"The Loss of Jesus Talk"

Mainline Christians have lost the language to talk about Jesus. Upper-middle class and/or well-educated Christians lost the ability to discuss Jesus in the 1990's. The old Jesus talk has failed them. Many are even embarrassed to say "Jesus." The words they would be forced to use to talk about Jesus sound trite to their ears. They don't need to invent new words, but they desperately need new meanings for old words.

Lest anyone think this to be pejorative regarding mainline Christians, the rest of Christianity is trailing this group. Mainliners know they have lost something, but don't know it's Jesus talk. Others don't yet know they have lost anything, but they have.

It started in a discussion about the Church. "If you were trying to sell a sharp person on your church, what would you say? If she pressed you to express the uniquely good points about the Church, how would you respond?" Answers were few and less than convincing. So, we went to a flank approach. "If the Christian Church disappeared today, what would you personally lose? Or, if the Church had not begun on the day of Pentecost, what would the world have lost?" Things like cathedrals and colleges were mentioned. Some expressed the loss of education and fellowship, but were reminded that these were available at the local synagogue or mosque. Other superficial losses were reported.

But nobody mourned the loss of the picture and story of Jesus. At that point, it became clear why very little evangelism is happening in this slice of the population. (Evangelism is defined as "witnessing verbally to the Christ experience.") There is no meaningful language available to talk about the good news of Jesus. Phrases from the fundamentalist or evangelical camps, like "Jesus saves" and "Christ is the answer" sound like voodoo from yesterday. And we can't go back to the words and meanings of the good ole days.

In the early and middle decades of the 1900's, theologians like Barth, Tillich and Rahner gave the sophisticates some theological terms that are no longer effective. Words like justification, sanctification, adoption, substitution atonement, or even incarnation have gone down the tubes. Those dogs don't hunt anymore.

Jesus talk was experiential in the early Church. The persecution and martyrdom of early Christians was identifiable with the cross of Jesus, and the joy of the faith matched with his resurrection. That is what ignited the volcano of Christianity. There was enormous power in Jesus the concept, Jesus the idea, and Jesus the experience. The world was changed forever by this power.  Jesus was the subject of endless conversations in the early Church, using meaningful language to share the experience.

The Church lost its experiential Jesus in the Age of Enlightenment. Rationalization replaced experience, rather than supplementing it. The Protestant Reformation gave a shot at revitalizing Jesus and succeeded mainly in trivializing Jesus. The universal Jesus became the personal Jesus and in its particularity got lost. Talk of Jesus as "my personal Savior" can sound like having Jiminy Cricket in one's pocket. Preachers promising a package deal of Jesus with big houses, cars, businesses, and bankrolls are disgusting. This is an unfortunate downside of the Protestant Reformation and/or the rise of fundamentalist Christianity.

Today, the sons and daughters of the Church, the ones in this part of society who were raised in the Sunday Schools, have lost the old words used to talk about Jesus. Whether they are in or out of the Church, they do not have new words, or old words with new meanings, and they are embarrassed about that. If you want proof, ask ten mainline Christians, randomly selected and individually, to tell you everything they believe about Jesus and listen carefully to what they say. Or, better still, what would you say?

They can do God talk. But so can Jews, Moslems, and Hindus. They are somewhat comfortable with God talk. They cannot do Jesus talk. They do not have the words. Part of it is the utter confusion in Christianity over the Doctrine of the Trinity, the best example of a political doctrine in the Christian Church. The still unresolved argument continues over the human/divine nature of Jesus. We have not made much progress on Jesus talk since the second century.

Mainline Christians need to do some serious reflection on the specifically Christian question, "Who and what is Jesus?" It is time for Christians to come up with words and meanings that work. It is certainly time for Christians to experience the meaning of Jesus and learn to talk about both the experience and Jesus.


For further information, contact Dr. Ray Dykes, 405-728-2844 or e-mail.