Friday, May 10, 2013

Jesus is Always Just Alright...

I have long been interested in the tendency of humans to decontextualise. Polemicists and apologists of all ideological stripes and persuasions, for instance, tend to read the Bible through their own time and place. And they tend to read the Biblical past through their own time and place. The books on how Jesus became Americanised by Steven Prothero and Richard Wightman Fox, for example, do a good job of showing how the figure of Jesus has been made into whatever influential Americans wanted to make him into as they responded to the specific economic, political, and cultural crises of their times.

Jesus is thus rather like Shakespeare. Shakespeare too has been decontextualised and has become, for some, to take one example, in his The Merchant of Venice (assuming he wrote it) the champion of anti-anti-Semitism and for others the very essence of anti-Semitism.

I am not sure we can ever fully escape the iron cage of hermeneutics particularly when it comes to decontextualised culturally significant symbols like Jesus and Shakespeare. Figures like Jesus and Shakespeare become blank mirrors on which we place our own ideological hopes, dreams, and fetishisations, on which we transplant our own faiths. We turn them, in other words, into embodiments of what we think the world of politics and economics and culture should be like. The fact that so many self professed Christians don't even know much of anything about the original contexts of Jesus, for instance, or are intentionally mis-educated about him by literalist Christian groups who are ├╝berchampions of decontextualisation makes this deconstextualisation even worse.

In the twentieth century Jesus has been a world's greatest salesman, a hippie, an Ebenezer Scrooge like capitalist, a rebel with an anti-status quo cause, god's son who knows best, and an activist liberation theologian. I wonder if Christian gun nuts have created a Jesus for the twenty-first century who is a champion of gun rights, semi-automatic clips, and assault rifles yet?

Academics, by the way, haven't been able to escape the prison house of hermeneutics anymore than Christians or Shakespeareans have. I have set through classes in which academics read their own beliefs and prejudices into a text turning what it said into something they wanted it to say. Academia as ideological wish fulfillment.

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