Emerson said, “If I know your party I anticipate your argument.”
When I see another Jesus book I generally avoid it. But the title of a Jesus book by Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus, caught my eye last spring, so I read the review in the Times- you can’t judge a book by its title- and after reading the review I sat with it for half an hour at Barnes and Noble. Then I bought the book.
The full title, with subtitle and title page sub-subtitle is, Rabbi Jesus, An Intimate Biography, The Jewish Life and Teaching That Inspired Christianity.
First of all, Chilton makes it clear that this book acknowledges and affirms Jesus as a Jew.
Secondly, the word biography suggests that the book is about the life of a person- a human life, a real person, born of woman, lived and died within a cultural context, and so forth.
When I was a student in seminary I asked my world religions teacher, Daud Rabbar, what I should read in order to learn about the various world religions. His response, in the accent he carried from his native India, remains important to me. He said, very quickly and spontaneously, “Read biography.”
“Biography?” I questioned. What biography?
“Any biography,” he said, in his sensitive, teacher-tone. “Religion is about life. Biography is about life. Read biography.”
So I read a biography of Emerson and used it in a paper I wrote for his class. Prof. Rabbar became fascinated with the life and teaching of Emerson. “This Mr. Emerson,” he said in that endearing accent, “he sounds like a Hindu.” We got together over dinner to talk about Emerson, the Transcendentalists, and Unitarianism, all of which he wanted to learn more about.
As a consequence, he and I became very good friends, sharing meals together, sharing poetry over wine and Indian delicacies, creating a chapter of our own biographies together. That was a very special student-teacher relationship. Unique.
So you can see why the word ‘biography’ in Chilton’s title appealed to me. Perhaps, on an unconscious level, it helped me to feel reconnected with an important person in my life.
Chilton’s reference to Jesus as a rabbi also appealed to that deep level of consciousness. I have a special affinity for Judaism, not only because my wife and step-daughter are Jewish, but because Jews embrace a unitarian theology: God is one.
I could go on with an analysis of the title without cracking the book, but I’ll mention just one more thing: the sub-subtitle’s assertion that Jesus ‘inspired’ Christianity.
Most Christians assert that Jesus was the ‘founder’ of Christianity. They are often in denial about his being a Jew, much less a rabbi who had no intention of founding a new religion.
The function of the rabbi, as teacher, is to stir up the mind, to challenge, to ask questions, to interpret the stories in the Torah, the Bible, to write commentary on those marvelous myths.
There is a deep, dark, implicit strain of anti-Semitism that runs through much of the conservative Christian teaching. ‘Nuf said.
We were reminded of that exclusionary strain this week when we read the story in the New York Times about the accusation of heresy aimed at a Lutheran minister in Brooklyn. The Rev. David Benke had the temerity to participate in the memorial service in Yankee stadium for the victims of the World Trade Center attack.
The minister addressed that interfaith group of mourners as ‘brothers and sisters,’ and offered this prayer: “The strength we have is the power of love. And the power of love you have received is from God, for God is love. So take the hand of one next to you now and join me in prayer on this field of dreams turned into God’s house of prayer.”
By referring to non-Christians as brother and sister he was committing the sin of syncretism-engaging in a religious service with non-Christians.
It reminds us of one of Jesus’ most well-known parables- the story of the good Samaritan. Remember? Jesus was asked what a person had to do in order to have ‘eternal life,’ or to live a good life. He turned the question back to the lawyer what the Torah said. “To love your neighbor as yourself,” was the lawyer’s answer. To which Jesus said, “Right. Do it.”
Then the lawyer pushed and said, “Well, who is my neighbor?” So Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus challenged those listening, making the good neighbor a Samaritan, because the Samaritan was considered an outsider, not one of them. The Jews in Samaria were to be avoided.
Jesus would have been first to support the use of inclusive language at the Yankee stadium interfaith service: brothers and sisters; gay and straight; Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, unaffiliated, and so forth.
Rev. Benke, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, whose rules forbid it, sat with Cardinal Edward Egan, and with a rabbi, and leaders of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh groups as well as the likes of Bette Midler, Oprah Winfrey, and other celebrities. By so doing, his accusers say, he committed the sin of syncretism, and several other sins.
His letter-of-the-law accusers want him excommunicated.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod’s 1847 constitution forbids pastors from tolerating the mingling of religious beliefs. By participating in this memorial service, Rev. Benke committed the sin of syncretism, the combining of Christian and non-Christian views. He committed the sin of unionism, which is worshipping publicly with other Christian denominations. He is said to have committed the sin of heresy.
One of his accusers said that worshipping with non-Christians “gives the appearance that their God and our God are the same, and they are not, or there are valid other religions, and there are none. Christianity is very exclusive in that Jesus Christ is the savior.”
His accusers explained, “We don’t hate the Muslims, the Jews, the Sikhs. We love them, therefore we want to let them know they are lost, they are eternally lost, unless they believe in Jesus.”
What would the Jesus you believe in say to Rev. Benke? And what would he say to his accusers?
This is my bridge to Bruce Chilton’s wonderful biography of Jesus- it’s a way of explaining why I was enthused about the book before I cracked it. And once I opened it, why I read it from cover to cover, wearing out a highlighter or two. I saved the book for the summer, when I could do that kind of reading.
Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus would say to Rev. Benke, “Come o blessed of my Father and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you.”
And to the accusers he would have something else to say!
One of the intriguing aspects of Chilton’s book is the fact that it was written by a Christian clergyperson, who is the Bell Professor of Religion at Bard College. Chilton is an Anglican Priest at the Free Church of St. John the Evangelist in Barrytown, NY.
In addition to the very human portrait of Jesus he paints, I appreciated Chilton’s scholarship. It’s in the same category as Schweitzer’s book, “The Quest For the Historical Jesus.”
Chilton’s scholarship is a gift that matches his openness. The title of the book proved to be appropriate. His Jesus is a man- fully human, even fallible. His Jesus is a thoroughly Jewish man. His Jesus is a human, fallible man who is presented in the context of his times and place.
Chilton’s Rabbi Jesus is a man who lived and died 2000 years ago, and who was born of woman, raised within the confines of a particular culture, both religious and secular, and carrying all the things such a person would carry.
Every Jesus book is a kind of Rorschach test- you remember the famous projective test with ten ink blots. Psychologists use the Rorschach test to gain access to the inner person. They believe that the deeper self is revealed in response to those ink blots–your emotional and intellectual functions, and your wholeness- how well you’ve put all the pieces of your life together.so far!
I like the Bruce Chilton who is revealed in this big ink-blot test, since every Jesus book tells as much about the author as it does about Jesus. More, really. “If Peter tells me about Paul I learn more about Peter than I do about Paul.” We know so little about the actual life of Jesus that an enormous amount of conjecture is necessary.
I appreciate Chilton’s effort, and his interpretation of the life of Jesus- his effort to integrate the pieces of the puzzle of his life, lived as a Jew, through and through, 2000 years ago.
Let me give you a taste of Chilton’s work, starting with the concluding chapter, the epilogue, which begins:
Remarkable though his success had been in conveying to his disciples his hope that God’s kingdom was at hand, Rabbi Jesus never accomplished the Galilean reformation of the Temple that he so passionately desired and dramatically attempted. The first century of the Common Era came and went with little to show for the transformative vision for which he had died. His movement did not reform Judaism, and Christianity’s influence in the Greco-Roman world remained marginal.
The name ‘Christian’ was not even used commonly before the year 45; it was coined in the Hellenistic city of Antioch to mock the ridiculous, deluded congregations of domestic servants and former slaves who worshipped Jesus as Messiah, the Khristos who would come from heaven to rule in a world where the first would be last and the last first. They stood with hands and eyes uplifted, waiting for him to descend with all the splendor of a Greek god or a Roman statesman. Christians came to the wide notice of the Roman Empire only in 64 C.E., when Nero accused them of setting fire to Rome and encouraged the sadistic pogrom of torture and crucifixion that ensued. Not until the second century did Christianity begin to be taken seriously; it competed in the marketplace of ideas with other popular philosophies such as Stoicism, Platonism, the Dionysian and Mithraic Mysteries-and Judaism.
He goes on to say,
A failure on the world stage in his own time, Rabbi Jesus also fell short of making a lasting mark within Judaism. Dead at thirty, nonetheless he generated a new religion. He never articulated a doctrinal norm or a confessional requirement, but the events of his life, his public teaching, and his kabbalah gave rise to distinctive, emotionally resonant rituals such as baptism, prayer, anointing the sick, and the Eucharist. Jesus taught others to see as he saw, to share his vision of God, so that even after his death he appeared to his disciples as alive, a human presence within the swirling energy of the Throne.
…he remains a measure of how much we dare to see and feel the divine in our lives.
…our suffering, pain, and disappointment, as well as our joy, pleasure, friendships, and the love we feel for one another can enable us to realize who we are in God’s presence.
The rabbi from Nazareth never claimed he was unique. His Abba (father) was the Abba of all.
By exalting Jesus as the only human being to sit on the right hand of God, many theologians have denied heaven to others.
Now, as Rabbi Jesus’ movement enters its third millennium, its great goal has yet to be achieved: to share Jesus’ vision with all humanity, that it may enter through the gates of heaven and be transformed by the energy of God.
As I read Chilton’s Rorschach ink blots, in fourteen chapters, I kept thinking of our 19th century Unitarian forebears- Channing, Emerson and Parker, whose comments about Jesus separated them from the kinds of Christians that want to defrock Rev. David Benke. They were bound by the cultural norms of their day, of course. They talked about Jesus as Savior, and Son of God. Channing even affirmed the so-called miracles of Jesus, while Emerson and Parker rejected the idea of miracles.
Chilton’s book encouraged me to edit and record the book, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, including the introduction by our historian, Conrad Wright. I think it will require four CD’s and it will soon be available so you can listen.
Like all of us, our 19 century forebears-Channing, Emerson and Parker–were bound by the cultural norms of their day and talked about Jesus as Savior, and Son of God, and so forth.
Let me give you a flavor of each:
In his famous Baltimore sermon in 1819, speaking for the group of liberal Christian ministers in and around Boston, Channing said,
We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other’s society. Here then we have three intelligent agents, and if these things do not imply and constitute three different minds or being, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed.
We do then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity.
Emerson suggested that Jesus was an insightful, sensitive man, fully human; that he performed no miracles. In his famous Divinity School Address, Emerson said,
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, ‘I am divine. Through me God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think. But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages!.
Parker, for his part, wrote a sermon he titled The Transient and Permanent in Christianity, in which he said,
Doubtless the time will come when men shall see Christ also as he is. Well might he still say: ‘Have I been so long with you, and yet hast thou not known me?’ No! we have made him an idol, have bowed the knee before him, saying ‘Hail, king of the Jews;’ called him ‘Lord, Lord!’ but done not the things which he said. The history of the Christian world might well be summed up in one word of the evangelist-‘and there they crucified him,’ for there has never been an age when men did not crucify the Son of God afresh.
Now let me offer a poem by E. E. Cummings. It’s a poem which I read as a kind of Jesus poem, in the sense of Jesus representing all persons. First I want to tell you how I first came upon this piece.
Some years ago I was asked to do a memorial service for Sam, a man who had been caretaker at Four Winds Farm, working for Maddy and Dolly Sayles, active members of this congregation for many years. In my visits with Maddy and Dolly I can come to know this Sam, so I went rummaging through Cummings to find a poem I vaguely remembered, having read it years before.
That’s the way it is with poetry. The only poem that works for me is one that speaks to something in my own experience, something that touches my life, below the surface. So this poem sat there, in the back of my mind, waiting for a real connection.
It was hard to find because I didn’t know the opening lines, and that’s how Cummings’ poems are catalogued-by the first words in the poem. They’re not titled. I found it, and it not only worked for the memorial service for Sam, but it’s the biography of everyman, which makes the Jesus connection for me.
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weasel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into what
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down
I have no way of knowing if Cummings had the human Jesus in mind with this poem, but I do wonder about that.
First he makes reference to the faithfulness of Sam: “rain or hail, Sam done the best he kin.” That’s what we all do.
I’m reminded of the motto of the mail carrier about delivering the mail in rain, sleet or snow, or hail, borrowed from the Greek historian, Horodotus, 485 – 425 B.C., who wrote: “Not snow, no, nor rain, nor heat, nor night keeps them from accomplishing their appointed courses with all speed.”
I like the line, ‘room for the devil and the angels too.’ In other words, Sam (everyman/person) is human, fallible, imperfect. Remember the story of the devil tempting Jesus in the desert? We all have the potential for good and evil. It doesn’t exist out there, in the personified devils and angels. It’s in us, pure and simple.
I like the line which precedes the line “heart was big as the world aint square.” The heart is a metaphor for love. God is love, as Rev. Benke reminded that interfaith gathering at Yankee stadium last September.
Cummings’ repetition of the word clover is intriguing: “what may be better or what may be worse or what may be clover, clover, clover (nobody’ll know)
Clover is a symbol of good luck, at least the clover with four leaves. “Everything’s coming up clover.” Clover is also the nectar for the honey bees, and nourishment for grazing animals.
What do you think?
The final lines sum up the life of Everyperson: “Sam was a man, grinned his grin, done his chores, laid him down.”
‘sleep well.’ Rest in peace.
So may it be for you, for me, for our loved ones who are all our brothers and sisters!