Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser - 25/02/3013
At an event for Jewish Book Week yesterday, the novelist Naomi Alderman and myself had a public discussion about her new novel that bravely seeks to explore what Jesus looks like from a Jewish perspective. I say bravely, because, for many Jews, Jesus can be readily experienced as some sort of existential threat underpinning centuries of forced conversion and anti-Semitism. “I hope you are not converting” was how many of her friends responded to the project. And her answer was always of course not. But nonetheless, she also replied, the fear of Jesus can have a distorting effect on examining the reality. She compared her book to therapy where one is encouraged to look closely at our deepest fears and by so doing find that they are no longer as fearful as one first imagined.
Jesus, of course, was not was a Christian. He was baptised a Jew, went to synagogue as a Jew, preached and thought like a Jew, and died as a Jew. The term Christianity wasn’t even invented in his lifetime. But despite all this, the artists of the Medieval and Renaissance periods commonly lent Jesus the familiar likeness of a blond haired, blue eyed north European. Only Judas Iscariot was given the visual references of what they imagined a Jew to look like. This absurd cultural stereotyping was clearly all part of Christian North European propaganda. And most people can see this now.
But other projections are far less easy to recognise. When I was at theological college, all of us trainee priests had to take a personality test known as Myers-Briggs. It was a basic way of characterising our personality based on Jungian analysis. I am ENTP – which means my dominant characteristics are Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking and Perceiving. For present purposes, I don’t need to explain these any further because the point I want to make is that, before we received our categorization, we were also asked to try and decide what type of personality type we thought Jesus was. And the remarkable thing was that there was a high degree of convergence between one’s own type and the type that we assigned to him. Extroverts thought Jesus was an extrovert and introverts thought Jesus was an introvert and so on. It was a fascinating exercise because it revealed how readily we can construct a mental figure of people like Jesus in our own image. And the shocking conclusion of this is how easy it is, when we Christians worship Jesus, for us to worship ourselves or a projection of ourselves.
The point about Lent is that it’s a time to get beyond these distortions of the me, beyond projecting my own fears, needs and desires upon the world. To get beyond this requires just the sort of work that Naomi Alderman has done in her brilliant novel. The point about Jesus is that he may well be much stranger that we think. For whatever else this extraordinary first century Jew was really like, we can be pretty sure that he actually wasn’t anything like any of us.