I have a both a scholarly and a personal interest in emergence Christianity. It’s no secret that among those involved with emergence Christianity, criticism of church institutions is quite fashionable these days.
There are some within emergence Christianity who think that the churches have entirely missed the point about Jesus and his life on Earth. This is one of the central arguments of John Carroll’s The Existential Jesus (Counterpoint, 2007).
The Jesus that Carroll introduces in this book is anxious, angry, uncertain of his mission, and frustrated with the inability of his followers to understand him. While these may be the sort of moods that Christians can identify with, these kinds of emotions are almost never identified with Jesus himself.
Along with so many other Western Christians, the Jesus that I’m familiar with is simultaneously meek, mild, in control, and self-conscious and confident in his mission on Earth. His moments of anger are fleeting and righteous. His primary purpose was to die on the cross so that our sins could be forgiven, to get us into heaven, and to leave us with churches that would spread his message throughout the world.
Carroll, a sociology professor at La Trobe University in Australia, offers a compelling challenge to these ways of thinking about Jesus. His book is a creative meditation on the Gospel of Mark, and to a lesser extent, the Gospel of John. Mark, the earliest and most cryptic of the gospels, undoubtedly gives us a rougher, ‘Jesus uncut’, kind of character to think about.
Contrasting the Jesus he finds in Mark to the Jesus we have known in the West, Carroll says,
Mark’s Jesus is not remotely like any of this – and he is not interested in ethical teaching. Worse, he identifies all churches with the withered and stonyhearted. He exposes their nature as innately driven to suppress Truth. Truth is their lethal enemy.
To enter into what he claims is a more authentic understanding of Jesus, Carroll takes us through Mark’s gospel using the tools of a literary critic and novelist. He explains how Mark arranged particular stories throughout the gospel to create profound juxtapositions (Salome and Jarius’ daughter, to name just one example).
Another startling reflection is Carroll’s meditation on the relationship between Legion – who he provocatively calls ‘the Master’s other self’ – and his demons, and Jesus walking on the water in the storm. This Jesus walking on the water speaks to his disciples not to comfort them, but to drive them into an ever deeper existential terror so that they might discover their true selves.
Carroll also offers character sketches of Peter, Mary Magdalene, Judas, Pilate and John. What is most important in their stories is the way they respond to Jesus. Judas, Carroll tells us, at least understands what Jesus is all about – but Judas knows himself and knows that he is not capable of the authentic way of being that Jesus demands.
Peter, on the other hand, is presented as an almost pathetic character who doesn’t understand anything important about Jesus. This is most striking in Carroll’s interpretation of John’s account of the resurrected Jesus’ visit to the disciples, after they had gone back to fishing.
Jesus asks Peter twice if he loves him with an agape type of love, and Peter keeps answering yes, that he loves him – but he uses the philia word for love. Carroll says this is the kind of love reserved for friends or mates. The third time Jesus asks Peter if he loves him Jesus has given up and once again lowered his expectations for Peter, himself using the word philia. It is then that Jesus tells Peter to ‘feed my sheep’ and ‘follow me.’
Thus Peter is entrusted with building the churches that will keep people safe and comfortable. The churches, as such, seem a kind of consolation prize for those who are not able to really understand Jesus, or willing to experience the existential pain of self-discovery.
It would be difficult to find a more uncompromising indictment of the churches. I am nervous about the implications of what Carroll seems to be saying: those in the churches seem weaker and inferior to those who have right ‘being’, those who really understand Jesus.
After all, who decides who really understands?
Having said that, I think Carroll has done us a service by arguing that Jesus is most interested in who we are and how we live our lives. And that means Jesus doesn’t care if we follow the rules or fashionable moralities of our age – even the ones taught to us by our churches. Rather, like the Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, it is more important to ask the tough questions about our religious, social and political systems and the way they prevent human flourishing.