I want to begin this preface in a strange way: By telling you how and why you should jump ahead in the text.
If you are a Christian of almost any sort, you’ll find ideas in this book that do not fit with things you’ve been taught, while being simultaneously based upon Jesus’ words. That’s an uncomfortable contrast, and while I’ve done my best to minimize it, there’s really no way around it.
And so I’m asking you to please, when you feel yourself getting as uncomfortable as you want to be, jump forward to Chapter Five, entitled In Praise of Christendom. In it I think you’ll find some rest and refreshing.
What I’ve labored to show throughout this book is that Jesus has been largely lost to us since the first century AD. He wasn’t completely lost, of course – many records of his words not only exist but are published world-over – but he has been replaced by doctrinal and storybook versions of who he really was.
The real Jesus turns out, as I see it, to be better, deeper and more cathartic than the storybook and doctrinal versions, and more than the theological versions. I think recovering him is crucial.
The question is whether the real Jesus is acceptable to humanity in the 21st century. That is, can people bear a confrontation with him as he really was? Clearly he was too much for the people of his own time; even his friends had a hard time with him. And so I’ve taken this question seriously; giving people more than they can handle is not only futile, but cruel.
But as I see it, a significant number of people are capable of taking Jesus as he really was. Humanity has come a long way in the past two thousand years. Entrenched interests would like us to see each other as dangerous, but the truth is that humanity is significantly better than it used to be. The cruelty of the old days, for example, has become wholly unacceptable. And creativity is something that a huge number of us now expect and demand. Contrast that with the assumption of a slow, painful slog unto death that haunted most of mankind for most of human history.
And so I’m convinced that many people are able to take Jesus as he really was. Some will turn away, but even so, many of those same people will be more accepting on a second or third encounter.
For many Christians the problem with a new depiction of Jesus – any new depiction – is that they hold very dearly to an all-or-nothing scenario: If you treat anything written by Paul, John or Peter as less than “Almighty God’s direct words,” you are the enemy of Jesus. That belief is clearly flawed, but I won’t be fighting it; those who hold it as the foundation of their being are quite able to place the book down.
Nor will I spend any time on the usual “Who are you to go against every theologian?” The opinions of others don’t make anyone right or wrong, and many of those theologians will agree with me on several points anyway.
But while I’m convinced that I am basically correct, I make no claim to a flawless view of Jesus. I’ve given you the best I have and you can form your own opinion.
I will be frank on the differences in character and conduct between Jesus and “the apostles.” This should not, however, be taken as an indictment of them. On the contrary, I see Peter, John, Paul, the Marys and many others as sincere and brave people. The fact that they were not the equal of Jesus is no indictment, it is merely an acknowledgement that their development was several stages short of his.
In the end, I think you’ll see that recovering Jesus and seeing him directly changes almost everything people think of as “Christian.” I fully understand that a couple of billion Christians find meaning in their rituals and doctrines, and I am not trying to rip those away. But I also see these people as masters of their own lives. I am giving them what I have and expecting them to use it as they think best. These are not children.
It will almost certainly take people time to work through the ideas in this book. Some number may grasp it right away: it highlights the elevated existence that Jesus worked so hard to initiate, after all. Still, it is radically different from mainline Christianity and serious consideration of these ideas may be slow in coming. Human inertia is just that way.