So who is Jesus to you?
It’s not a question that ever receives the same answer, even from his followers. So my new novel about him, Gospel, Rumours of Love faces some challenges.
People may not agree about this man; but each opinion will be strongly held, sincerely believed and vigorously defended. When it comes to Jesus, no one wishes another’s tanks parked on their lawn.
The identity of Jesus is certainly up for grabs. Recent events in the US – where the Evangelical movement has equated Jesus with Trump – reveal how easily we can make Jesus in our own image, with little regard for the evidence available.
We simply make him what we need him to be; and this appears true throughout history and across the world. He can become a mere avatar for political and religious factions who want him as their own.
He can also appear distant. For believers, the figure of Jesus can become waxy and disembodied, sealed behind a paywall of creedal statements, which is not how we traditionally relate to people. Can he be reached though the stained glass? Or is it too late?
So who is Jesus to you? Lord, Teacher, Friend, Fictional, Philosopher, Distant Historical Figure, Prophet, Saviour, Son of God, Healer, Good Man, Social Activist, Mystical Christ – or an historical Irrelevance, given the environmental crisis faced by 21st century humanity?
Don’t we need to be looking forward rather than back?
And I have sympathy with the institutional church as they attempt to curate his memory. It’s an impossible brief. Yeshua ripped institutions down, he left none standing. He said you were more likely to find God in the splitting of wood than you were in the Temple.
Institutions are concerned with their own survival and Jesus wasn’t. So how does an institution faithfully look after his memory? It presents problems; and often, a straight-jacket.
He presents problems to writers as well. When writing Gospel, I found Yeshua (the Hebrew for ‘Jesus’) an exhausting and demanding presence; never comfortable.
I knew he was angry, but I hadn’t realised quite how angry and how confrontational he was. His ongoing assault on the Pharisees – ‘white-washed tombs’ – or Herod the ‘fox’ was savage. We would call it ‘satire’ today and laugh nervously – because in a mad world, truth is upsetting but surprisingly funny.
It must have terrified his followers listening to him, because they needed friends, not enemies. But then here, in their teacher, was an undomesticated love. Jesus is often talked of as preaching love, and maybe he did, but we’ll need to re-define the word.
We have made love a pretty thing with ribbons, or a cosy thing like a Labrador’s eyes; or a jealous and possessive thing, about control. But Jesus’ love was offering truth that almost no one wanted to hear; a healing and freeing thing, but dismantling as well. If this is love, it is undomesticated love, which doesn’t really fit anywhere.
It is a love unknown.
Certainly it didn’t fit well with his family. Mother’s Day services in the church don’t often use as their text Jesus’ withering question, ‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ But he asked it, for no recorder would make up those words; they are just too offensive to everyone. But isn’t love meant to start at home? So what love is this?
I did wish to put Jesus in relationship. One reader of the manuscript, a churchgoer of many years, said they’d never thought of Jesus having relationships. ‘As far as I was concerned, he just taught people by blue Galilee.’
But, of course, like us, he did have relationships, and I wished to restore them, both those he endured and those he enjoyed. Friends, in Yeshua’s experience, could be very disappointing. And also marvellous fun.
I needed also to find a consistent voice for him, my starting point, in a way; for the gospels can leave us confused. Yeshua’s voice in the gospel of John is nothing like his voice in the gospel of Mark. And the gospel of Thomas is different again as is the gospel of Mary Magdalene.
And so, in the story, we follow Yeshua as, like us, he finds his voice; for it does need to be found. It wasn’t gift wrapped on his doorstep aged twenty one; or even, aged thirty. It needed finding.
I wished also to return the women to the story, from which they so clearly have been removed. The idea of twelve male disciples really doesn’t stand up to any investigation. The circle around Jesus was larger than twelve and (dangerously) inclusive.
We note that, apart from John, it was women at the foot of the cross; and a woman to whom he appeared first after the resurrection. Again, no recorder at the time would invent such tale. So in Gospel we get to know Joanna and Miriam, for Yeshua certainly did. The return of women to the gospel narrative is like an Old Master with its colours restored. It once again looks as it should.
And finally, I wished to discern Yeshua’s particular energy, an elusive aspect of our humanity, but perhaps the most important, as it shapes all else. Palestine in the 1st century was an awkward place to live, a region glued together by hate. And Yeshua made it a great deal more awkward with his message and vision for his homeland.
How did he survive the hostility? How did he stay hopeful in this political and social pressure cooker? What was the source of his resilience? It is, perhaps, in the quality of his energy that Yeshua has most to offer the 21st century. And it is a remarkable energy for a boy from racist Nazareth.
As many said at the time, ‘What good ever came out of Nazareth?’
Now there’s a question!
‘Gospel, Rumours of Love’ is published by White Crow books.