Anne Rice has left Christianity. After reading the Facebook status that announced her decision and listening to an interview from Homebrewed Christianity, I’m pretty sure that I understand her. There have been times when I wanted out as well. She has my sympathy. Consequently, nothing I say here is intended to be an attack on her in any way. I simply want to reflect on something she said and (predictably?) disagree.
In the interview, Mrs. Rice tells Chad Crawford “Christ comes off in the gospels to me as a radical. And he’s against organized religion, that’s clear.” While I can certainly agree that Jesus comes across as a radical, I don’t think it is at all clear from the Bible that Jesus was against organized religion. Here’s why I think so.
Like Mrs. Rice, I believe in The Incarnation, which is another way of saying that I believe that Jesus was God in a body-fully human and fully divine. So, when God entered the world, he entered a family, a community and yes, an organized religion. (We can all agree that Judaism as we find it in the Bible is an organized religion, can’t we?) When he was in the world, Jesus participated in this organized religion. He participated by both critiquing it and fulfilling it. While with us, he demonstrated how to “do” this organized religion correctly. When he left us, he gave us his Spirit to guide us, which includes guiding us in organizing our religion.
According to the Gospels, Jesus was born to a Jewish couple in Palestine and was consequently a Jew. Scripture tells how Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised on the eighth day following his birth, according to the Law. When obeying the Law regarding the giving of the first born child to God, they also presented the appropriate sacrifices in accordance with the Law. (The Law is the organizing system of the Jewish religion, which Jews unshakably believe was given by God to Moses.) Clearly, the Bible demonstrates that Jesus was born into Judaism, a religion organized by means of the Law.
When Jesus was a grown man, the Bible tells us, it was his habit to go to the synagogue, a place of worship and learning in Jewish communities away from the temple in Jerusalem, which was the center of Jewish worship. The Bible tells us that Jesus went to the temple on more than one occasion, just as we would expect from a “practicing Jew”. (I’ll say more about what he did at the temple later.) In the Bible, we find him observing the Passover feast with his disciples. The Bible also records that when Jesus healed lepers, he ordered them to obey the Law by showing themselves to the priests in order to be declared clean and welcomed back into society. Clearly, Jesus was an active participant in Judaism.
In the famous Sermon on the Mount recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus clearly states his position on and his relationship to the Law in this way: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” All that Jesus said and did can be understood as his intentional fulfillment of the Law, including his criticism of the way the Pharisees, the Scribes and the priests either practiced or failed to practice it. Jesus never taught the people to forsake the Law, to leave Judaism and express their faith-relationship with God according to their own conscience. Instead, as in the Sermon on the Mount, he told them how to follow the Law correctly. He also showed them what following the Law correctly looks like through his interactions with everyone.
By following the Law correctly, Jesus was in conflict with those who didn’t, particularly those who went beyond simply getting it wrong to wickedly manipulating it for their own purposes. For example, there were pious people who stood on the street corners and prayed aloud so everyone would see them. Jesus’ corrective was to tell people to pray in secret. He didn’t say abandon the temple and the synagogue and to stop all public prayers. He was addressing impure motives. Another example is Jesus’ actions in the temple. When he cleared out the money changers and the livestock sellers, he didn’t tell everyone to get out of the temple and to quit making sacrifices. Instead, he condemned the abuse of the temple and the exploitation of the sacrificial system for financial gain at the expense of the poor. There are more examples, and they all show Jesus righting wrongs and correcting the misuses and the abuses of the Law. Unlike everyone else, particularly the hypocritical leaders, Jesus kept the Law faultlessly: he did organized religion the way it is supposed to be done, which was certainly radical to all of those around him who didn’t. Some people saw this and accepted that he was God. Others saw it and said he was breaking the Law and subverting the nation. In the end, part of the reason he was killed was because of the way he kept the Law, the way he did Judaism.
The Scriptures document what the risen Christ did through his apostles following his ascension into heaven. In the book of Acts, we see Jesus give the Holy Spirit to the disciples. In the power of the Spirit, the apostles exercised the authority Christ had given them before his crucifixion. Acts tells us how they appointed people to serve the believers and commissioned people to preach. Those missionaries set up communities (called churches) which were devoted to the teachings of the apostles, eating togetherand prayer. In the book of Acts we see decisions made about doctrine and we see disciplinary actions taken within the community. In short, we see the followers of Jesus, under the authority of Jesus, filled with the Spirit of Jesus organize themselves and their practice of following Jesus. And now, the risen Jesus, through the same Spirit works in his followers to transform them into his likeness. As this happens, the world is set straight and so is organized religion right along with it.
When I look at the Bible, I only see organized religion. I don’t see any other kind. Specifically, I see Judaism and its Law. I don’t see Jesus opposing this organized religion, this Law. I see him oppose the misuse and abuse of the Law. I see him oppose the manipulation of that Law for evil purposes, especially the oppression of the poor. Ultimately, I see him fulfill the Law thereby becoming fit to serve as both atoning sacrifice and High Priest on behalf of his followers. I can’t look at the Bible and agree with Mrs Rice that Jesus was clearly against organized religion because he wasn’t.