can read it for yourself and form your own opinions. This requires a willingness to set aside your own personal biases, learn a few basic reading comprehension skills and put in some time. If you've never read the Bible for yourself, I'd heartily encourage you to do so. I'm not talking about reading an article about the Bible. Or reading a few Bible verses as they pop up in your Instagram feed. I'm talking grabbing a Bible, sitting down with it and letting the thing speak for itself.
If you've never done this, the Gospel of John is a great place to start. John was an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus.* The Gospel of John is his account of the things that convinced him that Jesus' claims are true. It's a beautiful window into what Jesus actually said and did. The real, historical Jesus. (Jesus was, after all, a person; not a metaphysical principle or a system of spiritual platitudes.) As the story unfolds, John carefully recounts a number of conversations that Jesus had with the people of his day. These conversations often take surprising turns and always reveal key insights into Jesus' identity and purpose.
As we read these incredible accounts, we find ourselves transported to the first century. Suddenly, we're there in the dusty Palestinian countryside. We're in the crowds, listening, learning, processing. As we follow the story, we begin to understand why Jesus remains so influential. It's striking to me that a simple reading of these texts dispels so many of the lies we've been told about Christ and Christianity.
In recent times, we've been subjected to the nonsensical rhetoric that claims a connection between Christianity and white supremacy. No one can read and understand the gospel of John (not to mention the rest of the New Testament) and proceed to use Christianity to justify bigotry of any kind. Biblical Christianity has been the greatest force for egalitarianism the world has ever known. Hands down. Those who have misused it to justify their own prejudices only reveal their own ignorance. There are kooks who use photographs from NASA to prove that the earth is flat. This does not discredit NASA. It just reveals that these people don't even understand their own evidence. There are kooks who use the Bible to justify their racism. Same deal.
But the idea that Jesus affirmed the essential goodness of all people is equally mistaken. As we read the gospels we learn that Jesus came not primarily as a preacher of love but as a Solution to a problem. This problem is universal and it's deadly. In an upcoming article, I'll have more to say about this point. I'm going to examine a few key vignettes in the Gospel of John to illustrate the nature of the problem. (I'll also use the clear teaching of Scripture to defend some of the points I've made regarding racism and Christianity.)
Until then, I'll conclude with a question. Have you ever seriously read the Bible? Jesus claimed to be God's perfect self-revelation to humanity, the one Savior for all. Two thousand years later, we're still talking about Him. And do you know why? Because apparently the people who hated Him most couldn't keep Him dead. To put it plainly, there's a distinct possibility that the whole story is true. Millions of people have formed an opinion on Christianity based on nothing more than a National Geographic special or a bad experience with an idiot coworker. That's crazy.
Don't be one of those people. Read it for yourself. Start with John. Next week, I'll attempt to illustrate how John's account of Jesus cuts through the haze of confusion and presents the Jesus of reality. I hope it helps.
*You may have run across the view that regards all of the gospels as forgeries, written centuries after the events they claim to record. This idea was popular in academic circles about 150 years ago. But an ever-growing wealth of textual and historical evidence to the contrary resulted in the wholesale rejection of this notion by all but the most fringe lunatics. This is one of many unfortunate examples of ideas flourishing at the popular level that have long been debunked at the scholarly level. With regard to the Gospel of John specifically, we currently have extant manuscript copy fragments that date to within twenty-five years of the death of John the Apostle.