Define your terms–such as, say, "Jesus"

Last night I enjoyed speaking on the question, “Who Is Jesus?” to a full lecture hall at the University of British Columbia (UBC), with which my school, Regent College, is affiliated.

UBC has some of the highest entrance standards in Canada and is well regarded as a top-grade university. There are no dumb students there. These are among the best and brightest.

Before my talk, however, the sponsoring group (University Campus Ministries) ran a short video comprised of clips of interviews they had conducted recently with students at UBC on the question of the night: “Who is Jesus?”

We got to meet about a dozen students in the video. The students were a diverse bunch: male and female, several nationalities, various majors. And not one of them came within a mile of identifying Jesus with how he is portrayed in the Gospels.

It was as if people had been asked, “Who was Napoleon?” and they replied as follows: “A short, French guy”; “a man who stood up for himself”; “a guy who enjoyed fighting”; “a man who exemplifies the noble ideals of France: liberty, equality, and…something else”; “a hero who represents peace and has been vilified by the Anglo press.”

Note that these are all bright people. They have to be, to be at UBC. Note that they were all willing to be on camera to give their views, so they were comfortable with them. Note that none of them stood more than half a kilometre from a copy of the Gospels, since they were on the campus of a major research university with libraries all ’round, so access to the New Testament was not a problem.

Yet they knew so very little about Jesus. Nobody mentioned the Sermon on the Mount. Nobody mentioned his assaults on self-righteousness and complacency. Nobody mentioned his miracles. Nobody mentioned his care for the poor, the sick, and the forgotten. And certainly nobody mentioned his cross or resurrection, atonement or salvation, deity or Trinity.

Jesus instead was a nice guy, or a mystic, or a spiritual being, or a moral man, or a myth, or an irrelevance. That last one hit home: Given what people said about him, no wonder he is irrelevant!

When I talk about Jesus in public nowadays, then, I assume no knowledge about Jesus on behalf of my audience other than that they connect him with Christianity, that he was male, that he died a long time ago, and that he is a religious figure of some importance. Poll data in both the U.S. and Canada bear this out: Lots of people say that they admire Jesus and a majority will even say he is the “Son of God,” but they clearly have no Bible-based idea of what they’re talking about.

Indeed, I suspect that most North Americans’ Jesus is simply the projection of their highest spiritual ideals. They have made him into the nicest, noblest version of themselves.

And if they don’t have particularly high or compelling spiritual ideals, then their view of Jesus is correspondingly vague and vapid.

But Jesus was quite particular. You can’t sum him up in a word–even a big word such as “love” or “kindness” or “goodness”–or a slogan–such as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” or “love your neighbour.”

That’s why the Bible contains detailed accounts of his public career–four gospels, in fact. That’s why the New Testament contains further reflections upon his extraordinary personality and actions. He cannot be fit on a postage stamp or a post card. He is much more interesting than that. And he is not just a projection of our ideals, but is variously a confirmation, correction, and confrontation of those ideals.

It’s standard academic practice to define key terms before launching into a serious discussion of something. For the Christian, at least, there is no subject more serious than Jesus. So, before we start talking about this Serious Subject, we’d better make sure we define our terms.

Who is Jesus? Do we know what we’re talking about?

0 Responses to “Define your terms–such as, say, "Jesus"”

  1. Bill

    Prof. StackHouse,

    I often find myself speaking to this culture about the identity of Jesus. The complete lack of knowledge of Jesus christ is no mystery. We have removed him from the realm of the public schools and told students that he was a charachter in history, no more than Julis Ceasar, only the teacher can talk about Ceasar, as long as they don’t talk about Ceasar’s interaction with Jesus of Nazareth.

    But the devils victory is the “churchs” opertunity. I find 19-20 year-olds ready to hear about a God who longs to be thier savior, (characteristic 1 of Jesus). They want to know answers to the big questions; who loves me, Jesus, who is there when I need a friend, Jesus, who will guide me on the spiritual side of life, Jesus, and of course the question that fuels all religion what happens when I die, Jesus!

    Jesus and prayer banished from the class room means they don’t know Jesus, which is our opertunity to show them, introduce them to who he is.

    I have found that if you can get them to open up and honestly seek Jesus then anything they were taught contrary to him melts away. One who has met Jesus bows to Jesus, loves Jesus. A relationship with Jesus is the fulfilment of our character. Once one tastes the truth of the fulfilment of his own character, ie: Jesus, he seeks no other for truth.

    You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free!

    How amazing are the wonders of the LOVE of JESUS.

    Peace in Christ

    P.s. I love they way you say “And he is not just a projection of our ideals, but is variously a confirmation, correction, and confrontation of those ideals.” How many times has he confronted me on how I think only to bring me back to his word and corrects me. I can be pig headed. I love it when he corrects me. His rod and staff they comfort me.

  2. John Stackhouse

    Why such widespread ignorance about Jesus? A few causes:

    1. Decline in church attendance in Canada, from about 2 out of 3 regular attenders just after the Second World War to just over 2 in 10 today.

    2. Decline of religious education in public schools. Not only is the Christian faith no longer assumed and commended in the public schools (which might be a good thing, both from the point of view of public education in a pluralistic society and from the point of view of the welfare of genuine Christianity), but religion is rarely taught at all in social studies classes.

    3. In the face of all of this decline, there remains, however, a widespread cultural sense of being a Christian–75% of Canadians identified themselves as such in the last census (2001), and about 85% call themselves Christians in the U.S. What this means here is that people don’t even know that they’re ignorant of the faith they profess, as they would cheerfully confess ignorance of some other religion.

    For those who would like to read more about this phenomenon of badly-informed Christian identity in North America, I write about it in my book, Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford University Press, 2002).

    For further evidence and interpretation, see the work of Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby and of Statistics Canada for our side of things up here, and the poll data of Gallup, the National Opinion Research Center, and Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow in the United States.

  3. Jenni

    Ah…why the ignorance…

    In our society we all “know who Jesus is” we all check “yes” under the survey question, “Are you a Christian?” Our culture also believes (primarily) that truth is relative, and Jesus loves everyone.

    Therefore, Jesus is relative, he is like a disgustingly popular piece of abstract art, he may mean one thing to you, but he is something else entirely to me. And that’s just fine because he loves us no matter what. No need to dig deeper, no need to learn more about him, just believe what you want and he will love you right into heaven.


  4. Jim

    Jesus is what, who I believe in, I believe in nothing, no one else. I endevor to believe not blindly but with all resourcees avialable, although doubt is my strongest resource I do not believe in the resources, I believe only in Jesus.
    Jesus is the word of God, Jesus is life.

    The religion of North America is science though the “facts” change it is still all that our culture believes and money is our cultures god.

  5. Nick Hill

    Yes, you can’t assume any Christian word today. I was sharing the gospel with a young man the other day. He is twenty years old and is from Alberta. However, he had never heard of the Ten Commandments. So before even sharing the gospel, I had to paint the whole Biblical story first and then get more detailed. Thanks for the great post,


  6. D.E. Washington

    Excellent discussion question!! But alas, the decline of the church body and the refusal (due in large part to apathy, laziness and selfishness) of people to study the Scriptures is just another indication of Biblical prophesy coming to light.

    “Let no man deceive you by any means; for that day shall not come, except there comes a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:3 KJV

    It’s like I told our mutual friend Ian, we’re coming to the end of the 4th quarter Doc and this game is not going into overtime.

    Our charge is to continue lifting up the name of Christ until the final buzzer sounds.


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