Monday, May 24, 2010

Matthew: On the Gospels as Portraits of Christ

The image of the portrait of Christ denotes an intimacy between artist and subject - the artist is sitting with the subject for some hours, the artist knows the subject on some personal level, and the subject, let's be honest, is usually giving the artist money – which skews the 'objectivity' of the portrait.

But all of this connotes relationship. And, I would add, all of this connotes some degree of spirit (we've all heard of the beliefs about photographs stealing one's soul - there's nothing stealthy about a portrait, no paparazzi with a paintbrush and a canvas. does anyone even do portraits anymore?)

It makes sense of course that this idea of portrait would describe the gospels more than a snapshot. The writers of the gospels had some relationship with Jesus Christ. And their affection for the personality and work of Jesus Christ ‘colored’ what they wrote about him.

But because the Jesus Christ of faith is worthy of praise and honor in the first place, it matters less that the Beloved Disciple didn’t catch Jesus making a fool of himself at a party, or drinking milk straight from the carton at 3AM. The whole person of Christ matters more than individual moments about him, right? This would include details about his birth and diet and stray comments – the whole matters more than the sum of its parts, and that comes in a portrait.

On the other hand, the image of the portrait implies only one artist, and we now know this simply could not have been the case for the gospels. I suggest the image of the mural would be more apt – that beautiful art form that is often whole communities of people building on each other’s work, sometimes over days and weeks, each adding their piece to a greater, messy harmony.

This brings up the subject of canonization, of course, because there were and are other murals. And we are hard pressed, frankly, to say with any degree of certainty as to who was and wasn’t truly inspired by God when they wrote accounts of Jesus – in large part because so many people seem to have been involved in all the oral traditions, and in all the communities of people of the early Jesus Movement that kept traditions about Jesus going.

What does that sort of inspiration even look like, what would the criteria be? Would the person have to glow to be inspired? Would they have to hear the voice of God audibly, or would a prompting of one’s consciousness suffice? If the latter, how do we know that the fourth person remembering a parable of Jesus to add to the book of Mark is inspired, but a second person remembering one of Jesus’s stray sayings for the Gospel of Thomas is not?

What we can say with greater certainty is that we choose these gospels, these four that we have today. We chose them in antiquity and we choose them again in our own time. We choose them all over the world just as we have chosen them for 2000 years because they describe the Jesus Christ we ourselves have relationship with better than the alternative murals of the Gnostic or other apocryphal gospels – these are the gospels which build faith.

Yes, we choose them because they have better historical bona fides than the gospels we have not chosen, but at this point the sheer weight of our collective choice must matter more than any one reason for it. It’s like ‘dating’ manuscripts in the other sense of the word. It matters less that he has blue eyes and quite a bit more that he’s your boyfriend.


Monica said...

Canonization and the nature of the Bible are topics that interest me.

I agree that discerning inspiration and making it the criteria for choosing or validating a canon raises some questions. I think they aren't asked often enough. I think people often consciously or unconsciously assume an argument with premises that the Bible is inspired, this is the Bible we have, therefore this (and nothing else) is inspired. The word inspired takes on a special definition in that context. I suspect that God has and does inspire all kinds of things, that for better or worse didn't and don't end up as Scripture or get passed on.

I am regretfully not well enough aquainted with the content or other aspects of the Gnostic or apocryphal gospels to say much from that basis. But I do wonder who, historically and now, are the people you say are choosing the 4 canonized gospels. Over the last 2000 years and even today, how many people, beyond a portion of those in certain religious, political or academic positions have really had that choice, or exercised it in a meaningful way? Could it be that the 4 canonized gospels "describe the Jesus Christ we ourselves have relationship with better than the alternative murals," because we have based our understanding and relationship with Jesus Christ in those same murals? If so, would it be worthwhile to expose ourselves further to the other murals?

Reading these materials (as well as the Scriptures of all the other major religions) are among the things on my list. I'd say my bucket list, except that I want to do it long before I die.

Curious Monk said...

Oh, yes, I do think that the faith that we have was shaped by the four gospels - but I don't think there's any way out of that. You simply can't read any 'other' gospel without their influence anymore, there's too much historical/traditional weight behind it.

does that mean we shouldn't read the apocryphal gospels? probably not, but I think it does mean that, when I got to them, I didn't want to love or worship the Jesus that I saw there. He's too spiritualized or too capricious.

Does that mean the 'real' Jesus wasn't those things? Can't say, of course. But the Jesus I know from exprience and through the Spirit is not those things - add to that the Jesus affirmed through the centuries, and I come away thinking that four gospels are enough, somehow.