Inklings of Truth


Jesus Christ: the Stumbling Block

By Audrey Stallsmith

On the new TV show, Joan of Arcadia, Joan asks her brother whether he thinks it possible that God could come down and walk on earth like a man. Suddenly excited, I lean forward on the couch, mentally urging the teenage actor, "Say, ‘He did!’" But, of course, that doesn’t happen.

Instead of making the obvious reply--or even "Some people believe He did"--Joan’s brother goes into a rambling discourse on metaphysics. And I barely refrain from yelping in frustration and pummeling the sofa cushions, disappointed once again by the secular media’s reluctance to even mention the name of Jesus except as a swear word.

There are exceptions, of course. When President Bartlett rages at God in an episode of The West Wing, I believe the character does mention his past worship of God’s Son. (I love that scene, just as I love the show, even though I am politically conservative on most issues. You can’t be that angry at Someone who doesn’t exist. Bartlett, like Martin Sheen who plays him, is obviously a believer.)

I have actually been encouraged by the increasing references to God on some secular programs, and I really like the Joan show--so far. But the general aversion to the name of Jesus persists. That shouldn’t surprise us, however. He called Himself "the stone rejected by the builders." And Paul described Him as "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense."

The secular world doesn’t seem to have a problem with God, as long as He’s kept distant and vague. After all, most people believe in a god of some sort. The problem is that Jesus was neither distant nor vague. On the contrary, He brought God a little too close for comfort.

I suspect many media bigwigs see Jesus as the main reason why our so-called "Christian" society can’t just get along with the rest of the world. The "stumbling block," in other words. And, in that, they are probably right! Jesus warned, after all, "Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! No, rather, a sword."

As Dorothy Sayers points out in Creed or Chaos, "The people who hanged Christ never. . .accused him of being a bore--on the contrary; they thought Him too dynamic to be safe. . .they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand."

Before we blame them we should ask ourselves what our reaction would be today if the seemingly illegitimate son of a construction worker started calling himself the Son of God, insulting our religious leaders, and contradicting almost everything we’d been told about Deity since our childhood.

Since even nonbelievers have to admit that Christ was an exceptional albeit disturbing character, they try to get away with describing him as a great teacher or prophet. But that is one alternative he didn’t leave open to us.

As C. S. Lewis so astutely sums it up in Mere Christianity, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would be either a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse."

Lewis, like many of the other great Christian writers, was an atheist before he found himself fascinated by Christ. Those of us who grew up in the church have gotten used to the "sort of things Jesus said," because we have heard them since childhood. So we no longer comprehend quite how explosive they were and are. This is most clearly indicated by the fact that it was the so-called "nice" people of His day, the religious ones--the ones like us--who most hated Jesus and who coerced the government into killing Him.

His calling those religious people "poisonous snakes" and "tombs full of rotting bones" probably didn’t help! Jesus was, as Frederick Buechner describes Him in A Room Called Remember, "the denouncer of a narrow and loveless piety, the scourge of the merely moral."

But He loved the Pharisees too, as much as He loved other sinners. He just knew that it would take more of a shock to jar them out of their complacency. "Life," George MacDonald writes in Creation in Christ, "cannot hurt life; it can only hurt death."

It is something, I suppose, like an old episode of Highway to Heaven where the character who is secretly an angel shakes hands with a man who is secretly a demon--and burns him. There is always what you might call a "sizzle" when good comes into contact with evil. And the evil has to distance itself, if it does not want the corruption burned out of it.

"Wherever he went," Rebecca Pippert writes of Jesus in Out of the Saltshaker, "he produced a crisis. He compelled individuals to decide, to make a choice. . . Eventually nearly everyone clashed with Jesus. . .He made them confront both themselves and him. . .Jesus put people into crisis by compelling them to do something."

How on earth, I wonder, has the modern church managed to convince its members that our Lord is so loving He will accept anything? The truth is that Jesus is so loving He won’t accept just anything. While we would be content to just get by, He wants the best for us and He won’t be satisfied with less. And, because He’s the one Who gave us free will, He won’t let us get away with "I couldn’t help it," or "I didn’t have a choice."

We all talk about how much easier it would be if God would come down here and tell us plainly, face-to-face, what he expects from us. But, as Joan finds out in the TV show, He is a very uncomfortable Person to have around--since what He wants her to do usually leaves her sputtering and incredulous.

If we’re not actually face-to-face with God, we can pretend that we don’t understand Him. But the Pharisees of Jesus’ day didn’t have that option.

So most of them opted instead for denying, despite hundreds of miracles to the contrary, that He was God in the flesh. Because, to admit that would have been to admit they didn’t like God as much as they thought they had. In fact, they literally couldn’t stand Him!

On the other hand, the people who knew themselves to be poor, sick, and sinful found all they needed in this Man. They discovered God was not at all the cold, distant, and critical Deity they had thought Him to be. On the contrary, He loved them so much He was more than willing to give them all that He required from them.

That included paying for their sins with His life. Sayers writes that God "had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine. . .He can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself."

This was not a new, "softer" version of Deity. As Eugenia Price puts it in Strictly Personal, "On Calvary, Christ was merely laying bare the heart of God as it has always been."

Of course, love can impose a greater burden on us than everything else. That is why, I suspect, so many people avoid thinking about Christ at all. Once we acknowledge what He did for us, we can no longer call our lives our own. If another person were to die while rescuing you, after all, you would feel compelled to live a life that counted. We don’t want to acknowledge that what we do or don’t do is that important.

But, of course, it is. From Adam and Eve on, God has always taken the decisions of men very seriously. Yes, that is frightening. But it can also be thrilling--what Chesterton persists in calling "the great adventure."

Buechner speaks of God "sending us off on an extraordinary and fateful journey for which there are no sure maps and whose end we will never know until we get there." As in one of those "quest" type of computer games that are so popular these days, we are given everything we will need. If we choose to discard some of it along the way or wander off into dangerous detours, we must bear the consequences of our choices.

And, instead of being provided with a static set of rules, we are expected to be so filled with our Lord’s Spirit that we will always act, as He did, from love. No, it isn’t easy. He will shake up our lives as we’ve never been shaken before. One of the characters in Lewis’ Narnia series says of Aslan (the lion who represents Christ) "Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But He’s good. He’s the King, I tell you."

And who else in heaven or earth can offer us such a challenge? His is the voice which, Buechner writes, "if we only had courage and heart enough we would follow to the end of time."