Thursday, July 27, 2006

New Jesus Traditions and the New Religiosity

Reender Kranenborg, recently retired from Free University of Amsterdam, presented an interesting paper at the CESNUR 2006 International Conference earlier in July. The paper is titled “New Traditions About Jesus and the New Religiosity.” It is a paper that summarizes the new traditions about Jesus that are prevalent in Western culture, and why they are appealing to increasing numbers of people as viable alternatives to the New Testament portrait of Jesus. This article contains ideas that are relevant to those in the contemporary church as well as emerging church and missional church leaders who want to understand the cultural environment of the West.

Kranenborg discusses some of these new traditions, including the Tradition of the Infancy Gospels that purport to tell us of Jesus’ infancy and his relationship with Joseph and Mary; the Tradition of Jesus and Mary Magdalene which includes stories upon which The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, The Messianic Legacy, and The Da Vinci Code drew; the Tradition of Jesus in India as promoted in Notovitch's book The Life of the Holy Issa, The Aquarian Gospel of Levi Dowling, and the writings of Elizabeth Clare Prophet; the Esoteric Tradition, a very influential tradition which includes elements from a variety of sources such as the Freemasons and Rosicrucians, Blavatsky and Theosophy, and A Course in Miracles. Kranenborg notes that esotericism has been very influential in popular Gnosticsm, or perhaps more accurately neo-Gnosticism, and again mentions Dan Brown and his Da Vinci Code as an example of this. The final major facet of the New Jesus Tradition that Kranenborg cites is the Tradition of Jesus as a Precursor as found in Islam.

Kranenborg then turns his discussion toward consideration as to why these traditions are increasingly popular and appealing. He asks, "Why have these traditions become so authoritative? And: Why do people believe these new traditions and reject the Christian tradition about Jesus?" He provides eight points in response which I will summarize.

1. The biblical information about Jesus is brief and people want to know more. Because of the brevity of information about Jesus, particularly in his early years before his public ministry, people fill this gap with stories of the so-called "lost years"of Jesus in India or Egypt.

2. The New Testament presents a "one-sided" portrait of Jesus, the view of the church. Kranenborg presents the New Testament's view of women as more positive than other first century alternatives, but still largely patriarchal, and thus Dan Brown's "religion of the sacred feminine" has great appeal as an alternative to the traditional Christian portraits of Jesus.

3. People reject the authority of the church and with it, the church's interpretation of Jesus and the gospel. Because of this, alternative Jesus stories, such as The Gospel of Judas, become very attractive.

4. The prevalence of conspiracy theories related to the church in falsifying and modifying the Scriptures and the portrait of Jesus. This idea is found in The Da Vinci Code, and The Gospel of Judas is popular in part because it is considered non-canonical by the church and thus must have something important to tell us about Jesus due to the church's supression of the document.

5. The shift of authority from institution and church Scripture to certain phenomena. Kranenborg cites texts in the esoteric tradition channeled by "higher beings" as more authoritative for many people because it claims to come directly from the source of Jesus himself, mediated by a powerful supernatural experience.

6. The need to experience new things. For many in Western culture, Christianity is considered passe, and the "regular and traditional [spiritual] paths are no longer interesting - they are part of the past and have nothing more to offer."

7. The shift from an emphasis in Western spirituality from the rational to the experiential. As Kranenborg states, "this new religion of experience is much more fascinating than traditional Western Christianity."

8. The individualism of Western culture. Rather than a community orientation in life in general, and particularly in spirituality, Westerners are following a self orientation in spirituality.

Kranenborg then concludes his paper with a brief paragraph that raises the question as to "How do we handle this?" This is a question that the church desperately needs to grapple with. How will we handle the development of these New Jesus Traditions that are held by increasing numbers of people in America and the West? I submit that it will not do to ignore them, and neither should we merely continue to produce books and videos that reassert the traditional picture of the church as understood by the church. While these resources calm the concerns of church members it does nothing to engage those who view the church and its portrait of Jesus with suspicion if not outright dismissal. If we continue to simply reassert the church's portrait of Jesus and the gospel we will continue to preach to the choir where the church's authority is not suspect. What is needed is a new critical cultural and missional engagement with the New Jesus Traditions that takes these alternative narratives seriously and also engages the growing numbers of do-it-yourself spirituality adherents. Neither the contemporary church nor the emerging church can afford to ignore the cultural and religious shifts of the West and the signficance of "alternative" spiritualities in this new milieu.

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