by Adrian Alker
from Signs of the Times No. 61 - Apr 2016

Since the Church has always invited its followers to affirm the humanity of Jesus, it would seem obvious that the search for this historical Jesus would always be a part of Christian theology.

So who is this Jesus? Is he the sinless Son of God, born of the Virgin Mary, risen from the dead and declared to be the world’s Saviour and Redeemer by the councils and creeds of the early Church? Or was he a human being, like you and me, whose halo could slip, a remarkable prophetic man of his time and for his time but whose bones lie somewhere in the dust of Palestine? Or could he indeed have been both human and divine? Or is Jesus whatever we want him to be – a dying saviour, an exemplar of justice and compassion, a God presence in our lives, a name to swear by?

Whatever we think, the world will not let go of this Jesus. Not only in art but in film and literature this Jesus captivates and intrigues generation after generation of people across the planet. When the world’s athletes descend on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the 30 metre tall Christ the Redeemer statue will overlook the city. There’s no getting away from Jesus!

I doubt the name of Jesus will ever be unknown to human civilization. Have you ever wondered how much music has been written in the world in connection with Jesus and the gospel stories? From early plainsong, through to music of Bach and Handel, from hymns and gospel songs, from musicals such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, through to the exciting compositions of Karl Jenkins, musicians have been inspired by the New Testament accounts of the birth, life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. Film-makers and film audiences are still captivated by the Jesus story. We look back to the American blockbuster 1965 film The Greatest Story Ever Told, or Piero Pasolini’s The Gospel according to Matthew, also produced in the 1960s with a cast of ordinary Italians including Pasolini’s mother playing the part of Mary. More recently, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, first screened in 2004, gave rise to criticism by some reviewers who claimed that its extreme portrayal of the violence and torture inflicted upon Jesus obscured the message of the film.

Across continents and cultures the person of Jesus continues to intrigue Christians and people of other and no religious faith. In the 1990s the Anglican mission societies, CMS and USPG (now Us) produced a resource entitled The Christ We Share. This contained 32 images of Jesus, drawn, painted, sculptured from across the world. Like many colleagues, I have often used these images to stimulate discussion. One picture, for example, is of The Angry Christ, an image from the Philippines, which places the historical reality of the Marcos regime in the biblical context of the Overturning of the Tables in the Temple (Mark 11.15-19). In contrast is an image entitled ‘Lesser Brethren’, which pictures a Jesus in a clean white robe, surrounded by animals and birds set in the English countryside! The resource also has Christa, a sculpture made in 1974 by Edwina Sandys, the granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill, for the United Nations Decade for Women. Sandys depicted a female Christ on the cross to represent, in her words, ‘the oppressed and devoured women of our jails and prisons, any woman forgotten, hidden, abused or thrown away, the suffering woman in all of us’.

The ‘quest’ for the historical Jesus has been and still is, I believe, an important part of the honest search to discover who Jesus was and is. Trying to discover more about the lives of great figures of history has always been a favourite stock-in-trade of writers, theologians, novelists and playwrights. In the popular television programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, celebrities trace their family trees, to find out about the lives of their ancestors. When I came home on my first Christmas vacation from Oxford, my father would have none of my newly acquired airs and graces (long since gone!). He asked, ‘who do you think you are?’

For hundreds of years the theologians and historians have asked this and other questions in their searching: who is Jesus, who did he think he was and who did others think he was?

Adrian Alker has been a Church of England clergyman since his ordination in 1979. He has served in four different dioceses, held posts as a youth officer, a parish priest and a director of mission resourcing. He founded the St Mark’s Centre for Radical Christianity in Sheffield and is currently Chair of the Progressive Christianity Network in Britain. His new book, Is a Radical Church Possible?, is published by Christian Alternative Books, ISBN: 978-1-78535-250-8 £12.99 (or £9.99 from the PCN Britain website).