It was the Ukrainian version that did it. I knew that The Life: A Portrait of Jesus had gone through many print runs and spread around the world, but seeing a photograph of a translation from somewhere north of the Black Sea made me think that it was perhaps time to revisit it. The Life, written with Chris Walley as a short ‘one-stop’ book on Jesus, has done well and I gather been a blessing to a lot of people. Yet it was published sixteen years ago and the world has changed. Although 2003 may seem like yesterday, it was in fact a very long time ago and our world has moved on. (Where exactly it thinks it’s moving on to is a profound question!) To jog your memory: in 2003 there was no Facebook or social media, most houses still had bookcases wider than their televisions, people talked to each other instead of staring into little handheld slabs of glass, and uncomfortable facts were not simply dismissed as ‘fake news’.
I observe three big changes since 2003. First, the memory of cultural Christianity has faded further in the Western world; the biblical story has become ever more forgotten and if you were to ask most people about Jesus you would receive very little in the way of accurate information. Second, Christianity has not just simply suffered neglect but also attack. So it is widely assumed the ‘traditional Jesus’ has been proved to be entirely fictional. The third phenomenon is, however, far more positive: in a world that increasingly realises that money and things are the problem not the answer, there is a growing search for spiritual truth and that search is turning minds and hearts in the right direction. The figure of Jesus may be faint and be accused of being illusory but it has not lost its attractiveness.
In the light of these changes Chris and I have reworked what we wrote into a new book called Jesus Christ: The Truth. That subtitle is important: we have sought to portray the truth about Jesus as an historical individual, about who he claimed to be (including, of course, his claim to be the Truth) and about the truth for life that Jesus taught. We have sought to write not just for those outside the church but also inside it. At a time when the Christian faith is being challenged it’s important to make sure that we have got our facts straight about the one on whom our faith rests.
In writing about Jesus, three principles have emerged that I believe apply beyond this book, to sharing Jesus generally today.
The first principle is of giving accessibility to Jesus. Many people today are utterly unclear about who Jesus was or is: was he real or imaginary? The facts about Jesus need to be told but this is no easy task. We live amongst those who struggle with history of any sort and who are probably more familiar with the peoples of Middle Earth and the Houses of Hogwarts than they are with the world of the New Testament. One key element in making Jesus accessible today is the use of plain words. A constant temptation for those of us who take theology seriously is to slip into using theological language. That’s great but today even words like ‘salvation’ mean very little to outsiders.
The second principle is of giving authenticity to Jesus. There are many Jesus figures around today: the fist-waving revolutionary challenging the corrupt and the cruel; the New Age mystic offering words of wisdom; the eco-warrior proclaiming a love of nature. Most widespread of all is the ‘plasticine Jesus’: that infinitely flexible figure who can be moulded into any shape, who always affirms our desires and never confronts them. Here, however, there is a paradox: although our unchurched contemporaries may know very little about theology or history, they can frequently sense that these reshaped figures are not the genuine article. No, it is the authentic Jesus who attracts people: a Jesus who is consistent with history, with his culture, with his Jewish background and, above all, with the Bible documents themselves. Equally, too, we believe that the Jesus we proclaim should be consistent with how the first Christians saw him: an extraordinary, divine figure who existed before his conception and lives beyond his death. Here we have tried to remedy the frustrating fact that so much of the excellent modern scholarship that confirms the reality of a ‘traditional’ Jesus has not percolated down to the level of the pew, and certainly not to that of the pub. The sceptical criticisms of Jesus can, and should, be countered.
The third principle is of giving Jesus authority. One of the characteristics of many modern ‘imaginings’ or interpretations of Jesus is that the individual they conjure up is a slight, feeble figure somewhat reminiscent of much church coffee: flavourless, low strength and utterly underwhelming. We need to portray Jesus as the biblical writers do: the utterly unique individual who rules over both people and powers; the saviour who delivers from death and the demonic; the eternal king who merits worship; the judge before whom the world will one day stand. The only Jesus worth proclaiming is an authoritative figure; the one who is indeed Lord, the one who can be prayed to, the one who can be trusted now and forever. Only this Jesus commands love, respect and worship.
The Jesus available for popular consumption is often one so distanced from the real world as to be inaccessible, so artificial as to be inauthentic, and so diluted as to lack all authority. We need to counter that: to speak about the real Jesus, rely on him and share him. The world may have changed, but Jesus hasn’t.