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Itching ears

Making a "real" Jesus to fit the present time

Itching ears

I keep finding certain kinds of reading material on end tables, and under beds like dust balls, and I think it's time I address this housekeeping problem. The books brandish names like The Da Vinci Code and The Celestine Prophecy, and they promise secrets of life hitherto concealed. I have a suspect: an adult child, raised on nightly Scripture fare, who has lately acquired a taste for knowledge of the "real" God lurking behind the Bible, a God who plays hide and seek.

This is warfare, so I left a couple of my own books lying around, in passive-aggressive counterattack: Hidden Gospels: How the Search for Jesus Lost Its Way (Philip Jenkins) and The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels (Luke Timothy Johnson). Perfect titles in their ambiguity, I hope, guaranteed to make any seeker salivate.

In case you've been out of town since the Enlightenment, here is what's changed: Spirituality is good; religion is bad. Seeking is good; finding is bad. Meditation is good; prayer is bad. Feeling is good; doctrine is bad. Monks are good; ministers are bad. Gregorian Chant is good; the Trinity Hymnal is bad. Ancient Greece is good; ancient Israel is bad. An inner "kingdom of God" is good; an eschatological "kingdom of God" is bad. The Gospel of Thomas is good; the Gospel of Luke is bad. Medieval mystic Hildegard is good; John Calvin is bad. God our mother is good; God our father is bad. Jesus as avatar is good; Jesus as savior is bad.

Once there were two things you didn't want to see being made-sausage and law. Now add modernist scriptural scholarship. Here is the game: You start with a cultural bias, and then find Scriptures to support it. That is, you deny a priori the authenticity of the four canonical Gospels which attest to Jesus' incarnation and resurrection (since everybody knows that men don't rise from the dead), and instead you trump up the Nag Hammadi writings discovered in 1945 (notably, the Zen-sounding Gospel of Thomas, free of passé concepts like "sin" and "judgment"), and you wildly inflate the importance of their contribution to our knowledge about early Christianity. And since these Gnostic documents inconveniently date to the late second century and third century a.d. (which is as far from Jesus' day as we are from Thomas Jefferson's), while the four canonical Gospels are inconveniently dated in the first century, more sleight of hand is needed to show that these "lost gospels," and not Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, contain the "real" Jesus.

Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Johnson, in their respective works, pull back the curtain on the methodologies of the much-ballyhooed "Jesus Seminar," a self-selected group of like-minded academics who have met yearly since 1985 to debate the Historical Jesus. Presuming (rather than proving) that the four biblical Gospels are cynical corporate church propaganda suppressing knowledge of the original pristine flower-child Jesus, they embark on a rescue mission-proving only by their unsurprising conclusions that you will find the Jesus you set out to find.

Here's the trick: To achieve early datings of preferred so-called "gospels" that are much later (and thus, by any fair criterion, less historically valuable) than the four Gospels of your Bible, you speculate on the existence of older "first editions" or cores of material within the surviving works. For example, you hypothesize a "Q" source to account for material found in both Matthew and Luke. Then you forget that "Q" was a hypothesis and you make confident pronouncements on its specific composition, calling it a lost gospel. Then you devise an elaborate stratification in the redacting of "Q": Q1, Q2, Q3. Get it? Hypotheticals built on hypotheticals. (But the beach reader is clueless.) You compile these rediscovered "gospels" in a book titled The Complete Gospels, with the first-century canonical four listed side by side with third-century Thomas, as if they were of equal historical value.

Lastly, you play the media stars-who are happy to be played-feeding them with tales of secrecy, sensational findings, and conspiracy theories, which are almost as attractive as sex. Voila! You have rewritten the story of Christianity, in a triumph of wishful thinking over facts.

A stripped-down, Buddha-like Jesus is just the Jesus for our times. He is serene to the point of lobotomized. He makes no demands, brings no conviction of sin, is a hollowed-out vessel to be filled with what America's itching ears long to hear. In the beginning God created man in His own image, and ever since, man has been returning the favor. Heaven help this generation when it learns, too late, that the Christ it had bereft of an eschatological mission returns in all His eschatological glory on the clouds with the shout of an archangel and an uplifted sword.