I have a friend named Hank who doesn’t like the Beatles. Hank isn’t so much anti-Beatles as he’s anti-Beatlemania. Every time he hears a Beatles song he says all he can think of is whether or not Paul is wearing shoes on the cover of Abbey Road. All that stuff kind of ruins it for him. In the same way Hank says, he gets why some people are so turned off by Christianity.
This got me thinking once again about the difference between the religion OF Jesus and the religion ABOUT Jesus. I tend to really like Jesus, yet I live in a part of the country where most of my co-religionists, the Unitarian Universalists, are not Christians. Not only are we not Christians, we are, I am sorry to say, anti-Christian. My friend Hank and the Beatles, however have helped me to understand more about why. I happen to identify as a UU Christian and I turn once again to the religion OF Jesus and the religion ABOUT Jesus to help me explain and understand a bit better why I love John, Paul, George and Ringo and don’t care whether or not Paul is dead.
The religion OF Jesus is centered on the teachings attributed to Jesus in the gospel accounts we have of his ministry. The religion ABOUT Jesus was constructed by people who made an institution around the idea of worshipping Jesus as a god. The religion OF Jesus sees Jesus as a teacher who taught about peace-making, forgiveness, sharing resources, helping others who are hungry, naked, sick, and accepting people who are very unlike yourself and rejected by upstanding religious and civil society. The religion ABOUT Jesus sees Jesus as a god who was tortured so that you might get into Heaven and avoid your own torture in Hell. The religious life in the religion OF Jesus is about practicing peace making, forgiveness, sharing, and helping others who are who poor, sick, tired, hungry, naked, homeless, and learning to get along with and understand people who are not like you. The religious life in the religion ABOUT Jesus is centered on having a personal relationship with and/or appeasing Jesus so you can go to Heaven. The religion OF Jesus is social and relational. The religion ABOUT Jesus is personal.
Both the religion OF Jesus and the religion ABOUT Jesus have their pitfalls. The religion OF Jesus can turn into a purely civil social justice experience, that leaves out a spiritual center or grounding with or without the God of Jesus. The religion ABOUT Jesus can get so narcissistic that the goal of getting oneself into Heaven obscures the fact that your own next door neighbor might be living in poverty or suffering from cancer, not to mention a host of other issues Jesus taught about that you could be ignoring while worrying about the state of your soul being saved or not.
White Evangelical Christians are the group least likely to support politicians or policies that reflect the actual teachings of Jesus.
Evangelicals love Jesus for what he does for them. Through his magical grace, and by shedding his precious blood, Jesus saves Evangelicals from everlasting torture in hell, and guarantees them a premium, luxury villa in heaven. For this, and this only, they love him. They can’t stop thanking him. And yet, as for Jesus himself — his core values of peace, his core teachings of social justice, his core commandments of goodwill — most Evangelicals seem to have nothing but disdain.
Zuckerman’s explanation for this incongruity (or glaring hypocrisy) among Evangelicals is that religion in itself is a big Rorschach test. “People look at the content of their religious tradition — its teachings, its creeds, its prophet’s proclamations — and they basically pick and choose what suits their own secular outlook.”
I disagree, at least in part, because in my own case, I think it works both ways, and that people can look for core religious and philosophical values in themselves and then form political and social world views.
The people following the religion OF Jesus who support universal health care and social welfare programs, and say, The Federal Department of Peace, do so, at least in my case because partly, if not wholly for spiritual reasons. I form my political opinions on these issues, not because they will get me into heaven, but in my quest to seek how to be most fully human, among the teachers I look to for guidance is Jesus and what does Jesus have to offer on these matters, in essence, What Would Jesus Do? Jesus would make peace, Jesus would heal everyone, Jesus would provide for the needy. Is there a Beatles song for this? Well, it ain’t Rocky Raccoon.