Layers of Meaning and Understanding

I am reading a very interesting book by Obery Hendricks entitled The Politics of Jesus. I’m not going to go into great detail about the book here. When I finish it I will probably write a review of it on, so for now I will just recommend it to you. One of the things the book does is suggest, backed by some very powerful evidence, that we have misunderstood many of the teachings of Jesus because we haven’t looked at them in the context of Israel having been an occupied nation at the time Jesus lived, and a heavily oppressed occupied nation at that.

I would hasten to say that when the early Church started to draw conclusions about Jesus’ teachings that occupation was still underway. Even when Christianity became the religion of the Empire it continued to exist at the pleasure of the Emperor, which meant that challenging the occupiers wouldn’t do much to enhance one’s life expectancy. By the time the Roman Empire collapsed, it was just more or less assumed that the meanings assigned to the teachings of Jesus were the right meanings. There wasn’t an Internet available for the theologians of the time to go back and research the context in which those parables were told, after all. In fact, it doesn’t take a whole lot of research to learn that many parallel – and some not very parallel – versions of Christianity have developed over the past two thousand years. Branches of Christianity from mainline Protestantism to Roman Catholicism to Pentecostalism to Evangelicalism to Fundamentalism to literally hundreds of others all identify as Christian – and a good number of them believe they are the only true Christians.

What are we to do when a scholar like Overy Hendricks comes along and tells us that we may have misunderstood much of Jesus’ message for the last two thousand years? If we determine that he is correct, is it realistic to believe that we can throw out everything we have believed and start all over? Even if we could, the odds of getting universal agreement that he is correct in his assessment are very long, indeed. I believe that those of us who find Overy Hendricks’ arguments to be compelling will incorporate them into our beliefs not as a replacement but rather as a modification of those beliefs. Moreover, I believe that’s the way such information is meant to be used.

The possibility that we might have substantially misunderstood Jesus’ teachings doesn’t discount the profoundly deep spiritualities that have arisen despite our less than complete picture of Jesus’ intent. Are we to discount the great mystical tradition of the Church, or throw away generations of devotional spirituality every time we find that we haven’t understood Jesus as completely as we had hoped? Of course not. To paraphrase one of Jesus’ parables, a plant that is constantly uprooted never grows.

Moreover, I would like to dispute that belief that spirituality is a solely fact-based commodity. Much as we might try (or not!), we aren’t dispassionate observers of our spiritual journeys. Spirituality meets us at the transitions and transformations of life, some of which are happy events and others which are sad, but hardly any are neutral. An emotionless, completely rational spirituality wouldn’t serve us at those times we need it most – times of crisis and transformation.

Books like The Politics of Jesus are important and deserve our attention, but they don’t invalidate where we have been on our journeys. Hopefully, we will have enough courage to allow them to affect the course of our future journey!

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