The American culture has a tendency to gravitate towards charismatic personalities. For all of the foundational principles of the separation of powers in the U.S. government, we have a bad habit of essentially handing over power to one party and then scratching our collective head when things go wrong. The same, unfortunately, is true in churches. The problem is the problem of monoculture.
It may be that all of us have “hot buttons” – things we sometimes hear other people say that irritate us or even enrage us. A hot button for professors of religion (or at least for me) is to hear someone juxtapose the word “Christian” and the word “Catholic.”
Jesus is how we say it in English, filtered through Greek and Latin. In Hebrew it's closer to Joshua. Same with the title Christ; it was Messiah. In any other language, whatever He is commonly called, none of it matters if He isn't living in the one who carries His name.
Up until a few short weeks ago, the name Terry Jones would have garnered blank stares from most quarters. Now, his back and forth plans to burn the Qur’an have elevated the obscure pastor into the most talked about clergyman of the season. Whether or not this burning or others like it actually proceed, those of us who claim to follow Christ must grapple with what people like Jones bring to the image of the Church and the Gospel.
We might wonder, if it mattered so much, why Paul did not more pointedly address the huge difference between the intellectual culture of the Bible against the rest of the world. His choice not to spend too much time teaching the cultural background of Christian faith in his letters was no doubt the best choice at the time. He wasn't writing to scholars. It's quite likely he did go into detail with some of his better students, like Timothy. Apollos clearly understood it, if we accept him as the author of Hebrews, for he rejects the Alexandrian content, but uses the Alexandrian style of presentation. Still, for us to ignore how thoroughly Christian teaching assumes a radically different orientation in thought would be thoughtless.
As a historian, I know what we call today “Western Civilization” was largely based on Christianity. I also know that it was a particular brand of Christianity. I leave for another day the debate whether that particular brand is now, or was then, the true Church. However, it is no criticism to note the Church of Rome which midwifed Western Civilization had not precisely the same outlook on the world as the New Testament Apostles. That is, the Apostles were Jewish men with a distinctly Semitic outlook, and Rome was decidedly Latin-Greek. Specifically, it was Aristotelian.
A truly gorgeous Easter has just passed, one that meant more to me than previous Easters have, for reasons I’ll not go into here. As is customary, Holy Week television included lots of programming on the subject, much of it speculative “scientific” debunking of various religious traditions, some inspired by the best-selling heretical drivel of the novelist Dan Brown. The tone of this stuff is so consistent that I was truly surprised by a History Channel program about the Shroud of Turin.
Late last year, I considered what was wrong with approaching Christianity from a Western, Aristotelean perspective (part 1, part 2). It is not as if we have to completely ditch the legacy of Aristotle. We simply have to put it in its proper place. In our minds, we must recognize there is a limit, a wall.
It's the basic concept of sin: saying anything contrary to God's revelation. As a collection of documents arising from the Ancient Near East (ANE), the Bible must be read from that ANE perspective, with an ANE epistemology. The only purpose for which He preserved the Scripture was to explain our burden of obligation to Him. Revelation's chief end is not information, but a call to commitment. If God says man is created in His image, then it places upon us the burden to respect each human. Indeed, Jesus said love your fellow humans as yourself, which is another way of commanding us to respect them. You are not greater than another. When Christians forget this truth, it encourages untold wrongs both within the church and out in the world.