Friday, February 25, 2011

Jesus and Jeet Kune Do: the art of authors and ass kicking

Adapted from my notes for the opening of a week speaking to teens at a summer camp.

 I recently read a tweet from @almightygod that read, "To most Christians, the Bible is like a software license. Nobody actually reads it. They just scroll to the bottom and click "I agree."" Worse yet, I'd argue that when Christians do read the Bible, they read it like a software manual: they go to the index for whatever they're currently troubleshooting, read what they need to fix the problem, and then put the book away. There is, incidentally, an entire line of software manuals called "Bibles" - the Photoshop Bible, Dreamweaver Bible, etc. What this says to me is that we either can't be bothered to read the Bible, or we treat it like a technical manual. 

I teach English, so I read the Bible like I read everything else - as a literary professor. That means when the Bible is telling me a story, I read it like it's a story. When it's poetry, I treat it like a poem. When the Bible uses symbolism, I don't treat it literally. When it's relating action, I read it as description of events, not necessarily  prescription of moral/ethical behaviour. 

What seems even more batshit to me is that we treat the life of Christ with as much respect. According to the Bible (which we do not read), Jesus is "the author and perfecter of our faith." This means that Jesus is like Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee was a famous Chinese martial artist and actor in the 1970s who came up with a style of fighting called Jeet Kune Do. Not only did Bruce Lee write the book on Jeet Kune Do, but he was also the master of it. In other words, Bruce Lee didn't just write about kicking ass - he kicked ass too. Bruce Lee is a legend in kicking ass. And  Bruce Lee trained a guy named Dan Inosanto in the art of ass-kicking, who in turn passed his knowledge of ass kicking along to Jeff Imada. Jeff Imada is the guy who trained Denzel Washington to kick ass while carrying the Bible in The Book of Eli, which brings us back to the point of this whole discussion. If you want to kick ass like Bruce Lee, you will read his book, and then train in the ways of ass-kicking. If you want to do anything well, you go to an "author and perfecter," and if you can't have the man himself, you'll settle for his book.

Now Jesus didn't write any books -- other people wrote books about his life, so to observe how he is the "author and perfecter of our faith," we need to look at those books, and hope they got things right. There's a verse in  the Jewish scriptures, that reads "He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Mica Christians believe that one of the clearest ways God has revealed how to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, is through the life of Jesus. And so this week, I want to talk about the life of Christ.

We won't have time to study it in detail, but we're going to look at some key moments. I hope they'll be like episodes of a television series you watch and then want to see the whole series. We're going to look at particular moments from four different books about Jesus in the Bible, which are often called Gospels - that means "Good News." Those books are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Some of these moments appear in all of the gospels, and so when there's overlap, we'll look at that, but a number of these moments appear in only a few, or maybe even only one of the gospels. I'm not interested in proving that any of this stuff ever happened. I don't think you need to believe that every moment in Jesus' life definitely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, happened, in order to understand him as the "author and perfecter of our faith." I also don't have any beef with people who think it all happened exactly the way it's written. My goal is to speak to both of those types of people, and I want you both to be able to walk away with something valuable. So I'm not going to be proving anything this week, although I might make reference to people who try to prove or disprove moments in these stories of Jesus.

I also don't want you to get the impression that because I say "stories of Jesus" I don't think they're true. Truth is a slippery concept, and often has little to do with proof in the way that I can prove that gravity is a law of nature. It's true that if I say "If I jump off the top of the stairs, I will fall." It's also true that I "fell for my wife" back in 1994. I would have an easier time testing the truth of falling down the stairs than I would falling in love. Love is harder to prove, but I'd be ready to get all Bruce Lee on your ass if you said I was a liar when I say "I love my wife." I use the term "Stories of Jesus," not to imply they're untrue, but because that is what they are. They are not a software manual. They are not even very good historical documents, at least by the standards we measure those things today. They are not how-to guides, or self-help manuals. They are stories about Jesus, meant to help us understand who Jesus is.

Furthermore, these stories are propaganda. Propaganda has a bad rap, because it's usually used to say something bad about another group, as in war propaganda from WWII, but it's really just "
a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position" (wikipedia). We need to know that in advance, to understand that the writers of the Gospels had an agenda. They wrote these stories of Jesus for a reason. John's gospel is pretty clear on the reason: "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31 NIV). Matthew doesn't come right out and say it, but many scholars believe Matthew was writing to convince Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.

Those caveats aside, I want to talk about Jesus because I think it doesn't get done often enough. Christians say Jesus' name an awful lot, but they don't always seem to know anything about who he was or what he did, other than dying on a cross and rising from the dead, which is bizarre, because although the gospels do spend a good deal of time on those two events, they also devote a lot of space to what we refer to as his "public ministry." The gospels tell us little about Jesus' childhood, and nothing about his adolescence or early adulthood: we mostly read about the period of time when he traveled around, teaching his ideas and performing miraculous acts. And we get a good deal about his birth, in both Matthew and Luke.

I want to talk about Jesus because I believe He's the author and perfecter of the best way to live. That's what I think of Christianity as: the best way to live. I don't have all the answers, but from what I've seen, I like the answers Christianity gives. I've grown tired of reading what someone else thinks Christianity is. I want to get it from as close to the source as I can. So I'm going to the life of the author and perfecter of Christianity. If you want to kick ass like Bruce Lee, you will read his book, and then train in the ways of ass-kicking. If you want to live like Jesus, you will read his book, and then train in the ways of being like Jesus.

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