NT Wright, Skeptics, and Jesus Christ Superstar

I was browsing through my Facebook feed today, and I caught a post from my good friend (and fellow blogger) Jenn with 2 N’s. Her post was a quote from NT Wright, former bishop of Durham and a theological hero of mine. The quote was about Jesus’ resurrection (cuz it’s Easter, see?) and how skeptics see it. Here is what Wright had to say.

“But the other part of the answer to what the skeptics have said is that is in fact the skeptics, from that day to this, who are guilty of the very thing of which they are accusing Christians. It is the skeptical world-view that has been blown apart by Jesus’ resurrection. Ever since that day they have been only too eager to find stories to tell to show that actually it didn’t happen, that their original world-view (in which dead people cannot, do not and will not rise again) was correct after all, that some other story will explain it. You can feel the sigh of relief in the skeptical camp each time one of these stories is put forward, however unlikely it may be. Phew! We don’t need to believe that Jesus rose again. That’s all right then. We can cope with him as a great teacher (with whom we may from time to time disagree). We can even see his death as a great example of love in action. We can share his vision of a world in which people live in peace. Only don’t ask us to accept that he rose from the dead. That’s just too much.”

When I read this, I was tempted to respond to Jenn’s Facebook post. I am, after all, a former skeptic. In fact, there are days when I feel rather “not so former.” Plus, the author’s tone came off as a bit smug, and as you’ll soon see, I have a long history of arguing with self-righteous Christians. So Wright’s assumption about the nature of skeptics, and their take on Jesus, seemed like something I was uniquely qualified to respond to. I didn’t, though. I stopped in the middle of mentally preparing my comment, which would have gone something like this:

I’m a fan of NT Wright, so it’s with some fondness that I say that he apparently doesn’t know skeptics as well as he believes. Most skeptics aren’t on the fence about the resurrection of Jesus – they do not believe it happened. A staple of the skeptical mindset is the adage that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The resurrection of Jesus is about as extraordinary a claim as can be made. Skeptics believe that the people making the extraordinary claim have the responsibility of providing the extraordinary evidence to support it. Conversely, the skeptic’s claim about Jesus – that Jesus did not come back from the dead – is a rather ordinary claim. After all, it’s said that seven people die every second, and none of them come back to life (at least, not after three days, as in the case of Jesus). Therefore, only ordinary evidence is needed to support that claim. Skeptics are not, as Wright asserts, secretly fearing that their claim could be proven wrong. They don’t latch onto evidence that supports their disbelief in the resurrected Jesus, because no such latching is necessary. The evidence that people who die and stay down for three days are basically going to stay that way is reaffirmed every day a thousand, thousand times.

 

Your honor, I rest my case.

Your honor, I rest my case.

 

But I didn’t post that comment to Jenn’s Facebook, and here’s why. In my very first post ever I mentioned being “saved” as a kid, and then sort of drifting away from Christianity soon afterward. I spent my teenage years as an on-again, off-again Neo-Pagan. My mid-twenties found me exploring Gelugpa Buddhism. In between those periods, I’ve called myself an agnostic, an atheist, a deist, and a secular humanist. Clearly, I didn’t know what I was. What I did know was what I wasn’t. I wasn’t a Christian. Christianity was the religion I despised the most. I was convinced that while a few individual Christians might be great people, Christianity as a culture was hypocritical, judgmental, lazy, and damn-near worthless. I was so not Christian that at times I found it hard to stop focusing on how non-Christian I was.

And yet, in my quiet moments, I was aware (almost fearfully so) of the fascination that the religion held for me. I remember being in high school when my best friend’s church put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. My buddy came to me one day in drama class, and asked if I would be willing to volunteer my time to help the production. They needed a couple of guys to work the spotlights, and would I be available? It happens I did have time on my hands, so I joined up with the church folks to help out. It would be my first time seeing Jesus Christ Superstar, a show that so enraptured me that I have since seen it live four times – once, with Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach in the lead role.

 

Oh man, it was awesome! At one point he turned water into wine, dirt into cocaine, and pharisees into hookers and the SHOW HADN'T EVEN STARTED!

Oh man, it was awesome! At one point he turned water into wine, dirt into cocaine, and pharisees into hookers and the SHOW HADN’T EVEN STARTED!

 

It was during one of the productions that I had the strangest thought. I was working the spot on the stage left side of the balcony, and I was focusing on my best friend’s girlfriend (and now wife!), who was beautifully belting out “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” My eyes were tearing up, which wasn’t a surprise to me even then – good music almost always makes my eyes rain. By this point I’d seen the show a couple of times, not counting rehearsals, so I already knew I loved it. But this time, something seemed to hit me with unusual poignancy. I remember thinking, “Man. I wish this story were true. It’s too bad it isn’t.”

That wasn’t the first time I felt the siren’s call of Christianity in my coal-black pagan/Buddhist/agnostic/deist heart, but it’s one of the times I remember with the most clarity. Those moments aside, I was quite the good anti-Christian. I argued against those that claimed that Christianity was logical – and I argued gleefully. I turned high-school level apologetics over my knee and spanked them mercilessly in my eagerness to prove the logical inferiority of Christianity. But, aside from my enthusiastic debating, I was a nice guy. I did my best to be a good person, to treat people well, to do what was (as the Boy Scouts’ motto put it) “morally straight”, and to make it known to anyone who asked (or didn’t) that I was doing this despite the fact that I was not Christian. I wanted everyone to know that Christians didn’t have a monopoly on morality – far from it, in fact. Most people weren’t all that moved by my efforts – high school students at the time had more pressing things on their minds, like AOL chat rooms or the Nintendo 64 – but one person took notice. The aforementioned best friend, who happens to be named Robert, once told me, “Dan, you’d be a really good Christian.” I was flattered – I knew the spirit in which the compliment had been given, and I wasn’t that anti-Christian as to be a jerk about it – and I thanked him with the comment that I hoped I was already a good whatever-I-was that time. But even as I semi-deflected his compliment, I was pleased by it.

Part of me, you see, wanted to be Christian. Part of me had always wanted to be Christian. What I didn’t have was the reason to be Christian. It wasn’t enough for strangers to tell me that Jesus was a big deal. I needed Jesus to tell me that he was a big deal. After all, the claims surrounding Christianity – big, bold, impossible miracles; small, intimate, improbable miracles; the goddamn dude coming back from the dead – made the religion hard to buy into. It was one thing to buy into the Neo-Pagan idea that a person’s thoughts affect their world; it was another to believe that Jesus fed five thousand people with (what my pastor calls it) a kid’s lunch. If I was going to believe in the model of reality put forth by Christians, they were going to have to explain things better than they had. I even once told somebody, “If God wants me to be a Christian, God is going to have to tell me so himself.” God would have to pull off the impossible – he was going to have to make me believe in miracles.  Until such a time, I told myself, I would stick with a more rational system of beliefs.

 

In hindsight, I'm not sure it was more rational - but the home made wine was pure tits.

In hindsight, I’m not sure it was more rational – but the homemade wine was pure tits.

 

Years later, when events in my life would lead me to conclude that Jesus was sending me the old proverbial text message (did they text in proverbs?), my journey to Hillside Church in Duluth would begin with an email conversation with pastor Ryan Bauers. After some pleasant chat, Ryan recommended that I read a book called Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist, by author Dave Schmelzer. Brandi and I bought the book for my Kindle, and through a series of zany mishaps, we were forced to read the book aloud, together. Dave Schmelzer had spent a period of his life in a state of anti-Christianity very similar to my own. Like Dave, I was considered the “atheist debater guy” in my school, and like Dave, I was good at poking logical holes into the arguments of the Christians I dueled wits with. I could relate to the author, who came out of atheism into Christianity and has been practicing a life of Jesus Type Stuff for over twenty years. I could relate to him so much, in fact, that there was one question I was dying to ask him. As luck would have it I was able to meet him, some six months after reading his book, at a church conference in Minneapolis. One night of the conference, as I sat next to him drinking beer and eating a Rueben sandwich, I got to ask him my one question.

“Dave, when you were debating all of those Christians in college, were you secretly hoping that one of them would beat you?”

Without the slightest hesitation, Dave said yes. He’d debated, hoping to lose. It was the answer I’d expected, because it was the answer I would have given, had I been asked the same question. As crazy as it was, my vehement anti-Christian sentiment had lived alongside a deeply hidden desire to believe in a story as crazy, as unlikely, and as wonderful as the story of the man Jesus and his resurrection. And clearly, I wasn’t the only skeptic to feel this way.

So maybe NT Wright knows a bit more about skeptics that I was originally willing to credit him for, even if his words seem a little condescending. While I am not ready to believe that all skeptics are just Christians waiting to happen – that is an idea that, as a previous skeptic, I still find a bit offensive – it is easy to see the truth that some of them are. Dave Schmelzer was, and I was, too. And while I doubt that there’s ever going to be enough scientific evidence of the resurrection to get all the world’s skeptics through the church doors, that’s okay – Jesus is a big deal because Jesus is a big deal. We can trust him to send that proverbial text message when the time is right. These days, everyone has a cell phone.

 

"Totes time for a new profile pic."

“Totes time for a new profile pic.”

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About Daniel Mitchell

50% of "What the Faith?!?!", a blog about two skeptics who turned to God for no apparent reason. View all posts by Daniel Mitchell

13 responses to “NT Wright, Skeptics, and Jesus Christ Superstar

  • Veronica M. Surges (@jurisdoctorette)

    “We can trust him to send that proverbial text message when the time is right.”

    I love this – it reminds me of your post last year about being honest with your doubts. I still get afraid sometimes – I’m believing the wrong thing, thinking the wrong thing, this stuff isn’t even real, etc. etc. and it’s such a relief to be able to pray about it and transparently bring those doubts to God and let him deal with them.

    This also reminds me of Greg Boyd’s post about the marriage amendment going around last fall. He talked about how his church does believe that gay relationships aren’t in God’s best design, but how it’s up to God to work that out in people’s lives, not up to us and most certainly not up to the state. I love the idea that God deals with us on His time and doesn’t just throw everything in front of us at once. And I love that I’m not the Holy Spirit and all this conviction stuff isn’t up to me 😀

    • Daniel Mitchell

      I’m a fan of Greg Boyd, and I remember him saying that during the Marriage Amendment debate. I also like his practical approach – this is a broken world in which people who are homosexual are going to be in relationships. As such, they should be married, because marriage is important! I appreciated his no-nonsense approach.

      I’m glad you liked the post – and I’m thrilled that I have had a blog long enough that you can refer to a series I did last year! Making friends like you has made this blogging experience wonderful.

  • Darren Beem

    Hey Dan:
    One of your best posts. IMO. Personal, Vulnerable and Humble.

    Don’t know that I can truly comment on skepticism. I have a very different background from yourself, but even when I was just pissed off to high heaven against the church, there is something about Jesus I just couldn’t let go of.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Well, obviously I’m convinced that there is something to this “Jesus” thing, so I can see why you couldn’t let him go. Depending on the day you catch me I might tell you something different about WHY there’s something to Jesus. . . but the idea of the value of Jesus, for one reason or another, is one of the things that gets me through my tough faith times.

      Thanks for the kind words, by the way. 😀

  • Peter Benedict

    Skepticism works in my favor 95% of the time. The other 5% is worth it, but I try to separate those occurrences and suspend disbelief for a few moments. It usually doesn’t work, and I’m OK with that. God has blown through when he needed to.

    Really great posts of late, from both of you. I am glad I caught my wife visiting and sat down for some reading of my own.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      For me, skepticism is more than a habit to be tamed (although it is that). It’s also a tool to be used to protect me from my own need to believe. Without it, I could buy into any amount of nonsense. It protected me when I was pagan (I had a friend who literally told me that I could learn to fly, for example) and it protected me from completely embracing atheism. That said, it’s kind of a dangerous tool, and one I need to maintain a certain level of vigilance regarding.

      Thanks for reading – and for reposting – brother!

  • Jennwith2ns

    Great post.

    And . . . I can see how that excerpt I posted sounded condescending, particularly out of context. The context was the story in Matthew about the cover-ups that happened after the resurrection. You’re right (obviously) about the skeptic premise that the people making the extraordinary claim have the responsibility of providing the extraordinary evidence to support it. However, I think Wright’s point is that sometimes the claim is so extraordinary that the ordinary evidence used to attempt to debunk it doesn’t really cover it as well as the skeptic thinks it does.

    Meanwhile, I think I resonated with it for two reasons. 1. Sometimes? When debating with skeptics (maybe especially from this different background I have from yours :-), it gets frustrating and exhausting when something seems so clear and it just seems like the skeptic is being stubborn. And, you know–frustration + exhaustion = smugness sometimes.

    But also in this case sometimes it’s not actually smugness–it’s pure jubilation: “The ordinary, easily-explained ISN’T all there is! Jesus is ALIVE!” Sometimes in a world of skeptics, you feel like you’re not allowed to rejoice. Also in a world of skeptics, maybe rejoicing always looks smug because we’re not used to doing it.

    Which leads me to my other reason for resonance. 2. I work in and attend a church where every year the pastor reminds us that it doesn’t matter whether or not we believe Jesus literally rose from the dead or not, and that either way, we’re a “people of resurrection.” Except that for him, as best I can tell, that means, “We can follow our Great Example Jesus and be nice people now.” (I should say that I really like my pastor as a person and he actually IS nice, but this kind of tamed-down theology drives me absolutely nuts.)

    Personally, I don’t know what the point of being a Christian IS, if you’re not going to believe in the crazy supernatural stuff, because, as you say, you can be a “basically good” person without it, and if there’s not a supernatural reason for it as well as supernatural help with the “goodness,” then why bother? The first time I heard my pastor say the literal resurrection didn’t matter, I felt outraged. Yesterday I just felt defeated. Today I read that NT Wright thing and thought, “Yeah–and some of the skeptics are–as they were then–the religious leaders themselves, making everything more palatable and convenient and believable for everyone.

    So . . . I guess I was a little disgruntled maybe. (“Pure” jubilation may be putting a positive spin on something–I mean, may be lying . . . ) And in my mixed-up genuine jubilation-about-the-resurrectiong-and-yet-feeling-squelched-by-skepticism, the Wright quote just seemed to SAY it.

    (Why can I never just write something short in your comments?)

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Short comments are for pansies, Jenn.

      It sometimes surprises me that I’m not more of a liberal Christian. I like a lot of things about liberal Christianity. But the removal of anything supernatural in the religion really loses me. If Christianity is just a form of philosophy, then it’s a form of philosophy that is at odds with the supernaturality that it has traditionally proclaimed. And that puts it on equal footing with, saying, existentialism. And I’m just not interested in more philosophy, personally.

      That your pastor took such a stance on the resurrection is a bit surprising for me, all in all. Not offensive, but surprising.

  • Jennwith2ns

    He’s like the quintessential product of old-school 1930’s American Christian liberalism. A lot of the stuff he says from the pulpit doesn’t even square (any longer) with current liberal scholarship, but most people here don’t look into these things for themselves, so they’re none the wiser. I don’t wanna be all disrespect-the-pastor and stand up and be all, “Yes it DOES matter, silly!” But . . . sometimes I do want to, too. 🙂

    Anyway. I agree with you about the Lack of Need for yet another philosophy.

    • Daniel Mitchell

      My favorite “brand” of Christianity tows a line somewhere between liberalism and fundamentalism. There are things I love about fundamentalism – for instance, the idea that the Holy Spirit can be activiely working miracles in the modern day church is an idea that survived modernism because of fundamentalism, and I believe that spiritual works are 100%, non-negotiably necessary for the church to fulfill its mission. I just can’t imagine going to a church were people don’t expect to be healed by prayer – furthermore, I can’t imagine going to a church were people aren’t, occasionally, healed by prayer.

      If I wanted things to be logical, dammit, I could have been an atheist!

  • Jennwith2ns

    Darn tootin’! 🙂

    Here’s where I state, much less succinctly, that my favourite brand of Christianity is similar to yours:

    http://thatsajennstory.wordpress.com/stories-evaluated-by-a-third-party/faith-works-and-other-stories/

    • Daniel Mitchell

      Oooo, that’s good. I particularly loved, “Abdicating distinctives to a lazy universalism does not make for vibrancy,” although I wonder if, “self-motivated humanitarianism usually does not endure.” I wouldn’t say I don’t believe that that’s true, but I would say that I need to chew on that idea for a while. I’m not sure why self-motivated humanitarianism couldn’t endure, but then again, that’s not exactly what you said.

      I think you’re right in your assessment that there is a trend toward reconciliation between the fundamentalist and liberal worldviews – in fact, every church I’ve attended for any period of time (okay, that’s two. . .) has lived in the tension between those two worldviews. Even in this, though, I see the work of God. I believe that time will show that the fission of western Church culture into this two camps, and the subsequent fusion that brings them back together, will do wonders to reinvigorate Christians in our (western) world.

      Also. . . “abdicating distinctives to a lazy universalism does not make for vibrancy”. It was worth another mention – that is a damn fine turn of phrase.

  • Jennwith2ns

    Haha! Thanks! (Yeah, I kind of liked that phrase, too.)

    I think you might be right about the potential fusion. I certainly hope you are. Thanks for reading!

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