Eddie and Sue Arthur

Your Own Personal Jesus

I know what Jesus looked like. There was a poster of him on our Sunday School wall and after years of staring at it, I know that Jesus was tall, wore perfectly clean robes, had long blond hair and piercing blue eyes. In other words, he was an idealised Englishman.

Of course it stands to reason that Jesus looked English. My childhood coincided with the last days of the British Empire; that institution which (so we were told) had spread civilisation and Christianity around the world. The British were God’s servants and Jesus looked like one of us.

The English aren’t the only ones who have appropriated Jesus to their own cultural norms. Take the case of Joe Walsh (who is a former congressman, not the guitarist with the Eagles as I first thought).

There is also the accepting Jesus of the 21st century; the one who finds no fault, takes people as they are and makes no demands on their ethical lives apart from falling in with whatever the fashionable cause du jour is. The Jesus of the Guardian comment pages.

The problem with all of this is the awkward truth that Jesus was a historical figure. He wasn’t British, he was Jewish. He taught people to turn the other cheek, not carry guns, and the authorities didn’t consider him law-abiding in the slightest. Not only that, but he did discriminate between sheep and goats, he made all sorts of ethical demands on people, including reinforcing traditional views of marriage and adultery. Jesus had his own agenda and he calls us to be his disciples; to lose our lives and follow him. He doesn’t offer us the option of co-opting him to fit the way in which we’d like the world to be.

The Christian faith stands (and falls) on the story of Jesus of Nazareth as recounted in the four Gospels. It is a religion founded in a historic event, described in four eye-witness accounts that have challenged and disturbed people through 2,000 years. To be a Christian is to follow the historic Jesus in repentance and faith and to allow his teaching to shape the way we interact with culture and society. Like Jesus, we must challenge the prevailing morality and like him we must do so in meekness and humility. But we must challenge.

We are, of course, free to co-opt Jesus to fit our own agenda and our own morality. People have been doing this for centuries. However, when we do this, when we take Jesus out of his historical context and make him fit our own, we have something other than historic Christianity. I’m not sure what it is, though.

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10 Comments on “Your Own Personal Jesus

  1. Jesus was a historic figure, yes, but he also rose from the dead and is alive today. So to be a Christian is not to only follow the historic Jesus but to follow the living Jesus, the living God. We have to follow, to the best of our ability and discernment, what we think that God is nudging us to do and to think about different issues. There are issues which the four eye-witness accounts do not deal with and are open to interpretation and historical context so we have to rely on our relationship with God to guide us, to supplement Jesus’ teachings in the Bible. This inevitably leads to different results as we all think that God is nudging us towards leaning in a particular way on a particular issue, which may significantly differ from what another Christian thinks that God is telling them. In this life, we can’t say who is right.

    • Yes, until the point where your own vision of Jesus takes him somewhere that the historical Jesus would never have gone. Our ultimate reference is Scripture, if not we can invent any Jesus we want and call him legitimate.

      • But in matters that aren’t covered by Scripture (or are open to interpretation and viewed in the context of the time it was written), we can’t say for sure where the historical Jesus would never have gone. Our first reference is Scripture but the rest we have to figure out for ourselves as we get to know the living God in relationship with him. This is not “inventing” any Jesus we want but genuinely seeking him, living alongside him, gradually getting to know him more. We may well make mistakes along the way about who we think Jesus is but that is all part of the growth process. Our understanding of God is constantly changing and growing (God does not change but our understanding of him does) over our whole life as we get to know more of who God is and what his heart is like. We will never discover him in all his fullness until heaven; it is hubris to say that we know exactly what Jesus would have done or thought. For now, we see through a glass, darkly.

        • I agree entirely with you. But this isn’t what lots of people do, and therein lies the problem.

          • I’ve been thinking about this some more.
            We all have different backgrounds, different experiences of life and we have different brains which cause us to think in a way that is unique to us. All these things give people different biases, perspectives and unique lenses through which we see the world and with which we read the Bible. Given that we’re all unique in these ways, won’t everyone have a slightly different version of Jesus, our own ‘inventions’ of him, if you will? Surely everyone is just trying their best to see God more clearly? It’s maybe unfair and ungracious to label some people as ‘inventing their own personal Jesus’ when their Jesus doesn’t 100% match our own version. People interpret the Bible differently; it would be arrogant to say one person’s interpretation is more correct than someone else’s interpretation. We’re all seeking God the best way we can.

          • We all experience Jesus differently, just as we all experience other people differently. However, Jesus is still the same person as was revealed in the Gospels. We cannot erase those bits of Jesus character that are revealed in Scripture to fit our own cultural predilections.

  2. The website won’t let me reply to your earlier comment but this is in response to your last comment in our conversation.

    What I was trying to get at is that there isn’t one version of ‘the Jesus revealed in the Gospels’ – every person reading it will have a different idea of who Jesus is. It’s not about erasing Jesus’ character as revealed in the Bible, it’s that one Christian will experience the same words in the Bible differently to another Christian and think that it means something different than another Christian thinks. There isn’t agreement within the Christian community but we are all seeking to find the truth equally.

    We cannot judge whether someone else’s reading of the Bible is being influenced by cultural predilections when our own predilections and biases could be influencing our judgment of those whom we are judging.

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