2014 Lent 33


Mark 10:32-45

We are products of our time.

And our time is called postmodern.

By this term pundits mean a lot of things, surely.  But for my purposes today I want to focus on relativism.

Now, for the record, I’m not a relativist.  I believe in absolute truth–or in the possibility of it anyway.

But whether people can arrive at absolute truth in this lifetime, well, that’s another story.

That’s why I can argue with the apostle Paul, for instance.  His words that make up the authoritative word of God are nevertheless a man’s words.  Perhaps they reflect his take on absolute truth.  But there’s got to be room for disagreement.  Otherwise we’d have to make room for slavery.

Even in our postmodern, relativistic culture, it’s pretty much seen that slavery is absolutely wrong; and so here we find something of an absolute truth of postmodernism.

So I’m not a relativist.

But also, there’s this: to say, “Everything is relative,” is in fact an absolute statement.  Yet a true relativist must be able to say this statement in order to be a relativist.  Otherwise he allows for the possibility of the absolute.  He can’t really say, “Everything is relative, except, for, um, well, that statement I just said.”  Neither can he say, “Almost everything is relative,” for the almost allows for the possibility of something, even one thing, indeed to be absolute, which breaks down relativism.

So, in the end, the relativist is trapped.  And I hate being trapped.  So I’m not a relativist.

Nevertheless, relativism is all around me.  So it affects my thinking.

To be sure, it affects how I think about time.

But it’s not just me (or I, if you want to use the correct grammar here; but who really talks like that?).

Any casual moviegoer has viewed movies that play with time.  A film story starts in the present in a confused sort of jumble; it becomes clear for the audience only after a series of flashbacks, only after playing with time.

Or listen to classical music composed in the last hundred years.  Lots of it is riddled with tempo (i. e., time) changes–four-four to five-four to seven-four to eleven-four back to four-four is not unheard of.

Anyway, this is my personal context for approaching today’s passage in Mark, which relates the story where Jesus predicts his own death to his disciples.

But surely, my postmodern-induced mind says, these words were written a full generation after Jesus’s own death.  So when these words were penned, it was more of how Mark remembered Jesus and not necessarily his actual wording, right?  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  It’d be awesome if Jesus really could predict minute details about the future when he walked the earth as a man.  But wouldn’t that destroy the great theological truth known by theologians as the hypostatic union?

(Don’t ask.  It’s a rabbit trail.  But that’s where my mind wants to go.  Then it questions whether even the hypostatic union ought to be seen as doctrine in the first place.  Which brings up questions about relativism and absolute truth–not to mention whether such questioning makes me a heretic.  And so we’ve come full circle.)

It’s my personal context for approaching other stories too, like the one I read yesterday claiming that Jesus actually said the words, “My wife.”  (See http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/harvard-journal-says-gospel-of-jesus-wife-is-ancient-not-a-modern-forgery/2014/04/10/7b172910-c0f7-11e3-bcec-b71ee10e9bc3_story.html for more detail.)

A lot of hoopla has been raised over this one.  There’s investigation, presently, as to whether this so-called gospel of Jesus’s wife might be a forgery–a thoroughly postmodern response, by the way.  So far, though, it’s looking pretty bona fide, as far as being an ancient document anyway.

But I’m still skeptical.  Call it being a product of my time if you will.  But Paul slips into a first-person section in Romans, remember?  He says something like: Wretched man that I am!  The very things I want to do, I don’t; and the very things I don’t want to do I end up doing.

Gobs of good Christian people use this passage to say how even the great apostle Paul had his struggles with personal sin, and so he can readily relate to us.  But a good percentage of New Testament scholars disagree.  This isn’t a confession from Paul.  Rather it’s a figure of speech making the “I” of the passage representative.  So “wretched man that I am” really means “wretched people we all are!”

I happen to agree with these scholars.  And, for the record, I happened to agree with them long before I heard anything about the gospel of Jesus’s wife.

So now, of course, affected by postmodern thought as I’ve been, I have no problem if someone wrote down in the ancient past that Jesus once said, “My wife.”  For one thing, he may never have actually said these words; perhaps they were merely written down a generation or two later by someone remembering it that way.  But, also, even if he did say them, he very well could have been employing a figure of speech, like Paul does: “My wife” could have been a way of saying, “If I were married, as many of you are, then this is what I would do.”

My immediate point is, don’t jump ship just because of some suggestive discovery.  Don’t follow conspiracy theories about Jesus Christ having sired some sort of superhuman race that quietly sits and waits in dark corners of European villages to usher in an apocalypse.  But neither should you walk away from the Christian faith because another debunking has been suggested.

Rather, wait it out.  You might even find that the wait is enjoyable.  And in the mean time, speculate on the ramifications: If Jesus actually were married at one point in the ancient past, how would this affect Christianity today?

But my larger point is that we are products of our time.  That’s a fact, a cultural doctrine, perhaps even an absolute truth.  The best way to deal with this fact is not to pretend we’re not, as some of my friends try to do; but to acknowledge it and then to seek to understand our cultural context better, so that we may respond with wisdom to and in our time and place.


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