Digby Anderson responds to the resurgence of the anti-Christian claim that the Church has misinterpreted the life of Jesus in order to justify its own teachings

Old chestnuts are especially offensive when presented as if they were new. Currently in vogue and much appreciated by the ignorant media is a very stale marron presented as a freshly invented novelty dish in the current anti-Christian menu: Christianity is wrong and bad but Jesus Christ is all right. Indeed he was very all right until Christians misinterpreted him and set up a church which is a travesty of his teachings. The protestant reformers went to town with this. More recently so have those who dislike St Paul: Christianity was all right till the Tarsus man reinterpreted him.

Depiction of Jesus

There are variations to suit all tastes. The Church is rich and exploitative but Jesus Christ was on the side of the poor and commendably poor himself. The Church denounces homosexuality, sex outside marriage and euthanasia, but do we really think that kindly Jesus Christ would care who loved whom as long as they loved and who saved himself and others from pain?

The Church marginalizes women: Christ opposed their exclusion. The Church justifies and engages in war: Christ was for peace and liked children a lot. The Church is part of the establishment but Jesus Christ was an outsider. The Church stands for orthodoxy: Christ asked awkward questions. The Church is vast and complex: Christ has a simple message.

Old chestnuts are by nature boring. Certainly the attacks on the nature of the Church and its relation to the Incarnation have been seen off long ago. But there is something of interest here and it is in the depiction of Our Lord. The crux of the chestnut argument is that the Church has turned the thoughts and actions of Our Lord into an institution, an industry, and in doing so used them to justify a particular culture.

The chestnut vendors dislike the kind of culture that is justified – exploitative, repressive, warlike – but they also resent the use of Christ’s words and action to build up a culture. Cultures, for modern and post-modern people, are relative, artificial. They need to be demystified and countered. Not for modern man, still less for modern woman are there enduring truths in an enduring system.


The vendors have a problem here. At least some of them do. When we, or they, look at the life on earth of Our Lord, we see lots of events and sayings. Now some of the anti-Christians are content to cherry-pick among these to find one or two to contradict the teachings of the Church. But most of those who pitch Christ against the Church want to go further. They want to build up a picture of what Christ stands for, to interpret his whole public life and say what it amounts to, then juxtapose that with the teachings of the Church. The problem is that this is what they denounce the Church for doing. In saying that Christ’s life amounts to a culture of peace-loving diversity- embracing antiestablishmentism, they are appending their own cultures to him. They are turning the life into a culture, into a sort of church.

The chestnut church is also highly problematic. Any sensible person looking at the events and sayings of Our Lord would not recognize the figure they speak of. Though it is likely that he did sport a beard, he was not very much concerned with earthly power and being an outsider, let alone a rebel against the secular power.

True, he condemned the abuses of the Pharisees and upset the moneychangers in the Temple, but in the context of being a good observant Jew himself. Artisan carpenters in a pre-industrial society and indeed boat-owning fishermen were not at the bottom of the social pile. Nowhere were the disciples shown to be short of the readies.

He had time for the poor but the rich too. Lazarus was praised but his reward was to go to heaven, described as Abraham’s bosom, Abraham who was stinking rich. Our Lord was learned, literate and wise. He was a good son and family member. He led an ordered, self-disciplined life. He was exceptionally well-mannered and gentle. Above all he treated all those he met as individuals, not as members of classes. In short the nineteenth-century middle class only exaggerated a little when they saw him as a model of their virtues.

Christian tradition

Though both the modernists and the Church do, as secularists would see it, turn the sayings and events of Christ’s life into a culture, there is at least one difference between them.

The modernists stand in the twenty-first century and, gazing back across the centuries through their twentyfirst-century ideology convert the sayings and events into a culture. Their sudden, belated and often ignorant view of Christ is no more than ideological hijack. In contrast, the Church itself grew out of the events. They are part of it and the process for them to become a culture is what is known as tradition.

The chestnut purveyors do not deserve a reply. Those who advance their argument do not do so with a serious interest. They are best ignored. It is true that old chestnuts when well polished and much used in contests do get harder but even then eventually they rot. ND