Martin Marty takes to task his generation for reinventing Jesus in its own image, this latest sensational time with a possibly ancient piece of papyrus.
If he is right, then what does this say about our liturgical art? Do our hymns, for example, sometimes address political concerns rather than true praise? What does Marty’s thesis say about the recent decades’ love for the grotesque in painting? And about churches-in-the-round?
And doesn’t every high school theater production of Godspell run the danger of encouraging this way of thinking about our own, personal, Jesus? Will future generations, particularly if they become an overwhelming political force, co-opt the governance of some ecclesial bodies in their turn, by exactly the same means, a complete makeover of traditional Christology?
We can put this kind of media event into perspective by noting that each such unearthing of non-canonical ancient Christian texts receives publicity in direct proportion to attention being given to particular controversial issues in the contemporary world. In the long perspective of Christian history of twenty centuries, my generation and I are virtual kids, with only a half-century of observation behind us. But we can see ancient textual interests and contemporary itches matching almost decade by decade.
Thus: when in the 1950s-plus “we” were seeking precedent for social justice on Christian fronts (count me in!), Jesus got pictured as an East Harlem Protestant social worker. Then came a time when best-sellers and their publicists proved that Jesus worked wonders because he and his followers were chewing mushrooms which gave them hallucinatory and thus divine-revelatory visions. Just in time to match the world of hippies and consciousness raisers. They came and went. Remember the Passover Plot? It had its moment in a time when such plotting mattered. Recall the books on “Jesus the Zealot,” based on discoveries from times of old to match the most radical Liberation Theology of our time? This dagger-carrying Jesus came and went.