Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dr Jensen's Jesus

The Future of Jesus: Boyer Lectures 2005 (Dr Peter Jensen, ABC Books, December 2005).

Everybody liked Jesus
Everybody wanted to hang out with Him
Anything He wanted to do, He did
He turned water into wine
And if He wanted to
He could have turned wheat into marijuana
Or sugar into cocaine
Or vitamin pills into amphetamines

King Missile, Jesus Was Way Cool, 1990


Jesus is still cool: and was, surprisingly, the subject for Dr Peter Jensen’s 2005 ABC Boyer lectures.

The Most Rev. Peter Jensen MA (Hons) (Syd); BD (London); ThL (ACT); D. Phil (Oxford. Dissertation: ‘The Life of Faith in the Teaching of Elizabethan Protestantism’) is Archbishop of the Anglican Church, Diocese of Sydney, and Metropolitan of the Province of New South Wales. My NSW clergy-friends tell me he’s a socially skilled and compassionate man, modest and industrious, an engaging speaker and communicator, a strong leader and a strategic thinker - and he certainly has the ear of political leaders and the media. Dr Jensen sees himself ‘as a man of the people not a prince of the church’. (In the Boyer lectures he says he’s not ‘religious’: he wants us to have a ‘relationship with Jesus’ rather than be ‘churchy’). His calling/role is preacher/ teacher and evangelist: and in these lectures has a warm non-preachy conversational style.

The Jensen Jesus

There were six Boyer lectures: ‘Jesus and his future’, ‘Jesus, religious genius or failed prophet?’, ‘Jesus, was he miraculous?’, ‘Jesus or Caesar, the choice of martyrs’, ‘Jesus and the millennium – will he never come back?’, and ‘Jesus, freedom, and the choices we make.’ The book adds another chapter: ‘Jesus and the question of faith’.

Why Jesus? First, Dr Jensen says, because it is simply a fact that he is one of the two or three most influential people who have ever lived. The name of Jesus, said American sage Ralph Waldo Emerson, is not so much written as ploughed into the history of the world. In an ABC radio interview Dr Jensen gave his core reasons: ‘The French mathematician, Blaise Pascal, said “Jesus is the centre of all, the object of all, whoever knows not him, knows nothing aright, either of the world or of himself”. There is only one who is both God and man. And if it is true that he is God and man, then what Pascal says follows. What we are standing for is… a trust in God’s word in the Bible and in Jesus, the Jesus described in the Bible, what people call conservative, but I don’t know why they say that particularly, it’s Biblical… Jesus was not simply a religious genius: this makes no sense of his pronouncements about the Kingdom of God… I am passionate about Jesus.’ [1] ‘Jesus [is] my great enthusiasm’ is the first sentence of the book…

From the ABC website: ‘I want [people] to see what a surprising man Jesus is; I want to trace something of his impact on the world; I want to see whether there is a trajectory which suggests that more is yet to come; I want to see whether he can speak with something like his old power, to central cultural issues like personal freedom, human relationships and the future of our country.’

A few critics have wondered how Dr Jensen’s theme of Jesus' contemporary relevance fits the objective of the Boyer lectures, ‘to present ideas on major social, scientific or cultural issues’. I’m on Dr Jensen’s side here: I would have thought that the Judeo-Christian faith is foundational to
understanding our cultural heritage.

Dr Jensen wants to provoke a debate about Jesus, and to encourage us to read the Gospels – especially Luke. His theses: While once most people would have read the Bible and Shakespeare as children, today ‘there is less and less knowledge of the New Testament Jesus’. In forgetting Jesus, ‘as Australians, we risk losing our core values.’

Dr Jensen admits that Christian history has some sorry episodes: ‘Sometimes Christians have martyred others in a shocking travesty of the faith they professed’ (p 60). He says quite a bit about Christians being called to love. He also reckons contemporary Christianity has some odd theologies – like premillennial dispensationalism, prominent in the thinking of American evangelicals. Jensen is not a fundamentalist in that sense, with his strong desire to marry faith and reason (‘They are not the same thing, but they need each other’ p 117; we avoid religious superstition ‘by the proper exercise of reason… experience and common sense’ p 121).

Dr Jensen is up-front about the general ineffectiveness of the church-as- institution in commending Jesus to moderns, with its ‘arcane rituals and vaguely left-wing politics. Well may we say, God save the Church!’ (p 66). (But he still can’t avoid some religious clich├ęs, like ‘he utters words full of consolation’, ‘kingdom of God… manifest’, ‘flashing forth of the divine judgment’, ‘the ultimate word over my life’, ‘Jesus sets our face towards others’; ‘if you pin your faith on the wrong object, little good can flow’; plus a few idiosyncratic Jensenisms - ‘I have to say’ half a dozen times - and sexist language, both from the NIV translation, and his own: ‘Jesus… unites God and man in his own person’ (p 108).

Back to the point-of-contact: ‘Myths such as Eureka are not enough to sustain our values in difficult times.’ We Australians have ‘lost our sense of identity through history. In our national life there is now a vacuum where most peoples have a history.’ But it might be argued that in Australians’ legendary suspicion of authority, and in their extolling the ‘mateship’ motif they identify readily with the men on Baker's Hill: ‘We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.’ I’m not sure Jesus has to be in counter-point to this tradition. Surely here’s a key to Jesus’ potential appeal in this country: Australia has had a long love affair with the figure of the institutional rebel, and Jesus was certainly that.

So where should a relevant apologetic begin in talking to our rebellion-flavoured, probably soon-to-be-republican culture? What is Dr Jensen’s antidote to Eureka? ‘God’s kingdom is near; get ready for it!’ He wisely adds a caveat that ‘In the present world talk of the kingdom of Jesus sounds divisive and even dangerous’ (p 73). Frankly, I’d add words like ‘inappropriate’, ‘arcane’ or even ‘non-sensical’. Surely that’s the last metaphor to use with modern Australians. There’s plenty in Luke about Jesus
confronting the religious and political authorities: that would have been a better starting-point (but would an archbishop think of that?).

Which brings me to my major concern: Is Jensen’s Jesus the one I relate to? Yes, and no.

Dr Jensen doesn’t like being called ‘conservative’ and seems to assume that everyone reading the Gospels (even presumably in an age of postmodernist relativism) will come to the same conclusions about Jesus. But a neutral unbiased reading of the Bible (or of anything) is impossible. We bring to the text the totality of our experience. Until a couple of decades ago this reviewer was (like Peter Jensen, if I may make that judgment) a white, Anglo-Saxon, over-educated middle-class, ‘conservative evangelical’ Australian male. I still have no problem affirming that Jesus Christ is ‘my
Saviour, my Lord and my God’. But another dimension has been added to the mix: I’ve spent the last 25 years working with the materially and/or emotionally poor. I now read the Bible – especially the Gospels, and in particular Dr. Jensen’s favourite gospel Luke - very differently. The western exegetical/ post-Enlightenment tradition usually begins with the text, or theological propositions (like ‘Jesus is God’). In the Two-Thirds
World thoughtful Christians and theologians tend to move from the realities of the Christian community and its struggles and work back into the biblical text (‘action/reflection’). This way of doing exegesis from the bottom-up as the outstanding Australian New Testament Professor Athol Gill used to point out, overcomes two serious weaknesses in western church life. It avoids the excesses of privatized/ individualistic religion, and also the danger of Bible-study for its own sake, rather than seeing Jesus as our model promoting social justice in a hurting world. (See Matthew 23:23 and Luke 11:42; cf. Micah 6:8 for two summary-statements Jesus made to one group – the Pharisees – who knew their Bibles very well but missed the main point (!) – two key texts which I think don’t get a mention in Dr Jensen’s book.)

In the context of Jesus’ mandate for his mission (and ours) in Luke 4:14-21 – an important foundational passage which Dr Jensen also avoids – Jesus says he’s come to ‘set free those who are oppressed’. His Gospel is ‘good news for the poor’. Chilean theologian Segundo Galilea wrote: ‘A conversion to the Lord always implies as an important dimension a turning to the poor… the conversion that God wants expresses itself in the service of others, especially of the oppressed.’ [2]

Conservative Evangelicals

‘Conservative evangelicalism’ is easily spotted: their mantra is an incessant ‘The Bible says!’ and there’s a lack of commitment to radical social justice. ‘Justice’ in a general sense is mentioned a few times by Dr. Jensen but ‘social justice’, I think, only once, and in a somewhat trivializing context: ‘[As a subject for the Boyer lectures] perhaps it would be better for me to stick to something safe, like botany, or golf, or even values or social justice!’ (exclamation mark added! p 10). He gets a bit closer on page 85: ‘Our concerns for justice and well-being should not stop with national or ethnic divisions’. Evangelicals emphasize ‘receiving the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour’ (a group of words not found in the Bible, interestingly), and diligence in Bible Study.

So what’s wrong with all that? Well, it’s an OK place to start for young people perhaps - certainly better than Bishop Spong or the Jesus Seminar or the Da Vinci Code. I’d applaud Dr Jensen for not muddying the waters in that respect. Perhaps in addition to his generally excellent discussion of miracles he could have gone a little deeper into basic evangelical apologetics - like the classical ‘evangelical quadrilemma’ (Jesus as legend, liar, lunatic, or Lord). There’s nothing really about hell, and few
references to heaven. And it’s assumed we can trust the content and historicity of the Gospels: I’m not sure educated ABC listeners are easily prepared to do that anymore.

But a doctrinaire evangelical approach can easily lead to cerebralism, exclusivism and arrogance (‘we have nothing to learn from anyone else who also claims to relate to God, but does it differently from us’), and Pharisaism (‘Go and sin no more’, often forgetting Jesus’ ‘I do not condemn you’). In this system the ordained clergyperson is first a proselytizer/proclaimer and secondarily pastor/prophet. How do I know that? I spend my life counselling with ministers/pastors/priests.

Put simply, bad theology separates what God has put together. When we over-emphasize any of the four ‘canons of authority’ (Bible, reason, experience, tradition) we’ll become theologically lopsided. This will also happen if we don’t give equal weight to all three of the Judeo-Christian missional imperatives – justice, (especially, as I’ve said, the prophetic emphasis on social justice), mercy, and faith. (That’s Micah’s (6:8) and Jesus’ order (Matthew 23:23): conservative evangelicals tend to put ‘faith’
first, mix in a bit of mercy, and avoid social justice altogether).

So would I recommend this book to a thoughtful person who wanted to know more about Jesus? Sure, and I’m about to order a pile of them to give away, and then discuss with others. But I would supplement it with authors who portray a more biblical/balanced view of Jesus, like Walter Brueggemann’s The Prophetic Imagination.


[1] http://www.abc.net.au/rn/relig/spirit/stories/s1495293.htm

[2] Segundo Galilea, Following Jesus, NY: Orbis Press, 1984, 32.


David Millikan has been frustrated by Archbishop Peter Jensen’s Boyer Lectures (SMH 23-25/12/05). He rejects Jensen’s assumption that “there is only one way to know… the archbishop has no understanding of general revelation.”

The Chosen Ones: The politics of salvation in the Anglican Church, by Chris McGillion, Allen & Unwin, 2005.


Wikipedia articles on Peter Jensen, Sydney Anglicans

Ask your local evangelical Anglicans for the free promotional flyer, how organise an afternoon or evening discussion group. MP3 files and PDF copies of the series are available on the Boyer website. An audio CD is also available through ABC Shops.



Transcripts and downloads - http://www.abc.net.au/rn/boyers/default.htm

http://www.theage.com.au/news/general/does-jesus-have-a-future/2005/11/11/1131578238972.html# This is an edited extract from the first of his six 2005 Boyer Lectures, titled The Future of Jesus. Further details at abc.net.au/rn




Rev. Dr. Rowland Croucher


January 23, 2006


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