The Un-Jefferson Bible

Posted: August 31, 2011 in Uncategorized
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As I’ve been reading more source material on the faith perspectives of our American founders, the diversity of viewpoints relating to not only doctrine, but the interplay between church and state (of which there was no little argument!), I ran across, again, the Thomas Jefferson solution to Jesus (Faith of the Founders, Edwin S. Gaustad, Baylor University Press, 2004).

Jefferson (like Madison, Franklin and many others) was not an orthodox Christian by any stretch of the imagination, but rather a Deist who prized freedom of thought and practice. He sought out reasonable self-evident truths embodied in the natural universe. This natural order contained ethical norms that governed the way of humanity. What was not included in his religious schema was anything resembling “revelation” or “supernatural” occurrence that somehow suspended the natural order.

Late in life, as Jefferson revisited the personage of Jesus, he found a true companion, but only after a radical editing. He was, in his mind, liberating Jesus from New Testament portrayals (especially those of Paul)  and the later church distortions of him.

To go about this process of retrieving his Jesus, he compiled all the ethical teachings of Jesus – which he thought superlative – and snipped out anything resembling miracle or supernatural elements. The Jesus of Jefferson became an Enlightenment teacher of truth. So that would include the sermon on the mount, but forgo conversations about his role as Messiah. We would hear the parables but not talk about healing the man born blind. There was his martyr’s death, but no mention of resurrection. Jesus, like the rest of humanity, had an immortal soul, so he would find his place in another world, but not with the disturbance of the natural order of things. And so it went.

Having known about the “Jefferson Bible” for a long time, I was not surprised with his project. What strikes me now, as I consider our religious landscape, is how we are creating another version of the Bible, an X-ray negative of Jefferson’s.

The project of many today is not to expunge the text of its supernatural or miraculous content. To the contrary, bring that on. Many people would be aghast at the thought of Jefferson’s edits.

No, many are engaged in creating a negative opposite of Jefferson’s Bible in which the ethical teachings of Jesus – his parables, ethical challenges, sermon on the mount – fall to the cutting floor. Walking on water? Raising the dead? Ascending to God the Father? Yes, include all of these. But no, do not include his stern warnings to the powerful, the oppressors of the poor, those of us who have sold out to the world.

What is finding its way to the dustbin is the Jesus material that sounds like the classic prophets – Jeremiah, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea. That we are to avoid. There is a gag order on that Jesus.The word “justice” is a negative, to be avoided at all cost, even though it dominates the thought of the prophets and Jesus.

In the same way that Jefferson filtered out the supernatural, many current American Christians are filtering out the ethical demands of Jesus. So two interesting volumes sit on the shelf, side by side. There is Jefferson’s. And then there is the Un-Jefferson. And they both betray the worldviews of their interpreters.

When we skew to the extreme edge we inevitably lose something.  It is easy to miss that slippery truth that stands somewhere in that illusory middle. If there is a golden mean then it is precious precisely because it doesn’t want to lose what excess could strip from it. This calls for humility, discernment and more than a little courage not to coast with the pack.

I think Jefferson lost a lot in his quest. And I think the Un-Jeffersons are losing much now. Neither way is viable, in my mind. But both remind us of the places we do not want to go.

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Comments
  1. Lee says:

    These two skewed versions of the real Jesus recall a poem:

    Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–
    Success in Circuit lies
    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth’s superb surprise
    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind–
                          –Emily Dickinson

  2. Ellen Flottman says:

    Thanks, Tim. This expresses some things I have been thinking for some time and did not know how to verbalize.

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