By Patrick Scriven, Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries
Two of the biggest religion stories over the past week involved the formerly Christian, Muslim author Reza Aslan and the young, formerly conservative, evangelical blogger Rachel Held Evans. Aslan’s recent book on Jesus, “Zealot,” became a hot item after an insulting, yet not surprising, Fox News interview went viral. Held Evans wrote a piece distributed by CNN on why Millennials are leaving the evangelical church, and what they might be looking for.
Reza Aslan’s book Zealot begins with a vivid description of the Temple cult in first century Judaism that is quite provocative. His subsequent detailing of the political, religious and social tensions of the day breathes significant life into his portrait of Jesus, his earliest followers, and the world in which they lived. Given the limited data any historian has to work with Aslan should be applauded for created such a compelling world even as a healthy amount of skepticism ought be applied to his more dramatic flourishes, particularly when they reach beyond scholarly consensus.
One of my favorite things about history is the way looking back inevitably causes us to reexamine the present. In this case Zealot, on more than one occasion, prompted me to think about the role of the church in the 21st century.
Aslan describes a Temple cult that was central to the religious practice of a majority of the Jewish people throughout the region. When the Temple was destroyed along with Jerusalem following revolts in 70 CE, the Jewish faith was forced to reconsider, reshape, and reform – not for the first time. Of course, Aslan also makes the point that this event had significant impact upon the shaping of Christian theology as well.
The destruction of Jerusalem was not the preferred choice of any of the first century Jews that we are aware of. One might even conclude that it was the refusal of some to recognize Rome’s overwhelming dominance that made it inevitable. But this dramatic event forced a creative resurgence, indeed a complete reformulation of what it meant to be a Jew and how one faithfully worshiped God.
Many mainline folks like myself salivate when we read posts like Rachel Held Evan’s. We imagine that with a little bit of work we can pick up a portion of those young evangelicals who are falling away from their parent’s church forgetting that our own children tend to follow similar patterns. Several blogs over the course of the past week have rightly cautioned that such thinking may be somewhat wishful; I’m drawn to agree.
In my mind, one word connects Aslan’s work and Held Evan’s blog. That word is one you’ll rarely hear me saying and that may be part of the problem. The word is authority.
In Aslan’s description of Jesus’s world and the origins of the church so much is anchored around authority, how one attains it, and where it is ultimately rooted. Jesus builds his ministry to those who are not benefitting from the formal authority structure and boldly claimed a direct authority from God that is in conflict with the powers of the day. The nascent Christian community continues his ministry to the poor and outcast claiming authority through the risen Jesus; an authority that emboldens them through early persecution and sustains their theological imaginations as Jerusalem is destroyed. In contrast, the priestly caste’s authority is directly challenged by Jesus and other’s because of their collaboration with the state (Rome) and ultimately is undermined by it’s close connection to a physical location.
What Held Evan’s blog doesn’t account for is the draw of church’s like Seattle’s Mars Hill. If Millennials are truly looking for more progressive faith communities it hard to imagine what they see here. Part of this phenomenon can be explained by the reality that generational groupings make broad generalizations that never fit perfectly. More detailed analysis of the millennial cohort helps us to see significant religious diversity. But I also suspect that people are drawn to the sense of authority with which Driscoll offers his teachings.
What Mainline Protestantism is missing, in large part, is a deep, profound sense of authority. Even as Protestant clergy are often told to “take thy authority” as they are ordained, there is a lack of clarity about what that truly means. Serious theological questions remain open in the minds of many moderate and progressive Christians. And others who have resolved those questions in less traditional, but perhaps more faithful, ways display anxiety in sharing these new reformulations of the faith to people in the proverbial pews.
While the obnoxious interview on Fox News played a huge role, the buzz around Aslan’s book betrays our culture’s continued interest in a first century itinerant preacher and significant dissatisfaction with the sanitized Jesus too often presented by churches of all stripes. Christian leader’s should be thankful for the opportunity this book provides to open dialogue about the historical Jesus we all learn about in seminary and tend to hide as we preach a safer, softer Christ who loves Easter bunnies and potpourri.
Let me suggest that what we are seeing today is a new recalibration after the destruction of the third Temple. This Temple, unlike it’s predecessors, was built with bricks of privilege and the mortar of cultural accommodation and collaboration. Amidst the rubble, the church cannot rely on privilege to sustain itself. It is no longer the state religion or the default religious preference of emerging generations and this, while painful for some, is a grand opportunity.
For the church to thrive we will need a creative and engaged theology that recovers the authority Jesus claimed. Our imaginations must be unshackled from the theology of empire and reengaged with those who Jesus calls us to serve. This is where truly divine authority always lies.
Such authority is not synonymous with an obnoxious certainty (which is the heresy of some) but it does require that we truly know, experience and declare the movement of God in people’s lives – and not shy away from defining it as such (something most mainline Christians are terrible at). Again, I would suggest this becomes easier as our heads move out of the clouds and our faith is contextualized by missional immersion. A faith rooted in Jesus’way will by its nature offend and divide, but it need not be deliberately offensive.