Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies. It’s one of my favorite movies. A personal favorite. I really enjoy watching that movie. I’d call it favorite. A personal favorite. Movie.
So I was watching the special features one day, and was intrigued by a comment of one of the writers. Apparently people from a wide range of religions wrote to them, saying how perfectly this movie expressed their core beliefs—dying to self, living for others, learning to love, taking each day as it comes, etc.
This took me by surprise, considering that I had the same reaction to the film. Watching Bill Murray transform from an arrogant chump to a selfless, contented person really resonated with me, especially because it took a series of unsuccessful suicides to get him there—death, burial and resurrection. The heart of the Gospel.
At one level, I didn’t want a Buddhist or Hindu to share my reaction. I wanted Christianity to be revealed cinematically as a unique solution to all the pitfalls of human depravity. I wanted people of other faiths to watch the movie, resonate with the themes, discover that the writers were Christians, and see that their own works-oriented, spiritually-suspect salvation plans were just silly.
At another level, I was encouraged that these themes connected with so many different kinds of people. It proved that my faith resonated with primal truths, universal experiences that transcended cultural and religious differences. It proved that my faith was not completely locked into some cult-like subculture.
The audience reaction also reminded me of how many different faiths seem to embrace Jesus as a positive teacher and role model, whether or not they embrace his miracles or radical claims.
I once taught piano to a kid whose mother was wiccan. She had brooms and witch figurines all over the house. Wiccan symbols were everywhere. She knew that I worked at Village Christian Schools, but didn’t seem to mind. One day, Jesus came up in conversation, and she told me how much she admired him. She explained that wiccans do not believe in the devil or hell or anything like that. They do, however, appreciate the teachings of Jesus. Some even list him with the inaccessible creator spirits in the heavens.
Many Hindus also list Jesus among their pantheon of gods. The Gnostics were claiming Jesus as one of their own as early as the first century, taking certain phrases of his teachings and using them to support their mystical beliefs. Muslims embrace Jesus as well, though their description of him in the Koran does not exactly gel with the Biblical description.
The only people that seem to reject Jesus outright are the Jews. Which makes sense.
I have a relative that admires the Buddha. He also admires Christ. Once he emailed me a list of Jesus’ teachings alongside Buddhist teachings, showing me how similar they were. He suggested that Jesus picked up some Buddhist philosophy in his travels, sometime before he started his ministry, and integrated them into a Jewish context.
Then Paul came along and ruined everything. He was not one of the twelve, though he claimed to have an experience with the risen Christ—a vision, a miracle and a calling—allowing him to lay claim to the title “apostle.”
Some would say that Paul took the simplicity and beauty of Jesus’ message, merged it with his own Pharisaical Judaism and the secular, resurrection cults of Mithras and Osiris, and started a new religion that would ultimately rule the world for a thousand years.
In other words, Christianity was an invention of Paul, not Jesus.
Many Christians would beg to differ. They would say that Jesus was absolutely Jewish in his thinking. His mission was exactly on line with the Hebrew prophecies and traditions. He was not promoting new ideas from the orient. He claimed that he was not there to change the Law of Moses, but to make sense of it, fulfilling the many mysteries and symbols of their rituals, restoring the Jews’ relationship with Yahweh, making it possible for them to experience genuine righteousness, and finally accomplish their mission to the world.
Paul came along after the Jews had rejected and crucified their Messiah, after the resurrection and Pentecost. Unlike the disciples, he was a Roman citizen, rigorously educated, and driven by a zeal for God that would allow him to spread the redemptive message of Christ throughout Asia Minor. His teaching does not add to the mystery of Christ, but helps believers to understand it, teaching them what it means to live by the Spirit both personally and corporately.
Jesus and Paul have different missions and different destinies, but many Christians would say that their messages are complimentary and crucial for understanding the complete Gospel. They would also say that a clear understanding of this Gospel would make it incompatible with any other religion.
So why am I bringing this up? Who am I trying to reach?
In my opinion, the people of other religions only embrace a caricature of Jesus—a wise, patient, loving, forgiving, healing, accessible, self-sacrificing, spiritual man. Who wouldn’t embrace these qualities? The world desperately needs these things.
They also reject a caricature of Paul—arrogant, sarcastic, obsessed with hierarchies, power and church order. The church has too many of these people. And the world could do without them.
I also believe that there is a trend in the contemporary Church that is moving away from a rich orthodox understanding of Christianity, and toward a more shallow presentation of Biblical caricatures.
We tend to present Jesus in a way that our postmodern culture will resonate with, focusing on his command to love one another, even our enemies, and do whatever we can to serve others, following his example in eating with sinners, resisting the arrogant, and laying down our lives for the lost and marginalized. I have absolutely no problem with any of those things.
However, I do have a problem when we start cropping out the more problematic passages. Like when Jesus talks about speaking in parables so that some people won’t understand and turn back to him (Matt. 13:10-15). Or when he refuses to heal the Samaritan woman’s daughter because she wasn’t a Jew, comparing the Jews to God’s children and the Samaritans to the dogs beneath the dinner table (Matt. 15:22-28).
There are other examples where Jesus might come across as harsh or inaccessible. Especially if our understanding of Jesus and his mission is limited to a cultural stereotype.
The same is true of Paul. It seems as if more and more believers are struggling with “Paul issues” these days. In a culture that values humility, respect and openness, Paul can come across as brash and insensitive.
But I think a more careful study of his letters reveals a man suffering beneath a heavy burden of authority and responsibility. He calls himself the father of these new churches, and like any father, he can put his foot down pretty hard if necessary. But he can also be gentle and encouraging. Just read the contrast between first and second Corinthians.
If we continue to promote caricatures in our churches, we will continue to present our congregations with a shallow understanding of the Gospel. We also open the door to liberal thinking, muddying the waters, allowing other philosophies to mingle with the revelation of Christ and his apostles.
The New Testament is full of warnings about false teachers making their way into vulnerable new churches. I think today we are more vulnerable than ever. And we kind of like it that way.