22 Jan 2017

Jesus Is Many Things to Many People

Religious 33 Comments

I’m sorry for the slim pickings lately for Sunday posts. I keep thinking I’ll do some great stuff on Sunday afternoons and then I get sidetracked by other things.

I went to church today to an Episcopalian service (long story) and everybody was in mourning about Trump. Several of the people had gone to Austin the day before to participate in the Women’s March. It was fascinating because the stereotype is that Southern Christians would be pro-Trump.

However, the more I listened, the more I understood the distinction. These people were definitely followers of Christ. But they stressed His compassion, mercy, and healing, and wanted to do the same in this broken world.

In contrast, the more well-known variant of Christians who get into US politics are also followers of Christ. But they stress the fact that He is the only door to the Father, and they often remind people that He is returning with a flaming* sword of truth coming from His mouth to judge the world.

What’s interesting is that both groups are right. I read a book Joshua when I was younger, in which Jesus came back (but the people didn’t realize it was Him). In one part he built two statues for two churches. One statue was of a bold powerful Jesus, while the other was meek. The congregations didn’t like the statue Joshua had built for each, and they switched. They wanted to continue in their comfortable focus on just some of Jesus’ qualities.

(Before angry Catholics bite my head off in the comments: Yes the book was apparently written by a heterodox Catholic priest and so you can draw whatever conclusions you wish. I’m not endorsing the book, I just remember that part of it and thought it was neat when I was a kid.)

* I have always pictured the sword flaming that is coming out of Jesus’ mouth. Do I have any reason to think that? It doesn’t say that explicitly in the Revelation passage. Am I just getting confused with the flaming sword guarding the Garden of Eden?

33 Responses to “Jesus Is Many Things to Many People”

  1. Khodge says:

    Sorry, I’m not sure how this offends Catholics. We are well aware of the fact – I daresay more so than any specific Protestant entity – that God is beyond the ability of any human or group of humans to understand and express His totality. We often see members of our faith seemingly acting “strangely.” That is why the church is slow to condemn heresies or to endorse private revelations, such as seeing Mary, live and in person. Both pictures that you are presenting are well within the mainstream of Catholic teaching – especially the very human responses.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Khodge did you click the link? That’s why I was covering myself for bringing up that book.

      • Khodge says:

        After I posted I did. While Catholic Answers (the link) appeals to me, I would not consider it as a source I would rely on. To be honest, Catholics of my theological leanings probably are more concerned with the heterodoxy of the Pope (who, very likely, is a big fan of Fr. Girzone).

        There…Let them flame me rather than you.

        • Keshav Srinivasan says:

          Khodge, I’m curious, what would you do if tomorrow Pope Francis were to issue Amoris Laetitia as an ex cathedra teaching, invoking papal infallibility.

          • Anonymous says:

            Keshav, Francis hasn’t done that, and isn’t going to do that, so what’s your point? How is this relevant to anything Bob wrote here or that any of the commenters have written? Is your point to show us that you know big words?

            • Keshav Srinivasan says:

              No, nothing to do with big words. It’s just that that I surmised from Khodge’s comment is that he’s a Catholic opposed to Amoris Laetitia, so I was interested in asking about his views.

          • Khodge says:

            Keshav, You do not understand the Church’s teaching on infallibility. Nor, for that matter, do you understand the nature of Church discipline.

            • Keshav Srinivasan says:

              OK, would you mind clarifying? And could you answer what you would do if the Pope invoked infallibility in reference to the doctrines laid out in Amoris Laetitia?

            • Khodge says:

              The Pope does not “invoke” infallibility, he states what the church has believed from the beginning.

              The teaching of the Church on infallibility is that it is free from error, I.e. the Pope cannot proclaim infallible what is not infallible.

              And, finally, why are you obsessed with a harmless church document? As best as I have been able to determine, there is one ambiguous footnote that raises a question. The 2 (i.e. two) infallible Papal statements did not end the discussions on Marian doctrine.

  2. Kevin Regal says:


    Interesting. I wonder if it might be more complicated than it looks. I have met many more liberal Christians who genuinely emphasize compassion and mercy, but only for the categories people who they deem disadvantaged. Many are quite ready to hate and even hurt some people, Think how they might treat someone who uttered a racial slur or said something judgmental about about homosexuals. Sometimes in our zeal to defend those who are persecuted we can unwittingly start persecuting someone else.

    Of course, I’m not saying that is true of the Christians you met yesterday. I’m only speaking about some people that I have known.

    Oh, and I think you are right about the sword. In Gen 3 it is flaming, in Rev 1-2 it is not. Is it possible that you somewhere heard a sermon claiming that the two passages are talking about the same sword?

  3. Sally says:

    Dear Khodge, re: your mention of Catholic Answers, I would disagree. I think they are still mostly reliable and solid as a source for learning about the Catholic faith, as far as I have been able to tell. If you’re referring to the sad situation with Pope Francis not answering the Cardinals’ questions, then actually it would appear that you and Catholic Answers agree regarding the Pope. Please see this article, for example: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/sounds-of-silence

    I did see a traditional Catholic group attack Catholic Answers, but I don’t think they had read Keating’s article about Cardinal Burke above. Sometimes the traditional Catholic groups mean well, but they can be overly harsh and lacking in charity. The situation with Pope Francis is upsetting, though, so their frustration is understandable. But some of the traditional groups do need to tone down their anger, is my perception of it (and I write this as someone who has been quite upset at what is happening with Pope Francis myself). God allows all things for a reason (even bad popes), and lashing out in anger is not constructive, is what I try to tell myself.

    • Khodge says:

      Sally, I agree with you but, in my opinion, if Catholic Answers and I were living in Fr. Girzone’s town, both of us would be going to the statue-loving church. It is important to know who you are (who I am) and to stretch out in all directions.

      One of the problems that I perceive Protestants having is a singular focus with just one answer. When Catholics disagree they do not change their religion, they part ways as Catholics (hopefully amicably) united by the same core beliefs.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Dear Khodge, Catholic Answers is still pretty good/seems like a solid source for people who have questions about Catholicism. Here is what their founder wrote about the Pope Francis communion controversy/issue with the Cardinals’ questions (dubia) for example: https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/sounds-of-silence

  5. Daniel Kuehn says:

    Bob – you might be interested in this debate between Erick Erickson and Janet Parshall, particularly Erickson’s opening remarks about how Trump and Clinton explained their views on Christ. Interestingly, Hillary emphasizes Christ as savior, and Trump emphasized his compassion/moral example. Even putting aside Alex Jones, who literally maintains Clinton is a devil worshiper, this is wildly inconsistent with how Republican Christians typically think of her. It’s almost as if bearing witness to Christ is of secondary concern to a lot of people in the country.

    • Anonymous says:

      Daniel, what is your definition of a “Christian?” Do you just define it as someone who says they believe in Jesus and that they’re a Christian? That’s what Clinton did. Do you define Christianity by simply saying the right words, or also by actions? If a person who endorses infanticide also says in the next breath that they’re a Christian, for example, are we supposed to believe them?

      • Daniel Kuehn says:

        So if we’re talking about Jesus being many things and contested views this is kind of an irrelevant question. However, my background is semi-evangelical Protestant and I would definitely define it on the basis of profession of faith as a result.

        That having been said, we of course expect that faith to produce fruit. If anyone endorsed infanticide it would make me wary. But of course Clinton hasn’t done that. I definitely think Christians can be pro-choice. Plenty are. And that could even be the wrong position to take, but I don’t think it obviously invalidates a sincere profession of faith.

        • Andrew_FL says:

          Words don’t mean things, apparently.

        • Anonymous says:

          Daniel, whether you realize it or not, you’ve just made a very important admission. You’ve admitted that there are certain moral positions that–were a so-called “Christian” to take them–would cause you to be “wary” that he or she is even a Christian, regardless of this “Christian’s” empty words.

          But who decides what those moral positions are that would cause you to be “wary?” You? Your local Church? A certain theologian? Your family? By what authority do you make such judgments? Whose criteria do you use?

          This, of course, is why many Christians ultimately become Catholic. Because they realize that Protestantism in the end leads only to moral relativism, radical individualism, and familial and societal chaos. Perhaps this sounds overly harsh, so here’s a more thorough explanation of one of the points I’m trying to make: https://www.catholic.com/tract/whats-your-authority

          And you are absolutely wrong about Clinton, Daniel. She supports infanticide. She supports the killing of children up until the moment of birth, who could easily live outside the womb when they are killed. Let me know if you’d like me to send you her exact statements on that.

          Also, a couple Scripture verses for you:

          “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21).

          “But someone may say: So you have faith and I have good deeds? Show me this faith of yours without deeds, then! It is by my deeds that I will show you my faith. You believe in the one God–that is creditable enough, but even the demons have the same belief, and they tremble with fear.

          Fool! Would you not like to know that faith without deeds is useless?” (James 2: 18-20).

          • Daniel Kuehn says:

            Questions of authority are a big part of why I currently consider myself agnostic.

            But I still have enough Protestant sensibility in me to push back on this relativism thing. The fact that we, as humans, have nothing but our own insights into our relation with God (and whatever experience we can gather from others) to go on does indeed imply we’ll have varying perspectives and that in certain cases we may be wrong. But what’s new? That’s the human condition. Seeking out a more tightly controlled doctrinal structure doesn’t solve that problem it just gives you yet another of many plausible answers to the original question of exactly what the details of the faith are. The fact that you’ve claimed one authority gives you no evidence in itself for the authoritative force of that authority.

            So yes, this leaves us hanging a little but like I said that’s the human condition. The Protestant responds that we’re not saved by having exactly the right set of beliefs or doing exactly the right things. That’s a fools errand. If it happens with anyone it happens by accident. We’re saved by the work of Christ on the cross. Now if we follow Christ you’d expect to see certain patterns. But even that’s pretty weak evidence because everyone’s going to continue to sin and be wrong and moreover non-Christians frequently are – by their actions – about as good as Christians. So inference exercises here are plagued by a lot of noise. Even if they weren’t plagued by a lot of noise, an inference from works to faith is a roundabout route anyway. Why not just establish whether they claim Christ as their savior and be done with it?

            • Anonymous says:

              Hi Daniel, I don’t mean to be rude and I hope this doesn’t sound condescending, but I’m sensing quite a bit of despair and bitterness in your response here and in the one below. I’m very sorry to hear that you are agnostic now, and I will keep you in my prayers. I do not want to reveal my identity for various reasons, but I wish I could help you more, maybe send you some books written by saints or the Church Fathers to give you some encouragement.

              You seem to not want to answer any of the specifics I raised in my original comment (other than to claim I’m just giving you “bush league Sunday School” answers), so I likewise will not respond to your general claims that fail to answer the issues I brought up. I would just say that before you despair about issues regarding authority, etc., you may want to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church that John Paul II issued, for example, or any of the shorter works written by orthodox Catholic scholars. These will give very complete and systematic answers to a lot of the issues you’re raising here (and I dare you to call John Paul II a “bush league Sunday School” person.). 🙂

              Having been through a rather awful and strange childhood myself, I know that sometimes spiritual problems stem from bad personal experiences, and so as I said, I will keep you in my prayers.

              • Daniel Kuehn says:

                It’s not despair about authority at all. Maybe you would find despair in that, it was just a realization that I was presuming a lot of authority that I didn’t have warrant to presume (so why presume it?).

                No bad personal experiences (unless they’re so repressed neither I nor my family recalls them). Actually I started changing my stance on this in a class on Karl Barth. It was very much an intellectual journey and decision that a lot of what I thought wasn’t really holding up. My twin brother (twin study!) went through the same class and stuff in his formative years and he’s got a doctorate in theology and is still very much a believing Christian). So all your easy answers to that don’t really apply here.

                I got quite specific so I’m not sure where else to go on that.

                Don’t send me anything, please. I’m packing books up for a move and don’t need more coming in. Plus the idea of you tracking down my address is creepy.

          • Daniel Kuehn says:

            I don’t know who you are (obviously), but those faith/deeds scriptures are pretty bush league Sunday School debate as you’re using them. Of course Protestants think deeds are important and that you’re not going to manage to live as a Christian without deeds. The point is they are not what’s saving you and there’s no checklist or punch card of deeds that can fulfill that salvific work and people that stumble particularly frequently are not at risk if they’re saved through faith. None of those scriptures imply or say what you’re trying to make them say (and of course you’ve trotted out the major ones).

            Matthew – “will of my Father” is certainly required but there’s no indication this means a deeds checklist. The will of the Father is to accept the Lordship of the Son.

            James – He’s saying faith is unobservable but we can see its work in the world through how it changes you. Nobody denies this. Again, this is not a check list and it is also not a claim that deeds themselves have salvific power.

            • Anonymous says:

              Hi Daniel: Re: the creepiness, I frankly find people like you who reject moral absolutes and seem to have no problem with killing innocent children to be exceedingly creepy and disturbing. And so I try to argue against this sort of thing whenever I stumble upon it, as I have with Bob’s blog today. In the end, though, you’re really just hurting yourself, because you’ll have to answer to God. As I mentioned, I’ll pray for you. You do not sound like a happy person.

              • Daniel Kuehn says:

                First, being OK with the state not stopping abortions is different from being OK with abortions.

                Second, if you sincerely thought millions of babies were being killed you’d be taking much more extreme action than commenting anonymously on Facebook. Most peoples’ claimed views on abortion are belied by their relatively mild response to it. 58.5 million abortions since Roe v. Wade is quite horrific if you really consider it infanticide. If, for example, 58.5 million six month olds had been murdered since 1973 there would be all kinds of rioting and violence to stop it. Even the Nazis very carefully concealed the Holocaust because they knew it wouldn’t be well received. The fact that you’re just commenting anonymously on a blog and not actually doing something about the carnage suggests you don’t sincerely believe it’s infanticide.

              • Brian says:

                Daniel, I’m jumping in late here — so I’m not endorsing anything anyone else said.

                However, I want to take issue with the line of reasoning ” if you sincerely believe…” Not “rioting and violence” (or even just call it rabid activism) to advocate for a belief does not negate that belief being sincerely or passionately held.

                As it pertains to abortion/infanticide, we have to acknowledge that we don’t often see the carnage. Bodies are disposed of quietly. There’s no report on the nightly news. In certain ways, although different from the Nazis gas chambers, it is “concealed” in our contemporary culture.

                More broadly, this same type of argument (“if you sincerely believe X, you would do Y”) could be used against anything:
                * If you really believe people without Christ go to hell…
                * If you really believe Obamacare saves lives…
                * If you really believe Trump is that bad…
                * If you really believe abortion restrictions are violating women’s fundamental rights…
                * If you really believe bombing the Middle East creates more terrorists…

                Certainly, this can perhaps be used to motivate greater action but it can’t be used to negate that the belief itself is sincere. We all make economic decisions with our scarce time and resources, and maintaining our own life, security, and sanity is necessary in order to continue to advocate for our beliefs, unless/until we choose to engage in a suicide mission for the cause.

              • Daniel Kuehn says:

                Brian – a couple things. First, if fetuses aren’t the equivalent of babies it doesn’t mean they’re valueless. I have a lot of moral problems with abortion, but I do think the moral weight of a fetus is not the same as my seven month old. So when I suggest they don’t actually believe it’s infanticide let me be clear that I’m not saying their moral concerns in general are insincere. I think they’ve just fooled themselves about how significant they are.

                Also, it’s a general statement. Individual cases may sincerely believe it and have reasons not to act. But

                I think the same reasoning DOES apply to all of your other bullet points, but of course none of them carry with them anything like a 58 million body count, except perhaps the people going to hell one. And in that case, in prior ages, people did convert populations using extreme measures precisely because they sincerely believe that.

              • Daniel Kuehn says:

                I cut that one sentence off – I meant to say “But in general the likelihood is they don’t really believe it”

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hey Daniel, since I’m commenting anonymously, and you know nothing about me, how would you know that I haven’t done anything about abortion? I might be, for example, an attorney who litigates pro-life issues, or has worked to pass pro-life legislation, or who literally saved a friend from aborting her child, for all you know. I am ending this thread now, because you’re not answering any arguments and now you’re just being defensive and getting off the main topic. I originally jumped in here because I stumbled on this thread and thought the arguments regarding Christianity needed some assistance, shall we say. 🙂 And I can’t stand it when so-called Christians preach a false Gospel of moral relativism. Goodnight, prayers for you! May God bless you and be at work in your life.

    • Daniel Kuehn says:

      OK but even if you’re an attorney that does that it’s a pretty paltry way to respond to a Holocaust. Unless you’re sitting in jail right now for something I think it’s unlikely that you (or most anyone else) sincerely think it’s a Holocaust.

      You realize I’m psychoanalyzing you because you’ve gone on and on about how you think I’m in despair without knowing who I am, right?

      I have spoken to all of your specific points feel free to raise another.

  7. John Mann says:

    “Jesus Is Many Things to Many People”

    Or, to put it another way, there are many Christs. People see Jesus Christ in many ways. Often, the Jesus they see is remarkably like them. One is reminded of Schweitzer, who spoke of the quest for the historical Jesus in terms of people looking down a well, and seeing their own faces reflected in the water. People see what they want to see. They make God (and Jesus) in their own image.

    And some of Christs that people see are so strange that they bear very little resemblance to the Jesus of the New Testament. You know the sort of thing I mean – Jesus the hippy, Jesus the socialist, etc.

    Of course, that is not to say that there is not an objectively true Jesus, and that it is beyond us to see him pretty much as he is. But all to often, when I hear people describing how they see Jesus, I think of the phrase “false Christs” (Mark 13:22) who will deceive even the elect. Jesus may be many things to many people, but some of those things just ain’t true.

  8. Adrian Gabriel says:

    Great blog post here Dr Murphy. The idea that I have derived from your transliteration is that the sword mentioned is Love. It is Love so fervent (flaming), that those sinners succumb to it’s grandeur. Indeed one would have to reference the Bible to understand the duties of a Christian. Quite simply, with Love there is no violence or coercion. I have yet to reach that point during my present bible study sessions where I am convinced of any sort of physical violence emanating from the life of a Christian.

    I find this image of the sword periodically evinced in the Bible, and the only conclusion I can arrive to is that when God ardently proclaims his fortitude he does so not in a tyrannical way, but in a way that espouses the prowess of his Love. I find it hard to believe a strict fundamentalist reading of the Bible would result in any so called Christian embracing violence or coercion upon others, unless of course the invasion of property has been undertaken.

    The ideas of non-aggression are found throughout the Bible, it simply seems to me that those reading scripture get lost and believe the world the way it is is something we should all come to accept and take part in, even if the ramifications of certain actions are contrary to our inherent human ethics-the Gold Rule.

    When discussing abortion, I stand as a profound pro-lifer. With an empire in place we have to remember that any rules enforced will affect the population as a whole. If the law promotes funding abortion clinics, I find it morally wrong of the system to steal my money and appropriate it to those means. Albeit if a young woman believes she requires a terminal approach to ridding herself of a mistake still within her body, I will not force my ethics upon her and support a system that will throw her into a prison cell if she ultimately decides to abort. Individually I believe I would coach her to make the moral decision, that of conceiving the child and later placing that child up for adoption or finding familial help to raise them. I would not promote using government handouts to this approach.

    It would be hasty of a fellow Christian to judge another fellow man for his wrong doings, and wielding his sanctimonious approach to life as a weapon of force within man’s law. Christians are non-violent, why compromise on a system of coercion? Even if planned parenthood were defunded, as is the case when any law is imposed by a government monopoly, illegitimate activity arises within a blackmarket that tends to be of lower quality and essentially more dangerous. Within the free privatized market, enterprises are more controlled and safer.

    For this reason, noting that Matthew 7:3-5 highlights the essential facts of not judging others, all we can do is be that Loving and subtle watchman for our brethren whom espouses God’s tutelage. We cannot believe we are holier than thou when it comes to issues involving an individual whom is still perhaps trying to understand God themselves. Overall, the “cut it all” approach to government I believe, is that which is most logically girded by the Bible.

  9. Adrian Gabriel says:

    An important disclaimer to my response above, I meant to state that even if planned parenthood were eradicated and made illegal (making criminal the erecting of abortion clinics), a more dangerous blackmarket for abortions would arise.

    Indeed planned parenthood should be defunded without question, but in a Capitalist society private enterprise tends to quell what we believe results in violence, poverty, or more dangerous predicaments for individuals in search of those very services.

    Only through salvation will we notice, not only illegitimacy rates fall, but abortions as well. The will of individuals to accept Jesus Christ as one’s savior is the manner by which greater forbearance is achieved.

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