In the 1980 film The Competition, starring Richard Dreyfus and Amy Irving, there is a scene that has always been a metaphor, for me, for how Christians come to know Jesus Christ. Sounds strange, I know, but bear with me a moment.
In the film, Richard Dreyfus plays a talented but not quite top pier pianist desperate to win a major competition so he can become a professional musician. He does everything right: Practices compulsively, really knows his stuff. Living with his parents, now well in his twenties, he travels all over the country to compete in regional and national competitions… and yet he never quite wins. At one competition, he meets a fellow competitor, played by Amy Irving, and they begin a romance that Irving’s stern teacher, played by Lee Remick, is determined to thwart.
“Ludwig Von Beethoven taught Carl Czerny,” Lee Remick’s characters says slowly, lighting a cigarette. “Who taught Leschetizky… who taught Schnabel… who taught Renaldi… who taught me. And now the sixth pianist in a direct line from Beethoven is standing here staring at me in her Jordan Marsh mix-and-match.”
In other words: The music that Amy Irving plays is handed down in a kind of apostolic succession… from one generation to the next… a living tradition passed on, master to disciple, over centuries.
You can read all the biographies of Beethoven you like…you can study music theory to your heart’s content… and yet, if you stand outside of that direct teaching line, that “hands on” instruction, you probably won’t be able to play the piano as well as Amy Irving’s character does. You won’t really hear the music.
Well, learning Jesus, and discovering the truth of his kingdom, is a lot like learning music: you have to learn it in person, not just from books.
This isn’t a pitch, by the way, for the Catholic, Anglican or Orthodox understanding of Apostolic Succession over and against the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scripture… although there is a tie-in.
Instead, I am simply making an historical and sociological point: that, as the saying goes, Jesus is more “caught than taught.”
For most of Christian history, the followers of Jesus learned his story, absorbed his teaching and committed their lives to his service not through academic study… not because they weighed the historical evidence for the resurrection and decided it was probable… but through a quasi-mystical encounter with Jesus’ outsized, cosmic personality in the communities of believers he left behind. They meditated on the events of his life, heard second-hand, depicted in medieval passion plays and modern rock operas, and decided to say a resounding Yes to his call to be part of his kingdom.
In the earliest age of Christianity, there was no Christian Bible to study. Even if there had been, few people could have read it. The overwhelming majority of people in the ancient world were illiterate.
People learned about Jesus through the preaching and teaching of Jesus’ early followers, almost always oral, and through the sacraments, rites and customs of the early Church, especially the “thanksgiving rite” celebrated every week (known in Greek as the eucharist). “Where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am.” After encountering the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus, his disciples realized that they had “recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”
When you think about it, that’s still true today.
Most people who are Christians today are Christians because they were born into Christian families, or because they encounter Christian disciple groups that intrigue them enough to learn more. They learn about Jesus Christ and discover his continuing presence in the world through personal testimony, the example of other people.
Indeed, most of what we know about Jesus and his teaching comes not from academic Bible study, as valuable as it is… but through preaching in churches… medieval passion plays… scenes depicted in stained glass windows or in bas-relief Stations of the Cross… Nativity pageants… and, in our time, televangelists… Vacation Bible School… Campus Crusade for Christ meetings… and films like “Jesus Christ Superstar” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”
With all due respect to the fine work of Christian apologists, I would argue that very few people convert to Christianity because they’ve studied textual variants in the Gospel of Luke and concluded that, on balance, we have the original text. Instead, they become Christians first… because they encounter the personality of Christ reflected in the lives of his modern-day followers and decide to say Yes to his call to be part of the Kingdom. Only later do they read the Bible in depth… and only later still, if ever, do they engage in an academic study of Biblical origins, sources, and textual variants.
“Jesus is most fully and consistently learned with the context of the believing community of the church…” writes Luke Timothy Johnson, who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, in his wonderful book, Living Jesus. Johnson is a professional New Testament scholar who spends all his time in academic study of the Bible… yet, he insists, true knowledge of Jesus Christ does not come primarily through such study. For people who have “entered into the energy field that is Jesus’ continuing presence in the world,” that is, believing Christians, knowledge of Jesus comes from other sources than history.
In his book, Jesus, Interrupted, New Testament scholar and scourge of conservative evangelical Christianity, Bart Ehrman, marvels that more Christians in the pews don’t know about the details about contemporary New Testament scholarship, textual criticism and so on. He suspects that it’s a conspiracy among ministers to keep their gullible congregations in the dark. But the real answer is: Ministers and preachers rarely expound on the latest theories of Bible scholars because they’re really not all that helpful…. or relevant to the lives of real people. What’s more, they change frequently and often conflict with one another.
Of course, I am not saying that academic Bible study is not worthwhile. I spent a large chunk of my life engaged in it… and many of my personal heroes are academics, like Bart Ehrman, who master the details of the historical-critical method in search of any new discoveries or insights about Jesus and his kingdom. I think most people could benefit from at least introductory classes on the Bible and the latest research and methods used by Bible scholars.
No, what I am saying is that academic Bible scholarship rarely if ever threatens Christian faith directly… because Christian faith is not based on historical reconstructions of what “really happened” when Jesus walked on earth.
If that were the case, the only true Christians would be Bible scholars and historians… and I don’t think most of them would say that.
This is the basic mistake that fundamentalism makes. It is, at root, a denial of faith as it is actually experienced in the Christian community… which is the experience of the Risen Christ through word and sacrament.
The doctrine of what’s called the verbal or “plenary” inerrancy of scripture leads, almost inevitably, to assertions that the historical truths embedded in the Gospel texts can be “proven” true – when, in fact, they cannot be. If they could be proven, then Christian faith would not be faith at all but history, scientific knowledge. At best, an historian or secular Bible scholar deals in probabilities, guestimates, hunches even. But faith in Jesus is not a judgment of probability: it’s a response to a call from a real human being.
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