“We’re not supposed to have hope because we bury our heads in the sand and we pretend that awful things are not happening the world. The real nature of Christian hope is to look at all the terror that we see around us eyeball to eyeball and yet to not be afraid. To be able to speak a hopeful word in the midst of a lot of violence and terror around us, that takes a great deal of courage and strength. It is profoundly and fundamentally difficult.”
Gayle: I am speaking with Jonathan Martin, author of Prototype: What Happens When You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think. Rev. Martin, you explore the concept of the scars we all have. These scars give away a little bit about who we are and what we’ve experienced?
Jonathan Martin: This has been a profound discovery in my life in recent years. In pop Christianity, there tends to be a way in which people often minimize their scars and wounds. There’s this idea that becoming a Christian or finding religion is somehow about escaping those things. There is, indeed, healing that goes on. One of the most beautiful things about the witness of Jesus himself is that even after the resurrection, the way that the disciples are able to know that it was Jesus was through his scars. To use an expression coined by Henri Nouwen, through our own wounds we can become wounded healers. Our own wounds can become a resource for others to be able to receive courage, grace, healing and strength. So the idea becomes, instead of pretending that we don’t have scars or trying to minimize our scars, we try to find how they can be used in a way that’s redemptive in the world.
GT: Are you able to use the experiences in your life to bring hope to the people of your church and your community?
JM: Oh absolutely! I do all the time. It took me a long time to learn how to be that vulnerable in front of people. I came to see that at first, it feels like it takes a lot of courage and a lot of vulnerability to share some of those things. Consistently, the sermons that I’ll preach or things that I’ll write that seem to touch people and move people the most are always the things that come from those very wounded places. The more that I’ve seen that, the more that becomes a resource for others, and the more that makes me feel at home in sharing those things.
GT: Our culture seems to relish when people we have put on a pedestal experience a fall from grace. How do you think Christians should respond to those instances where someone who is a role model falls? How do you think Christians should react to those situations when that comes up in discussion?
JM: I completely reject that idea that people who are Christians are ever called to be the moral police to the world or really the moral police to anybody. I don’t feel like that’s the thrust of the New Testament. For me the really determinative story with all those issues is the story in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery. A friend of mine gave me a delightful phrase. She says it’s not the story of the woman caught in adultery. It’s the story of the men who got caught throwing rocks. This rings true to the text because the text is not really about adultery or that kind of immorality at all.
Over and over again through the gospels we find that one of the things that makes Jesus so scandalous is how he’s just not offended or made squeamish by peoples’ sin, by peoples’ sexual sin, or what have you. The ironic thing is that so often I find that Christians end up lining up with those who throw the rocks. For me, it’s just this basic. In the Old Testament, the very first expression that you get to describe the evil one, Satan, whatever phrase you want to use, the devil, is he’s called the accuser of the brethren. Over and over again in the New Testament, Jesus is called an advocate and intercessor.
Jesus stands between the religious people who are throwing rocks and the one who’s accused. One of the things that I find most revolutionary about that is that from all accounts it appears in the story that the woman is in fact guilty of what she’s been accused. I love this idea that even Jesus doesn’t only stand up for those who are innocent and have been falsely accused. Jesus takes a stand for the guilty.
That’s the role that God calls the church. It’s to be those who don’t just stand up for the innocent but those who stand up for those who actually are guilty, for those who really have done it.
GT: We all face many trials in our everyday life and your book shows about how we can face these trials without fear. Could you describe?
JM: John says not only that God is love but that perfect love casts out all fear. Fear is the opposite of everything that God is. Fear drives out, if not God, at least our awareness of the presence of God. In the book, I use one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs, Devils and Dust. It has this great lyric about how fear is a powerful thing. It can turn your heart black. Take a God-filled soul and fill it with devils and dust. That’s what fear does.
I came to understand the resurrection of Jesus in a very different way. I always understood the resurrection of Jesus in terms of an issue of dogma that we believe that Jesus is risen. Of course, I still believe that, but what I came to believe from the text is that there’s more going on than just the resurrection of one man. Especially in Matthew’s gospel, we see that when Jesus is raised from the dead, you’ve got earthquakes, thunder and lightning and even this very strange moment that no one ever talks about at Easter where people actually see dead folks walking around Jerusalem. I always tell our church that I’m tempted every year to have zombie decorations at Easter rather than pastel colored eggs because I think that’s Easter in Matthew — zombies walking around Jerusalem.
In the resurrection of Jesus, the world itself convulses in a glimpse of what’s yet to come through the resurrection of everybody. The reason that so much apocalyptic language is used is that it’s supposed to signal the fact that, hey, this isn’t just about the resurrection of Jesus. Over and over again Paul and John, for example, will refer to Jesus as the first born of the dead. This is a marker of the resurrection that’s coming for all that are in Christ. Through the resurrection of Jesus something about the world itself has been altered that now the creation itself is set on an inevitable course towards this kind of restoration and this resurrection moving through the whole cosmos. We can have hope and confidence in that for ourselves. That’s changed a lot for me because if I really do believe that the resurrection of Jesus has already changed the world, instead of sitting around waiting on the world to change, it alters our perspective when it comes to fear. It certainly has for me.
GT: So the John Mayer song, Waiting for the World to Change, doesn’t have as much resonance for you?
JM: That’s exactly right. Years ago when that song came out, I used it as a negative example in a sermon. I think John Mayer is self-aware, and the song is tongue in cheek about this idea of sitting around waiting for the world. But I do find that to be true in the church and in the world because in the North American Christian culture, I don’t even know that people are exactly waiting on the world to change. They’re waiting at the bus stop for Jesus to take them out of the world. My heart breaks over and over. Those who name the name of Jesus are charged to bring hope to the world the way that Romans 8:18-25 describes in terms of how the creation itself is groaning and sighing for the restoration that’s yet to come. We’re the ones that are charged to bring that hope for the world. Yet in many cases, I feel Christians don’t have hope for the world. I think there’s almost this sense that it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, and there’s nothing we can do except sit around and hope that somehow Jesus is going to snatch us up out of this mess. In effect, this removes the hope that we have in us that’s supposed to be given over to the world.
A complaint of mine is the way that I see Christians not only waiting on the world to change, but in some cases, almost waiting for the world to burn. In those circles especially, there’s this idea that the more bad things that happen in the world, the closer we get to Jesus taking us out of the world in a way that almost makes Christians sort of eager for terrible things to happen, which, for me, is definitely not the model that we have from Jesus himself.
GT: Do you think Christian faith in practice is easy or hard?
JM: When practiced well, it’s certainly hard because what Christians are charged to do is that we’re not supposed to have hope only because we’re optimistic and we’re looking at the glass as half full instead of half empty. We’re not supposed to have hope because we bury our heads in the sand and we pretend that awful things are not happening the world. The real nature of Christian hope is to look at all the terror that we see around us eyeball to eyeball and yet to not be afraid. To be able to speak a hopeful word in the midst of a lot of violence and terror around us, that takes a great deal of courage and strength. It is profoundly and fundamentally difficult. The faith that we often peddle is a very easy faith that doesn’t require that kind of courage. It becomes either a form of escapism where we put our fingers in our ears and pretend we don’t really hear and see the things that are happening around us, or it becomes a way of like almost retreating from the world. When faith is robust and it’s New Testament faith, then it’s profoundly hard. What we often want faith to do is to medicate us. Any faith that becomes a kind of medication or a form of escapism is easy and way easier than it’s supposed to be frankly.
GT: Karl Marx would agree with you on that, the opiate for the masses, right?
JM: Christians are wrong to not take Marx’s critique seriously in that way. Where religion becomes an opiate, then it’s not authentic religion like in New Testament terms.
GT: You write about the “scandal of the bodily gospel.” What is that?
JM: When I started reading the gospels again, I was struck that there seems to be something almost, in a beautiful way, obsessive about the touch of Jesus. Clearly he’s God and flesh, and we have these accounts where Jesus will simply speak. Through his speaking, people are able to receive healing and miracles and all that. Yet he seems to go so far out of his way to touch people: touching blind people, touching lepers, touching sometimes in really provocative ways. I always loved that story where he’s touching the man’s ears and tongue and all of these things that seem rather unsanitary. Consistently in the New Testament there is such an emphasis on bodies in general.
In Jesus’ time and culture, Gnosticism is the prevailing thing: the idea that the body is bad but the spirit is good.
Part of the revolution of Jesus’ message is this religion that’s all about bodies, touching bodies and caring for bodies. It’s all about sweat and saliva encased. Now in a digital age, once again we don’t have quite the same kind of Gnosticism, but there is a way in which people really are aching for human touch. People are aching for real face-to-face human experience. They are often pretty deprived of touch.
I’m hoping this sort of bodily nature of the gospel could become scandalous and exciting again. Here’s this way of being human in a way that really embraces the body instead of playing it down.