Vol 42 No 2
The Many Ways of Telling the Story of Jesus
ENGLISH WRITER and social commentator Clifford Longley claims that in the United Kingdom today it can no longer be assumed that the average person under thirty-five can put three facts together about the Christian story. If young Australian adults were questioned would the same statement be true? Probably not. But it would make an interesting study for some budding social scientist.
Perhaps it is an age thing. When figures of the world’s present population who call themselves Christian are totalled, the number would approach two billion. The question ‘Who is Jesus?’ is alive and well. Simply ask Mel Gibson or Dan Brown. They have the figures to prove it.
Whatever about the present, it is beyond argument that many millions throughout the centuries have venerated the name of Jesus. ‘But few have understood him and fewer still have tried to put into practice what he wanted to see done,’ Albert Nolan asserts in his famous book Jesus Before Christianity. Nolan adds by way of further explanation:
His words have been twisted and turned to mean everything, anything and nothing. His name has been used and abused to justify crimes, to frighten children and to inspire men and women to heroic foolishness.
The story of Jesus has been told and retold over a vast number of generations. And there are as many ways to tell the story as there are people and cultures. Does it matter how it is told? Many believe that it does. The manner of the telling is crucial.
For a start, the particular significance of Jesus is expressed in many ways in the gospels themselves. Just think of some of the titles popularly given him in the early church: the Son of God, Messiah and Lord, the Word made flesh, the Light of the World, the Lamb of God, the Bread of Life, and other rich terms of great consequence. Each of the gospel writers themselves displays interesting variations on the answer to this intriguing question.
And then there are the creeds. In the Apostles Creed the believing community expresses faith in ‘Jesus Christ, his only Son, Our Lord, who was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary’ and goes on to describe Jesus as the decisive revelation of God. Marcus Borg, a contemporary scripture scholar, expresses it in these terms:
Jesus reveals, discloses, what can be seen of God in human life and what a life filled with God looks like.
How we see God, in other words, is determined in great part by how we see Jesus. And how we see Jesus is more often than not shaped by the manner in which we tell his story. It might be a useful exercise for the reader to reflect upon (as far as this is possible) those first memories of being introduced to this fundamental story of Christian faith.
It is not an easy exercise. Fleeting wisps of memory of childhood prayers, perhaps coloured prints in books or framed pictures, early experience of entering places of worship. For those in the Roman Catholic tradition, the memory of rote learning of questions and answers, may still linger in the sub-conscious. But these were different days. It is not going too far to say it was an entirely different culture only a few short generations ago—a very different population from that to which Clifford Longley referred.
Today, those who take on the responsibility of bringing the gospel to others—parents, teachers, ministers of the gospel—face an entirely different challenge.
To state the blindingly obvious, the quiet message of the gospel makes a claim on our attention in an entirely different context today. The context of the information explosion is so pervasive that we can scarcely understand its impact upon us. Unlimited information is called up at the stroke of a computer key—whether the person lives in outback Australia or works in a glass pyramid in down-town Manhattan. Advertising budgets that would do justice as the GNP of a small country compete for our attention just to have us buy their particular brand of soft drink. Satellite television flashes through space in order to place us comfortably in the grandstands of sporting events featuring our favourite team competing on the opposite side of the globe. Global entertainment events command audiences of countless millions for glitzy, Rock concerts. Somehow in this frantic stream of flashy messages, the gentle words ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ may require some different treatment.
And yet there are those who risk swimming in these turbulent waters. Actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson provides a dramatic example of re-telling the story today. Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ presented a vivid and violent account of Jesus’ death on the cross. Interestingly it opens with a verse from the Jewish prophet Isaiah: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities: by his wounds we are healed.’ (Is 53.5)
These words set the scene for the movie. Gibson’s intention is to tell the story of the dying saviour who died for our sins—employing all the immensely powerful tools of the modern filmmaker.
There are those who applaud the efforts of telling the story of the passion. What better way is there to reach a world-wide audience than using all of the power and drama of contemporary cinema. The gloomy figures cited by Clifford Longley provide sufficient reason.
Other critics are not so sure. They express serious disquiet about a presentation marked by the naked violence and seemingly endless scourging which marked its telling. Next to the blatant gore and scenes of torture of the film, the gospel accounts appear almost modest. If we believe that the way we see God is determined in great part by how we see Jesus, such critics argue, then by implication the mercilessly violent depiction of the death of Jesus implies a God who is demanding some form of retribution ‘for our sins’. Yes, it might leave us sinners more contrite, but at the risk of distorting a more fundamental and crucial image of a God who has gifted us all with life and into whose embrace we will one day return. Recall the myriad of other rich biblical images such as the tender story of the Prodigal Son, or a mother hen guarding her chicks. Are these revelations of a gentle God consistent with one who would demand this form of bloody justice?
Another contemporary example of telling the story of Jesus was attempted by best-selling author Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code. Drawing upon a wide range of comparatively recent and fascinating research into accounts of Jesus’ life uncovered in documents called ‘pseudo gospels’ (those outside the canon of sacred scripture), Brown stumbled upon a story which touched the imagination of readers of every age and seems to have broken every publishing record for fiction in the modern age.
Brown suggests a Jesus whose humanity has been concealed by Catholic Church authorities who for their own devious reasons of power wanted to emphasise his divinity. The immense popularity of the tale caught everyone by surprise, not excluding the author himself.
If Gibson placed his story-telling emphasis on Jesus dying for our sins, Brown puts his weight on the humanity of Jesus—in a reaction to the Catholic Church’s intent on guarding his divinity. Brown, perhaps unwittingly, becomes caught up in the debates of the first three centuries of church history—a debate that came to some sort of resolution in the Council of Nicea. Bishops and theologians had been searching for the acceptable balance between the divinity and the humanity of Christ in the midst of opinions held with passion and often violence.
This tradition of the great Christian creeds reduces this mystery of mysteries, at least in the popular mind, to a simple equation—true God and true man. Or to use the exact language of the 5th century Council of Chalcedon, ‘perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity’.
But perhaps the human imagination, grappling with faith, requires more. Such mystery calls for all the skills of the poet, the storyteller, the evangelist ‘if language is not to be denied its indissoluble link with apprehension’.
‘The words are easy to say’, remarks Cistercian writer Michael Casey, ‘yet they contain great mystery. The humanity and divinity do not subsist side by side and independent like chalk and cheese’. This fundamental principle he refers to as ‘an inconceivable conjunction’ which in turn baffles and enchants those who search to humbly depth its mystery.
This belief of ours is a belief about divine and human love. The mystery behind the question ‘Who is Jesus’ explores how these two are interwoven, how the human mediates the divine and how the divine suffuses the human. Each is not what it at first seems—each is more than it seems.
This article is about the importance of stories. Not simply the one single story that can lure us into a sense of false certainty and close off the search. Our tradition is an endless resource of many stories which are designed to feed our imagination and nourish our faith. Remember there are four gospels, not simply one—each containing many images of God for those who wish to contemplate them. The Jewish scriptures which fed the imagination and the faith of Jesus are the wellspring of many more.
This article wishes to make the point that contemporary life stories interact with inherited stories; and that the hearing of inherited stories uncovers the depth of present experience of the gracious mystery we call our God. Most of all it is about the story of Jesus and the many ways the ancient tradition of our faith has found of telling it.
Fr Tony Doherty has recently published a series of books entitled Friendly guides to the Catholic Tradition designed for three groups of readers:
• So, You’re Working for the Catholic Church—for staff in Catholic institutions such as Hospitals, Schools and Social Welfare organisations;
• So, You’re Sending your Child to a Catholic School—for parents of school children; (to be published in August 2008), and
• So, You’re Searching to Refresh Your Faith—as a parish resource for pre-marriage couples, candidates in RCIA programmes and general adult faith education.
The Publisher is John Garratt Publications, Melbourne 32 Glenvale Crescent, Mulgrave 3170