Jesus of the Gospels or the Jesus of the Church?
I came across an interesting passage in the C. S. Lewis biography I have been reading. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Lewis was a thorough-going atheist who strongly resisted the biblical depiction of God and particularly of Christ. As he began opening his mind to Christianity, he started to read the Gospels and was surprised by the depiction of Jesus he found there. The Jesus he encountered there was not at all the Jesus the church and society had led him to believe could be found there.
Most Americans today, even more so than the Europeans of Lewis' time, operate with a faulty perception of Jesus. This misperception grows out of gospel illiteracy and is perpetuated through the depictions of Jesus we find in films and television. But make no mistake about it, popular culture is not at fault here. The primary source of this misperception is the church itself. Christians have bought into and perpetuated the idea that Jesus was all about love, forgiveness, and compassion. Love, forgiveness, and compassion are absolutely true representations of Jesus, but they are only part of the picture. When Christians talk about Jesus as their "friend," "buddy", or "big brother," they turn him into little more than a divine Mr. Rogers ("Jesus is my neighbor").
We operate with a watered-down version of Jesus because we don't read the Gospels completely and carefully. As Lewis found out, the Jesus one meets in the Gospels is a Jesus with an edge. He can be harsh, uncompromising, and , frankly, terrifying. I'm just flying off the top of my head here, but it seems to me that whenever people encounter Jesus in the Gospels, they experience one of four responses: joy, confusion, anger, or terror. Some of the parables that Jesus tells are extremely violent (this says something about how violence functions within fictional stories, like parables, and raises certain questions about how one should evaluate the portrayal of violence within popular culture -- but that is a post for another day).
I don't know why we prefer to hide behind our stained glass, Sunday School versions of Jesus rather than the Jesus of the Gospels. Or maybe I do. Perhaps we don't want to face the fact that fear may be just as accurate a response to Jesus as is joy.