I really liked Bryan F. Hurlbutt’s book Tasty Jesus. In it he asserts that Western Christianity holds to various cameos of Christ that aren’t accurate. This is because we tend to reconfigure Jesus to suit our personal preferences. In order to make complex cultural and philosophical ideas accessible, Hurlbutt uses food analogies to illustrate the shortcomings of five most significant “christological malformations” in the Western church. His analysis of these is thorough and nuanced. But I’m wondering if, perhaps, there is not a configuration that might be added to his list, and a food analogy that would challenge the view of Christ held by many of the readers of this book: Modern evangelicals.
First, here are Hurlbutt’s five predilections that wield a lot of power in the Christian West:
- Theological liberalism has largely naturalistic roots and, consequently, has stripped Jesus of his deity. This is the “creampuff Jesus,” tasty, but of no nutritional value at all.
- Fundamentalism is a response to theological liberalism. It tosses out the creampuff, but keeps crossing things off the menu–out with the potatoes, pasta and bread. This no-carb approach eliminates important parts of a balanced diet. Ultimately, this approach is spiritually toxic.
- More recently, postmodern ideas have influenced ideas of Christ–the core of this stance is relativism. Like a meal at a smorgasbord, this version of Christ can appeal to many diners because it makes no absolute claims. Have some pork chops, top them with ice cream and vegetable soup–whatever.
- Gourmet Jesus is the Christ of those who believe in the prosperity gospel–God wants you to be rich. The Biblical promises of spiritual or eternal flourishing are understood to mean material prosperity–God’s wants you to eat lobster thermidor. He clearly says so in the Bible, if you take a few verses out of context.
- Pop-culture Jesus–this is a “shallow and spurious” Jesus. Gastronomically, this is the homogenized Jesus, heated to the point where anything dangerous or confusing has been eradicated. It’s the opposite of the delicious unpasteurized cheese you can buy in Europe.
These are Hurlbutt’s five. There might be a sixth cameo of Christ that is significant enough to be added to this list. It is the view toward which many of the readers of this book might lean.
I called this group Modern Evangelicals. These terms are so overused that their meaning has become unclear, so let me explain who I’m talking about. They lean toward Conservatism. They fall somewhere between the mainline denominations and the Emergent church, of which Hurlbutt is quite critical. They aren’t like the traditional mainline churches for they have left behind traditional liturgies and no longer hold strictly to their traditional theologies. Because they are Modern, they take a rational approach to reading the Bible and are suspicious of the magical and mysterious, for instance, they might think of Communion as “just a symbol.” Paradoxically, they place a high value on the symbolism of believer baptism. They tend to emphasize the transcendence of Christ and the Bible, perhaps at the expense of their incarnational natures.
They will be quite happy with Hurlbutt’s five cameos because they are not particularly guilty of these. Just as it’s easy for Canadians to see peculiarities in the American view of the world (and vice versa), to which they are themselves blind, so too Modern evangelicals can easily see problems in the Liberal or Fundamentalists stance, but fail to see the plank in their own eye.
What is the gastronomic analogy that might get at some of the limitations of the Modern evangelical take on Jesus?
A microwave Teriyaki Chicken dinner.
It is an individual serving, efficiently prepared with the modern convenience of a microwave. It’s slightly exotic–it’s teriyaki, after all–but it’s largely Westernized. The ingredients are theoretically tasty and nutritious, but the effects of mass production and microwaving have removed most of their structure, taste and probably nutrients. It’s convenient, only requiring a few minutes to prepare and eat–ideal for busy people on the run. Even if you ate it every day, you could do worse–it’s probably healthier than any of the other five diets.
Now, I know plenty of evangelicals that do not have the microwave teriyaki chicken image of Christ. For these, the analogy would be more like a healthy, well-balanced dinner–an herb-roasted chicken with mashed potatoes, steamed asparagus and a small, sweet dainty for dessert. But I think even this more robust and balanced picture, as compared to the microwave meal, reveals the limitations of the evangelical Christ.
What would be the best gastric analogy for the real Jesus?
I think it would be a family meal, something Middle Eastern. My daughter told me about the meals she ate in Israel. These were family meals. They ate fresh pita and hummus, tzatziki, olives of course, lentils, roasted vegetables, lamb on skewers, lamb in grape leaves. Importantly, this is a balanced meal. But the contents, especially the spices–cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, thyme–were strange to her western palate. She had to humbly look to her hosts, even the children, for some indication of how to eat it and what to put with what. She wasn’t confident; she wasn’t certain. She was repeatedly surprised–sometimes delightfully, at other times, unpleasantly by the flavour combinations. This meal was full of grace and love–the family that prepared it, pulled out all the stops because there were guests at the table. My daughter felt so blessed that such a sacrifice would be made for her.
No analogy can ever begin to capture the true Jesus, but I do think that even evangelicals need to think, not only about other, clearly problematic predilections, but also their own reconfigurations of Christ.