Friday, March 18, 2011

A Critical Reading of "the Passion of the Christ"

The Passion of the Christ (movie) reflects Mel Gibson’s Jesus -- his passion for a "Western" Jesus, who comes to die and is punished instead of "me." The movie begins with a quote from Isaiah's Suffering Servant Song: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa 53:5). [In fact, within the literary context of Isaiah, the figure of the suffering servant does not refer to an individual but to Israel.] Taking the theme of the suffering servant and applying to Jesus, Gibson colors his "Jesus" with "substitutionary death" (the so-called penal substitution theory) with much violence in the movie. The movie is full of unnecessary, exaggerated torture with little information about the cause of Jesus' death in a historical sense. For me, the movie turns very disappointing because of the needless violence without raising the historical question of why Jesus was killed. Why is there so much violence to Jesus? Bluntly, the question is: Who brought Jesus to death? I just felt throughout the movie that there should not be another Jesus, who receives enormous torturing and injustice caused by the evil doers. Let us get straight on the cause of Jesus' death. In fact, if Jesus' preaching of the kingdom of God (basileia theou) had been successful or his mission had been accepted by the people in his time, he would not have been killed. All the gospel stories present the cause of Jesus' death as the culmination of what he said, did, and acted. In other words, his message and deeds were dangerous for some people. That is why he was opposed and executed by those who resent his message. Jesus' passion for God's love and justice got him killed.

In our world today too, there are many sufferings, unjust or needless. I believe that God does not want our torturing. Jesus is a type of the most vicious and unjust suffering and death. This way of reading of Jesus' death is certainly plausible and one important avenue to look at the history and meaning of the event. In fact, the cause of Jesus' death could be constructed in many different ways, as the Four Gospels themselves in the New Testament testify. In Luke, Jesus' work as a prophet provokes enemies' anger. Jesus dies as a martyr, not as salvific atonement or substitutionary death at all; his radical message of justice and egalitarianism led to the cross. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus' death, somewhat difficult for Jesus himself too, is pictured as good sacrifice for "others." Here caution is that sacrifice of Jesus does not automatically mean penal substitutionary death of Jesus. On one hand, meaning of Jesus' death can be constructed in the context of different communities behind the gospels. On the other hand, apart from the later communities' meaning of Jesus' death, cause of Jesus' death can be constructed in a more historical sense, which means analyzing all aspects of life in the world ranging from politics to economy to religion. If we continue to discuss about the cause and meaning of Jesus' death, we will be faced with the question of "we should do" today. 

As for me, the biggest problem of the Gibson's movie seems to condone the social, political evil of violence and injustice, and be blind to the massive power of evil evident in such atrocious, unspeakable torturing and murdering under the cover of a divine plan.  

The cost of this movie is too high in the sense that people do not reflect on such a power of evil -- in the form of violence, in the form of politics, in the form of daily lives of ordinary people. The movie's impression was that "the more violence on Jesus, the holier Jesus is, and the more thankful Christians feel because "our sins are paid back." But again, in other contexts that I put here, the message of the movie turns different in one hundred eighty degrees turn, “There should not be another Jesus of unjust suffering and death in this world.” Such atrocious, senseless violence and suffering must disappear in our world.

Other comments: We should acknowledge that this movie is not a historical movie in the sense of what really happened but a theological story, directed and interpreted by Gibson who follows a specific understanding or the meaning of Jesus' death. If someone too quickly responds to this movie as if this were a history per se, he or she evidently does not distinguish between history and theology.

Lastly, even this theological story, with a vicious or violent role of the Jews and the Romans, should not be related to all Jews in history. Of course, there were not all Jews involved in accusations against Jesus. There were good and faithful people like Mary, Jesus’ mother, Mary Magdalene, disciples, and many nameless women who followed Jesus. Also, we cannot simply equate Jewish ancestors with Jewish people today and in history. So if any person does not distinguish between individuals and community, and between the past and the present, that person brings in impending dangers of inviting another Hitler to emerge on the scene. I reject such a naïve thinking or attitude of the historicization of the gospel story. As a whole, this movie must be viewed critically and/or with multiple dimensions of the texts involving Jesus’ life and death.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

JSNT book review of Christ's Body in Corinth

"This book questions the usual understanding of ‘the body of Christ’ in Paul’s writings. Most scholars see it as an idea describing and emphasizing the unity of the church; Kim argues that it has more to do with diversity and with ‘collective participation in Christ crucified’. The traditional understanding, he says, is not satisfying in today’s diverse world; it operates with exclusive boundaries, and is often used in oppressive and colonial ways. On the other hand, ‘the image of Christ crucified deconstructs the conception of the community based on powers of wealth, status, and identity, and reconstructs the community based on sacrificial love and solidarity with those who are broken in society. This power of the cross … makes possible a new formation of the community of all in diversity’ (p.21)."
-- an excerpt from a book review of Christ's Body in Corinth (David Wenham, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32.5 (2010): 94-97.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Review of "Jesus: A New Vision"

In his book, Jesus: A New Vision, Borg advocates a new image of Jesus: a person filled with the Spirit who sought to transform the social world of first-century Palestine by the politics of compassion (an alternative consciousness) against culture's conventional wisdom and the politics of holiness. 

Borg's scholarly study and reflection on historical Jesus began with rejecting the two dominant images of Jesus. The first, popular image of Jesus is a divine being who came to the world to die for the redemption of sinners and then ascended to the heaven. The second image is the eschatological prophet, who mistakenly predicted the end of the world in his own time. Borg rejects the first image because it portrays Jesus through the faith lens of post-Easter Christians. Such portrayal is distant from historical Jesus' life and death. He also refuses to take the second image of skepticism about historical Jesus because it depicts Jesus as eschatological prophet only - who failed to bring about the end of the world. Against these two images, Borg emphasizes the importance of historical Jesus viewed from a new angle of knowing what Jesus was: a Spirit-filled person in the charismatic stream of Judaism. 

To support his thesis that Jesus was a Spirit-filled person who sought to change the religious social world of first-century Palestine, Borg works on the two organizing principles: Spirit and culture. Borg claims that the world of the Spirit is real and Jesus had deep, intimate relationships with the Spirit. The author does not stop here but relate this reality of the Spirit with culture. That is to say, a Spirit-filled person could not remove himself from culture in which he lived. 

In discussing the world of the Spirit, the author states that the reality of the Spirit has been present not only in the biblical tradition and but also in the social, scientific studies of paranormal experiences (universal primordial tradition). In the biblical tradition, Israel's story itself was the story of the interaction between the world of the Spirit and the world of ordinary experiences. The Spirit of the world became part of their lives. Moses and the prophets were also Spirit-filled mediators. In social, scientific studies of paranormal experiences, cross-culturally, the world of Spirit has been also accessed by the charismatic who entered it and experienced the world of the Spirit.

Borg says that the biblical tradition of Spirit-filled mediators is very significant for understanding the historical Jesus, because in this way what Jesus was helps us to see Jesus, differently from the other two images mentioned above. The reality of the another world (invisible world of the Spirit) was not unusual to those people of the ancient world, unlike the modern people who disregard the reality of invisible world simply because it seems to be unscientific, superstitious, or psychotic. The author asks what reality is. His answer seems to be that reality reflects both the material and the spiritual world. 

Borg also argues that Jesus stood in the ecstatic, mystical tradition of biblical and Jewish religion. He lists the examples of this traits demonstrated by his internal life: his prayer life, the visions he experienced, his sense of intimacy with God. All his life was full of ecstatic, mystical experiences with the Spirit. He was a person of the Spirit. 

A corollary was that Jesus as a Spirit-filled person evidenced his life of the Spirit by the mighty deeds of exorcisms and healings. Exorcism and healings are good examples which demonstrates his charismatic power that flowed out of his deep encounter with the Spirit. 

In discussing Jesus' relation to the culture, Borg shows contrast between the politics of holiness and the politics of compassion. The social world of first-century Palestine was under the pressure of Roman occupation and was operated by the politics of holiness, which separated the pure from the impure, and insiders from outsiders. But Jesus challenged with the politics of compassion, this prevailing holiness-ridden culture and the conventional wisdom of that social world, which centers around "family, wealth, honor, and virtue, all shaped by a religious framework" (81). This self-oriented culture was a focus of transformation. Jesus was filled with God?s compassion to change his social world into a transforming community of compassion filled with love, acceptance, and inclusiveness. 

Borg, then, using four social, religious types, portrays Jesus, as sage, revitalization movement founder, prophet, and challenge. First of all, Jesus, as sage, was both radical and subversive. Jesus critiqued the conventional wisdom of the Jewish social world by asking his people to turn to God rather than to their religion of holiness politics. Spirit-filled Jesus called his people to center themselves on God, and to change their hearts and minds so that they see things in a new way: the narrow way, the way of "dying to the self" in place of the broad way that seeks wealth, power, honor, and this-worldly securities. 

Second, as revitalization movement founder, Jesus focused on renewal of Israel rather than creating a new religion, in the midst of crisis in the Jewish social world: "the growing internal division within Jewish society, and the deepening of the conflict with Rome" (142). Jesus? renewal movement is summarized by his "alternative community with an alternative consciousness" rooted in the Spirit (142). His alternative consciousness is to reverse the dominant consciousness of conventional wisdom through his vision of transforming Israel. Jesus calls his people to change their consciousness of holiness politics. Borg states that revitalization movement stayed in the frame of Judaism. He put this rightly: "Jesus remained deeply Jewish, even as he radicalized Judaism" (141). 

Third, as prophet, Jesus similarly assumes the job of traditional prophets who indict, threaten, and call to change. Borg points out that "the purpose of the prophets was not to reveal the future, but to change it" (154). The author also points out that Jesus was not really speaking about the final judgment or about the kingdom of God that would come very soon. But Jesus' concern was just to change the present lives of his people by speaking out prophetic utterances to bring about real change of heart to God-centered. 

Finally, Borg picture Jesus as challenge; Jesus risked his life and went to Jerusalem to issue the call to change, and "to make a final appeal" to his people at the center of their national and religious life (172). Borg states that the death of Jesus would be the result of his sojourn in Jerusalem, not the purpose of his journey. Jesus was killed because he sought to transform his own culture, in the power of the Spirit. 

This book sheds fresh light on the understanding of historical Jesus. A new image of Jesus as a Spirit-filled person is very relevant to the contemporary church and moderns as well. The first significance or relevance is that the reality of another dimension (the world of the Spirit) is real beyond the visible world. Moderns are so caught up with the first dimension of material world that they cannot consider things to be real if they do not see them. They are so boastful of the power of human reason. In fact, modern technology and science force us not to believe in the power of the Spirit because human reason is so elevated. But the realization of another dimension of the world gives rise to a new understanding of humanity, who was supposed to have genuine encounters with the Spirit. In the mainstream church where I belong, this reality of unseen but powerful world of the Spirit is not fully recognized. I think we need to grasp the importance of personal encounter with the Spirit one way or another in our church. In this way, we can strike a balance between the bodily and spiritual life. 

Another relevance to today's church is that the real spirituality is not distant from compassion with which society can be changed against the culture. In other words, the Spirit-filled person should work for the sake of a community to transform the dominant way of culture in which Christians are called into to live out Jesus' life (Sprit-filled life with compassion). Unfortunately, however, many Christians think of spirituality as subjective reality of experiences that has nothing to do with compassion to change the social world of our time and culture. 

Still another relevance to our churches is about distinction between knowing about God and knowing God. Knowing God through experiences can be a living reality. Christian life can be enriched by actual living relationship with God (the Spirit). Knowing about God is not sufficient to living out the life of Spirit-filled compassion. A compassionate work can be done in a personal, intimate relationship with the Spirit. 

One weakness of this book is its lack of eschatological image of Jesus. Jesus did not confine his work of the Spirit to the present world of first-century Palestine only. When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, it is not just in the present but also in the future. The meaning of eschatology is profound and does not necessarily mean the end of the physical world only.

Another weakness is related with the culture, including socioeconomic world of Palestine. Borg focused on only Spirit-filled Jesus in explaining what Jesus was. But he could have dealt with the elements of culture or Judaism as to how they shaped Jesus' identity. Borg sets culture against Spirit-filled Jesus' work. But culture is not always antithetical to the Christ (Christian vocation). 

Third weakness is in his general approach to Jesus that Jesus' humanity is not much addressed because of too much focus on the world of the Spirit. If Borg had had balance between the Spirit and the humanity of Jesus (in a sense, Jesus was a human who had physical body with limitation), the picture of Jesus would have been more appealing to us.