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In the Market for ‘Jesus-Free’ Christianity? Grab This Cheap Deal!

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If you are looking for a way to reconcile your religious commitments to the stormy circumstances of our current political situation, then a “Jesus-free” Christianity might be just the thing for you.

Recent aging effects have sent me looking for “sugar-free” options for the pleasure of sweetness, and I have been surprised at the range of things that keep such staples as sweet tea and jelly available without offense.

I notice also that family members and friends find themselves taking advantage of gluten-free, peanut-free and lactose-free diet options – isolating, eliminating and substituting alternatives for substances that have a detrimental effect.

If something is risky to what we enjoy, substitutes can minimize the inconvenience.

There has been no lack of recent discussion about how and why a significant portion of the Christian family has been on board in support of policies and practices that seem antithetical to what Christians have affirmed with some consistency in the past, based on the teachings of Jesus.

Future analyses, I suspect, will explore this dynamic in a way similar to studies of the religious element of Germany’s response to the Hitler phenomenon at the beginning of the middle third of the 20th century.

It was not just a naïve, defeated and gullible populace that was drawn into the spell of radical ethno-nationalism that sought to preserve the purity of the Aryan part of humanity against the “Jewish problem.”

See Robert P. Eriksen’s “Theologians Under Hitler” for an analysis of the responses of Christian leaders who supported the Nazi regime.

Opposing this endorsement, the Barmen Declaration, authored by Karl Barth in 1932, expressed its critique of the national church and affirmed the Confessing Church’s basis for claiming independence from any national identification.

Later, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would write “The Cost of Discipleship,” distinguishing between the sacrificial obedience of response to God’s call and the “cheap grace” of accepting an enculturated gospel.

His own obedience would lead to his execution shortly before the liberation of the camp where he was imprisoned for his role in a plan to assassinate Hitler.

Some things, it seems are less new than we might think from our current exposure to the news cycle.

An insight I owe to Bart Ehrman, whose textbook, “A Brief Introduction to the New Testament,” I have used in survey courses, notes that even in the pages of the New Testament, we can see evidence of an evolution from the religion of Jesus to a religion about Jesus.

Subsequent generations of the church show this evolution even more clearly as confessions, doctrines and creeds solidify the testimony from its descriptive and pointing function to a more definitional and controlling one.

Jesus the good shepherd becomes Christ the mighty king. Jesus the personification of Isaiah’s suffering servant image becomes Christ the conqueror.

The Jesus who begins as a transforming disclosure of the nature and character of ultimate reality at its deepest and most comprehensive levels tends to become Christ the sacrificial agent of a transaction that “right-wises” a sinful separation into “being right with God.”

Throughout the many generations of its history, it seems that Christianity has seen itself through the filters of time and place, and its images of Jesus the Christ have reflected the influence of those filters.

The pull of cultural seduction, especially when it is fueled by the siren calls of power, success and privilege, creates a narrative that finds Jesus the Christ more as a “personal savior” to be accepted than as an exemplar of human wholeness to be followed.

Believing certain things about Jesus tends to become more important than following in the way of Jesus.

It sounds both simplistic and contradictory to suggest that at times in history, perhaps including our own, it is possible to accept and claim the Christ of Christianity without taking the Jesus of the Gospels seriously. The historical pattern is pretty clear.

If the image of Jesus as one who is the advocate of the marginalized, the challenger of the love of power, the includer of the excluded and the one who calls his followers to live as he did is uncomfortable, then there is usually a “Jesus-free” Christianity available in the religious marketplace at the bargain price of little change from comfortable patterns of thought.

Bonhoeffer, in his “The Cost of Discipleship,” would call that kind of Christianity “cheap grace.”

Colin Harris

Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.