The Existential Jesus

The guest editor on BBC radio 4’s Today programme this morning, 28th December, was the actor Michael Sheen. In a segment at 07.20 (1.20.30 into the programme) Sue Lawley asked the question which he wanted to put: ‘What power does the Bible have in our secular world?’ I’ve spent the rest of today researching the two people who were interviewed by Sue Lawley and Michael Sheen.

Prophecy today

It is clear to me that the prophetic voices of our time come either from people who are finding life in the institutional churches increasingly difficult and frustrating, or from others like Michael Sheen, who says he is not religious but who is clearly deeply drawn by the power of his Christian inheritance.

What matters to these people is that the Bible is about deep truth and that Christianity needs to evolve into a different configuration. The important questions being asked about the nativity stories are not Did they really happen? but the meaning, the purpose, the values that are behind the stories.

Michael Sheen clearly thinks we are in danger in our society, because there is something that feels absent, the something that is bigger than all of us, that goes beyond the everyday, that lifts you out of yourself; there is a connection to something that is transcendent. It’s all about the power of the story.

I think these people are talking deep, authentic truth, truth far more authentic than that which I hear from bishops and preachers and teachers in the Church of England. They seem unable to dream their way into the profound ways in which people are engaging deeply with their experience of the infinite other and the infinitely present, which we call God.

Michael Sheen was asked what it is that is so important that he fears we will lose from the Bible - because it’s something that connects us beyond the everyday, something that’s bigger than all of us.

For him there is missing a connection to something that is transcendent in society, that somehow lifts you out of yourself and allows you have a slightly different context, which some people call spirituality.

The Bible for Grown-ups

Simon Loveday from Bath, was the first guest to be interviewed. He was introduced as the author of The Bible for Grown-ups. I looked for the book on Amazon but there was no sign of it. A search on Google was more productive, revealing that Simon Loveday is 66 and in fact lives in Wells. He has spent the past 12 years writing his book The Bible for Grown-ups, finally completing it in April. The book is not really about religion, but about how people are selective with which bits they take from the Bible. He couldn’t find anyone to publish it –until he asked Times columnist Matthew Parris if he could help by reading a preview section and giving an endorsement. Matthew Parris wrote about the book in The Times and as a result, Simon seems to have found a publisher.

In the interview, Simon commented that the authors of Matthew and Luke’s gospels created stories to fill a need. If we had Matthew and Luke in the studio and pointed out the contradictions in their narratives to them, they would say:

“well, the contradictions aren’t the important thing; the important thing is the meaning, the purpose, what the kind of values that are behind the stories. What they would have said is, don’t worry about the detail – what are the stories really trying to tell you?’”

The Existential Jesus

Towards the end of the segment, John Carroll, professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, was interviewed. He is the author of The Existential Jesus, published last year.

He said: “the churches have done a lamentable job in retelling the stories in way that might speak today and that’s a great pity because Mark’s version in particular is about the lonely, solitary figure who arrives from nowhere aged thirty-odd and the story is all about being.”

It’s worth quoting at length from the blurb about his book:

Jesus is the man who made the West. What kind of man was he? Is he relevant to a modern world shaken by crises of meaning? The churches have mainly projected him as Jesus the carer and comforter, Jesus meek and mild, friend of the weak. This is Jesus the Good Shepherd, who preaches on sin and forgiveness. He is Lord and Saviour. But this church Jesus is not remotely like the existential hero portrayed in the first and most potent telling of his life-story - that of Mark. Mark's Jesus is a lonely and restless, mysterious stranger. His mission is dark and obscure. Everything he tries fails. By the end there is no God, no loyal followers - just torture by crucifixion, climaxing in a colossal death scream. The story closes without a resurrection from the dead. There is just an empty tomb, and three women fleeing in terror. The existential Jesus speaks today. He does not spout doctrine; he has no interest in sin; his focus is not on some after-life. He gestures enigmatically from within his own gruelling experience, inviting the reader to walk in his shoes. He singles out everybody's central question: 'Who am I?' The truth lies within individual identity, resounding in the depths of the inner self. The existential Jesus is the West's great teacher on the nature of being.

I don’t think the institutional voices of the Church really know any longer how to respond to people’s profound question: Who am I?