Monday, May 01, 2006

One God and One Christ!

Ah, Monty Python. A quote for every occasion. Here’s today’s, from the (in)famous “Michelangelo and the Pope” skit:

Pope: Now, a last supper I commissioned from you, and a last supper I want! With twelve disciples and one Christ!
Michelangelo: One?!
Pope: Yes one! Now will you please tell me what in God's name possessed you to paint this with three Christs in it?
Michelangelo: It works, mate!
Pope: Works?
Michelangelo: Yeah! It looks great! The fat one balances the two skinny ones.

Python’s Michelangelo fails to convince the Pontiff, who stubbornly insists that there was only one Christ and that artistic licence don’t enter into it. As he says at the end of the skit: “May not know much about art, but I know what I like!”, and what he likes is historical factuality in a depiction of the gospel story.

So why today’s quote? Because of yesterday’s “Faith” section in the Sunday Age (unfortunately not available on line). This week’s offering was from local student of Islam and convert to that faith, Rachel Woodlock, and in a few short paragraphs, she outlines the Muslim picture of Jesus.

Christians need to know a few things about Islam, and one of them is that that “Allah” is just the Arabic word for God, and the God they seek to worship is none other than the God of Abraham, Moses and—yes—Jesus too. Another thing is that they hold Jesus in very high regard as a Prophet of Allah and the Messiah (ie. the Christ).

But while we know that there is only one God of Abraham, one begins to wonder when a comparison is done of the attributes of God revealed in the Koran and the attributes of God revealed through Scripture. God in the Koran is so “entirely other” and separate from creation (just as a carpenter is separate from the table he made, according to one Muslim I recently asked about this), that there can ultimately be no real communication between the two. Were it not for the insistence that Allah is to be identified with the God of Abraham, one would wonder if we were talking about two different Gods rather than the same One.

Likewise, while one knows that there was only “one Christ” (to quote Monty Python’s pope), the attributes and stories of Jesus found in the Koran and the Gospels differ so much that one begins to wonder if we are not talking about “two” Christs which have very little relation to each other.

Here is the first part of Rachel’s account of Jesus:

“A young Jewish woman receives a visit from the angel Gabriel. He tells Mary that she is to give birth to Jesus, the Messiah, a shocking announcement to a virgin who had spent her life in the temple. Mary moves away from her family and society so that she can carry the pregnancy in private. In the throes of labour, she cries out to God in desperation. He gently tells her not to grieve, and provides her, like a thoughtful midwife, with fresh water and sweet dates.
“Miraculous events surround the young lad, who in his infancy declares to society that he is a prophet and bearer of the gospel. Strengthened with the Holy Spirit, he becomes a great healer who can give life to the dead through the will of God. He attracts around him faithful disciples and his followers become known for their compassion and mercy. Jesus then travels the land teaching people about God.
“So far, the story is not hugely different from the biblical one, although there is neither manger nor three wise men.”

Actually the differences are quite profound, even aside from the manger and the three wise men. The comment about Mary living in the temple and miraculous events surrounding the lad (such as making clay birds and bringing them to life) refer to material which is found in later legendary non-canonical “gospels”, not in the Gospels accepted by Apostolic Tradition. The Koran, coming five hundred years afterwards, incorporates these stories as a part of the historical account—the Church never did. But more serious is the absence of Joseph in the infancy narrative—how can a few dates and a glass of water compare to God providing a husband? And we know that Mary did not cut herself off from her family—she even visited her cousin Elizabeth to help her in her own pregnancy.

But the real difference is yet to come, and many Christians will be unaware of this. Rachel goes on:

“According to the Koran, Jesus did not die on the Cross. Only the appearance of his crucifixion occurred, sparing Jesus the ignominy of this cruel Roman punishment. The Koran says little about what happened next to Jesus, except to say that he was taken up to God.”

At some stage or other, this will need to come into open discussion between Muslims and Christians in interfaith dialogue here in Australia. For immediately Christians will raise questions.

One of those questions is this: What about the historical facts of the matter? Monty Python’s pope insisted that there was only one Christ (not three) at the Last Supper, and of course, we all know he was right. How? Because we have at least four separate accounts of the matter preserved in the apostolic tradition of the New Testament. These accounts were first or second-hand accounts of the event. Later artists might like to imagine it differently, but they have no historical basis upon which to do so.

So too, how can a document which appeared 600 years after the event be more accurate than the documents which originate within 40 years of the event which they describe? Even non-Christian sources agree that he was killed, although some early opponents of Christianity suggested that the body was stolen rather than resurrected. Dan Brown may like to suggest that Jesus just “swooned” on the Cross, but it is precisely for this reason that the Gospels record in detail the piercing of Christ’s side with the lance.

On what basis then, other than the authority of the Koran itself, can Islamic rejection of the historicity of the crucifixion be defended?

The other question is this: With such a fundamental difference in the story, is the Jesus of the Koran and the Jesus of the Gospels really the same Jesus? It saddens me to have to ask this question, because I would like to be able to say “Yes”. I don’t doubt our Muslim brothers and sisters in their sincere desire to honour the one whom they regard as a prophet. They rightly acknowledge that a death by crucifixion is unthinkable for “the Holy One of God”, as it carried an explicit curse in from the Hebrew Torah (Deut 21:22-23). Yet that is precisely the point of the story of Christ: in him, God did the unthinkable. He “became sin” for us, that we might share in his holiness (Gal 3:13-14).

The fact that Jesus died by crucifixion was the greatest stumbling block to the proclamation of the Christian message (1 Cor 1:23). Why would the Christians have made it up? And if it only “appeared” happen, why would Allah have prevented Jesus’ disciples from understanding that it was only “an appearance”, so that they would have been able to proclaim the truth about the event? What benefit was there in insisting that Jesus suffered “the ignominy of this cruel Roman punishment”? In fact, it was the greatest theological hurdle for the apostles to overcome in the first years of the Church. Only gradually did they realise how central the crucifixion of Jesus was to the Gospel itself.

This is what is known among Christians as the “Theology of the Cross”. Martin Luther was a great expert in this. So is our current Holy Father, Benedict XVI. Here is what the latter wrote 40 years ago in “Introduction to Christianity”:

“God is the entirely other, invisible, unrecognisable. But when he really did appear upon the scene, so other, so invisible in regard to his divinity, so unrecognisable, it was not the kind of otherness and strangeness that we had foreseen and expected, and he thus remained in fact unrecognised. But should not that in itself prove him to be the really entirely Other, the one who casts overboard our notions of otherness and thereby shows himself to be the only one who genuinely is entirely other?” (p255)

A crucified Messiah. Yep, that is about as “entirely Other” as you can get.

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