Why Doesn’t Jesus Sell in the 21st Century?

© 2021 Jim Spence -  In an era where one side is dominating the political power struggle in America, writing political opinions has become tiresome. It is instructive that the term “controversial” is used by the media today to describe anyone who disagrees with popular culture.

Forays into writing about the spiritual realm can be a daunting task. As an observer of the trends in human history, perhaps it is not such a great idea to begin penning columns on the tedious yet all important topic of faith, particularly given my penchant for being flippant. Naturally, I proceed.

The first question that must be asked is simple. What exactly did take place 2,000 years ago? At the risk of offending readers, let me toss my two cents into the collection plate.

It is important to keep in mind that human beings seem to almost always disappoint one another. History suggests mankind has an unmistakable pattern of blowing it, which is really good, because most of us detest feeling all alone.

In the aftermath of the resurrection of Christ, and for the following 1990 years, countless human beings have been contemplating the gospels. My personal experiences with churches are quite minimal. However, I have read the gospels a few times. It does seem that wherever people gather and are encouraged by others to pool their resources, political jockeying eventually becomes a large part of the picture. This was probably true of the hunter gatherers who lived in caves. And it is also true of the leadership at large capitalization technology companies today. Come to think of it, some of these CEO’s dwell in caves too.

When the term, the “Jesus brand,” is used here, it is meant to be a metaphor to describe the net effect on humanity of efforts by various human beings to spread the good news, particularly to those who are not easily convinced. With this in mind, a few comments on the actions of self-described Christians seems in order. It is quite odd that the gospels are remarkably consistent in the way they portray the disciples as being a bunch of cowards at the moment of truth. To put it succinctly, the gospels report to us that the disciples, including the first pope, Peter, denied he even knew Jesus when confronted by others. This occurred after Jesus was taken into custody and Peter scattered like a frightened quail when it became increasingly likely in his mind, that he would be also be arrested if he was associated with his beloved teacher. The other disciples also fled the scene when the Romans swooped in and grabbed Jesus. What is striking is that these are hardly flattering depictions of the disciples. These are self-portrayals included in the gospels by the disciples themselves. Confessing their actions suggests a very poorly thought out public relations strategy. Salespeople who are charged with hawking their wares and ideas (even something as wonderful as the good news), rarely disparage themselves as a preface to explaining their story about what a great product or idea they have. Clearly, the idea of confessing their lack of courage and faith on the week of the first Easter, was a large part of the disciples testimonies in the gospels. Not so noble actions by the actual authors in the New Testament, are laid bare naked for all to absorb. Again this is inconsistent with suggesting they formed a conspiracy to deceive others.

Ultimately the turning point in this story seems to be the resurrection. The disciples, including Thomas, seem to have behaved as if they realized that everything they had been told by their teacher, was actually true when Jesus repeated it all to them after the crucifixion. It was after this key event, that the disciples willingly subjected themselves to persecution, which again, is hardly something people defending a lie or loose conspiracy would ever do, especially considering there was no visible upside in propping up a lie about something as intangible as the after-life.

The second curious characteristic of the disciple's claims, given the institutionalized chauvinism of the era, is the disciples’ choice of witnesses. It is unfathomable that anyone crass enough to actually promote a preposterous scheme, would risk life and limb, while relying on the testimony of the female followers of Jesus as their onsite witnesses that He had risen. Females were simply not considered credible witnesses 2,000 years ago. In the end, from the post resurrection events forward, the disciples chose abuse, torture, and even death, over recanting their testimonies. Could it be they were possibly telling the truth? Hold that thought.

Let’s make some tough general statements about the actions of humans leading the church, particularly as the process of spreading the good news unfolded over 1990 years. In the early days, when the disciples were being harassed and persecuted, they tended to work well together. However, even in the earliest days of the church, there were a few theological squabbles between Paul, Peter, and James. However, hardball power politics did not really begin to become the norm in the church until 300 hundred years after the crucifixion, when Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion. Competing church factions formed not long after the power and influence of the church with the state became obvious. Since that bell weather event, the battles for the increasingly abundant political power associated with high profile keepers of the faith, have been almost endless.

The first major split in the Christian church involved the break between the church leaders in Constantinople and those in Rome. It happened a thousand years after the crucifixion, when the Eastern Orthodox Church leaders walked away from the Roman Catholic leadership hierarchy over disputes best characterized as pure politics. The divide is called the “schism” by scholars. Almost five hundred years after the schism, Martin Luther blew the Christian power structure even more wide open.

This quick survey of 2,000 years of Christian church history, especially the more noteworthy actions by those who were supposedly managing the “Jesus brand,” suggest human nature regarding politics is powerful. An even broader survey of the history of human behavior within the church is sometimes even uglier. In fact, the trail of atrocities done in the name of Jesus Christ, is simply mind-bogglingly sad. And when this factual information regarding Christian misbehaviors gets into the hands of the several generations of academics for scholarly “interpretation,” it is easy to see how the fundamental message Jesus offered the world simply gets lost. The good news has been overwhelmed by agnostic interpreters using a lengthy laundry list of bad actors and their actions as justification for profound skepticism.

Still, in 2021, we have the amazing teachings by Jesus that are recognized around the world as forces for good. Millions of people who are NOT Christians, almost universally concede that He was a great force for good. He was in their words, a wonderful teacher. To the non-believer, these statements are consistent with high praise. Yet, these lofty statements are inconsistent with His own words.

The problem with any frank discussion about Jesus, is that He actually did not leave any room for simply being cast as an extraordinarily “good guy.” Instead, Jesus made numerous extraordinary claims about who He was. So bold and shocking were His claims regarding Himself, that He left no room for middle ground. In effect, He was either who He said He was, or alternatively, some sort of a ranting lunatic with a messiah complex. This stark truth is worth pondering, since it is an “either/or” proposition.

Finally, Jesus said repeatedly as is reported in the gospels, that His kingdom was not of this world. His visit with John the Baptist in a Roman dungeon is characterized as an effort to, “…free John within his cell.” We should pause and devote sufficient energy to reconcile this statement. Only after we come to terms with its implications, can we realize that a “choice” is required. We are all in cells.

That Jesus does not really “sell” well in most circles in the 21st Century is obvious. In America and Europe, it is fashionable to actually ridicule followers of Christ. In other jurisdictions, it is fashionable to kill Christians or jail them. In Western popular culture, those who follow Jesus tend to refuse to be indoctrinated by emerging power structures of the vast and growing state. In other regions, Jesus is also considered a threat to the existing power structures of the state. Again, like John the Baptist, we are all in cells.

Paradoxically, pop culture, particularly in the wealthy west, seems captivated by the idea of how fair it is for everyone to continuously receive "free stuff," without any consideration of the real sacrifices required by others that are actually necessary to produce free stuff. And yet, with human nature finding it so easy to judge the motives of others, Christ provided us with the easiest model to follow, regarding the process of judging and free stuff. Ironically, though “grace” is offered for free, it does not fit the trends associated with modern narratives. This presents the great paradox of our time. The Jesus brand does not sell well, despite the benefits being “free.” And the concept of short term sacrifice for long term gain is so yesterday.