Can’t We Put the Brakes on ‘Good Jesus’ Propaganda?

The gospels can help with that

For well over a thousand years, the laity did not have access to the Bible. The few cherished copies were in churches and monasteries; there were no printing presses or translations into the vernacular. The folks who filled the pews learned about Jesus through paintings, sculpture, architecture, stained glass, music and the Mass. And, following the lead of the apostle Paul, the focus was on the risen Christ, the celestial figure who was the key to salvation.

The gospels were written to tell the story that Paul virtually ignored, or perhaps more accurately, wasn’t even aware of. He made a point of not learning about Jesus from the people who had known him; even his ‘account’ of the Last Supper was based on his hallucinations—or as he put it, “For what I received from the Lord…” long after Jesus had died. (I Cor. 11:23)

The gospel writers provide us with widely cherished Jesus lore, the essence of good-Jesus propaganda, e.g., the parables of the good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, Jesus teaching Mary and Martha, inviting himself to the home of the tax collector Zacchaeus, preaching that the meek shall inherit the earth, and coaching the disciples, “Let the little children come unto me…” And, of course, his stunning claims found in John’s gospel, “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” “In my father’s house are many mansions,” “God so loved the world…”

The cumulative impact of these texts is hardly a surprise. Bart Ehrman has called it “the idealized Jesus of the imagination.” It’s easy to succumb to the propaganda, and take for granted that Jesus was the greatest moral teacher in history, and that his is “the greatest story ever told.”

Once this belief has become lodged in the brain—reinforced by the production values mustered by the church, i.e., the paintings, sculpture, stained glass, and music—it is highly resistant; there is little hope of dislodging it, especially when mindless pop-theology about ‘belonging to Jesus’ is added to the mix.

If, however, one reads the gospels with a critical eye, it’s easy to figure out that the ‘idealized Jesus’ didn’t exist—and this quite apart from the issue of the historicity of Jesus. As presented in the gospels, Jesus was not a saint.

Christian apologists work overtime to disguise this fact, but there is also the cumulative impact of reading the texts about Jesus that are starkly out of sync with the propaganda that grabs most attention. It’s easy to fall for the idealization of the gospel writers as well, those pious guys who supposedly wanted to ‘keep the memory of Jesus alive.’ But they had their agendas, and this emerges from a close reading of the texts. They seem to have been the fiercest promoters of the early Jesus cult; it is no exaggeration to say that they were cult fanatics.

They craved undiluted devotion from the people who belonged to the in-group—or those who were considering joining. Luke, in the sequel to his gospel, in Acts, chapter 5, tells the chilling story of Peter’s withering denunciation of Ananias and Sapphira, as a consequence of which they dropped dead. Apparently it served them right for not giving to the church all the cash from the sale of property. Without a doubt Luke included this episode because he considered Peter the good guy; to us he comes off as the heavy.

Jesus seems to be thinking along the same lines, as reported in Mark 12. He and the disciples witness a woman giving a couple of small coins to the temple treasury: “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” How can that be a good thing? The woman had been duped. Church bureaucrats who grudgingly settle for the ten percent tithe no doubt appreciate Jesus’ comment, and we can be sure that Mark was giving a heads-up to his readers.

This is a subtle appeal for cult loyalty, but there are other texts that are amazingly blunt. There is nothing subtle at all about Mark 10:29-30:

• Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.’”

On no level does this make sense. How can Jesus not deserve demerits—and how in the world can this kind of sacrifice be considered admirable or desirable? Matthew’s take on this, in chapter 10, is even more alarming:

• “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

This is probably not the best time to ask, “What would Jesus Do?”

But Jesus’ reputation takes an even greater hit in Luke, chapter 14. This text is a masterpiece—for those who appreciate manipulative recruiting. Luke knew exactly what he was doing. Here Jesus tells a parable about those who will be welcome in the Kingdom of God. A planned banquet is jeopardized when the invited guests make excuses for not showing up, prompting the host to send his servant to invite random people from the ‘streets and lanes,’ namely “…the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” What a heartwarming story, right? This would have resonated with the folks who never make it onto invitation lists—and would never be welcome at a banquet. “So, let’s crash the party, take our seats at the table.”

But, in reality, qualifying for the Jesus cult wasn’t that easy after all. Right away, Luke makes it clear that he was on the lookout for a certain profile. Those who might waiver because of family commitments—well, they need not apply. He came up with this horrifying Jesus script:

• “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” And a few verses later, echoing Peter’s sentiment about Ananias and Sapphira: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

We find more of this extremism in Luke 9:59-62:

• “To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”

Even a cherished text takes on a sinister tone when seen against this background. In Matthew 22:37, Jesus calls this the ‘first and greatest’ commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That’s not the way religion works for people who live normal lives. The super pious who opt for the cloistered life may make a stab at it, but they’re the ones who have gone over the edge into the cult.

Cult leaders are so cocksure that they know God better than anyone else, so nothing short of total allegiance can be tolerated. It’s hardly a surprise that these Jesus sayings have fueled the rhetoric of crazy preachers. And it’s no wonder that the God they embrace is vindictive and intolerant.

In the case of Jesus, the wrathful Yahweh is still in charge; he cites two horror stories from the Old Testament.

In Luke 10 we read that Jesus sent out seventy followers to preach the news of the coming kingdom. He has no patience with people who might disagree; those who don’t accept the message will be destroyed.

• “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”

And we read in Matthew 24:37-39 that when Jesus descends from heaven, to initiate the Kingdom of God for the chosen few, almost all of humanity will be killed off; the Noah genocide will be repeated.

• “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

No one can say, “Well, you have to dig through the fine print…” to discover all these cult-flavored pronouncements. Not at all; they’re in full view. One consolation might be that Jesus himself probably didn’t say these things. We have no way of knowing because the teachings of Jesus are lost forever, irretrievable by those who wrote a half-century and more after the fact. We might wonder why the gospel writers would have written such embarrassing scripts. But there’s a simple answer: they weren’t embarrassing to them. Cult fanatics know what they want to accomplish.

But why aren’t Christians today appalled? I suppose many are, but are content to step around these landmines to hunt for the good stuff that ‘sounds about right’ for the Son of God. They indulge in denial, as today’s meme suggested: They don’t want to know. When faced with too much cognitive dissonance, they run.

Moreover, when the hate-your-family verse (Luke 14:26) is mentioned, I hear the indignant protest, “Well, Jesus couldn’t have meant that.” The ideal Jesus of their imagination is all that counts. My common response: “So you’re an expert on ancient Aramaic and Greek? You can figure out what he meant?” I also recommend Hector Avalos’ 39-page chapter on this verse in The Bad Jesus.

When believers know in their hearts that Jesus is the perfect Son of God—the idea can’t be dislodged from their brains—even the most negative texts can be discounted somehow. Apologists, superb contortionists that they are, have outdone themselves—excusing, modifying, obfuscating. Laypeople who bother to read their tracts breathe sighs of relief and scurry back to the Jesus they belong to.

But the texts won’t go away. They stand as an indictment. Maybe the ideal Jesus of the imagination will wear thin someday, and Christianity won’t be able to get way forever with the good-Jesus propaganda.

Of course we know what the ancient Jesus cult offered to those who were asked to give up everything. They were let in on the secret of salvation; most cults made such offers.

• Mark 10:45: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
• Hebrews 9:28: “…so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.”
• Romans 10:9: “…if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Same old, same old you-can-get-out-of-dying shtick. We’re expected to trust the cult fanatics—take your pick, I suppose—that they’ve got it right.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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