Wheat and Chaff
by Elias Blum
The problem started early on, as Greco-Roman and Egyptian pagan ideas filtered into early christianity in the multi-cultural wirlpool of the first century AD eastern Mediterranean. Very soon – at least by the time of Paul’s epistles – christianity began to move away from being the religion of Jesus and started to become the religion about Jesus. That is to say, it began to ignore or distort the moral, ethical, apocalyptic, mystical (and very Jewish) teachings of Jesus the martyred prophet, and instead to transform early christianity into a sort of ‘rebirth mystery cult’ not unlike the cults of Mithras or Apollo.
By the time that Christianity had become the official religion of the Roman Empire it was almost unrecognisable: Jesus had become an eternallly pre-existing second person of the Trinity, and believing in this became much more important than actually following his teachings. The very practical and radical preaching of Jesus (his first recorded sermon was about the re-distribution of land and the cancellation of debts) was gradually sacralised, losing its social criticism and political bite.
The reformation fixed a few things but also added error to error, focusing solely on the role of Jesus as a sort of divine scapegoat, whose death was far more important than either his life or his resurrection. All that mattered was to ‘believe in Jesus’ so we could ‘go to heaven when we die’. The good news of the kingdom of God – that God would restore, redeem, heal and console the earth, so that earth would be as it is in heaven – was reduced to a sort of cosmic fire insurance. (I’m exaggerating slightly, and setting out something of a strawman – the reality was always more nuanced than this – but it illustrates the point well enough).
However, not everyone thinks this way. There’s a lot of scholarship that tries to get back to and rediscover the life, teaching and way of Jesus. Some of these folks comes from a liberal or even post-christian position (e.g. Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Bart Ehrman). However, there are also people who self-identify as evangelicals (or perhaps as ‘post-evangelicals’) like N. T. Wright, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne or Jim Wallis, who – while they cling to trinitarian creedalism and evangelical soteriology – take the ethical and social teachings of Jesus very seriously.
It’s a genuinely mixed bag. It’s impossible, I’ve realised, to think of christianity as good or bad, it is so many different things, and it has so many different manifestations. They are knowable only by the ‘fruit’ that they produce: Do certain beliefs and practices make people bitter, arrogant, judgmental and domineering, or do they make people loving, forgiving, accepting and serving? Do they make for a more gracious, more humane and more nurturing society, or for a more belligerent, more punitive, more repressive society? That’s the key for separating the wheat of Jesus Christ from the chaff of religious legalism or nutjobbery.