• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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?

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