I have written hundreds of reviews, and most of them have been positive. I am quite hard on academic authors, but still work hard to accentuate the positive. When I was a music reviewer, there were a few albums I left behind because I had the luxury of picking my favourite CDs to review. With books, it is more difficult. There was only one book I refused to review after taking the time to read it, Ryan Dobson’s 2003 Be Intolerant: Because Some Things Are Just Stupid. Some things that Dobson pointed out really were stupid, but the book overall had the potential for such great harm, I could not recommend it. I haven’t read the 2007 rewrite, but I appreciate Dobson’s recent anti-bullying campaign.
So it pains me to write this review of “Saving Jesus Redux,” a 12-part DVD curriculum. This was not a good experience.
I was very excited to receive this resource, which has some leading figures of biblical studies and contemporary Christian conversations, including Walter Brueggemann, Marcus Borg, Hans Küng, Amy Jill-Levine, John Dominic Crossan, and Brian McLaren. These 12 video lessons of 30-35 minutes each are meant to be a small group Bible study or Sunday School resource. Its goal overall is to critique popular and religious images of Jesus that have emerged historically or in the contemporary American culture wars.
I really do appreciate some of the key messages, like a post-colonial faith perspective that is politically and socially subversive, inclusive, anti-imperial, compassionate, loving, and imaginative. The videos are a combination of living room interviews and clips from lectures and sermons. I especially like the sermons, as conservative Christians will be tempted to miss the passion in some of these more progressive voices. And although the academic voice is heavily male, there is an attempt of balance with a number of women’s voices in the interviews and with a diversity of narrators. The neighbourly re-orientation of Jesus is an essential pastoral task.
There were some new voices in this series that I quite liked. Robin Meyers is a minister, professor, and commentator that Americans may know, and was a generous and inviting character. Diana Butler Bass and Winnie Varghese were winsome interviewees bringing in ta pastoral perspective. Interviews with Helen Prejean, the mind behind Dead Man Walking and an anti-capital punishment advocate, were delightful. And, man, James Forbes can preach.
Some of the moments with the big names I mentioned above showed them at their best. But just some of the moments. Overall, the tone of polemic—the battle against conservative, traditional, historical, and literal readings—painted this entire series in colours of war. In a curriculum trying to draw out the fine shading of living a Jesus life, what comes out are the stark contrasts of black and white and red.
I have, of course, quibbles with individual parts. I will only touch on a couple of moments.
I think the producers are deceptive in not saying how much out of step of historical Christianity the non-historical resurrection message is in the video, “Practicing Resurrection.” I don’t know if that deception is self-deception or just the limits of the project. One thing that makes me suspect the former is the inclusion of John Shelby Spong’s assertion that the idea of the bodily resurrection occurs nowhere in the earlier documents of the New Testament—that it occurs nowhere in Paul. Besides the fact that Paul was a Pharisee, a community that believed in bodily resurrection, I don’t think Spong accounts for 1 Cor 15, where Paul speaks clearly of bodily resurrection leading to 15:17, “if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain.” I think it is okay to say that Paul is wrong, or that we are reading Paul wrong. This series skirts the issue altogether and claims that it is presenting the real story by cutting out the bits that don’t fit with their views.
While Bible readers will be frustrated by this deceptive presentation, we must remember the difficulty of this brand of progressive theology. For conservative Bible readers, the formula is simple: the story of Israel is one of God working in history, so they take a passage as largely historical unless the context or genre suggest otherwise. For the minds behind “Saving Jesus Redux,” there is a more complex mix of reading the Bible as metaphor and history. It is a difficult idea to present with the confines of a short series. But I think that is a real problem. I have read these authors, and I know their “hermeneutic”—their approach to reading the Bible. And I was still left puzzled by what comes across as a tic-tac-toe approach to Scriptures, a build-your-own-Barbie random selection of ideas. Why this moment is historical and this moment is metaphorical is never made clear. In this way, the series really fails to present liberal or progressive Christian thinking well.
Overall, Prof. Bernard Brandon Scott was the weakest commentator, arguing that the term of “Lord” for Jesus is post-70 CE, during what he calls the apocalyptic period of the early church. This, of course, ignores all that Paul said before his death in the mid-60s CE. When talking about “Lord,” the interviewees seem ignorant of the Jewish context of early Christianity—the very thing that begins the series. The Jewish context of Paul’s work is missed almost entirely. Finally, some ideas that are speculative are presented as normal. An example is Matthew Fox’s interesting idea that Jesus was excluded from the synagogue in his youth because of his illegitimacy. An intriguing idea, but the consequence in the video goes much further than the evidence Fox presents (which is none).
All of this amounts to what I call “Bathwater Christianity.” The theology of “Saving Jesus” is one that commits to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Jesus is Lord of life but we must leave behind all images of ruler. The commentators say that Jesus is many things; why can he not be both? The narrator says that being a Christian is not about belief, but about being a certain way in the world. How can real faith not be both? How do we live in the world as a follower of Jesus unless we know who we are, what the world is, and who Jesus is? A moment of critical thought will show us that thinking and living are intricately linked. Why must we choose between metaphor and history in reading the Bible? Why can not a healing of Jesus be both the mending of flesh and the enlightening of spirit? The assertion of “Practicing Resurrection” is brilliant, but why must real resurrection living be premised on a metaphorical reading of Jesus after the cross? In all of these ways, “Saving Jesus” presents an anemic faith, one that is founded on beautiful ideas or the fads of contemporary ethics and aesthetics, while eschewing Israel’s message that God enters into history. I don’t think they mean to be anti-Jewish; they have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.
True, true: the bathwater is dirty enough. But a real highlight for me was Amy Jill-Levine’s personal story of growing up Jewish—as a “Christ-killer”—within a generous Christian community. It is a passion of mine that Bible readers hear her message in the session, “Who Killed Jesus?” She takes a very strong argument and puts it in simple, personal terms. Marcus Borg, too, was able to speak outside of the polemical colours of the video, especially in the fireside chat segments. There are some twisted ideas about Jesus and faith at play in the world today. I want Christians to speak up on these ideas—even if we may disagree on some points.
My real concern with “Saving Jesus Redux,” though, is the impenetrable tone of arrogance. The series begins with this phrase, “I don’t mean to shock you, but Jesus was Jewish.” It is dripping with sarcasm, and that tone taken up by the narrators runs throughout. “Practicing Resurrection” begins by saying, “the only way one can maintain an unquestioning literal interpretation of the events surrounding that first Easter is by steadfastly avoiding reading the Bible.” A great irony given that it moves next to former Bishop Spong, a non-literal reader who does this very thing. The seething condemnation of one of the narrators in response to one American Christian’s ignorant racism is then used as a reason to condemn all literal readings of the Bible. It is a good poker trick.
And that is the big tension in this series. The producers are trying to give the audience permission to be more inclusive. This is what I want too. I want people to learn what it means to be a neighbour.
But the producers of “Jesus Saved” encourage inclusivism through mockery and condemnation. They are only interested in including people who agree with them. The hypocrisy is potent. People who believe in the Nicene Creed are mocked for worrying about the finer points of theology after the series has spent several hours talking about the finer points of theology. Conservative Christians are critiqued for being divisive in their image of Jesus. True enough. But never once do the commentators or narrators admit that they are creating a new stream of Christianity, a new image of Jesus, a new way of being in the world. They are, of course, being divisive.
I am not American, so I know that I don’t feel the heat of the culture war as much as those who live life in the United States. So I think a lot of the blood in this film comes out of that war context. These are important ideas that we need to work through. And I have sympathies with some of the messages in “Saving Jesus.” But I think that this video loses the war by fighting as their “enemies” do. Their message of compassion, inclusion, critical thinking, and spiritual authenticity is destroyed by the tools they use to communicate it. And by the fact that they have targeted enemies in this way.
There are minor production concerns. The series is repetitive, and the videos could be about half the length with the same content. As I have said, the commentators are not even in quality, so some of the brilliant moments are dulled. The writing that provides the commentary is meant to be punchy, sharp, and bright, but comes across as a blunt instrument. The production is a bit old fashioned, but we must remember how expensive video production is, and their laudable attempt to include 15 or 20 of Euro-America’s leading voices.
But this last moment is worth note. “Our country” in this video is the United States. There are 26 commentators listed on the webpage; one-third of them are women. John Dominic Crossan is Irish, but moved to the U.S. as a young man. There is a New Zealand scholar and a couple of British accents, as well as a brief clip from German Hans Küng. But where does the ideology of this film series fit in global Christianity? There are no African, Asian, or Latin American voices. This could be because of the focus, and that this series should really be titled, “Saving Jesus from American Conservatives.” Perhaps Jesus needs to be saved from American Conservatives. But the truth is that these scholars and pastors and commentators are so radically out of step with global Christianity. Their belief would be unrecognizable some of the other most Christian countries in the world, like Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, Nigeria, or China. The world has changed, and this video re-presentation of 19th century Eurocentric liberal Christianity is out of step with that change. It is not progressive, but retrogressive
Now, the perspective of “Saving Jesus Redux” could be the right perspective. I don’t mean this lightly. As engaged believers, we must constantly be in a project of self-critique and exploration of faith. If we have personal, cultural, or historical blinders that bend the way we read Scripture and the Christian message—as past Christians had concerning slavery or the status of women as human beings—we need correction. But this series fails most in giving us the chance to engage in real self-critique. The series is filled with loosely connected sound bytes based around a hidden ideology. Some of the sound bytes are brilliant, truly. And I agree with many of the messages. But instead of an intelligent, well-presented option of seeing Christianity as hopeful and inclusive, we are given a Bathwater Christianity that is exclusive, Eurocentric, and out of touch. It has all the credibility of a History channel documentary. I cannot see how anyone watching this video would want to embrace their philosophy of life fully unless they are already against all the things these commentators are against.
So, my disappointment is palpable. Instead of watching this video, I would encourage people to actually read Marcus Borg, Brian MacLaren, Walter Brueggemann, Amy-Jill Levine, Dom Crossan, and Helen Prejean. Their individual works, whether you agree with them or not, are far better than this collective whole.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this DVD free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.