Should churches and related institutions ever sponsor speakers who reject key tenets of Christian faith?
A Jesus Seminar radical theologian’s appearance at a Northern Virginia Episcopal Church under sponsorship by the Diocese of Virginia has rightly sparked controversy. Bishop Shannon Johnston defends the sponsorship of Crossan’s “provocative” beliefs even while calling some of them “offensive,” such as rejecting Christ’s bodily resurrection. Johnston seems to think that Crossan, even when not countered by a defender of orthodox faith, is a legitimate teacher for Christian clergy and laity. His is a conventional liberal Protestant view that often sees the church not as unique proclaimer of Gospel but a host for dialogue.
Even from the latter perspective, Crossan’s stale and rigidly rationalist deconstruction of Christian faith is passé and not particularly interesting now, if ever. Crossan is a former Catholic priest who lost his faith and found meaning in 19th century German higher criticism dialectical materialism, rejecting all supernaturalism in favor of ostensible science and reason. He co-chaired the still existing but now mostly ignored Jesus Seminar, which gained headlines in the 1980s and 1990s for hosting liberal scholars who voted with color marbles on which New Testament stories were true. Stories of miracles were never true of course, while stories, if shorn of their transcendent purpose, that could support liberal political and social causes were definitely true. The Jesus Seminar was founded by Robert Funk, who admitted late in life that one purpose was to overthrow Christian sexual morality. The headlines about wild dogs eating Jesus’ un-resurrected corpse or the Virgin Mary impregnated by a Roman soldier eventually lost shock value and faded from view. Few liberals under age 70 still care about the Jesus Seminar, which extolled an Enlightenment view of reality now superseded by post-modernity.
Fifteen years ago I attended a Jesus scholarship conference at United Methodism’s Duke Divinity School. Crossan was a featured speaker, as was fellow Jesus Seminar pundit Marcus Borg. Only one orthodox scholar was included as a panelist, N.T. Wright. At the start, the seven authors were asked which Gospel stories definitely were not true. Crossan cited the Last Supper, the 12 disciples, and the Lord’s Prayer, all of which the early church invented as part of its “crisis management.” Cleverly, Wright responded that the gnostic Gospel of Thomas was untrue.
All but Wright denied Jesus’ bodily resurrection, with one comparing stories of resurrection to sightings of Elvis. Crossan agreeably said. “It doesn’t matter where Jesus’ bones are. It doesn’t matter where Elvis’ bones are either because Elvis is still around. The real question is: Why is Elvis important? Faith doesn’t need superstition.” He denied that the early church believed in bodily resurrection, showing himself more ideologue than scholar.
“Does God want atonement?” asked Crossan asked about Christian belief about the meaning of the cross. “I find that incredibly obscene. Atonement is transcendental child abuse. I will not worship that God. I would rather stay in hell away from him.”
Regarding virgin birth, Crossan sarcastically asked Wright if he also believed the Roman myth that Caesar Augustus’s mother was impregnated by the god Apollo. “No,” Wright responded, “Because the god in question is not a real god.” Of course, unlike Wright, Crossan does not believe the God of the Bible and of the Church is a real god either. It’s all mythology requiring deconstruction by liberal scholars like himself.
Crossan and aging Jesus Seminar advocates don’t offer a different perspective on Christianity. They emphatically reject it. They, and not God, are the ultimate authority. Why would any church wish to host or extol this perspective?
Yes, Christians should be well informed about the critiques of Christian faith. They aren’t hard to find. They constantly surround us. The church’s vocation is to equip believers with the spiritual and intellectual tools for proactive response. It’s not to give equal time, much less unchallenged time, to sneering skeptics like Crossan.
It’s interesting that Bishop Johnston, in responding to Crossan, affirms the literal bodily resurrection of Christ. Jesus Seminar style liberalism, with its absolutist materialism, is dying. Post modern liberalism accepts stories of miracles and transcendence but is discomfited by universal truth claims. Hence it can’t really argue with Crossan et al directly. It mostly argues with orthodox voices, especially on moral issues.
Crossan’s sponsorship by Virginia Episcopalians confirms the divisions among Anglicans and the wider church in the West aren’t about sex but about the core truth claims of Christianity. So in that sense, Crossan’s Episcopal visit was helpful.