I grew up in a family business that just so happened to be a movie theater. I remember when Coming to America came to the Little Art, I saw it at least five times. Like millions around the world, the characters with their attenuating voices became a staple of verbal repartee within my friend groups. In our late teens, when drug exploration was a nearly daily activity, about a dozen of us became obsessed with Eddie Murphy Delirious. "Dammit, Guff!" was a regular exclamation. "A-goony-goo-goo," "She wasn't no Puerto Rican!" and "Oh! My shoe!!" were choked out amidst wails of laughter for an entire summer, and over two decades later, the lines bring a quick smile, like a time machine built of shorthand.
My personal favorite line, without exception, from any Eddie Murphy film (of which there are so, so many classics) is, "What is that, velvet?!" And, God help us, it is this scene I am going to use to address our next pressing questions: How does Jesus Christ relate to human salvation and the end times?
Saul, the aptly-named elderly Jewish man and one of the many characters portrayed by Eddie, is using his own frame of reference to determine what King Joffrey's wrap is made of; yes, the ultimate goal is a laugh, and the line delivers on that, but let us set that aside and go deeper. We imagine that Saul might have gone through the Shoah; most certainly members of his family did, but let us flirt with the idea that he is a survivor. We could imagine that within the depths of the death camp experience, one fantasizes about what one would eat or drink, about the bathtub in which one would bathe, or the most luxuriant fabric into which one would ensconce themselves, given their druthers. Here, in this scene, Saul touches something so beautiful, he guesses what in his mind is the ultimate: Velvet.
Often Christology can be like touching lion hide and calling it velvet. We imagine the ultimate in terms of human salvation, and we declare it beautiful. How might Saul of the camps have reacted if someone told him that he'd think lion's hide was more luxurious were he to touch and see it? Would he have taken their word, or would he have held onto his own convictions, based on his knowledge and needs at the moment? I imagine the latter. For Paul and the author(s) of the Gospel of Mark, the best they could fathom was salvation through faith, with Christ returning within a generation.
Here's the rub, though.* Jesus did not come back within a generation. And every other like claim has been proved wrong with the simple rotation of the earth on its axis. This obsessing with Jesus returning sadly goes hand-in-hand with charlatanism and lazy bigotry. The former for obvious reasons, the latter for ones less so. I have noticed that the people who often want Jesus to come back, like "Pastor" Becky in Jesus Camp, feel so disgusted by those whom they cannot terrorize into conversion that they call upon God to end creation, rather than shutting up for five minutes and hearing another perspective without immediately rejecting it because Jee-bus. This Jesus is cool with people being a jerk, something to which I take great umbrage.
I don't want these Christology entries to turn into bashing sessions (not to be confused with bashing Session, which Herr Drumpf seems to be taking care of) quite nicely; that is part of what has people running away from the Church. But in my fifteen years of studying, teaching, and more recently pastoring, I've found that hearing someone "in authority" (and as an ordained member of clergy I am that, whether I want it or not) talk honestly about the ways in which theology and religion have done harm allows them to take risks. Encouraging them to reject the abuse of others can help them to throw out manky bath water of religion while keeping the God-baby in their arms.
I think our having an understanding of Jesus that privileges the idea that God is soon going to swoop in and destroy all those whom the "Church" deems sinful is deeply problematic. I understand that there are lots of texts on this subject, but why do we somehow have to pretend that they aren't wrong, or at the very least can we admit that regarding the specific phrase "within a generation" as metaphorical, but demanding that everything vague that surrounds it is literal, is just fucking stupid? Can we please stop saying that for God, "one generation could be 10,000 years," or other such claptrap, in regards to this passages? Paul was wrong. Mark was wrong, and seeing that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source, this specious assertion of imminent Parousia has been pummeled by the passing of time. Why are we so eager to set up ourselves in the next world by being insufferable dicks in this one?
With all that said, when I took vows of ordination, I made faith confessions upholding the first seven ecumenical Councils, which includes acceding to the Nicene Creed. How can I do that, given what I just wrote? Because I believe that following Jesus results in a resurrection of consciousness; it has in my case. Following Jesus means that I stop mistaking lion's hide for velvet. Yes, the assurance of everlasting salvation is appealing. And I do not reject that this is a potent part of Christian confession. Yet, I am not done with this life. In following Christ, I am able to mindfully deconstruct the ego. I am able to die more completely to the temporary allures of life, and through service to others and love for all touch the center of what it means to be human. Of what it means to exist as one both human and divine. To get in on that wavelength that is the shared consciousness of all things.
I abused drugs. I drank my way through no fewer than one marriage and one engagement. I was reckless, hiding in plain sight, and in pain. Once I got serious about following Jesus, making decisions based upon the demands of the gospel, I was able to stop drinking. My heart, which has always been tender, has grown strong in love. I look at people differently, as walking specks of God whom I want to know and love. I'm imperfect. I'm literally crazy, but I deal with it. I'm filled with joy even as I am sliding into a depression that, if tradition holds, will have me catatonic in a day or so. Maybe not. I'm developing new coping mechanisms that, no surprise, relate directly to following Christ.
It is important to think about what believe regarding Jesus and soteriological eschatology, a fancy way of saying ideas about Jesus, human salvation, and the end times. I am outside the orthodox views, to be sure, but not outside of the tradition. Views such as the ones espoused here can be found in the Sayings Gospel of Thomas. I don't wish to argue doctrine, though. From my praxis-based approached to following Jesus, I offer the witness that there are many types of death and resurrection, and I'm more interested in those I can experience here and now than I am fretting over those that will come. As Caesar says in the eponymous play, "Of all the wonders I yet have heard, it seems to me the most strange that men should fear seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come."
Stay tuned for our next installment, which will concern Jesus' relationship to the sacraments and how it pertains to human salvation.
*See what I did there?