Ditch the modern-day masks of Jesus (pt. 1)

Jesus is arguably the most influential person to ever walk the Earth – and perhaps the most misunderstood. For many, he was a great moral teacher and speaker, for others, a great activist, and yet for others, a fictional character who was deified throughout the years.

Here are just three of his many modern-day masks that can help us reflect and encounter the true Jesus of the Gospels, the one the Church has defended throughout the ages.

Jesus all-loving, all-permissive

In a society that hears “closed-mindedness” and “imposition” with the mention of “truth,” Jesus can’t be cold hearted or a proclaimer of truth. He’s a nice guy. He doesn’t force anyone. He understands. He’s not too demanding. He will forgive you. Jesus then turns into a person who lets people remain where they are, in their sin, because he’s “compassionate.”

Jesus is all-loving and all-merciful, there’s no doubt about that. He will forgive you if you repent. Yet, we must look at what love and mercy really mean. When Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery, he doesn’t condemn her, he forgives her. Yet he adds, “Go and sin not again” (Jn 8:1-11).

Jesus lifts her up and calls her to conversion. It is the latter that is not very popular – it’s uncomfortable. But what Jesus is doing is calling her to a better life, to what she’s meant to be, to authentic happiness. True mercy and love lead to a change in life. If Jesus didn’t call you to truth and conversion, he’d be giving up on you, not helping you become who you’re meant to be.

Jesus, the activist commie

For many people, Jesus was a radical social activist who died for the cause of the poor and marginalized. Yet, this revolutionary Jesus becomes merely a great historical figure who fought for the rights of the underrepresented, stripping him of all divinity.

Jesus, nonetheless, claimed to be God and not a mere moral teacher. The Jews of his time saw it clearly, which is why they sought to kill him: “[He makes] himself equal to God” (Jn 5:18).

Even more, his morality was centered around himself: “I am the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6). As C.S. Lewis puts it, if this isn’t true, then Jesus was really an egotistic madman “compared with whom Hitler was the most sane and humble of men.” That means that only God can say such things, and if we didn’t believe in his divinity, he would have to be a lunatic instead of a great moral teacher.

There’s no “in-between.” Either ultimate human fulfillment consists in social, economic or earthly factors, or in a God, as Jesus claimed to be. And we know that nothing on this earth can satisfy the deepest longings of the heart, which is constantly pleading for a transcendent “more” or, I would say, a transcendent “Someone.”

Jesus was spiritual (but not religious)

Nowadays it’s popular to be spiritual but not so much religious. Many Christians themselves don’t affiliate with a specific church. This view holds that Jesus never intended to establish an actual church, but instead wanted us to simply follow his teachings.

I believe this position partially comes from a response to a “wound.” People identify “religion” with the negative things they have heard or experienced: corruption, sexual abuse, greed… People have lost faith in religious institutions. Moreover, the constant push in society to put the “me” in the center of everything, defying all authority, also plays a role. When you include a good desire to know God in the equation, you end up with an individualistic Christianity. We end up making a god according to our image and opinions.

This is nothing new. Christians have wanted to make their own god since the time of the apostles, from the so-called “super apostles” that Paul fought (2 Cor 11:5) to his Corinthian community that needed constant correction. However, there was always an authority that guided early Christian communities and solved new issues in the light of the teachings of Christ (Acts 15:23-29). If there had not been an authority, there would have been no unity. And where there’s unity and authority, there’s a religion.

Jesus established that authority, the apostles, and gave Peter the keys of the kingdom, choosing him as the “rock” upon which he would build his “Church” and promising that the powers of Hell (heresy) would not overcome it (Mt 16:18-19). Saying that Jesus didn’t want to establish a Church would be like saying that he intended people to follow and interpret him in their own way. The early Church knew this and fought against all distortion of Christ’s image and teaching. His same Church continues to do so up to our day.

COMING UP: A caveat on the great Tom Wolfe

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

When the great Tom Wolfe died on May 14 — he of the white suits, the spats, and the prose style as exuberant as his wardrobe — I, like millions of others, remembered the many moments of pleasure I had gotten from his work.

My Wolfe-addiction began on a cross-country flight in 1979, shortly after The Right Stuff was published. Always an airplane and space nut, I was fascinated by Wolfe’s re-creation of the culture of America’s test pilots and astronauts at the height of the Cold War. And there was that extraordinarily vivid writing. At one point I burst out laughing, scaring the daylights of the elderly lady sitting next to me but not daring to show her the passage — it must have involved Pancho Barnes’ Happy Bottom Riding Club, a saloon outside Edwards Air Force Base — that set me off.

After The Right Stuff got me going on Tom Wolfe, it was impossible to stop. The first half of Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers — Wolfe’s scathing account of a reception thrown for the Black Panthers by Leonard and Felicia Bernstein — remains the quintessential smack-down of political correctness among the 1% cultural elites. From Bauhaus to Our House explains why anyone with an aesthetic sense thinks something is seriously wrong with modernist architecture, and does so in a way that makes you laugh rather than cry.

Then there was Wolfe’s first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities. One of its chapters, “The Masque of the Red Death,” takes its title from Edgar Allan Poe and with mordant humor dissects the vacuity of Manhattanites consumed (and in some cases destroyed) by their grotesque, over-the-top consumerism. I recently re-read that stunning set-piece and the thought occurred, as it had before, that it was a far more effective polemic against materialism than anything ever issued by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Bonfire was also brilliant in skewering the destructiveness of New York’s race hustlers, the obtuseness of a values-free media, and the fecklessness of too many politicians.

Asked once by monks who run a prestigious prep school what they might do to disabuse parents of the notion that their sons were doomed if they didn’t get into Harvard, Duke, Stanford, and the like, I suggested giving a copy of I Am Charlotte Simmons to the parents of every incoming senior. Wolfe’s fictional tale of life on elite American university campuses in the 21st century is a sometimes-jarring exercise in the social realism practiced (a bit less brutally) by Dickens and Balzac. But Charlotte Simmons, like Wolfe’s other fiction, has a serious moral core and an important cultural message. The young innocent, the brightest girl in town who makes it to an elite university, gets corrupted by stages: and her moral corruption is preceded by intellectual corruption — the class in which she’s taught that there’s really nothing properly called “the truth.”

I do have one post-mortem caveat to register about Tom Wolfe’s oeuvre, which takes me back to The Right Stuff (and while we’re on that subject again, forget the inane movie). The central figure in Wolfe’s tale of aeronautical daring-do is Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the “sound barrier” in the Bell X-1, and did so with a couple of broken ribs, which he managed in flight with the aid of a sawed-off broom handle. Yeager was an extraordinary figure who never became a national celebrity because of the (absurd) news blackout surrounding the X-1 project, and Wolfe clearly wanted to pay tribute to him as an unsung American hero.

To do so, however, Tom Wolfe seemed to think he needed a foil, and he cast astronaut Gus Grissom in that role: “L’il Gus,” the Hoosier grit lampooned as a bumbler to make Yeager look even better. And that was a grave disservice to the memory of Virgil I. Grissom, who did not mess up the second Mercury space flight (Wolfe’s account notwithstanding), and who gave his life for his country in the launch pad fire that consumed Apollo 1 — which Grissom knew to be a deeply flawed spacecraft and had urged NASA to improve.

So now that Tom Wolfe and Gus Grissom have both crossed what Wolfe once called the Halusian Gulp, I hope these two American patriots are reconciled. Both had the right stuff.