April 16, 2017

Which One Jesus? Whose One Jesus?

Richard Burridge's Four Gospels, One Jesus? (3rd ed.) was just reviewed in RBL by Matthew Baldwin, whose analysis really heats up in these final paragraphs:
Certainly Burridge does not put forth in this volume a single life of Jesus, yet he would reject Schweitzer’s suggestion that any unity is monstrous. He concludes that there stands behind the gospels a single Jesus who has been portrayed in four ways; the four portraits “tell essentially the same story” (168), and while “there may be four gospels, … there is only one Jesus, and he is God, come among us as a human being” (173). It is questionable to this reviewer whether such a conclusion has arisen genuinely from Burridge’s own strict reading of the gospels themselves... 
In the new afterword Burridge does not quite respond to critics of his proposal for finding one Jesus among four Gospels. Instead, he seems to emphasize with the believer’s difficult struggle to find unity in diversity. Finding one Jesus to believe in after discovering four distinct literary portraits is indeed difficult. But I doubt that all (or even most) readers will be satisfied with the serene pastoral advice offered by Burridge in the finale of the this edition: “at the end of all our reading and speaking, lecturing and debating, we need to shut our mouths and close our eyes, give our imagination to the Holy Spirit who inspired the four gospel writers, and respond with silence, prayer and praise to the one Jesus” (198–99). Thus the writer erases, rather than answers, the question mark at the end of the main title of his book.
So far as they go, I think Baldwin's criticisms are entirely fair, and I would not defend Burridge on any point mentioned in the review. That being said, I remain fond of Richard Bauckham's astute observation that the believer cannot avoid making one Jesus of all four. On the one hand, therefore, I agree with Baldwin that it can be "indeed difficult" maintaining distinct views of the four distinct portraits of Jesus AND ALSO "finding one Jesus to believe in." But on the other hand, Baldwin should not fail to recognize that the cognitive process of an interested reader cannot be shut down or closed off, and that whether or not we "give our imagination to the Holy Spirit", it is inevitable that our minds will in some ways conflate aspects of these four "portraits" into one reimagined Jesus. That's simply how human memory and imagination are bound to work.

The question I like to raise is whether or not we should help people accomplish this mental conflation with less haphazard and more guided procedures.

Now, with ALL THAT being said, I agree strongly with Baldwin's final point in his review. Burridge essentially erases the question mark without answering it, and I am certainly unsatisfied by the "serene pastoral advice" that we need to "shut our mouths and close our eyes" while pretending that everyone in the church has somehow magically built the very same "One Jesus" in all of their minds. In actual fact, Burridge has his one Jesus, Bauckham has his, I have mine, and I suspect Matthew Baldwin has his own "One Jesus" who is even partly informed by the fourth Gospel as well... but perhaps none of us has constructed our "one Jesus" in quite the same way.

Coherence depends on which details are included, and constructing the "four distinct portraits" is equally as subjective a process as constructing a singular Jesus from similar aspects appearing in all four together. Details in the four Gospels aren't uncompatible. The "portraits" are distinct because they are constructions.

The reticence to compose a life of Jesus serves to empower religious dogma, which makes the clerical deference to "four distinct portraits" a convenient excuse. But is that, too, inevitable? Instead of this old willful ignorance, which pretends to be universal knowledge, what if there was another option?

What if we encouraged every fan of the Gospels to open their eyes AND to open their mouths (or their pens and their keyboards) and to put forward their own combined portrait, their own synopsis, their own composed Life of Jesus? What if we embraced the cacophony of this process as a needed first step? What if we acknowledged that such cacophony has been going on in silence for all the centuries of Christendom? What if we then proceeded to examine these natural processes of audience imagination with a critical eye? What if we tried to learn how some readers combine well, in their minds, and other readers combine poorly? What if we gathered enough data to observe trends and patterns among normal readers in their methods for doing this work? What if we could eventually begin to form critical judgments about how readers might or might not seek to combine aspects of the four stories into one single story?

What if we could eventually advise religious believers on how to exercise their belief more intelligently... rather than merely telling them "Yes, you can" or "No, you shouldn't" try to do such a thing?

What would you think about doing something like that?

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"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient observation than to any other reason."

-- Isaac Newton