The Simpsons in search of Jesus

Article by Don Cupitt first appeared in the Guardian 'Face to Faith' series, Saturday February 24, 2001

During the past year there has been an unexpected convergence of two radical theology groups, the Jesus Seminar and Sea of Faith. They thought they were very different, but have suddenly found that they are allies.

The story of the Jesus Seminar goes back to 1985, when the American New Testament scholar Robert Funk resigned his university post and set up the Westar Institute at Santa Rosa, California. He wanted to break down the Chinese wall between critical theology and popular Christianity by taking modern critical theology directly to the general public. To quote the title of the institute's journal, he aimed to teach the fourth "r"—religious literacy.

The first big project, which was to take a dozen years to complete, was to be a renewed quest for the historical Jesus. This would teach the public what it is to read the gospels critically, ie, with your brain switched on. Funk set out to make the project a collaborative enterprise, involving distinguished scholars working and debating in public—and indeed, in a blaze of publicity.

As work proceeded, several fellows of the seminar, including Dom Crossan, Gerd Lüdemann and Funk himself, published books about the historical Jesus. In addition, the seminar collectively agreed a core syllabus of gospel sayings most likely to go back to Jesus himself, and printed them in red in their own version of the gospels. The idea was that lay people could take the book to church, and check whether their minister agreed with the scholars—and, of course, he or she usually does not.

Out in the parishes every week, the clergy say things like: "Jesus said, 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life'," even though they themselves learnt when they studied theology that the original Jesus was not a bit like that, and said no such thing. St John's Gospel is so different from the others, both in thought and vocabulary, that scholars think it contains no utterances of the original Jesus.

Why then are the clergy so apparently dishonest? The answer is that they are not given any choice. A cleric at Christmas, for example, is in the position of a doctor who was taught rigorously evidence-based medicine, but finds that, out in the self-styled "real" world, he must talk and practise only alternative medicine.

People deeply dislike scientific rigour in medicine; they dislike it even more in their religion. In the parishes, they just will not tolerate it. So, at Christmas, the clergy have to grin and bear the carols and the nativity plays, and must pretend they really think that Jesus was born at Bethlehem amid portents in the sky.

And the real Jesus? He remains unknown, and indeed unwanted. The Jesus Seminar points out that some of the very earliest gospels, such as Q and Thomas, seem to have consisted simply of collections of sayings. No christology, no miracles; just "a secular moral teacher" of great originality.

By two or three years ago, the Jesus Seminar had, in effect, completed its initial project, and was trying to define where it should go next. The obvious move was from its biblical criticism to criticism of standard Christian theology, and the Jesus Seminar people began to look in the direction of Sea of Faith.

In 1999, Lloyd Geering, the doyen of Sea of Faith (New Zealand), lectured for the seminar in California, and its publishing arm, the Polebridge Press, published his book The World To Come. Last year, members of Sea of Faith (UK) organised a British lecture-tour for Robert Funk, and I began to read his and his colleagues' books.

The close affinity soon became apparent, but there are significant differences. The Jesus Seminar is an educational project led by a group of theologians, whereas Sea of Faith is a network of individuals, formally established in three countries. Sea of Faith is deliberately rather anarchic, creedless and even quakerish. It is a melting pot and a free-for-all. In the United States, it so far consists only of a mailing list and an occasional newsletter.

Recently, though, Bishop Jack Spong has written to me saying that the "Jesus Seminar is the Sea of Faith in America"—and perhaps he is right. The Westar Institute's big spring conference, on the theme of The Once And Future Faith, will be assembling in California next week, and a party of Sea of Faith members will be there. Bob Funk seems to be marriage-minded, because all four of the principal speakers are people with strong Sea of Faith connections. And the aim is "to form an agenda for the reinvention of Christianity".

For the British delegates, it promises to be an exhilarating occasion. We will be escaping from the dead hand of the establishment that inhibits free Christian thought in this country, and learning that there is a lot more to American Christianity than the goofy evangelicalism of the Simpsons' Ned Flanders. On the contrary, liberal and radical theology are far bigger and more diverse over there than they are here, and the brilliant Lisa Simpson, at the age of nine or so, is already a straight Sea of Faith non-realist.

Do you doubt me? Check the episode in which Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for $5, and note the passage in which Lisa explains that, although there is not actually such a thing as the soul, Bart has done something wrong, because our talk about the soul is the vehicle for certain important values. Here, as on many other occasions, Lisa shows a degree of theological sophistication which is simply not tolerated in Britain. No wonder she's going to be president one day. Alone in the Simpsons, she makes sense of her whole world.

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