Warm and cuddly Christ is the one we need now

I saw a Christmas card with a picture of Jesus on it, accompanied by the caption ‘‘It’s all about me!’’. Which is funny because it’s true. JC is, as the faithful so often remind us, the reason for the season. The one who kicked it all off.

We’re often told that the real Jesus would be appalled by what his birthday has become. By the waste, the gluttony, the consumerism. After all, Jesus was all about love, forgiveness and treating others as we would want to be treated ourselves. Which presumably does not justify pre-Christmas road rage in the car park at Doncaster Shoppingtown.

Illustration: Robin Cowcher.

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about that ‘‘real’’ Jesus. The benevolent, loving figure. He was everywhere in my Catholic childhood, very much a part of our family Christmas. Long after I gave up believing that Jesus was the son of God, I still went along with the idea that he was, as King Missile crooned so hilariously, a really cool guy.

I’m certainly not alone here. Even atheists tend to agree that Jesus was a wise sage and a revolutionary moral teacher, whose message was corrupted by the institutional religion that came after. It’s easy to mock the vengeful Old Testament God, but you’ll rarely hear anyone say nasty things about Jesus. Which is why non-believers are quick to reference him in calling out the hypocrisy of those who call themselves Christians.

When Scott Morrison doubles down on the cruel treatment of refugees, or refuses to increase Newstart, there’s a social media outcry, challenging his Christian values. The same goes for Israel Folau and his homophobic pronouncements. We remind them that the founder of their church was all about love.

But what do we really know about Christ? The real, historical figure? This man who lived two millennia ago and never wrote down a word. Mainstream scholarly opinion suggests that Jesus almost certainly did exist, but beyond that, there is little consensus as to who he was, what he believed or even what he said.

'Maybe it’s more important than ever that we hold on to our idealised notion of Jesus.'

The words and deeds we now ascribe to Jesus were passed down through an oral tradition, one reinterpreted by his diverse, emerging followers, filtered through their spiritual beliefs, and only then written down, well after his death, in the form of the gospels.

But even if you restrict yourself to reading the canonical texts – the ones incorporated into the official Bible, as opposed to the many other accounts of his life that were not – the Jesus that you’ll find there isn’t just warm and cuddly. He says lots of extreme, grouchy, judgmental things too.

There’s the moralistic, disapproving Jesus: ‘‘Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.’’ (Luke 16:18)

The thoroughly unrealistic Jesus: ‘‘But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’’ (Matthew 5:28)

And the frankly homicidal Jesus: ‘‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea.’’ (Mark 9:42)

To make things worse, many scholars think these grumpy quotes are more likely to be authentic, given the reasonable assumption that those who wrote down his story were probably more inclined to emphasise the nice, tolerant quotes, over the angry, vengeful stuff. Still, most of us cling to an idealised Jesus, one built from a careful selection of the more agreeable teachings to be found in the gospels – a Jesus that has been created and curated over time, to suit our modern sensibilities.

What we forget is that many so-called Christians have also used the historical blank slate to draw a Jesus that suits them. Our Prime Minister’s Jesus is one of his church’s own making, a Jesus of money and power who rewards the righteous with material wealth, the implication being that the poor are destitute precisely because they lack virtue, and so deserve whatever they get.

In the face of such a self-serving philosophy, maybe it’s more important than ever that we hold on to our idealised notion of Jesus, even if it isn’t historically accurate. Because the way the world is looking, 2020 will desperately need someone who represents all the best human impulses, of charity, forgiveness and love. Whether that person ever existed or not.


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