Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Red Letter Christianity

Rabbi Hillel once famously said "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man. That is the whole Torah; the rest is just commentary. "

I've begun to view the bible in somewhat similar terms - the stuff Jesus said is the real important stuff; the rest is just commentary.

The church was founded on the teachings of Jesus. Some years later the apostles Paul, Peter, John and others wrote letters to some bits of the church and said other stuff. But that was supplemental to the basic gospel that the churches already knew. So (as I've said before) how come most 'confessions of faith' or equivalent are based on the supplemental writings?

I came across the term "Red Letter Christian" a week or two ago. I like the sound of it - its a group of Christians who seek to base their lives primarily on the teachings of Jesus ('cos in some bibles, the words spoken by Jesus are highlighted in red text). But I was slightly annoyed that when I looked into it further (Wikipedia, Google) that the term seems to be being exclusively used of certain politically active Christians in the USA, who stand against some of the policies of the Republican party, even though something like 4 out of 5 'evangelical Christians' tend to vote Republican.

Can we not divorce the idea from politics and just all pay more attention to the things that Jesus actually said?

ps I'm currently (and slowly) working my way through the gospels - to look again at what Jesus actually did (and didn't) say. Its taking me a while, but I'll have some thoughts to post on it eventually...


Anonymous said...

Totally agree Ricky, that's where I've found myself in my faith a few years ago. Seems that it really gets people's backs ups though, people don't seem to like that I don't think every recorded word of Paul's is directly from God.

I think it's harder to get away from the important parts of Christianity if you focus on what Jesus said. He's pretty hard to interpret wrongly whereas the rest of the Bible is a lot easier.

Anonymous said...

For me, the ultimate problem with this (and, as I blogged here, I actually like lots of it, including the explicit dissociation from the Republican party in the US) is that it ignores the fact that the words of Jesus as we receive them in the New Testament were selected, presumably according to the purposes and intentions of the authors of the respective Gospels in which they appear (and the communities with which said authors were associated). I mean, it's not as if we have in the Gospels unabridged transcriptions of tape recordings of all of Jesus' words, with 100% of the theologizing on said words left to Paul & co. The Jesus bits are thoroughly "theologized," too.

I don't think this makes the words of Christ as we have them any less authoritative than the Church has been inclined to regard them; just a little less different from the rest of Scripture than the RLCs suggest.

Ricky Carvel said...

Thanks Camillofan, I realise that all four gospels were written by fallible people and are, at best, very brief summaries of what Jesus actually said.

But, the four authors in question were convinced that this guy Jesus was something special - the Son of God - and so I'm sure they made every effort to report his words as accurately as they remembered them (several years after the events).

However, I think we (the church in general) do still do a disservice to the teachings of Jesus these days - we rank the teachings of God himself on the same level as those of his purely human followers.

As Marcus says in his response to one of my recent comments on his blog, the current church is happy to tie itself in knots arguing over a few verses in Leviticus about homosexuality, whilst totally ignoring subjects like divorce that Jesus is extremely clear on.

Sometimes I think that the church has idolised (all of) the bible too much and elevated everything in it to such a high level that all of it has to be uniform in its autority.

We forget that the "Word of God" is not a book, but a person (see John 1) - Jesus himself is God's message to us, the bible is merely the book that tells us all about Him.

Anonymous said...

hey ricky, here comes the young and naive position ;) i don't agree with "red letter" christianity at all. firstly, a logical point: people make the mistake looking only at the gospels when actually the red letters appear in much of acts and revelation. therefore, if you accept those books too, then you're agreeing that paul and john have authority to write down revelations from Jesus. so why then disregard their writing as less important than Jesus' "direct" speech.

secondly, on a practical point, using only Jesus' direct sayings does not give the church very much guidance on much of its behaviour. individual behaviour, obviously Jesus provides us with much, but not church (small c) structure, eldership, authority, order in worship, decerning false prophets, nor very much on marriage and family. all are covered in the most part by the post gospel new testament. failure to heed to new testament sturcture i think leads to unbalanced, unstrutured, "anything goes" church life. (i guess this is a typical "new frontiers" argument, and yes i do go to one!)

thridly, and lastly, Jesus himself refernces the old testament frequently. if the old testament is approved by Jesus himself, why give it lesser important. He himself points to the torah and says, all this is about me!!

Ricky Carvel said...

Matt, thanks for your youthful comments. Jesus said that we need to have a childlike attitude to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, so I need to listen to your POV... :oP

Yes, there are red letters in the books other than the Gospels. We shouldn't ignore them. There's loads of 'thus saith the Lord' stuff in the OT that we can't write off.

But what was the point of God himself becoming human if not to show us how human life should (and could) be? He is our pattern, He is our Lord and His words carry the weight. That's not to dismiss the rest as worthless, but there are large chunks of the church who aren't healing the sick, who aren't being good news to the poor and who would actively seek to avoid spending any time with sinners and use various bits of the OT to justify this.

The OT thing is quite interesting, Jesus quotes it a lot and makes it clear that it is important, and yet only a few years later, Jesus's own disciples basically reduce the entire Torah to only 4 commands (see Acts 15 & Galatians) - as people in Christ we are not bound to follow the laws of the Torah (except 4 of them). Oddly enough, one of those 4 commands is largely irrelevant today (food sacrificed to idols), two are totally ignored (eating blood products - black pudding anyone? - and animals that have been strangled) and only the final one (no sexual immorality)is still considered binding. And gives us endless debates like the ones the Bishops at Lambeth are fighting over.

With regard to the issue of church organisation, leadership, etc. etc. that Jesus never touches upon, I really do believe that if we all lived as Jesus did - loving each other as Jesus loved his disciples - putting each other's needs as higher than our own, etc, we wouldn't need most of the advice that Paul gives on life and church. Its only because the Corinthians were getting the brotherly-love issue wrong that Paul had to write to correct them, and so on. It wouldn't be 'anything goes' if we all had our eyes fixed on (a) Jesus and (b) the needs of others. Although, dare I say it, if we did get that right, we wouldn't need a church authority structure at all.

Anonymous said...

i agree that people missuse parts of the Bible to justify their lives, and often all of us hide away from the true meaning of Jesus' words in the gospels (for example, i don't think i've ever heard anyone preach a satisfying sermon on the "turn the other cheek" passage. matt 5.39) but i don't see how sticking to "red letter" really helps.

the thing is i agree with the heart of red letter christianity. i agree the church needs to promote jesus more and too often i churches people spend far to much time talking about other bits of the Bible at the expense of Jesus. but i don't think that saying the other bits of the Bible are of lesser importance makes a difference.

in the end, people can still disagree about the words of Jesus in the gospel, it's still all about interpretation. red letter Christianity, as far as i can tell, is something of a response to the doctrinal difficulties going on in the church today (both here and in the US). people,like Tony Campolo (a preacher for whom i have a lot of time) say, "sexuality, etc etc is not the real issue, let's take Jesus teachings and focus on loving eachother." Now, that's great, i can see why he's doing that. but all you're gonna do is shift the point of argument. instead of homosexuality, you can say, well what did Jesus mean when he said ... about ...??? (followed by discussion on baptism/giving/fasting/predestination etc)
ten different people will teach it ten different ways. there will still be disagreement in the church.

i think a better way is to make sure that whatever part of the Bible you are teaching on, you relate it to Jesus. whether, the old testament, new testament, teaching on church structure, marriage, sexuality, gender roles, the poor, signs and wonders. if it doesn't say something about God's plan of salvation through the cross of Christ then they've missed the point.

our interpretations and readings should be thru a "Jesus lense" and i agree with you that that lense is shaped most profoundly by our devotion to the gospel, and so i think we can agree that it is of paramount importance :)

Ricky Carvel said...


I've heard/read two great takes on the 'turn the other cheek' passage so far this year.

One was in Steve Chalke's 'controversial' book "The Lost Message of Jesus" (which I could have lent to you of I hadn't donated it (yesterday!) to our church library).

The other was by Bruxy Cavey (bad name, good preacher), I can't remember if it was in his book "The End of Religion" (which I can lend to you if you want, once I get it back from the guy I've already lent it to) or on his sermon podcast. I suspect it was both as it is fundamental to his pacifist position.
(ps I advised your brother to read 'The End of Religion' before going out to Israel, he probably didn't but if he did you can get his take on it too...)