Reading Some of the World’s Most Familiar Stories with Fresh Eyes

By Mandy Burton, who will be leading In Remembrance of Me: Jesus Before Christianity at Toronto Pursuits 2020

When I started teaching at a major public university after a lifetime of studying and working at smaller schools, I found that I had to adjust my expectations about the rhythms of campus life. The most surprising one at first (though it seems obvious, in retrospect) is the sheer volume of people who show up on campus to promote things. Every day, there are people stationed in the campus center, or on the footpath from the train, prepared to tell you how you can save big on your phone plan, or get a free meal delivery if you sign up right now, or find eternal peace and joy if you give your life to Christ. Out of all the great new deals on offer, the offer of salvation is the most persistent: the Jehovah’s Witnesses are in the Campus Center almost every day, so often that the student Christian groups do their smiling recruitment outdoors instead.

Steve Martin in the 1992 film Leap of Faith

Of course, the offerings themselves are profoundly different, even if the initial recruitment strategy is the same. Reliable cell service is a very different kind of commodity than religious worldview or community – if it even makes sense to call the latter a commodity at all. But on those occasions when someone does stop to talk to the religion promoters, when I do get to overhear a bit of conversation, there is an uncomfortable amount of overlap with the commercial pitches. They’re offering a simple, transparent solution to your problem. The promoters are here to help you learn more – but you don’t need to learn that much more to see that their product is superior to existing alternatives. Act now, and you can (get) save(d) big!

Jesus Cursing the Fig Tree

As a latecomer to the New Testament, who did not read any of the biblical stories of Jesus in their entirety until I was in graduate school, I always find it odd when stories of Jesus are offered as a solution to problems, rather than a problem of their own. I do understand that when one encounters the gospels in the form of brief extracts in a religious service, filtered through centuries of theological interpretation and packaged in the promise of contemporary relevance, it does seem like Jesus has lots of answers for us, or maybe is an answer, just by existing. But if you take the time to approach the gospels as complete stories, with a shape and a setting of their own, the mystery and strangeness of Jesus comes through. There’s the time he kills a fig tree with a curse, because it doesn’t have fruit on it when he walks by (Mark 11:12-25, Matthew 21:18-22). He declares that he has come specifically to divide families, to set children against their parents (Matthew 10:34-36). There is also a time when he loses his temper and stages an impromptu protest, where he destroys the property of law-abiding citizens and beats them with a whip (John 2:13-16).

Christ before Pilate
Christ before Pilate
Jacopo Tintoretto

And why does he do these things? We have lots of answers furnished by later interpreters, but Jesus himself isn’t a very eager explainer. He spends the entire Gospel of Mark asking people if they understand, and being sad because they don’t. In the Gospel of Matthew, when his disciple Peter identifies him as the Messiah, he instructs everyone present to keep this a secret. And when he’s facing execution by the Roman government and is granted the rare privilege of an interview with the governor to plead his case, he offers no self-defense, and even refuses to answer Pilate’s simple question about whether he is the king of the Jews, replying only, “You say so.” In fact, most of what Jesus has to offer in crucial moments – most particularly in Mark, the earliest gospel – is not answers, but questions, and challenges to the baseline spiritual and political truths of his time.

If you spend some time puzzling through these stories as stories – not as part of a vast interpretive lineage, but as freestanding records of astonishing events, the way their original audiences would have seen them – it can be hard to make connections between the figure of Jesus and the vast, elaborate religious traditions that later generations have built up around him. But for me, at least, it’s clear why they would want to build something to commemorate him, to preserve his words and keep his challenges to us alive.

We can’t completely recapture the experience those early readers and listeners would have had. Even if someone built a time machine and we could travel back centuries to visit the beginning of what is now called the Common Era, it would be impossible to wind back the centuries and read like people from another time and place without entirely unmaking ourselves. But in my seminar In Remembrance of Me: Jesus Before Christianity we can, through careful and attentive reading, dislodge ourselves from some of the modern truisms about these texts and get closer to seeing them on their own terms. Through careful attention to those texts that have been the wellspring of so much of what has come after, we can become more insightful versions of our modern selves, and bring the wisdom of these ancient questions into our modern experience.

I look forward to seeing you in July!

— Mandy

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