We've received a number of emails and letters recently from people who are concerned that Christianity Today may have committed blasphemy. But the real question is whether Christians can ever avoid the charge of blasphemy: "the act of insulting or showing contempt or lack of reverence for God" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary; first definition).
In his The Heretical Imperative, sociologist Peter Berger noted that the word heresy is based on the Greek root meaning "to choose for one's self." To commit heresy is to choose one's belief, rather than submitting to the teaching of the tradition one is born into. Today few are born into an unquestioned tradition. In a pluralistic world, each of us must choose our beliefs. Even those who choose traditional, orthodox faith are still choosing, and thus are practicing "heresy." Today, argues Berger, we have no choice but to choose our beliefs, that is, to commit "heresy."
Given the nature of Christian claims about who God is and what he has done in Christ, I wonder whether we also have something like a "Blaspheming Imperative." Or more precisely: Can we ever escape scandalizing people from time to time?
First, let's note the concerns of readers regarding our September cover story on "hipster Christianity." On the cover, we showed Jesus in one of those classic "Behold, I Stand at the Door and Knock" paintings, and then put Wayfarer sunglasses on him. This image offended a few readers. Three examples:
The Christian school where I work subscribes to Christianity Today and I feel it is an important magazine to have displayed in our library. The cover of the September 2010 issue will undoubtedly offend many within this school community and for that reason it will not go on the shelf.
After receiving my Sept. issue of CT, I immediately tore the cover off! Think how inconceivable it would be for a Muslim publication to depict Mohammed in that way. Please … Jesus is the Lord of Glory!!
What happened to honoring and respecting our Lord?
Would Jesus wear sunglasses if we were walking the earth today? If he did, would this denigrate his majesty? Some people apparently think so.
The other article that has concerned readers is my column "Divine Drama Queen." In that piece, I compared God to an angry Italian housewife throwing dishes, and to an overly dramatic man who throws himself in front of cars. Three more examples of reader concerns:
How can you be associated with such blasphemy?
You ought to be ashamed of yourself printing such blasphemous, God-demeaning junk.
You need to take time to spend on your knees before the Almighty, Omnipotent, Omnipresent Creator of the Universe.
Why does it bother us to imagine Jesus throwing a few dishes in the kitchen when he overturned tables in the temple? Still, many people have a fixed image of God as high and lifted up, holy and magisterial, and they naturally don't want their image tarnished.
But is it possible to tarnish the image of God any more than he has already tarnished it? To put it another way, if we're anxious to protect the reputation of the holy, infinite, immutable, and all powerful YHWH, we probably should stop talking about the Incarnation.
The Incarnation means that the transcendent God took on mutable flesh; pure Spirit assumed a decaying body; holy divinity trafficked with sinful humanity.
Let's get specific, lest we forget what was really entailed in this ugly business. God was initially wrapped not in swaddling clothes but in birth matter. He had blood coursing through his veins, fecal matter through his intestines, and urine through his urinary tract. God chewed and swallowed food, and sometimes vomited from drinking bad water or eating contaminated food. God sweated; he had body odor. He had dirt caked around his toes and ankles, splinters under his skin, and scabs from cutting himself in the carpentry shop. His hair was probably greasy and matted. He had pimples in his youth. He had wax in his ears. He had sexual thoughts, albeit without lusting. He had a penis and hair in his armpits. His frail human body gave out on him every night. At that point in the day, he had to put acts of love on hold; he was just too tired to keep going.
Ah, yes: He also died. His heart stopped beating. His brain waves ceased to function. His body started to decompose—and smell.
So shocking is this reality that we're quick to clothe it with respectability. We wrap the baby Jesus in a clean blanket and stick him in a bed of fresh straw. Or we paint him as a well-manicured, metrosexual Middle Easterner knocking on a charming 19th-century cottage door.
Early on, though, many people saw the Incarnation (and all it entailed, especially the crucifixion) as foolishness. Or a scandal. Or blasphemy. Some early Christians, called "docetists," couldn't swallow it, and posited a Jesus who only seemed human. Gnostics like Valentinus taught that "Christ" came upon "Jesus" only at his baptism, and then departed from "Jesus" before the crucifixion—can't have "Christ" trafficking in birth matter and blood.
The nervousness about Jesus' humanity is not new, then, but it's hard to understand why we have become more scandalized by Jesus wearing sunglasses or throwing dishes than by God living in and as a human body. And yet: Hasn't the transcendent and holy God "demeaned" himself in taking on human flesh and consorting with sinners? In our wildest imagination, what greater insult to pure divinity could we fabricate?
The careful reader will discern that I have little patience with those who fling the word blasphemy at movies or books or magazines that portray Jesus in a way they don't like. But to be fair, their indignation gives me pause. At least they intuitively sense what might be called the scandalous disjuncture.
Why am I not more indignant about the thing that is metaphysically irreverent: the Incarnation? Do I really grasp what happened in Christ if I don't, at least from time to time, squirm uncomfortably when I think about it? If the Incarnation doesn't in some way offend my sensibilities, it may mean I no longer believe that God is utterly infinite, holy, and transcendent, or I don't really believe he took on human flesh, because I believe the material world is essentially evil.
This absurd contrast and miraculous conjoining—of divine infinity and human finitude, of God's holiness and our sinfulness—is the ultimate religious scandal. I'd write a letter to Jesus complaining about the confusion he's caused. But I don't think it would do any good. Jesus simply did not count equality with glory, immutability, and transcendence as things to be grasped.
Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today. He is the author of Jesus Mean and Wild: The Unexpected Love of an Untamable God (Baker).
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Previous SoulWork columns include:
Did the Spirit Really Say …? | God's will is harder and easier to discern than we imagine. (Sept. 2, 2010)
How to Become a Successful Religion | A marketing consultant advises early church leaders. (August 19, 2010)
God Talk Is Dangerous | Apparently the Almighty has given us permission to talk about that which we know relatively little about. (July 29, 2010)