I love a good story, especially one in which I can place myself. It helps the story transcend the page and become a “mental movie,” an immersive experience that draws upon the imagination as upon one’s own sense of self.
The Bible contains many such stories. Stories full of flawed, broken people. who are just as flawed and broken as we, making the same stupid mistakes that we would likely make in their circumstances.
Of course, when we read ourselves into Bible stories, we run the risk of reading our own thoughts and interpretations into the Scripture as opposed to letting it speak to itself. But that’s not what I want to talk about today, though I probably should at some point.
For now, however, I’d rather talk about the dangerous practice of re-contextualizing Jesus.
You may have already heard the term “decontextualizing,” which happens when we remove something or someone like Jesus from His original context, stripping Him from the culture and larger narrative of Scripture. This happens all the time, but at the same time, it doesn’t. Confused? Good. That’s what I’m here for.
No Contextual Vacuum
No one thinks or acts in a contextual vacuum. Everyone has a certain amount of cultural/societal white noise bouncing around their head that colors everything. So when we pull Jesus out of His context, we aren’t just decontextualizing. We’re “recontextualizing,” giving Him our cultural context in place of His.
As a result, we have a God who looks more like us than He ought. The Scripture is clear that we are to be conformed to His image, but we have made Him conform to ours, leaving us with a “straw man” savior who only serves to support our cultural positions, which tend to be extra-biblical (they don’t really matter from an eternal perspective); non-biblical (they aren’t support by Scripture or biblical teachings); and sometimes unbiblical (they stand opposed to various elements of Scripture or established, orthodox teaching).
Jesus isn’t ours to reinterpret. He is who He is, and that’s more than enough for all of us. Recontextualizing Jesus is dangerous for a few reasons, which I’m going to obviously going through next.
That’s Not My Jesus
Recontextualizing Jesus is not an exclusively individual exercise because the whole notice of “cultural white noise” implies that there’s a larger societal dialogue happening. However, each person is going to recontextualize differently, resulting in individual recontextualizations of Jesus that may all originate from the same cultural white noise before splinting into a thousand different individual variations, with each version being different from the others.
Thus, when we speak of “Jesus,” we do so without clarity because the speaker and the audience all have their own different idea of who Jesus was and is. But this confusion isn’t limited to just those in the Church.
The End of Evangelism
How do those on the outside of the Church think of Jesus? In all honesty, their perception of Jesus is based upon their experiences with us. If we’re recontextualizing Jesus, if we’re making Jesus more like us and neglecting/refusing to become like Him, we are making Jesus look terrible. Think about this: let’s say that you’re a white, middle-class Republican.
When you recontextualize Jesus, you turn Him into a white, middle-class Republican, which He most certainly wasn’t. So now, you’re trying to reach out to non-white, lower or upper-class, non-Republians, and you can’t understand why they don’t want to hear more about your Jesus.
There’s a great quote that I can’t remember exactly, but it went like this, “The greatest form of idolatry isn’t creating a false god but a false concept of God.” Recontexualizing Jesus is doing just that: it’s turning Jesus into someone different, making Him more like fallen man than the Risen Son of God. Thus, we end up worshipping a god of our own making, all while claiming to worship, represent, and live by the power of God. This is very dangerous, indeed.
I moved pretty quickly through this post. Sorry. I put it on my “to write” list quite a while back, and whenever I let a post wait that long, they always go bad. Again, I’m sorry for that. The point here is that when we take Jesus out of the context of Scripture we will inevitably (and unknowingly) place Him inside our own context, destroying His true identity as He is warped to appear more like us. This makes true evangelism impossible: how do we communicate the love of God when we don’t really know Him? Worse yet, we aren’t only incapable of sharing Christ; we can’t even worship Him. A recontextualized Jesus is no Jesus at all.
We are supposed to become more like Jesus, not force Him to become more like us. The more we read the Bible, in its proper context, the closer we’ll get to the true Jesus and the closer we’ll be to who we were meant to be.
This is an important topic that I’ll probably revisit later this year.