Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Paschal Peeve: The Hidden Story of Jesus by Robert Beckford

Back in February I wrote about Slacktivist Fred Clark's peeves concerning fundamentalist, literalist Christianity. I want to quote Clark again

This house-of-cards faith is a particularly brittle and fragile belief system that insists, emphatically, that all of it must be true or else none of it is true. Faith is, for these people, a pass-fail course. Get a 100 percent and you pass. Anything less than that, and you fail.

I grew up around some people who believed faith worked like this and yet I still can't figure out the theology behind it. Their soteriology seems to work like "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" -- except with no prizes awarded for any but the final question. It's salvation by neither grace nor works, but rather by the knowledge of and mental assent to a very long list of arcane biblical interpretations.

A very, very long list. And that very long chain is only as strong as its weakest link (to mix both my metaphor and my quiz show reference). If every item isn't true -- or isn't blindly accepted as true -- then they insist that it all must be false. Thus if it is not true that the world was created in six, 24-hour days about 6,800 years ago, then it is not true that Jesus loves you. Or that you should love others as Jesus has loved you. Or that your sins are forgiven. Or that you are anything but alone and godforsaken when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

House-of-cards fundamentalism allows for no distinctions between babies and bathwater, between the central tenets of the faith and the adiaphora and error. So once one part of this belief system begins to collapse -- as it inevitably will since young-earth creationism is disprovable -- then it all has to go.

As I said, I grew up around kids who were taught this their whole lives. They didn't have a choice about where they were going to college after graduating -- it was either Bob Jones University or Bible college. As the rest of us planned to head off to Wheaton or Messiah or Azusa Pacific, those kids' parents would shake their heads sadly and pray for our protection in such worldly Babylons.

But it's really hard, even in the hermetic and hermetically sealed world of BJU, to avoid encountering some incontrovertible piece of evidence that the earth and the universe is far, far older than young-earth creationism allows. When they encounter this evidence, they may be able to cling to some desperate form of last-Thursday-ism (the world is 6,000 years old, but was made to seem older) which may provide them with a temporary patch until they get better at living with very high levels of cognitive dissonance and barely veiled self-deception. But just as often, the whole edifice collapses. Hard. They wind up rejecting everything they ever believed.

Everything, that is, except for that pernicious notion that "all of it must be true or none of it is." These kids shoot way past what their parents feared would happen to the rest of us at Wheaton or wherever (with our dangerous book learnin' and dancing and movie-going and such) and they become the mirror-opposite of their old fundamentalist selves. They become as strident and binary in their unbelief as their failed mentors at Bob Jones were in their belief. Yet even their rebellion tends to remain shaped by that world and its narrowly imagined options.

And that's a tragedy. I think it was Maya Angelou who said there's nothing sadder than a young cynic, because they've gone directly from knowing nothing to believing nothing.

Even worse is when they become rationalist so-called liberal theologians and biblical scholars. The late Robert Funk, who established the Jesus Seminar was one such person who sought to teach the whole world 'religious literacy' or to read scriptures 'correctly' (i.e. his way) as part of a universalist religious imperialist project as supersessionaist as any fundamentalist or traditionalist Christianity. Bart Ehrmann is another. John Shelby Spong is a theological equivalent. He came out of a fundamentalist background and has adopted a theological rationalism in its place by which he recycles the work of such 'liberal' biblical scholarship to explain away the problematic bits and promote a scientific Christianity for our modern age. On ABC's Compass program over the last two weeks we met another, Dr Robert Beckford of Oxford Brookes University in the UK. Beckford is of Caribbean background and originally of Pentecostal faith

In a 2 part series, The Hidden Story of Jesus, Beckford went on a bit of a tour to India and the Middle East to end with a rationalised Jesus the social justice teacher that everyone can follow. Beckford's travels serve to explain away the 'troublesome' bits in the scriptures to develop a more scientific, rational and hence more universal faith system. So, in part 1, he goes to India to compare the nativity naratives of the gospels of Matthew and Luke to the nativity stories concerning Krishna and the Buddha. I am familiar with some of the fabulous embellishments of the Buddha's story but not so much with that surrounding Krishna. In the case of the Buddha, these are much later and not really all that important to the Buddha's dharma. As for Krishna you can read some of them here, where they are also provided with a message for believers. They are part and parcel of the whole Krishna mythos and draw on a rich Indian mythological legacy. If they provide any illumination to the Christian nativity narratives, it is that they too provide an important framework for the story of their respective gospels and over time, read together, for the whole Jesus story (something I might write about at a later date). Beyond that the similarities are minimal.

However, Beckford is not interested in such particularities. Instead he makes the point that the stories of virginal conception and angelic visitations, and presumably the Immanuel/Son of God significance they seek to convey, simply represent a universal pattern of surrounding the births of religious figures with mythological embellishment. Jesus, Krishna and the Buddha are pretty much the same in importance for their respective followers and so their births are encrusted with magic and the fabulous. At this point Beckford is aided and abetted by a Brahmin priest who is more than happy to concur with the notion that all are similar. Indeed, Vishnaivite Hinduism, of which Krishna worship is one form, is noted for its avatar theology by which Krishna, Rama and several other human and non-human figures are understood to be incarnations of Vishnu. At some stage, Buddha too came to be regarded as another such avatar of Vishnu, albeit a most unsatisfactory one, which is why there is no cult of Buddha in Hinduism. However, Buddha the avatar proved a successful way for Hindu religion to respond to and ultimately deal with the Buddhist challenge. Unsurprising then that, as we see in the film, Jesus, too, can be adopted and worshipped by Hindus as another avatar of Vishnu, a practice the Brahmin would no doubt endorse. But by such worship Jesus becomes a deity of Hinduism; worshippers of a Hindu Jesus do not necessarily become Christians, something Beckford does not seem to understand.

Beckford then sets off to the north of India for a Buddhist perspective. I was curious that he didn't go to Bodh Gaya, the most important site for Buddhism, and once more an important Buddhist centre. Instead Beckford goes north to the Tibetan refugee centres. I was puzzled by this and can only conclude that it is because Tibetan Buddhism is 'trendy' in the West and so Beckford attempts to gain its authority as a support for his thesis. Sadly for him such support was not forthcoming. Beckford even manages to get audiences with the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa & the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche who are quite happy to explain Jesus from a Buddhist perspective even allowing him a boddhisattva status. But it is very much a Buddhist Jesus we meet, a Jesus integrated into the Tibetan Buddhist package. Hence they are very happy to acknowledge the possibility of Buddhist influence on Christian origins. But when Beckford states "in some ways, I'm not just following Jesus, I'm also following Buddha" he receives a polite non-committal response. Whatever else the manifold forms of Buddhism are, and how accomodationist they are to other religious systems they are not universalist. The Buddha's Dharma, no matter how variously interpreted, remains central, regardless of any apparent similarities to Christianity.

From that point, Beckford turns his attention to the Middle East which he introduces by first telling his audience that it was Paul and his followers who invented Christianity as we know it 'a religion of salvation through faith in a pre-existent divine being sent to earth by God to save us all from our sins'. Paul is 'its first theologian and arguably its real founder'. Paul 'took Christianity out of its Palestinian Jewish setting and turned it into a world beater'. This is, of course, patent nonsense which Beckford compounds by a survey of the cults of Mithras and the ancient Egyptian cult of Osiris. Beckford presents them as examples of the pagan world that Paul sought out to convert by appropriating their salvation motifs (and presumably mixing with a good serve of Buddhist Dharma) to create the Christian package as we know it today.

There are several problems here which I will simply touch on. First off, Beckford (and others such as Ehrmann, Spong etc) work with a very simplistic notion of what ancient Judaism was like. The big mistake made was to assume that the Judaism of the Temple period was pretty much the same as Rabbinic Judaism that has existed alongside Christianity since late Antiquity (and Christian understandings of Rabbinic Judaism have been likewise extremely naive). But Rabbinic Judaism is just as different from what I would call Temple Judaism as Christianity is. Both Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity are two new religions emerging from the wreckage of the old Temple order. Of course, both stand in continuity with that old order as well. And surprise, surprise, Christian trinitarian and incarnational theologies have precursors in the theologies and practices of the old Temple milieu. What was new with Christianity was not its trinity or its notions of incarnation. What Christianity did that was new was to identify the Logos, the Son of Man, the Heavenly High Priest, the Great Angel, Wisdom, Memra, the lesser YHWH - there is a rich range of ancient Jewish divine intermediaries - with the person, Jesus of Nazareth. As Daniel Boyarin reminds us, the Logos theology of John 1 is pretty standard first century Jewish (binitarian) Logos theology. What is new in John 1 is the identification of the Logos with Jesus.

Then Beckford's putting it all on to Paul falls into two further errors. He is guilty of a very simplistic linear chronological approach to Christian history - the type behind the standard gospel reconstruction which posits an order something like: 1) some sort of simple sayings gospel (Q), 2) Mark, 3) Matthew combining Mark and Q with extra material, 4) Luke combining Mark and Q with extra material - 3 and 4 can swapped around - 5) John (often with a precursory and not well placed timewise Signs gospel). And all of these stages sit in a nice neat linear, generally, 10 year progression. So, Q 40s or 50s, Mark 60s, stages 3 and 4 in 70s and 80s respectively with John coming up lucky last in the 90s CE. Thomas is often slotted in there somewhere and some other too, especially the more 'Gnostic' ones (but not the Protoevangelion of James). Personally, I find it too neat. I think it more likely that the various gospels (canonicals and others) are coming onto existence alongside each other, over the same time period, with some interacting more intimately (the Synoptics) than others. As J.A.T. Robinson suggested, space/distance between communites is more likely a gospel generator than time chronological differences, which rely on a presumed progression from a naive simplistic peasant faith to the theological elaboration/sophistication of John (and hence always positioned last). Also relevant is that the Jesus movement is marked the prominence of several figures rather than one (perhaps the apparent prominence of one, Paul, is an effect of the New Testament's make up).

This model is partly based on the 50s and 60s being dominated by Paul, 'the first theologian', who invents the package that will be elaborated in the gospels. The other basis, as I alluded above, is a rather quaintly romantic notion of the class origins of the Jesus movement and Jesus' first disciples as simple illiterate peasants from Galilee. To that I will quote Ben Witherington's response to such a claim made by Bart Ehrmann in his latest book, Jesus Interrupted, who declares that Jesus’ disciples were “lower-class, illiterate, Aramaic speaking peasants from Galilee.” (p. 106):

First of all fisherman are not peasants. They often made a good living from the sea of Galilee, as can be seen from the famous and large fisherman’s house excavated in Bethsaida. Secondly, fishermen were businessmen and they had to either have a scribe or be able to read and write a bit to deal with tax collectors, toll collectors, and other business persons. Thirdly, if indeed Jesus had a Matthew/ Levi and others who were tax collectors as disciples, they were indeed literate, and again were not peasants. As the story of Zaccheus makes perfectly clear, they could indeed have considerable wealth, sometimes from bilking people out of their money. In other words, it is a caricature to suggest that all Jesus’ disciples were illiterate peasants. And Bart is absolutely wrong that Acts 4.13 says otherwise--- what Acts 4.13 says is that the council is shocked at the theological capacity of Peter and John because they are ‘unlettered’. This is not the ancient word for illiterate, it is the word for not being learned, not having done formal school training, say in a synagogue.

Beckford will continue to assert in the second part of the film the centrality of Paul in creating Christianity as we know it. But this time instead of Hindusim and Buddhism he turns to Judaism and Islam. Here his film gets quite confused. He introduces us to an Orthodox rabbi in Israel who strongly proclaims not only his rejection of Jesus as messiah and his divine status but rightly reminds Beckford of the sad history of Christian - Jewish relations. Beckford can't resist though using this guy for an endorsement of his own position. Nevertheless, Beckford betrays his own confessional alliegences by focusing on the harassment of a group of so-called messianic Jews, Jews who have converted to a form of Judaised Evangelical Protestantism, by their Orthodox Jewish neighbours. I'm not certain what this was supposed to achieve or represent. Beckford certanily could not confront these Evangelicals with his own rationalised Christianity, certainly not when they are being intimidated by their neighbours at the same time. Beckford does confront these others but the last thing they are interested in is dialogue with a Gentile theologian, no matter how rational or univeralist, dare I say 'religiously literate', he is.

Then onto Islam, which gets rather short shrift, considering just how important Jesus is for Muslims. Perhaps it's that, even though Jesus is a prophet and not the Son of God, the Islamic Jesus is not very amenable to Beckford's project. After all, Islam still beleives in the Virgin Birth (and consequently Mary is highly venerated as well). Furthermroe Muslims don't believe that Jesus is dead. They expect him to return to do battle with the Anti-Christ, fofllowing which he will die like all mortals. They even have a grave waiting for him in Medina beside the grave of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh). So Beckford quickly scuttles back to India, to Kashmir to be precise where he introduces us to the tomb of Jesus and the story that Jesus went east to Kashmir and died there. We meet a local figure, perhaps Sufi or Ahmaddiya, who relates the story and refers to a variety of texts going back to the second century attesting to this claim. He doesn't identify them or show us the originals. He is surrounded by a variety of papers but they are all modern, printed and apparently in Arabic script. Beckford nevertheless accepts these claims, uncritically repeating them as he summarises his case at the conclusion of the film. Nevertheless he does inform us that this view that Jesus is buried in this tomb is not held by the tomb's custodians. Not only do they reject it but they have banned his informant from going to the tomb, which according to them is of a local Muslim saint.

Beckford then engages in a real sleight of hand. He introduces us to the Gospel of Thomas, a sayings gospel, in which there is no mention of virgin birth, miracles, death or resurrection. He arrogantly, imperialistically confronts a Coptic Christian woman working in the museum where the codex, discovered at Nag Hammadi, is kept. He challenges her, asking what she makes of such a gospel. Her response is polite, somewhat confused but Beckford frames her as representative of a naive type of supernatural Christianity standing in contrast to the presumed rationality of Thomas.

I can only assume that Beckford has not read Thomas or if he did, misunderstood it completely because he then goes on to set it against the figure of Mahatma Gandhi. Thus Beckford can get back to India where he goes to a Ghandi centre and interviews a Gandhi scholar who confirmed that Gandhi was inspired by Jesus' example and the teaching in the gospels which helped shape his commitment to non-violence in the struggle for Indian independence. We see statues and memorials to Gandhi and meet local people who venerate Gandhi. The implication is that Gandhi is not only inspired by Jesus but is like Jesus. Both are committed to social justice, non-violence etc. And Beckford goes back to the Gospel of Thomas, contrasting it to the canonical gospels to say that the supernatural, magical elements found in the canonicals are not essential to Christianity. Jesus is like Gandhi and (by implication from part 1) the Buddha. We should recognise and take the Jesus of Thomas as our model and commit to social justice and non-violence.

As I said, Beckford clearly did not read Thomas, or if he did, did not understand it. Certainly Gandhi never read Thomas but gained his inspiration from the canonical gospels, Matthew's sermon on the mount, especially. Furthermore, Jesus' nonviolent response to his fate served also as an inspiration to Gandhi, as also to Tolstoy through whom Gandhi was exposed to the nonviolent Jesus comitted to social justice. Tolstoy never read Thomas either.

It's not my intention to dump on Thomas, only on The Hidden Story of Jesus. By any standard it was a shoddy and simplistic production. It was, as my flatmate observed, perennial philosophy at its worst. Beckford clearly has no understanding of history of religion or comparative religion. He is hopelessly out of date when it comes to the biblical texts, including the New Testament texts. There are in fact some unfolding paradigm shifts when it comes to Christian origins and ancient Judaism and even Paul. Beckford knew none of that because he couldn't say some of the stupid things he did in this film if he did. He certainly doesn't understand Buddhism (although I suspect his Budhist interlocutors got the measure of him and played him for their own purposes) and nor does he understand Hinduism either. Beckford is a hopeless romantic, in fact, a romanticism of Jesus as the wise philosopher, even the hippy sage but without any of the depth of Tolstoy's or even Gandhi's nonviolent, social justice Jesus (for Tolstoy the anarchist Jesus). No, Beckford's Jesus is a Buddha without the hard work.

Worse yet, having dissolved any particularities pertaining to Jesus - Jesus is mostly recycling the Buddha and everyhting else was recycled by Paul to create the Jesus cult - Beckford still expects people to be intersted enough in this Jesus to believe in him, although it's not quite clear what we are to believe. Just so long as we aren't like that silly Coptic woman who thought Thomas was so strange for a gospel although pesumably Beckford has set her on the right rational, scientific path to his so Western 20th century Jesus.- the light from the West. Beckford's Jesus really is just another Western imperialist project.

POSTSCRIPT In this post, I mentioned Bart Ehrmann's book, Jesus Interrupted. Ben Witherington has a detailed, substantial and critical review, more of a response to the book here, here, here and here


  1. Rather than make an addition to my original piece I thought I'd comment on it. For some time now I've noticed on Protestant fundamentalist and Pentecostal sites an odd anti-religious discourse. By this understanding, Christianity is not a religion but marks the end of religions as represented by both paganism and the Mosaic Law. In that light, the Christian atheism and relgionless Christianity of much liberal Protestant discourse of the last few decades are really just another instance of that same evangeleical and Pentecostal discourse. It's struck me that Beckford's film sits in the same discursive trajectory, The film opens with Krshna devotees celebrating the birth of Krishna, complete with nativity scenes and nativity pageants and Beckford likens them to Christmas practices. Other glimpses of Christian settings include the interior of St Pauls cathedral in London and later on some glimpses of Coptic ORthodox liturgies. Now for that conservative Protestant discourse, Catholicism is as much a form of religion as paganism, and liturgical Anglicans and Coptic (and other Orthodox) Christians are just as much Catholic as any work of Rome. So Beckford is really just regurgitating in a liberal rationalist and universalist framing the old discursive practices of his Protestant Pentecostal youth.

  2. I've noticed the exact same thing. Young protestant kids going on and on saying "Christianity is not a religion it's a relationship". It's really annoying. I was never comfortable saying it even when I was a fundy. I do see the exact same thing on the other side of the fence with in post-Christian discourses like atheism which exist as a Christian(Western/European) phenomenon which attempts to do away with the rich tradition and rituals of Christian faith. Jean-Luc Marion has some very interesting things to say about atheism and Christianity and deconstruction, I forget the text though.

    I can see how liberal Christians see things this way; deconstructing the religious Jesus and keeping only a political Jesus that believes everything that they believe, or keeping a New-Agey Jesus who doesn't believe anything except God being the "source of love, life and being" (Dank e, Spong). I think that these people get caught up in two things: controversy for the sake of controversy and of course what you described as neo-colonial appropriation.

    I agree with what you said in our conversation a few weeks ago, Jesus would be a very alien person if we saw exactly what happened through our contemporary eyes.