Bill O’Reilly and the Polarizing Political Figure of Jesus

It has come to my attention that Bill O’Reilly will be publishing a book on the life and death of Jesus. This news has been making the rounds on the interwebs and of course I’m concerned. It isn’t necessarily because I don’t like O’Reilly, or because I find his views on generally everything to be atrociously flawed and morally questionable, but I am concerned because the last thing we need to happen is a “Which way would Jesus vote?” debate start dominating the conversation about the figure of Jesus.

Of course I’m aware that Jesus is often called upon by various politicians of all affiliations. But politicians most likely use this rhetoric to reflect what popular culture supports and, unfortunately, culture supports some crazy ideas. Consider sites like Rapture Ready (a website for fundamentalist Christians who believe the world will end within their lifetimes) which make the following (generally popular) claims about Jesus found in certain wings of evangelical Christianity:

There is one thing certain we can state, based upon the integrity of Bible truth. Jesus would never endorse or be a member of any party whose platform supports abortion, gay rights, and a general hostility to Bible-believing Christians.

Interestingly, Jesus is portrayed to have spoken thousands of words between all four Gospels, yet not one of those words was about abortion or gay rights. So what should one do about people who are hostile to Bible-believing Christians? Well, it gets a little hairy in this area, but there is that oft-quoted phrase “turn the other cheek.” So I’m not sure how certain anyone can be about endorsements for any particular political party.

When it comes down to it, scholars have enough trouble coming to any sort of consensus on what Jesus may have said and what he might have done, let alone what his political views might have been.

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And now that we’re on the subject, I don’t really hate bankers, or what they do, I just don’t want them doing their business in my house!

And those politicians on the right side of the aisle are not the only culpable ones. While Jesus spoke of social change in theological terms, he was not the liberal, leftist ideologue that some would suggest (like those at Jesus is (was?) a Liberal believe). He did not come to bring class equality, he did not come to preach against the corporate state (‘render unto Caesar’ and all that), he did not bring it to ‘the man’ (‘the man’ crucified him). He did not resolve to rid the world of poverty, he only eased their suffering by promising them a better world when they died (of leprosy, of starvation, of a beating by a slave owner, etc…); he certainly never promised the poor their freedom from their current, earthly state of poverty-stricken existence.

Yes, the authors of the Gospels portray him as feeding the multitudes, but he only does that occasionally as a demonstration of his similarity (sameness?) to Elijah/Elisha, who both performed similar miracles, and to show the power of god (which the poor would see when they died). He never lifted a finger to end poverty. The Jesus of the Gospels could care less about class warfare; in heaven, he would argue, the tables would turn. Here on earth, well, you’re stuck with what you have–even if that is nothing.

And while it may shock some of you, on occasion, he got involved in a little saber rattling. Jesus was not portrayed as a pansy. He had his moments of testosterone (can god have testosterone?) fueled rage and sometimes he was pretty blunt about what to do with those who crossed him (“those who are not with me are against me” and “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” and “these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence”).

Many of these verses were used during the inquisition to torture heretics and were justifications to launch the crusades. Whether they were right or wrong (wrong, in my opinion) it just demonstrates how that liberal, hippie (not to be confused with ‘hipster’) Jesus with the ‘anti-war’, pacifist attitude is a myth (in John 2.15, Jesus made a whip out of cord and he whipped the crap out of people for goodness sake!). But it is a myth in the same sense as the conservative, anti-gay, pro-guns Jesus that the right loves so much.

“I’m saving this lamb from the evil butchers–it’s free-range for this guy!” – Said Jesus never.

As Candida Moss has pointed out, Jesus did offer some semblance of free health care, healing poor and curing people without ever taking a cent. Obviously there were some caveats, because god, but these were largely faith-based (you don’t see poor people acquiring a referral because of their HMO in order to be touched and healed by Jesus, for example). So the whole concept that Jesus wouldn’t stand behind universal health care seems a little out of place.

The Gospels are also pretty clear that being poor and being a Christian are sort of hand-in-hand. He tells a rich man that in order to follow him, he must give up all his possessions (because he will be rewarded ten-fold by his faith after death in heaven):

“Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property.”

After this man left, he states that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, according to Jesus, get poor or GTFO! This doesn’t quite jive with conservative capitalism, does it?

Similarly, while not in the Gospels, god (and therefore Jesus) advocates communism over capitalism and those who refuse to adhere to it cannot be a part of the Christian church. Period. Do not pass go, do not collect eternal life. And if you refuse to give up all your possessions and then lie about it, well, god strikes you dead.

So am I concerned about O’Reilly’s foray into historical Jesus studies? Oh, god yes. I’m terrified. But I’m terrified because of the way lay people and politicians will continue to construe and deconstruct the Jesus we have–even as unstable and contradictory an individual as he may be–and scholarship will continue to remain within a relatively isolated community of experts. In other words, books by the Bill O’Reillys and the Clint Willises (author of Jesus Is Not a Republican) of the world are the only books on Jesus that anyone will read. Because they will be the only books available and accessible.

Besides, broadcasters and talking heads don’t have the facts straight when it comes to their actual jobs (reporting the news). Bill O’Reilly can’t seem to figure out what causes the tide, so just how well do you think he’ll do getting the historical Jesus right? Keep in mind, scholars can’t even seem to figure it out entirely–and they’ve spent their professional career trying to find answers. I’m betting that O’Reilly will not produce a very accurate picture.

He is already imaging Jesus much like how he views himself, a “beloved and controversial young revolutionary” who is constantly persecuted, but who fights for that in which he believes. It is a stunning pseudo-autobiographical portrayal of Jesus through O’Reilly’s eyes. And had O’Reilly been trained in the field, he would know that George Tyrrell pointed out this troublesome factor of historical Jesus scholarship decades ago. But O’Reilly isn’t a scholar, nor even an educated layman on the subject; he is a pundit on a news network with an agenda (like all politicians and political-pundits). That is precisely the problem.

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“I should write a book on Jesus… but also on aliens.”

Jesus’ portrayal in the Gospels is multifaceted because we have at least four portrayals. But the nuance of the figure of Jesus is much greater, and so limiting Jesus to particular synchronic values does nothing but narrow his value to everyone. Even as a secular student of history, I can find value there because the study of these nuances is important to all–not conservatives, not liberals, not any particular sectarian group. So this is my plea to everyone: leave Jesus out of politics. You are not salvaging history, you’re destroying the future (of history).

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12 Responses

  1. If I may shamelessly plug my own layperson’s take on the matter:

    http://www.examiner.com/article/biblical-christianity-101-love-thy-neighbor

    Clearly, this article doesn’t do “scholarly justice” to the complexities of exegesis. But then, it’s designed to ask people (who might read Bill the Bully’s book) to question blanket declarations of Jesus’ philosophical or political agenda. Which is why I mention it…

  2. Interesting q from Jesus – who do people say that I, this human child, am? And we all absorb the q and reflect on it, reflecting ourselves! Um, maybe not. I’ve been reading the psalms as you may know and as I read through them again (addicted) I see how much more one could apply the trouble and the solution of Israel and the poet to Jesus – in some remarkable ways. I did only a little of this in my book, my purpose being first to lay out the data rather than give my opinion as to its meaning. But people long for meaning – even if it can be demeaning – or shockingly off what we thought it ‘meant’. I don’t think I long for meaning as much as I recognize my need for closeness, ‘being held and known’. What kind of a Jesus would I create? Or is this what is being created in me through the experience of the poets of the psalms? Such a reflection.

  3. Now, to be fair, John’s gospel doesn’t actually say that Jesus actually hit any people (the passage is ambiguous on that). And the sword passages have baffled me for ages (I doubt (and I know that you think this) they carry their literal meaning).
    However, I’m in total agreement with you on the rest. The gospels and the epistles seem to be on a plane of thinking beyond this world; so it’s difficult to apply to ‘real life’ thinking. Although I do love the Letter of James.

  4. It really isn’t that ambiguous, is it? I mean why would John say he made a whip without implying he used it to “drive them out”? Seems implied to me. But I suppose if you want a softer Jesus, you can always imagine him whipping the ground in front of people in an intimidating manner but that doesn’t seem to be what John is implying here, in my understanding of the text.

  5. That’s fair enough, I’ve no Biblical Greek, so any nuances of the text will pass be by. My interpretation of the text reflects me rather than authorial intent. I am curious, as well as pessimistic, about O’Reilly’s book. Maybe he’ll surprise us all with something half-decent?

  6. Well ‘authorial intent’ is pretty difficult for anyone to determine, don’t you think? We can speculate on what that intent is, but it isn’t like we can call them up for an interview (wouldn’t that be something?). All interpretations of the text are tentative, and anyone who tells you otherwise is not being honest about the limitations of our evidence. Still, I appreciate your candor about it.

    As for O’Reilly, sure, maybe he could write a half-decent book. I’m not saying the guy isn’t smart. But being smart and having good instincts about the past are not the same thing. Historians (and to be clear, I’m just a student yet–no PhD so I’m speaking about individuals who study professionally) spend years specializing and developing skills necessary to grasp nuance–and not just about the text, but socio-cultural nuance, psychological nuance (within our best models–again, can’t interview people from the period), and so on. O’Reilly may have a limited grasp of some of this, but he will get a lot wrong. To put this into perspective, scholars are just as guilty at getting things wrong–but they get most things right. It is only their training and their instincts that give them better percentages, O’Reilly has a lot working against him: his ideology is overpowering, his network might have a hand in steering him to write a book like this and that may factor in to his decisions about who Jesus was and what he might have done. He isn’t a professional historian and so he will not be able to grasp the various subtleties of the text, the imitations of the text, the echoes of various threads of thought that scholars can recognize in order to produce good commentaries. That is extremely problematic. So no, I would not expect much from O’Reilly. Nor any other individual who is not deeply involved in the investigation of the past.

  7. Reblogged this on kronieken and commented:
    Interesting piece about Jesus

  8. I’m looking forward to seeing all those sophisticated theologians™ telling O’Reilly to shut up until he’s understood what Christianity is really about.

  9. Not sure why you trademarked theologians… makes no sense.

  10. At least it will be an informed ‘shut up’ (I actually doubt it’ll be noticed that much), unlike the ignorant yelling that O’Reilly does to his better informed guests. As with Mr Verenna’s reply to me above, I wouldn’t be shocked if Fox had a guiding hand, ensuring big sales, and bigger apologetics?

  11. Sophisticated Theologians™, sorry.

    I was thinking of the type that are busy telling Dawkins that he’s completely misunderstood religion is demolishing a strawman and needs to read more Sophisticated Theology™.

    For some reason these scholars are never very busy correcting actual believers, who hold the exact views that Dawkins criticises.

    I expect Bill O’Reilly to have and propagate such a simplistic faith, but I don’t have much faith that he’ll be publicly attacked for it the way the so-called ‘New Atheists’ are.

  12. Great post. I had no idea this book was coming out, but I’m concerned, as well. This is going to cause a big shit storm and I thought we’d come so far…Sigh.

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