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From the May, 2000
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The Flimflam Apostles by Mark Tooley

The Flimflam Apostles

The Jesus Seminar Goes on a Mission

by Mark Tooley

A long time ago there was a man named Jesus. He was a Jewish cynic and teacher of wisdom who fought against the domination system of his day. He proclaimed a reign of God based on liberty, equality, and fraternity. To protect their political and economic power, the Roman and Jewish leaders crucified him. After his death, his teachings were so vivid to his followers that they spoke of him as if he were still alive, although they never intended to be taken literally.

Unfortunately, some new converts to his cause, who never actually knew him, took this talk seriously and began to expect that he would actually return to establish his kingdom. When he didn’t, they were disappointed. So they developed new ideas, actually pagan in origin, about a life after death in which they would finally meet him. Meanwhile, the domination system of that day, growing fearful of this growing movement devoted to the dead man Jesus, decided that it must co-opt that movement.

The manipulated followers of Jesus became “the church” and began establishing rigid dogmas that had little to do with the real Jesus. They compiled “scripture,” written long after Jesus’ death by people who claimed to know Jesus but who really did not. Some of this scripture was based on fragments of fact, but most of it was made up.

Forgetting who Jesus really was, the church set about to use these scriptures to oppress people who disagreed with it, and also to oppress women, racial minorities, and homosexuals. Jesus became just a pretext for a new domination system. But a few courageous intellects stood up against this church. Confronted by science and reason, the church finally lost its monopoly on power, and eventually all truly educated people ceased to take this church and its teachings very seriously.

But the myths spun by the church continued to captivate a lot of people, who, although lacking intellect, nonetheless still wielded political influence. They still wanted to oppress women, racial minorities, and homosexuals, and prevent the true reign of God about which the real Jesus spoke.

So an adventurous band of brilliant scholars gathered together under the name of the Jesus Seminar. With breathtaking consensus and mental acuity, they disproved and vanquished the church’s remaining myths. The true reign of God, based not upon a supernatural deity, but a Promethean humanity devoted to equality and justice, is now within sight. We have the Jesus Seminar to thank.

The mythology of the Jesus Seminar, summarized above, is simple, straightforward, and appealing to certain academic egos. Maybe the scholars do not entirely believe their own boastings about the role of the Jesus Seminar. Maybe much of it is just hyperbole to generate excitement at their semiannual meetings in Santa Rosa, California.

None of it would be taken very seriously except that the Jesus Seminar has established a comfortable media niche for itself. Meeting for nearly two decades now, the scholars realized that by packaging conventional liberal theology into media sound bites they would make headlines and gain credibility as the supposedly cutting edge of biblical studies. The media attention would also allow them to sell their books.

The Jesus Seminar’s denial of Christ’s divinity and miracles is regularly folded into the stories that national magazines compile for Christmas and Easter. These denials are portrayed as new scholarly discoveries, although they are not supported by new archaeological or manuscript finds, but by the Jesus Seminar’s unique blend of literary critique and ideological presuppositions.

Once Titillating, Now Boring

Despite its media success, the Jesus Seminar may have created a glass ceiling for itself. Its publicity and self-conceived mythology depend upon its supposedly ongoing battle with “fundamentalists” and less courageous biblical scholars. Just as pornography requires sexual taboos to retain its allure, the Jesus Seminar needs orthodox Christian belief to retain its shock value and marketability. But according to the Jesus Seminar’s mythology, traditional Christianity has been defeated and is now gulping its final post-modern gasps.

Additionally, the Jesus Seminar is running out of material. Its scholars have denied everything about the Gospels that they can possibly deny. Dismissing the Virgin Birth, miracles, and the Resurrection year after year can only be titillating for so long. The Jesus Seminar has now reached the point of denying any concept of supernatural deity. But atheism is neither shocking nor new. It is actually boring.

The Jesus Seminar realizes, if only subconsciously, the quandary it faces. Admitting that the Gospels have been fully dissected, it now is prepared to launch its assault on St. Paul’s (supposed) letters, the Book of Acts, and parts of the Old Testament. But unmasking the apostles or the patriarchs is not likely to generate as much copy as exposing the “false” Jesus.

The seminar is also going to construct a new creed to replace the Nicene Creed, although the new statement of faith will be kept suitably “ambiguous” to avoid “embarrassment,” according to Jesus Seminar founder Robert Funk. “We don’t want to become a church in a world that is already filled with too many churches,” he promises. But vague rewrites of supposedly archaic creeds will not generate excitement, either. So what is the Jesus Seminar’s future?

Fleecing the Simple

Convinced that local churches are “hungry” to hear its message, the Jesus Seminar now dispatches its scholars, in teams of two (like the disciples), to congregations around the country for weekend seminars. I attended one seminar at a United Church of Christ congregation in suburban northern Virginia.

A crowd of no more than 75 mostly older church members had gathered for the event in their small but upscale church facility. The speakers were Robert Funk and Lloyd Geering, a scholar from New Zealand. Knowing they are leaders of the planet’s spiritual vanguard (Jesus Seminar scholars like to speak of “the planet”), I was surprised that Funk had traveled across the continent and Geering half the circumference of the world to spend two days with a rather ordinary and small audience who had paid $50 each for the privilege.

Geering and Funk pleasantly explained why the traditional understanding of the Gospels could no longer be believed. The audience asked polite and non-probing questions. The pastor, a friendly man wearing a large clerical collar, helped me find a cola in the church kitchen. I was loathe to think unkindly of him or his congregation, but was befuddled as to why they were so comfortable with being told that the God they supposedly worship does not exist and the church to which they belong is no longer relevant.

But I was more puzzled by the willingness of Jesus Seminar scholars to travel the country speaking to unspectacular groups who have gathered for a minor fee in the social halls of small churches. Both Funk and Geering, distinguished in their white and professorial garb, reminded me of the character George C. Scott played in The Flimflam Man, a 1960s movie in which a traveling charlatan and snake oil salesman, dressed in sartorial splendor and speaking big words, fleeces simpletons in small southern towns.

The flimflam man did not compete with more sophisticated hucksters in the big city. He rode boxcars from one small town to the next, attempting to defraud trusting, unsophisticated villagers who were easily impressed. His victims were usually seduced by the allure of quick and unearned money, so they really deserved the fleecing. Maybe, similarly, the believers in the Jesus Seminar also deserve to be inveigled.

But I would have thought the Jesus Seminar, unlike the flimflam man, would be confident enough to take its performance to the metaphorical big city, not just the rural backwaters. With the possible exception of Marcus Borg’s traveling conversation with orthodox Christian writer and Anglican priest Tom Wright, the scholars of the Jesus Seminar seem curiously unwilling to engage serious thinkers from outside their perspective.

Funk, when I heard him at the Virginia church, did boast of how the Jesus Seminar had thoroughly discredited other liberal academics who had challenged the seminar on minor points. But the Jesus Seminar avoids close-up debate with orthodox Christian critics who do not play by the seminar’s own ideological rules. Ostensibly it is because they are no longer relevant and have already been defeated by modernity.

Arrogance & Lobotomies

Or perhaps this avoidance betrays more self-doubts about the Jesus Seminar’s vanguard role in the planet’s spirituality than its scholars are willing to reveal in public. I recently listened to tapes of the seminar’s Fall 1999 meeting for some clues. They seemed to confirm my suspicion that arrogance was a mask for insecurity. Potshots were fired at traditional believers because of their narrowness and “collusion with the domination system.” Self-congratulation rather than intellectual discovery prevailed.

John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus at DePaul University, in his critique of orthodox Christianity’s continuing political influence, likened the Southern Baptist Convention to Walt Disney, Inc. Both are contending for the “global control of fantasy.” Both are in large doses equally dangerous, but the Southern Baptists especially so. With them it is difficult to differentiate “religion from Prozac, Christianity from chloroform, and baptism and lobotomy.”

Robert Funk, while dismissing the “mythic messiah,” called for a true messiah, who will be found in “random acts of kindness, some proposal to close the hole in the ozone, some discrete move to introduce candor into politics, some new intensive care program for the planet.”

There were grudging admissions that orthodox Christianity was not yet defeated. And the scholars were surprisingly inarticulate when trying to describe the utopia that will arrive when the Jesus Seminar’s vision for the planet is universally accepted. At best, they could only condemn the compromises with the domination system made by orthodox Christians.

“Often there’s no awareness of their collusion with economic injustice, sexism and patriarchalism and hegemony over the rest of the world,” observed Walter Wink of Auburn Theological Seminary. “They serve as the court chaplains of the domination system.”

A large portion of the future church will remain “reactionary,” agreed Hal Taussig, a United Methodist pastor and professor at Union Seminary in New York. “Fundamentalism and authoritarian Catholicism will remain strong for the foreseeable future,” actively resisting “scientific, feminist and ecological consciousness.” In a country addicted to “private property and individual rights,” progressive churches must struggle to debunk the “imperialist claims of the reigning modalities in American and European Christendom.”

Empty Heaven, Human Gods

New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering, a one-time Presbyterian minister who lost his faith, was actually the only Jesus Seminar scholar to express appreciation for the accomplishments of traditional Christianity, despite its supposed falsehoods.

“Global vision” came from Judaism and Christianity, Geering reminded his audience. When Judaism “retreated into its own rabbinical shell,” Christian mission promoted “globalization.” Modern science and technology evolved out of Christian culture and cannot be accounted for except by the “biblical doctrine of creation.” The ancient Israelites abolished the gods of nature, and subsequently Christians were able to experiment and explain the natural world as no other culture had been able to do.

The global secular world, with its affirmation of basic human rights, is a direct product of Christianity, Geering concluded. Of course, the secular world is not perfect. But if we acknowledge that the “throne of heaven is empty and we humans are on our own,” we can make the right decisions, he affirmed. When properly understood [i.e., when shorn of its supernatural implications], the “Incarnation tells us we humans have to play the role of God whether we want to or not.” Having rediscovered the “full humanity of Jesus,” the Jesus Seminar is prepared to offer the “intellectual and spiritual leadership the secular world now needs,” Geering concluded.

Funk said the Jesus Seminar’s goal is to provide the “therapies” required for the transition from traditional faith to “new perspectives.” Admitting that most people want a savior, he assured his agreeing audience that the “messiah has not come and will not come.”

“Like children, most of us want to know who’s in charge of the universe,” Funk continued. “We want someone to establish the rules of belief and behavior. That opens doors to tyrants and to God,” he warned. “We need to take responsibility for ourselves, our home and planet.”

Thomas Sheehan, joined by other speakers such as Bishop John Shelby Spong and German theologian Gerhard Ludemann, advocated a “pragmatic atheism” to guide the world into the future. Whenever an audience member asked about what role God would play in the new world order to come, each scholar assured him none at all, unless by God we mean simply “justice” or “community.”

There was always applause, but it seemed to become more and more forced with each denial of the deity. Atheism, however pragmatic, has yet to excite any human movement without ending in abject despair, after often accomplishing monstrous crimes. Almost any observer outside the Jesus Seminar can easily peer into the future and recognize that Christianity is with us to stay. The real question, which the scholars are likely unwilling to answer, is how much longer the Jesus Seminar will survive.


Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (www.ird-renew.org) in Washington, D.C.

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