|Sacrilege by Hugh Halter|
So here goes.
I've had a little previous contact with Hugh. By a little, I mean I once read most of Hugh and Matt Smay's earlier Tangible Kingdom with a friend and mentor in church-planting. I recall liking most of what I read there, though I can remember exactly what I liked about the book. When Sacrilege came up for review, it was less Hugh's name on the cover than the Shapevine series that it is part of that attracted me to it.
Onward to the Introduction.
Hugh begins with stories, two of them. He recounts a trip to Beirut, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, and retells his own process of find and re-finding the "real Jesus."
Part of me hopes this is good omen for the rest of the direction of the rest of the book: telling and retelling the stories about Jesus. But I'm also a bit concerned. I'm worried the stories will be reduced to props or frames on which to pin up an ideology or personal vendetta.
In the first story, Hugh ends up kneeling in front of a keyhole in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, hoping for a glimpse of the real Jesus' tomb. But bumbling priests returned from mass interrupt him and block his view. Hugh narrates his disappointment on the bus ride out of Jerusalem: traders hocking mementos and badly-painted relics, religious tourists crowding to snap photos, pastors, priests, and monks competing for religious real estate, Israeli soldiers and the police force. He complains that there's nothing left to see of the real Jesus in Jerusalem.
While I listened to the unfolding story, hope flickered inside me. I hoped that in the end, Hugh would find Jesus in the middle of the mess: Jesus the Word who sustains the mess--creation and history and tourists and terrorists and telemarketers. I hoped he would see Jesus in Palestinians pressed against the wall in Bethlehem or even in the Muslim politicos in Beirut as they explained how they saw Jesus. But Hugh doesn't. Instead he sulks in the bus.
Between this story and the second, Hugh's account of how he found Jesus, Hugh reflects on the ways we miss Jesus. He subtitles this intervention "Jesus and Bad PR." I'm with him when he says that there are some toxic stories about Jesus out there, both inside and outside churches. Hugh lists a number of them.
But I wonder if his frustration and disappointment is more rooted in a currently epidemic mythology that fetishizes a "real Jesus" who stands outside and behind the stories we meet him in. This Jesus is more "real"--more authentic, less complicated--than person we meet the church and its Gospels and letters. He lives in a world that is equally more "real"--a world where good and evil, God and the devil are starkly defined. The economy and politics--let alone tourists traps and religious institutions--don't muddy this world with the ambiguity that they do ours. Maybe this world is purer because people still farm and wear sandals.
I suspect that Hugh would (and hopefully will in chapter 1 and everything after) affirm the value of the complex world we live today as the place where God's kingdom comes. My vaguely recalled impressions of Tangible Kingdom point me in that direction.
But I think Hugh assumes something that undercuts the concrete character of the kingdom Jesus announces. Writing about our concept of Jesus in the Introduction, Hughs explains "Our beliefs affect our attitudes, our attitudes affect our behaviors, and our behaviors determine our future." His point is that its important to believe the real Jesus, not a bad caricature.
The latent assumption in this is that concepts are primary, concepts are the movers and shakers of our worlds and, it seems, our future. It's precisely a concept of Jesus and his world that the above-mentioned epidemic fetishizes. Only a concept can be more or less "real." A person is always solidly bound to some reality (whether that of neighborly relations, CNN's global news coverage, WOW, Facebook, or a novel). And it's precisely in our own ambiguous, more-or-less faithful practice of telling and retelling, singing and praying the Jesus' stories in church and outside of it that we meet Jesus and his reality. (Full disclosure: James K. A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom has pretty significantly shaped my thought on this; read him for further details.)
Hugh ends the Introduction by telling his own story of finding (and re-finding) Jesus. He tells this story in a letter to his teenage daughters. I sympathize with Hugh's story; it reminds me a bit of my own: someone completely enamored with Jesus but finding it hard to fit in Christianized institutions.
But let me own with a story of my own. In 2004 I traveled with a college music group for a tour of Greece. By day we were on our own tour bus visiting ancient Christian sites; by night we played in churches and at youth rallies as a warm-up act for a traveling Greek evangelist.
We played a gig in a courtyard at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki. In between each set, we would infiltrate the students who'd gathered to watch and start up conversations about Jesus. I remember stumbling into the middle of debate with a young man studying to become an Orthodox priest. While I did my best to approximate the four spiritual laws, he repeatedly interrupted me with a plea to "read the Fathers!"
I think I walked away shaken by the conversation. I had a copy of Robert Webber's Ancient-Future Faith on my bus seat. I remember reading it and wondering if I really knew the Jesus I claimed to follow, if I really knew what following him meant. In many ways I'm still wondering.