One always hopes that a new year will both usher in what’s truly new and show the door to what’s proven stale. An example of the latter would be yet more "new" revelations about the "real" Jesus. No such luck. Paul Verhoeven, the man who brought us Robocop, Basic Instinct, Total Recall , and the Citizen Kane of lap-dancing melodramas, Showgirls , is making his own foray into that besotted enterprise .
I was particularly taken with how taken Mr. Verhoeven is with the gravity of his project: “[My story] really goes into the politics of the time and tries to show a lot of things that have been buried and eliminated by Christianity. My scriptwriter told me not to do the movie in the United States because they might shoot me. So I took his advice and decided to write a book about it first.”
Yes, you remember how the perpetrators of the Jesus Seminar scam ¯where casino-inspired card flips passed for real scholarship¯were mowed down, Mob-style. You remember how the streets ran red with blood when The Da Vinci Code sold skatey-eight million copies and then went on to make more than $200 million in fundamentalist America. And, of course, there was that dirty bomb that went off on publication of the Gospel of Thomas and that continues to make several area codes in the Mid-Atlantic states uninhabitable.
One can only wonder what astonishing revelation about the Jesus-we-never-knew Verhoeven intends? After all, Christianity has undergone more historical-critical surgery, more deconstruction, more Enlightenment demythologizing than any religion on earth¯and more is yet to come. Marcus Borg¯he of Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time and Jesus: A New Vision and The God We Never Knew ¯has another book out about yet another until-now-hidden real Jesus .
Here is a quick review of the startling authentic facts other “authorities” have unearthed about Jesus, which St. Paul, the early Church, the Vatican, and Fox News have kept hidden in a vault somewhere:
• Jesus was insane .
What’s remarkable is that there’s no reason to believe this fevered Jesus industry will go out of business anytime soon, despite the authoritative scholarly thwacking delivered it by N.T. Wright in his masterful "Christian Origins and the Question of God" trilogy. Books, movies, websites, and religion classes will continue to argue that Jesus, who is the central figure of the largest religion in the world, was so uninteresting that no one could be bothered to record his words and deeds accurately, or was so insignificant that his followers felt compelled to invent pious lies to thicken his story. And so his early mythographers opted for the deification plotline (guaranteed to offend the fiercely monotheistic Jews), with a resurrection twist (guaranteed to send Gentiles into giggle fits). In fact, these Palestinian Clifford Irvings were so successful in selling their new edgy messiah that they were all either executed or exiled. Good plan. Nicely done.
So what keeps the Jesus-we-never-knew business in business?
1. We do love a conspiracy theory. We’ve been trained through hard experience and The X Files never to accept the official story. I was reminded of our ingrained skepticism this past Saturday, when I overheard a conversation between a bank teller and a customer about the execution of Saddam Hussein. The issue wasn’t whether the execution was morally correct; rather, was that really Saddam with a noose around his neck¯or a double ? The teller heard from his cousin it was a double. I know I was convinced . . . that I should make more of an effort not to listen in on other people’s conversations.
2. We’re still here. The orthodox Christian faith¯that which embraces the Christology of the first four ecumenical councils¯isn’t going away. In fact, it’s blossoming in the Global South. Yes, an anemic theology, drained of the blood of the lamb, has left the state churches of Europe withered and enfeebled. But orthodox believers from African and Asia have already begun a search-and-rescue mission in the heathen West.
3. It’s good work if you can get it. What better way to draw attention to yourself¯to be the next go-to brainiac when Time and Newsweek plan their semi-annual religion issues¯than to place on the market not just a new story but a new "god," just like one of us, a slob like one of us, as that Joan Osborne song lyric goes. Which is why it’s not so crazy that a Verhoeven wants in. All the demythographers are mass-entertainment artists of a sort, rewriting the Greatest Story Ever Told and painting fresh pictures of a new-and-improved, consumer-friendly Lord. And to risk martyrdom while you’re at it¯what ready-made dust-jacket blurbosity! What fantastic fodder for a marketing campaign!
4. We hate that hell stuff. And that "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life" exclusivity. Had Jesus’ redactors gotten out more, spoken to some Zoroastrians or Buddhists, or been able to predict the rise of Islam and Scientology, they would have considered cutting-edge sociological accounts of the rise of religious belief and taken a more relativistic tone.
5. He is risen. The Jesus who the demythographers seek to "recover" simply continues to elude them. The "Jesus of history" is no longer available for dissection and is not accessible to the historian’s tools. This is not to say that Jesus of Nazareth did not truly live, teach, preach, die, and rise again in a specific historical period (under Pontius Pilate, as we say in the Creed) and in a specific geographical location. But that Jesus can no longer be touched. That Jesus has already suffered all that history can do to him. The time to lay hands on that Jesus and interrogate him as to his "real" identity is long gone. That Jesus will not be crucified again.
Jesus now is accessible only to the eyes of faith (John 20: 29). Just as none of Jesus’ contemporaries who saw him passing by exclaimed, "There goes the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity enfleshed¯two natures in one person, begotten not made!" no one who wishes to know Jesus today can do so in any way other than by the power of the Holy Spirit, which is to say, by faith: a faith elucidated and explicated by a long train of disciples rooted in the only coherent Jesus narrative we have¯the New Testament. The same New Testament that offers stern warnings against perseverance in sin, unbelief, and apostasy¯in short, judgments in a decidedly nonjudgmental age.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the director of Starship Troopers is keen to offer another installment in the "Secret Jesus" saga. These works of pseudo-science fiction are downright addicting¯escapism and intrigue sexed up with anti-establishment, anti-clerical defiance.
In other words, just as publishers will continue to pump out Star Trek and Star Wars stories as long as there are kids who dream of the heavens, so there will be revisionist Jesus tales as long as there are grown-ups who believe they’re already on their way to heaven and fear nothing of hell.
Anthony Sacramone is the managing editor of First Things .