Doesn’t God already look like Jesus? In reality, yes. In American Christianity, no.
There are two primary reasons why the God of popular imagination doesn’t look like Jesus: the multivocality of the Bible and the radicality of Jesus himself.
The Bible speaks with many voices. It is multivocal. The God of the Bible might be violent, jealous, capricious, angry, compassionate, loving, forgiving or some bi-polar combination of nasty and nice.
Every shade of Christianity is designed to overcome this problem.
The Reformed tradition (think John Calvin and double predestination) largely replaces the Bible with a rigid form of systematic theology in which a sovereign God enters into a series of covenants with humankind. The Bible is indispensable, of course, but can only be interpreted rightly when we understand Reformed theology with its various. The purpose of life is to glorify God, period.
Dispensationalists (think Hal Lindsey or the Left Behind books) also like to divide history up into different ages or “dispensations” but, unlike reformed theology, they think the Bible gives us a detailed map of the end times. Both reformed Christians and dispensationalists admit that God changes the rules and are able to explain why that is.
Fundamentalists tend to move in either a reformed or dispensational direction, but their big issue is the inerrancy of the Bible. Because the Bible is without error or internal contradiction, they suggest, Jesus cannot disagree fundamentally with Abraham, Moses, Ezra or Joshua. Jesus may appear to disagree with these guys at crucial points but, by definition, he can’t.
A more popular way to avoid the fact that the Bible gives us multiple portraits of God is to simply pick our favorite and ignore the rest.
Prosperity theology draws on the Bible’s reap-what-you-sew traditions (Deuteronomy, the historical books, Proverbs, and several Psalms) to arrive at one simple idea: if you tithe, God will bless you physically, emotionally, relationally, financially and spiritually. Fail to tithe and things go south quickly. This is hardly the unanimous testimony of scripture (in fact, Ecclesiastes, Job and Jesus flatly deny it). But the Bible is forced into the prosperity mold or it is ignored.
American revivalism boils the Bible down to heaven and hell (even though both concepts are pretty fuzzy in the Good Book). The purpose of life is to get saved (by accepting Jesus as your personal Savior) so you can go to heaven when you die. Churches exist to give people an opportunity to hear the gospel and respond appropriately. That’s also what the Bible is about, and when the Bible seems to be talking about something else (as in the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) that something else is either ignored or creatively reinterpreted (usually it is ignored).
Sociologist Christian Smith uses the term “moralistic therapeutic deism” (MTD) to refer to the brand of Christianity that most Americans believe even though it runs counter to what they typically hear from the pulpit. If we are good, we get to go to heaven when we die (tithing has nothing to do with it). God occasionally steps into our lives to help us out of a jam, but otherwise butts out.
Pentecostals and charismatics focus on the “gifts of the spirit” mentioned in the New Testament, concluding that ecstatic spirituality and physical healing are promised to Christians (in addition to that ticket to heaven).
Most American Christians pick and choose from a host of theological offerings, picking out a little of this and a little of that on the basis of what looks appetizing.
Buffet Christianity means that the kingdom teaching of Jesus will either be ignored or grossly misinterpreted. Jesus was born to die on the cross for our salvation; his words are neither here nor there.
Nobody says that, of course. And everybody combs through the Gospels looking for little gems of wisdom that fell good and don’t shake us up too much.
But the kingdom teaching of Jesus is generally shunted to one side or, more typically, interpreted to fit our heaven-hell preconceptions.
Jesus is silenced by our theology . . . and by common sense realism.
Nancy and I binge-watched a Viking drama a few years back. In one scene, a band of Vikings overrun a Christian monastery. The monks pray to God for deliverance, but the fire from heaven refuses to fall. The monks are massacred and the survivors enslaved.
The principle of non-violent resistance is central to the kingdom teaching of Jesus. It is a ground rock principle. But it doesn’t “work” in the real world. And it isn’t supposed to. Jesus stood helpless before his accusers and tells us that we will do the same. Jesus was adamant on this point. Who wants to hear that?
And then there is the bit about loving enemies. That doesn’t work out too well in the real world either. That’s why we vote for people who promise to expand the military budget, get tough on crime and build a wall at the Mexican border. Jesus said all this stuff, but it must be for a different dispensation.
Or we simply decide to place this side of Jesus’ teaching in the adiaphora basket along with other things that aren’t worth fussing about.
We aren’t prepared to allow Jesus to be a non-violent enemy-lover, and we sure as hell aren’t ready for a God who looks like that.
So, if God is ever going to look like Jesus, two things must happen.
First, we must frankly admit that the Bible speaks with many voices (on the subject of God and practically everything else).
Second, we must read the pre-Jesus and post-Jesus bits of the Bible through a Jesus lens. That’s what it means to be a Red Letter Christian.
If we do these two things, God will start to look like Jesus and nothing will ever be the same.