March 27, 2015

Jesus Who?

John Lennon once quipped the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.”

Not so fast.

In recent years, the Beatles averaged annual sales of roughly 3.5 million physical and digital albums in the U.S. Not bad for a band that broke up in 1970. The Bible? It’s selling in the range of 25 million copies every year in the U.S. Not bad for a Book completed nearly 2,000 years ago! For those of you who are counting, that’s 700 percent more Bibles than Beatles.

And it’s not just sales. It’s memories. Baby boomers are tut-tutting about Beatle illiteracy among the “youth of today.” A video went viral recently of New York teenagers struggling to name a single Beatles song. Asked to name a Beatle, guesses included Larry, George Michael and John Legend. John Legend, by the way, is a singer who was born eight years after the Beatles broke up.

While the Beatles may be fading, 90 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Jesus and only 3 percent a negative view, according to a survey by Public Policy Polling. Today there are roughly 2.3 billion people globally who describe themselves as Christians. Britain’s Guardian newspaper, no friend of enthusiastic Christianity, published an article last year about the most influential people in history. No. 1 on the list? I’ll give you a hint: His name begins with “J” and it’s not John.

According to Pew Research, 73 percent of Americans believe in the virgin birth and a Rasmussen poll found 64 percent believe Jesus rose from the dead. This naturally raises the question: Why do people find it easier to believe a virgin had a baby than a person was resurrected?

But that’s only the beginning of the paradoxes.

Even as Jesus rides high in the polls, even as the Bible is the best-selling Book every year, even as the number of Christians explodes globally, belief in what Jesus taught is waning — particularly in the West. Despite the numerous times Jesus cast out demons and referred by name to Satan, 60 percent of U.S. Christians aren’t sure Satan exists. Stunningly, four in 10 believe Jesus may have sinned while on Earth, despite the centrality of the spotless Lamb to the story of salvation, according to the Barna research group.

But it’s when we go from beliefs to practices that the chasm really grows. According to a Pew study, roughly 80 percent of Americans disagree with Jesus’ stringent view of divorce, and 70 percent disagree with the Bible’s teachings on sex outside of marriage.

It’s not just Jesus’ views on sexuality that are roundly rejected. His teachings on everything from materialism through to creation are routinely ignored or openly mocked.

So who is this Jesus who is so famous and popular? And how can He be so popular when much of what the real Jesus said and did is so deeply unpopular?

The answer may be as simple as ignorance. Here, things get tragically humorous. Author Albert Mohler summarizes the problem as follows in an article on “A Barna poll indicated that at least 12 percent of adults believe that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife. Another survey of graduating high school seniors revealed that over 50 percent thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were husband and wife. A considerable number of respondents to one poll indicated that the Sermon on the Mount was preached by Billy Graham.”

The popular Jesus is a caricature without content. A picture without pixels. Like the Rorschach inkblot test, Jesus has become a function of what we want to see. In a knowledge vacuum, Christ is everything, anything and, ultimately, nothing.

But the real Jesus is not a frame on which we can conveniently hang whatever social wind is blowing or personal preference we may have. He is complex and confronting. The more complete picture that we have, the more challenging His message is to our modern culture and our sinful hearts.

This Easter, let’s embrace the full story of Jesus, not a shallow substitute. Let’s ask God to conform our lives to His, not rewrite His story to conform to ours. Let’s follow Jesus, not expect Jesus to follow us.

James Standish is editor of the South Pacific Adventist Record, where this commentary appeared.