Authority, Authenticity and the ‘Messiah’ complex!

Posted: January 27, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 1: 21-28

Authority, Authenticity and the ‘Messiah’ complex!

If we take a moment to think about leadership and the worlds needs it is no surprise that we despair for the world. The almost world-wide support for New Zealand’s Prime Minister suggest that there is a dearth of what might be considered good leadership. That is not to suggest that Jacinda is not a good leader in fact it is the opposite. What ist does say though is that we are less sure about what leadership is and what makes a good leader in the current world scene. It is true that social media has exposed their vulnerability to public opinion and ultimately the need to be popular. No one can know how to manage the presenting façade anymore and this in turn has meant that more and more lobby and manipulation goes on at a hidden level. Speaking with authority, authenticity and the avoidance of becoming caught up in a messiah complex is much more difficult. By Messiah complex I mean being seduced into a a state of mind in which one holds the belief that they are destined to become a saviour today or in the near future. Why else would people like Trump and some others think they can ride rough shod over convention, history and the standing of the office they were elected to serve and protect. Why else would clergy see their role as imperative for the future if not having convinced themselves that they are indispensable saviour. Is this leadership with authority and authenticity?

This leads us to the question as to whether or not there is an ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’ crisis, and whether or not this is about authenticity? Is there an authentic Gospel being preached anymore? This is not a new crisis because even when I was in training in the early eighties the debate was about the authenticity of the theological seminaries. Were they too liberal and not biblical enough? I suspect it was a debate around whether or not the scholarship focus on historical criticism was in conflict with biblical literalism?

And much of this crisis, at that time it is argued, was centred around the schools, including schools of theology, the courts – especially judges and magistrates – Politics and multiculturalism. Because we live in a pluralistic society with a multiplicity of life styles, some people, perhaps many people, were feeling very insecure with life. And looked for scapegoats in those they saw as leaders.

Sadly even today many are looking for a set of instant, ‘quick fix’ answers. Or some authoritative figure to tell them what to do. It is recognized that in times of rapid social change people look for a ‘messiah’!  It is often said that in times of crisis more people attend church. Not sure this is the case today because even the church is suffering from lack of authenticity issues let alone the lack of any authority to speak on any issue of concern these days.

According to this morning’s gospel anecdote, created by the storyteller Mark to express his notion of the mission of Jesus, when Jesus spoke people found something powerful happening to their psyches. ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority… The people were so astonished that they started asking each other what it all meant.  Here is a teaching that is new’. The people are astonished not that Jesus taught, but at the authority by which he taught.

But what did they mean? Did he rant and rave or shout? Was he persuasive in argument or an adept storyteller? We can only speculate. Because we only have fragments of a vision. One such speculative re-imagining is offered by John Dominic Crossan: ‘He was an illiterate peasant, but with an oral brilliance that few of those trained in literate and scribal disciplines can ever attain.’ At best, we can guess a credible Jesus taught about the kingdom or realm or domain of God, which was everywhere present but not demonstrable. He focused on some central themes like celebration, compassion, and inclusiveness.  As well as illustrating the realm and activity of God “by focusing his hearers’ attention on the observable behavior of phenomena in the physical world around them rather than by reporting his own personal mystical visions…” (Smith 2008:79).

And another thing to note was that he drew on common life experiences, trading in the trivial, the ordinary, rather than interpreting scripture. He was in fact a secular sage! Not yet seen as a Son of God let alone God in human form.

This approach to leadership is important in that his personal style had the effect of shifting the power base of knowledge from the experts (in scripture, scribes) to the common people. It was a very different way of doing theology. It was theology because it was about the task of interpreting a vision God might have for God’s world. But it was fresh and good news!

What is clear is that classical theology and traditional authority do not allow this kind of a position. They both want a return to the ‘good old days’… capital and corporeal punishment, Christian instruction in schools, fixed laws on moral conduct, longer custodial sentences, and direct lines of external authority: parent, teacher, boss, bishop, pope, prime minister.

‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, Jesus taught them with authority….

In the stories told about him and the words attributed to him Jesus presents God’s domain as a new or alternate possible reality, to the world in which many found themselves trapped in. We heard some of this last week in Ched Myers comments on the phrase ‘fishers of men’.  Where he suggested that a phrase like ‘fishers of men’ was a (Hebrew prophets) euphemism for judgement upon the rich.

He said that: “Taking this mandate for his own, Jesus is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege”…  (And) the first step in dismantling the dominant social order is to overturn the ‘world’ of the disciple…” (Myers 2008: 132-133).

Last week I also indicated that the evangelical priority or better still the apologetic priority is in need of sound critique in terms of its impact on thinking and thus leadership and ultimately the future of the church let alone Christianity. The first step: dismantling the dominant ‘world’ of the disciple! Is a huge challenge that will require brave leadership at all levels because the old reality is tenacious. It has a powerful grip on people, because fear of change, heightened anxiety, or terrorism – perceived or actual, it is supported by many in our own and other communities. The threat is powerful. Its influence of ‘pull’ is exceptionally strong.

We are reminded here that Jesus, it seems, opened up the world anew and invited folk to modify the way they saw reality. and he spoke with authority, provided authenticity and it was indeed, new authority. Even though in the main; and here’s the rub, it may not have been new teaching.

This may sound weird but I think, we – you and me – living in the early part of the 21st century, have a chance as never before, to facilitate a new ‘religious’ authority. And for me the pulse of that new authority comes from an authentic applicable reimagining of the gospel stories that articulate and encourage a critical thinking approach to truth, certainty and the priory of belief over doubt. Belief is dependent upon having a strong and questioning doubt not as opposites but as crucial for an authentic gospel. Our traditional approach to the bible as literal and the holder of absolute truth is killing the church and ultimately the Christian Way.

None of the studies being provided today by the likes of the Westar Institute and its various Seminars are new in terms of the questions they are asking but they are enabling them to be asked in today’s world which is a long way from that of Jesus of Nazareth. For 2000 years, Jesus of Nazareth has been represented to the world “in terms of later inferences drawn from his sayings and deeds, rather than in terms of what he himself did and said”  (Hedrick 2004: 98). But now with the new ‘uncovering’ work being done by scholars on both the extra canonical material (The gospels of Thomas, Mary and others), as well as that on the early Christian movements, we have an opportunity to draw our own  inferences about Jesus from a host of newer or different sources.

And when you think about that we live in truly incredible times! “The only other time in history that this was possible was in the first century” (Hedrick 2004: 99).

Staying with this thought a bit we reflect that throughout the last 500 year or so history of the church, people have wrestled with the clash between the Bible and modern science. And many have coped by a ‘suspension of disbelief’ for an hour or two each week. More an more people are saying to me that they can no longer leave their brain at the door and this suggests to me that there is an authenticity problem close by.

But what happens when those same people decide they can no longer live with the inconsistencies of tired metaphors and a belief known “to be patently false”? (Hedrick 2004) They leave.  Welcome the ‘church alumni’ association! And the centres for progressive religion and/or Christianity beyond Christendom. And other safe places which openly push theological boundaries.

The urgent question for the church right now, in the 21st century is: How long can it – you and me – count on suspended disbelief to shore up its outworn myths?  (Hedrick 2004)

And I want to stop there a moment and suggest that that is the kind of argument Jesus had with the authorities of his day. That is why imagining another possible way of being in the world, was, and can be, fresh news. And it also suggest that even the apostles found this transition hard. It may have been part of the reason they struggled after his crucifixion. The Messiah complex part of their commitment was let down. They had not understood just how radical and alternative the gospel Jesus wqs advocating.

And if we can take this to heart, and see it as the good news that it is, we will appreciate why those in the audience that day were so astonished. ‘And the teaching made a deep impression on them…’ So the next time we read in the Church Notices that a study opportunity is planned, maybe we should put our hand up to be part of that experience. It is not our ready-made answers that will count. It is our openness to new possibilities that will be life-changing.

Hedrick, C. W. “The ‘good news’ about the historical Jesus” in A. Dewey. (ed) The Historical Jesus Goes To Church. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2004.
Myers, C. Binding the Strong Man. A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Special edition. Maryknoll. Orbis Books, 2008.
Smith, M. H. “Ears to Hear. Learning to Listen to Jesus” in C. W. Hedrick. When Faith Meets Reason. Religion Scholars Reflect on their Spiritual Journey. Santa Rosa. Polebridge Press, 2008.

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