Wednesday, September 12, 2007



Last month in Australia a controversy that engaged even political leaders broke out over an exhibition of works entered for the Blake Prize for Religious Art. It included a portrayal of Christ that morphed into terrorist leader, Osama Bin Ladin, as you walked past and a statue of the Virgin in a Muslim burqa. Against accusations of blasphemy almost inevitably some protested that art is intended to shock and provoke. Which sometimes it is, though that has never been its usual or main function.

Also last month, but in Sweden, a riot involving 30 people broke out and a poster was burned at Jonkoping, a traditionally evangelical centre in Sweden and this was over a new showing of the Ecce Homo exhibition of gay themed Jesus art by Elizabeth Olsson-Wallin. This reprise took place perhaps influenced by interest generated overseas, especially in America earlier this year, through publication of Kittredge Cherry’s Art that Dares (a subject treated at Ms Cherry’s suggestion in this Blog - see July archive) and a controversial, related exhibition of “Progressive Spiritual Art” in Taos, New Mexico. Like the book the exhibition included Olsson-Wallin’s work which I shall comment on presently.

It is however because Kittredge Cherry has more recently invited me to comment on the art of Peter Grahame, who contacted her as a result of the Taos exhibition and reading her Jesus in Love novel, that I am writing this article. It will nonetheless go beyond comment on a striking piece of work from Grahame's gallery to wider and harder questions such work could pose for many people.


Ms Cherry gives Grahame special coverage on her new Blog (feature Sept 6th).

In an interesting development for gay spirit art and trends generally Grahame has done sensitive and “spiritual” nude photographic work (some contained in Contemplations of the Heart: A Book of Gay Male Spirit) and now a highly unusual photo-montage picture, Saying Goodbye to John and Mary featured on Ms Cherry's Blog. This work carries implications not for a gay Jesus a la Olsson but a bisexual one and is linked to a whole Magdalene mythology besides. I review this unusual picture presently but I am not so seduced by Grahame’s art – which like Ms. Cherry I agree expresses talent and beauty - not to have problems with some of the ideas and representations involved. In fact, it finally makes me try to define a few standards for judgment within this area of controversial, borderline religious/spiritual artwork of which Kittredge Cherry is a notable exponent today. Peter Grahame’s work makes me, and may be presumed to make many others, ask…

Where and when might there be a case for protesting that a line has been crossed and that a given production might reasonably be considered “offensive” to people or, rather more importantly, “blasphemous” by nature? Post-modernist attitudes which favour relativity and the self expression of individuals are not disposed to admit such questions. They nonetheless won’t and can’t go away. They are vital in our times when riots can encircle the globe because it’s felt Mohammed has been “blasphemed” (albeit in that instance political issues and personal grievances appear to have overtaken and gone far beyond whatever religious considerations might originally have been relevant).

Of the religions it’s a fact that today and in terms of rights Christianity seems unusually vulnerable – its love doctrine is popularly expected to forgive any offences to it – because while the prevalent post-modernist values of the (secular) West would disregard the problem of blasphemy their inclusiveness that embraces multi-culturalism etc is forced to respect other, less familiar religious traditions in order credibly to “include” them. So, Christianity can finish a victim in the respect stakes due to its familiarity. But within that situation where might its adherents still have a right to locate their own protest (and without falling into the violence of the recent Swedish protest?).

Before looking at pictures and considering specific examples I believe two broad basic principles could be some guide.


First. Just what is a religious right? If, say, an atheistic/secular society opposed (as China has been opposed) to all religion gave believers space to build a place of worship we would not consider real freedom of worship had been granted if the permitted space was not safeguarded so that anyone could throw stones at the walls during worship or plaster the walls with hostile graffiti during the week. What is believed must be given a space in which it can be cultivated and thrive or freedom of belief is not quite real. Arguably, then, in rather the same way, if a “free” society that tolerates religion permits open abuse of that religion's iconic images and ideas the freedom principle risks compromise by a spiritual pollution that makes the “tolerated” belief that much harder to live out or represent properly to oneself or to others.

Second. "Blasphemy" needn’t be against just God and one needs to understand just what it is. Essentially it is a form of (usually aggressive) insult or rudeness liable to imply some form of misrepresentation or lie about its object. And law normally reckons to penalize libel and abuse. Theoretically, then, we could say there was some “blasphemy” of history and persons if artistically an artist chose to represent the Yalta conference that helped end WW 11, as a ballroom dance competition or an orgy. An artist might claim rights to do this “satirically” because he decided Churchill was a good dancer or a hopeless womanizer but the portrayal would not be “true” to what happened or what the world felt in February 1945. Everyone would agree – as far as truth to fact was concerned - except that relativizing post-modernist philosophy in its more radical form can excuse the artist from any truth quest. Facts don’t matter, only individual perspectives and “text” count so that the artist can make wallpaper out of history while names from Jesus to Shakespeare become words to conjure with and to stick like labels over any theme that crosses the mind.

With these two considerations in mind and for reasons I will give presently I would consider Grahame’s Saying Goodbye might have to be called if not blasphemous, a piece of serious and sensational artistic misrepresentation. To make clear just why and for purposes of comparison I will first consider some examples of work by Olsson- Wallin which have since first showing in 1998 been called blasphemous by some. All images I refer to are from the Ecce Homo exhibition and the Sermon on the Mount image along with the news from Sweden is included on Cherry’s Blog for Aug 27th as can the Saying Goodbye image for September 4th.


Why would I say that the Sermon on the Mount image is not actually or potentially blasphemous while contending that Saying Goodbye could be ?

The Sermon, though unexpected and quirky, is so in development of an idea. It extends and manifests a given understanding of Christian love and/or acceptance. It doesn’t violate history or biography to do so by forcing the viewer to accept that Jesus was himself gay against a record which makes no overt declarations on the subject. In fact, the Jesus figure is rather traditional. But in line with the opinions of various scholars and theologians the picture at the same time allows the possibility Jesus had gay orientation or sympathies; it invites imagination to a “what if” about this idea in the way modern thinkers believe we should inquire. But it doesn’t do so disrespectfully either to Jesus or to existing devotion. Both Jesus, who isn’t himself in leather, and the gay leather men are portrayed in typical ways. They are both simply themselves. The ensemble with its stress on acceptance and devotion is not distracted by particular interests such as if something of purely bodily or sexual desire, a biblical "lust of the eyes”, were introduced where it didn’t belong, the place of teaching of the picture’s title.

I realize that this picture could draw protest and has done but I suggest it has done so for surface reasons, for being unfamiliar, the reason that a lot of non religious art has drawn protest in the past. It is not offending or misleading at a deeper level and intrinsically.

This can then be compared with two other Ecce Homo scenes, one which I consider to be dramatically successful and the other dramatically failed. The purely suggested crucifixion scene with a shadowed cross above the body of the fallen Christ/gay bashed person left to the enveloping Stockholm night into which the bashers are disappearing is very effective. It is perhaps the picture that introduced a whole trope into gay art (one employed by several artists in Cherry’s book and exhibition) in which links are made between victims of homophobic violence and the crucified. This seriously contrasts with the Olsson’s Last Supper which I disliked from first view and have never got used to. Here the disciples have become drag queens and even Jesus slightly so because under the table he is seen to be wearing high heels.

Why is this latter image ‘wrong”, distasteful, perhaps blasphemous? Quite simply because it is misrepresentation in the way I said Churchill at a Yalta orgy would be wrong. The drag queen represents a spirit of comedy within the gay world. It’s not a question here of whether Jesus would have accepted drag queens if they had featured in his society (and in my Signs for a Messiah I give two points of evidence that something like them did so) the point rather is this. Jesus was never himself seen as a drag queen by anyone and the Last Supper wasn’t a comedy, it was super serious and it was for and about everybody, indeed rather uniquely it was at least implicitly about the whole world, not sections of it and the special rights of groups. There is therefore an unfortunate and (however unintentionally in Olsson’s case as a self declared Lutheran) a disrespect in the production of this particular image.

Curiously however it seems that in recent protests the main offending picture was the baptism by John, an image in some respects so ordinary (two men at an empty Stockholm swimming pool) I don’t feel able to comment with passion and conviction in any direction. The picture has nevertheless been criticized as primarily an image of a naked, well endowed Jesus being baptized by a John aware of Jesus’ body.

I can only say, “perhaps”, and “I suppose” because the image is hardly overwhelming as such. At the moment the Spirit is said to descend, God to speak and Jesus’ ministry to begin it would indeed be an irreverent irrelevance if historically or artistically John would be clearly concentrated on (plain ogling) Jesus’ body. But this is not exactly the case here, it’s more like there’s a passing notice. The John of history or any modern image would need to notice Jesus’ body and doubtless any gay male would - in passing- if only because in John’s case he is obliged to hold him safely! So this is difficult. Much here is “in the eye of the beholder” but the ensemble doesn’t present theme and imagery against which the blasphemy charge can easily be brought. Unless you additionally maintain a Jesus figure should never be portrayed nude. But that, although it marks a popular position, cannot really be substantiated because of the occasions Jesus was naked either from choice (apparently he removed his clothing slave-like for the foot washing of the Last Supper) or from necessity – at crucifixion victims were naked. (Still, if one desires authenticity strictly one should portray a circumcised Jesus which this baptism picture fails to do!)


By contrast Saying Goodbye to John and Mary, though it’s a singularly haunting and wonderfully pretty dream piece fit for a Persian miniature, is being merely provocative. Indeed the very beauty in this instance could be considered part of the picture’s offence against truth in the way we do sometimes speak of “the lies of beauty”. The picture’s bisexual message that Cherry picks up calling her article “Exploring Jesus the Bisexual” is even curious to the extent it doesn’t issue from the artists’ own strongly affirmed gay identity and spirit (see interview, White Crane Magazine, Fall 2006). It seems designed rather to speak to popular trends in the wake of Dan Brown fiction. More to the point, the three dramatis personae of the picture are not even bodily in serious positions that suggest any kind of serious moment whether spiritual or just personal that would precede taking leave of one another or anticipating an imminent Passion.

A very ordinary, casual and naked black Jesus sits with arms around a sprawled and very white John asleep, or perhaps drunk, and a vampish Mary standing naked, somewhere between coy and provocative as she rests on one hip staring downwards towards Jesus with an unsmiling almost hard expression that might better suit a triumphant Salome bearing the head of John the Baptist. What in fact Mary holds, but rather indifferently and away from her in her right hand is the chalice above which is a butterfly, rather than, say, a dove. The bread that in the given story and received belief represents Christ’s body in the Passion and hence salvation is stuck irrelevantly on the grass like leftovers from the lovers’ picnic. Any sacrament in this dream world would tend to be Mary’s body (she is obviously more ready for anything than the naked John!). Through an archway at a distance the viewer perceives the future. A naked Jesus is ascending into the heavens as on a swing, Mary holds up a baby and John is sitting like a Hindu god on a flower garland evocative of a lotus throne and which we may assume, from text accompanying the picture is the artist’s symbol for Jesus’ word. As Grahame puts it. “…..before going to the garden's hilltop to pray, Jesus expressed his deepest most profound Love to Mary and to John, the two he loved more than his own soul.And Mary brought forth his daughter.And John brought forth his word.”

This leavetaking event is not depicted in any room but outside in a garden, not Gethsemane but some no man’s land or pre-Gethsemane inbetween in line with the new apocrypha of the text. To the extent this dreamlike location corresponds to any open space in Jerusalem we can be certain that late at night near Passover there would not have been any naked woman and probably not any clothed ones either – the event of the youth who escapes naked from the garden in Mark’s gospel is included as something quite out of the ordinary.

While Jesus wasn’t and shouldn’t be artistically portrayed (as often happens) as more or less WASP he was not black either. It violates history to portray him as such. More importantly it compromises religious sense (root theology) because it marks a refusal to acknowledge (or just realize) that Jesus’ prophetic and priestly roles were totally bound up with the idea he was a Jew of David’s line performing a function in salvation only a Jew could perform for the world because of what was understood to be the nature of Hebrew election and David’s line within world history. Historical accuracy seems therefore rather crucial here.

Yet all these observations are almost secondary to the picture’s other implications and Kitt Cherry’s advocacy of it for as an exploration of “Jesus the bisexual”.


Cherry’s Jesus in her Jesus in Love novel is queer/bisexual but not actively in the way implied by Peter Grahame for whom the loves of Jesus appear completely physical and productive of a child in the case of the Magdalene. For Cherry because he was divine Jesus could never hope to find erotic satisfaction outside of God and realizes he even risks damaging others by having relations that would be impossible for their energies to stand. All this is frankly fictional and Cherry doesn’t have convictions regarding the orientation of the historical Jesus though she does wonder, and feels encouraged in the idea by Grahame’s vision, if Jesus would be not just human enough to have sexual feelings but in addition "enlightened" enough to have them for both sexes. In its way however the situations evoked in her novel (reviewed in my May Archive) points, even if unconsciously, to the problem of thinking at all of Jesus as “bisexual” - a modern word/concept like “homosexual.

Sexual orientation and spirituality are very big subjects beyond the scope of this article as is likewise the reasons that numbers of scholars and writers on religion suspect or claim evidence for Jesus to be thought of (in modern terms) as of gay orientation. However a few relevant points would seem to be these.

Even among those persons claiming to be or seeming to be bisexual (biblically King David almost certainly was) there is still always some measure of bias. 50/50 per cent bisexuality is unknown to psychology and nature. The bisexual is usually a person who at certain stages in their life makes a move in a different direction. David was not in love with Jonathan (whose love he rated above that of women) when he was pursuing Bathsheba and the many women he collected and who concerned him later in life when Jonathan was dead. At least some bisexuals will be content to keep sex to one sex and romance to the other. The kind of bisexual who beds with both man and woman simultaneously could be considered rather decadent, orgiastic and fixated upon the physical/material/pleasure level. This is however virtually the image Grahame presents of Jesus. He is implicitly someone who switches between John and the Magdalene or takes them together.

Unless one holds – rather radically - that there is no difference between sex/eros and Spirit then eros is spirit's mirror, a possible gateway to aspects of spiritual understanding but not the whole picture. Almost universally spiritual traditions insist on the need for "one-pointedness". A system like bisexuality, especially in its more physical expression, is not notably designed to serve that end especially not monotheistically. Spiritually it can finish like a promiscuity reflecting polytheism and I noted the marked changeablity of religious allegiance and theory possible where strong bisexual identity is claimed. (See my A Special Illumination p 89 which however doesn’t cover all the examples I had come across then or since).

The idea that Jesus could have been of third sex, or in modern terms “gay” and somehow allied to John has been an underground belief in the churches for centuries, implied in art and virtually stated by such as St Aelred of Riveaulx. Alternatively there has been the underground tradition of a heterosexual Jesus who married the Magdalene. The notion Jesus could have been bisexual appears to be completely modern. It arrives via very modern and American and Walt Whitmanesque notions - that Kittredge Cherry and her MCC church rather subscribe to - of “equality”. Once you radically accept equality theory into your religion it will seem obvious, as it early did to an MCC leader, Rev. Nancy Wilson, that Jesus should have the ability, or need, to love everyone and hence both sexes equally. Though personally he’s gay I can see how Peter Grahame has affinity with a very “bisexual” vision by the way the text of his Contemplations of the Heart states there should be “no boundaries” (yet would there be art or picture frames without them?!) and “What would total freedom be?…….the complete essence of equality” (italics mine).

My non American, European background (and perhaps cynicism) asserts itself here. Without suggesting that equality in certain areas is not an important concept and not an ideal we should hold to it cannot be imposed upon just everything, everywhere. Especially not spiritually and morally or we will never even be able to propose that one idea or act is “better” than another. (It was the problem with Walt Whitman that he couldn’t do that – as cited in a detailed analysis of the Whitman in my A Special Illumination he even suggests he can worship Satan as well as any other god). So far as I know there is not a single visionary who reveals the angelic world as being other than hierarchical (after a fashion). Even in literature as the late Kathleen Raine pointed out when poets and visionaries become visionary they begin to declare in “exalted” (high style/aristocratic) tones which are archetypally and invariably those of the otherworld. The modern egalitarian world is ordinary and is unpoetic accordingly. It also lacks the one-pointedness of the traditional mystic and while for some people “gay Christian” or “gay Jesus” remain oxymoronic terms, the human conditions referred to are at least less compromising of the mystical/spiritual obligation of one-pointedness than one suspects is possible with bisexuality.


Grahame is an enchanted and enchanting dreamer, an artist of real imagination, but he is so far from the mystical/religious that when he contacted Kittredge Cherry he told her re her novel: “You make Jesus seem like some sweet guy I just met”. A strange way to read her Jesus and a strange way to think of one’s friends and Jesus at all yet I should say linked to his peculiar vision artistically! In Pope Benedict’s recent Jesus of Nazareth book which this non Catholic also reviewed this month, the interesting point is made that the crowds weren’t “astonished” at Jesus’ teaching, the word is more like “alarmed” realizing among other things the divinity implications to the claims. Meeting Jesus, even if Jesus was gay was never like contacting one’s last sweet friend (or trick?) but encountering someone or something rather more challenging.

Only lack of discernment, supposedly one of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:10), could let the likes of Rev Mel White of Soulforce make the over-the-top, emotion based statement that we should hear the Spirit, capital S, talking to us through Grahame’s work. (See Reviews on Grahame’s homepage). Does Rev White mean Holy Spirit? The Spirit is the Spirit of Truth who leads into Truth, into the Real, not as here the realms of psyche/imagination which leave us a Jesus with other agendas than his earliest followers lived and died to inform us he had.

I wrote appreciatively of Rev. White in my A Special Illumination survey of gay spirituality. His latest views give me some second thoughts, apart from the fact I have some purely personal ones since White’s supposedly all-welcoming organization is so far from welcoming it couldn’t even consent to put a link to my study because it was felt I had “advertised” it on my website. (How could especially Americans in their commercial Babylon cook up such objections, except that I’ve learned it’s wisdom always to assume that people and organizations that speak very liberal views won't automatically have them in practice?). So I can’t take advice about the Spirit from Rev White. There may be some elements of "gay spirit" at work in Peter Grahame but the Spirit is saying nothing at all unless to indicate a degree of misrepresentation of Jesus’ life and mission is increasingly occurring in the field of art and believers could usefully acquire and apply a few standards to issues of iconographic representation. Vision could thus be better guarded against the general spiritual pollution of the times that threaten it and personal freedom.

Sunday, September 9, 2007


(Gerd Ludemann is Germany's theological shock jock along with Uta Ranke- Heinemann and is best known for extreme rejection of the Resurrection. He has recently been criticizing Pope Benedict’s "Jesus of Nazareth" study both on his Homepage and a book rushed to press in Germany. I write here about Benedict's book and Ludemann’s rather odd critique of it)


Since I dissent from numbers of Pope Benedict’s strongly held views I was half reluctant to like his Jesus of Nazareth book. Actually, to my surprise, I mostly liked it for various reasons including it seemed like literature. I then learned many would tell me I had no right to like it. To do so suggests no proper relation to reason, to the modern, to scholarship and heaven knows what else. The implication is one is as good as an ignorant obscurantist to get anything from it! Objection in the line is most radically made by controversial German theologian, Gerd Ludemann. He entered an angry Blog article against Benedict's book on Gerd Ludemann’s Homepage at
the day after I finished my own reading. He has already had published (publishing can hurry if it pleases!) a whole book in Germany attacking the Pope’s approach to Jesus. I’ll consider Ludemann’s sometimes strange objections after mentioning my general impressions of Benedict’s offering first.


I read Pope Benedict’s best seller at record speed. One shouldn’t do this as you can get indigestion - some devout Catholics are even reading a page or two a day and working with that. Jesus of Nazareth is quasi meditative, packed full of insights including nuggets of scholarly information of the sort which evidently annoy scholars who feel Benedict scarcely has the right to take and use these bits unless he cares to buy into modern scholarly aims and attitudes, (or alternatively a fundamentalist literalism) wholesale. However Jesus of Nazareth is not a commentary on the gospels or a work of scholarship as such. It’s intended broadly to oppose doubt, clarify, and inspire. I see nothing wrong in that intention and even register some success for it. But Jesus of Nazareth is at points an attack on, or at least spirited response to, a modern line in biblical scholarship which Benedict believes has obscured understanding of Jesus by argument, wild speculation and academic theory less well founded than it is made superficially to appear. He wants us to “see” Jesus.

Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t come across as the work of a Pope and isn’t offered as such – its introduction says people are free to disagree; the author is simply expressing his own opinions. If you didn’t know it was the work of a pontiff you might almost imagine a type of Protestant had written it. It comes across as a rather German theological production which though in publishing terms it’s “high level popularization” could be difficult for some readers given the philosophical terms thrown around (like ontological ). It’s German too in being almost musical, symphonic, deftly interweaving its themes and this musicality and sensitivity to the symbolic belongs with an element of mysticism (and art) underlying the whole.

This study/portrait doesn’t begin at the beginning or end at the end - birth narratives and passion narratives are reserved for a second volume – but it takes in both Jesus’ ministry and teachings beginning at the baptism and seeks to bring out the mystery of Jesus with a gradual revelation of who and what he is. The last chapter is in fact called “Jesus Declares Himself”. Benedict is making the point, often obscured in modern rationalist scholarship, that the understanding Jesus is/was divine is plainly there in the synoptic gospels though not so overtly declared and theorized as in John’s gospel. However they contain I AM statements as at the stilling of the sea. A declaration like “Fear not it is I” is hiding the real words and their significance which is “Fear Not, I AM” namely Jesus is the same God who speaks to Moses from the bush. In any case, directly to forgive sins is the prerogative of God in Judaism so the Jesus who heals and forgives is declaring his status and the synoptic gospels regularly do this even if our translations and readings miss this point.

A novelty perhaps for Catholics but which made this Protestant reader feel at home was the easy familiarity with Old Testament/Hebrew sources and perspectives, the broad biblical sweeps. Goodbye the Jesus of plaster saint images, welcome the Jewish Jesus who emerges from a long prophetic tradition, and who will be “a second Moses” - a theme which is Benedict’s point of departure. This then develops towards the little stressed idea, though variously stated or implied by the gospels, that Jesus saw himself and came to be seen as living Torah (Law), living Word and Messiah as such.


Taking the pulse of this writing, I felt a certain spiritual power yet also something lacking. It has something to do with precisely Benedict’s contradictory, ambivalent attitude to the prophetic and which outside his book feeds his dismissive attitude towards the widespread charismatic phenomenon of churches as mentioned in my Mother Teresa article. Benedict wants Jesus to be the fulfillment of messianic prophecies and he endorses the original Christian vision which saw that fulfilment as giving maximum sense to existing scriptures. But he doesn’t want his prophets to have very precise prophetic ability either; they must not be like seers or “soothsayers” or else they are no better than the witch of Endor King Saul wrongly consulted.

Granted prophets are primarily preachers, declarers of justice and denouncers of evil not soothsayers, yet would anyone have ever believed them about the Messiah or anything over longer stretches of time if they hadn’t shown Elijah and Elisha-like some soothsayer style skills within their life times? Daniel,the most purely prophetic work of the Hebrew Bible is robbed of its prophetic power by Benedict in line with the modern liberal scholarship he otherwise critiques, (and whose skepticism about Daniel merely borrow and concurs with the pagan enemy of the Christians, Porphery). I have no idea when Daniel was composed but there are traits and features in it like, some Reich Aramaic phrases which betray at least some of it could have been written well before 200 BC and thus be outstandingly prophetic for detail. Frankly, why not? If Catholic seeress, Jeane Dixon, could certifiably forecast the death of Kennedy years ahead, why not Daniel the careers of Alexander the Great or Antiochus Epiphanes? But Benedict for once is the modernist here (though if there’s anything to the ancient St Malachy prophecy that Benedict is the last pope he can well be excused from wanting to hear too much prophecy of the would-be exact kind!).

From Benedict’s take on prophecy it follows the apocalyptic does not feature in his thought either so that the Jesus of his study is not a (failed) apocalyptic prophet in the style of much historical Jesus studies. It might seem that this wouldn’t matter too much but book and life agree at this point as shown only this month at Loretto where dressed in green to demonstrate Green sympathies Pope Benedict appealed to thousands of youth to save the planet “before it’s too late”. Too late? It’s good and helpful to go green, but what about divine sovereignty? Given any kind of apocalyptic/prophetic perspectives of the kind absent from the book Benedict should know that when the Messiah of prophecy he writes about returns God is praised because “He has destroyed those who would destroy the earth” (Rev 11:18), In other words while Christians might need to go green and start defending the environment they can’t strictly talk about things being “too late” since whatever evils afflict the planet it still belongs to the Creator who will act before it is too late.

Anyway, having limited the scope of prophetic and with it indirectly dismissed any charismatic disposition to inquire into “what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7) Benedict the author is free to regard Christianity’s post apostolic mission as engaging a vast, ongoing “exorcism” of the world. But it’s an exorcism not by the Spirit but by the divine gift of ratio (reason). By implication, however, this would then leave church and people in the hands of the reasoners, the Aquinases who deal doctrine by purely rational principle, even, we might feel, to producing a kind of new, inflexible Torah of reason that in its own way finishes by obscuring Benedict’s Jesus as Torah and “what the Spirit says to the churches” now. So in a sense paradoxically I think it’s reason keeps Benedict the pontiff traditional rather than modern and at times notoriously inflexible, though that isn’t the general feeling tone of his otherwise quite insightful and spiritual book. But it’s precisely the spirituality (and insufficiency of reason of a certain modern kind) is the rub, or at least for a lot of people among whom very vocally is Ludemann, the Lutheran theologian most distinguished for vehemently opposing belief in the resurrection.


Gerd’s 10 objections are linked to the 10 chapters of Benedict’s book but somewhat overlap. Indeed since they sometimes amount to saying the same thing different ways and what that is is at once trendy and debateable I won’t cover all objections in order or precisely. Basically, though, Ludemann believes the Pope doesn’t have the right (nor do any of us) to other than “non-metaphysical” analysis of the New Testament since post Enlightenment rationality forbids it as a kind of sin against “scientific” method. Ludemann protests the Pope, simply isn’t dealing with a “Jesus of History”, but a “Heavenly Lord” he’s confused with it, mixing levels of reality and ideas to the point of dishonest “manipulation” (Objection 1). The human search for objective truth simply cannot be squared with any notion of “inspiration” such as gets claimed for scriptures (Objection 9). Knowledge must always take precedence over “faith” (since “without faith it is impossible to please God” is a biblical dictum the religion is clearly not to be allowed breathing space) and plainly the story of Jesus is just not objective fact (Objection 10). In fact, any suggestion (such as Benedict makes, though Albert Schweitzer, famous for his historical Jesus quest also made it) that Jesus of history scholars can’t present us with an adequate portrait psychologically is not a mark against their work. It merely proves their point we don’t have the right combination of words and facts (yet or perhaps ever) to make such a portrait because the gospels are not “history”. (Objection 8).

It had been a claim of Benedict in Jesus of Nazareth that the modern sense of reality within whose parameters modern liberal theologians work, is simply too narrow. Which it is. It virtually assumes the position of what has been called “scientism” a sort of substitute faith in itself, which exists in denial of whole tracts of human experience like the symbolic and visionary that the likes of Jungian psychology has tried to reinstate as a matter of urgent therapy since society is getting psychologically strangled and spiritually starved by the prevalent excess of reason. I shall return to this matter presently as it’s rather crucial to the whole critique.

In his youth Ludemann was a fundamentalist, even a fundamentalist evangelist. In a sense he’s still a fundamentalist now and also an evangelist (if in service to strict “reason” and against traditional Christian belief) in a way the Pope is not – Benedict does go so far as to suggest scripture is generally inspired but not in its every word and this of course is a non-fundamentalist position many of us would endorse. He does however accept that Jesus is what the Bible is “about”, what and who its prophecies point to and explain. This infuriates Ludemann who makes this his Objection 6 and regards the Pope’s position an insult to Jews and Judaism besides.

There is where things get a trifle absurd and even fanatical on the Ludemann side. It is permissible to maintain the prophecies of the Hebrew Bible just don’t refer to Jesus but it's surely inadmissible to imply the prophecies don’t/shouldn’t deal in messianic prophecy and hence Christian Jews who founded Christianity effectively never had the right, which modern Christians inherit, to read the Bible in terms of Jesus as their fulfillment. If these scriptures wouldn’t be read in terms of Jesus then they would be read in terms of others as we know they were in the case of the would-be Messiah, Bar Kokhba and his rebellion. It’s true that in recent centuries a rationalized Judaism fights shy of prophecy feeling messianism is too difficult and historically troublesome, but if you want to understand Jesus, you read his times, times when prophecy counted. Moreover it was very much of his era and the prevalence of Greek philosophy that there was greater impulse to reduce the chaos (in western terms) of the Hebrew scriptures to the broad explanatory principles Christianity finally offered it. Jesus made sense and even so did his divinity.

Objection 7 is that it’s sheer nonsense to suggest Jesus was divine. Personal beliefs apart, actually it wasn’t and isn’t. If Ludemann thinks otherwise that’s because his scholarship is confined to a historical Jesus quest of a special type. If he even read (probably he has but dismisses) for example the Jewish scholarship of such as Daniel Boyarin in Borderlines (2004) he would be aware that from around 200 BC – 100 AD when the rabbis suppressed it (largely in reaction to Christian developments) there was a virtual “two powers in heaven” belief among Jews which made it easy to believe in a divine mediator or divine son which is the sort of theology ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls point to. I myself in Signs for a Messiah, pointed out how in the mystical wing of Judaism, the Kabbalistic which developed in medieval times but relied on much earlier traditions, there is a line of semi rabbi worship implying a sort of divinity in him.

Ludemann insists if we want to use modern scholarship we keep to its understanding of Jesus as a "teacher of righteousness" but nothing else. But is this a valid choice leading to proper understanding? Even refusing to accept Jesus' divinity, why not try to understand him socially and psychologically as a kind of guru, a mystical super-rabbi? His personality and much in the gospels is easier to absorb if once that is done. Choose pure reason if you will, but allow Jesus the kind of mentality found in India today or in New Age circles in the West where Reason is not first consideration and potentially spirits and magic prevail. The purely scholarly question should always be not does and should the individual personally believe Jesus was divine, but did and could he have believed he was in his particularly situation.

It is a positive of the Benedict’s Jesus portrait that he tries to re-establish John’s gospel as part of an authentic portrait of Jesus. Again Ludemann won’t allow this (Objection 2) and insists on a Q and 2 document origin for the synoptic gospels alone seen as sufficiently early or reliable to give us any species of fact. But really, what can we know or ever hope to know? Perhaps there were such documents and developments. But even the most scientific theories of gospel production are endlessly modified and in recent years starting with John Robinson’s The Priority of John, a case has been made that John’s gospel is in some areas more historically accurate and precise than the other gospels and perhaps earlier produced.


A degree of faith seems unavoidable for us all no matter what position we take. In her dramatic Afterword to her novel Christ the Lord, returned Catholic, Anne Rice, protests as artist and writer against the whole trend of modern New Testament criticism because it seems to overlook the most obvious facts (including issues around the Fall of Jerusalem) in favour of what seem like the prejudices of theologians who have no great love or respect for their main theme, Jesus, and have no sense of how writers write and literature is produced, which it isn’t via committee. Objections of Rice’s kind will have resonance to those of us who have engaged in creative work outside of the scholarly and it belong with the point Pope Benedict is trying to make by another route. Modern scholarship works in too narrow and unimaginative a frame, so full of details and arguments that Jesus gets simply lost. Or if I were to add a biblical verse (Mt.23:13) originally in condemnation of the Pharisees, “For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in” (Mt.23:13)

I don’t know what purpose scholarship of Ludemann’s type is intended to serve because the quest of the “historical Jesus” is by now so changing and problematic it can perhaps only hope to finish like
The Jesus Seminar
with a few phrases deemed authentic. What, then, is the purpose of a life spent trying to discover this because if Jesus was so far less than was claimed or can be known is he really of importance? It does therefore seem that Ludemann’s role is that of reversed fundamentalist evangelist standing on the highways and byeways to point us away from the supposed terrible Jesus illusion we are hostage to. But this would only prove Benedict’s point that much modern biblical scholarship narrows our view, must be resisted and transcended and I think the book does that fairly well, restoring something of the original feeling around Jesus. For this the enterprise will be as much resented as admired.