The ‘surplus of meaning’ has become the most vibrant theological commitment for me in the last 10 years. It guides the way that I study scripture and preach. It frames the way that I teach and organize my classes (I will have to write about employing the spectrum pedagogy* down the road). It compels my approach to different Christian denominations and even posture toward other religions.
I am committed to the idea that within any symbol as rich as ‘christ’, or the communion table, or even the Bible – that they are overflowing with significance and possibility! There is a surplus of meaning within these deep and fertile symbols. Words like multiple, plural, and diverse are just the beginning for exploring the ways that we signify these transcendent concepts.
When it comes to Jesus, this has required a major shift in my thinking. I used to pursue the correct and authoritative view of Jesus. I so wanted to get it right. The problem is that I kept finding really good views and solid perspectives … some of which seemed contradictory or at least complicated. I was not great at complexity so I wrestled to eliminate that Jesus in favor of this view of Jesus.
Here is the beautiful realization that I came to: Jesus is so elaborate, multifaceted, complex, and layered that there is more than enough to go around!
People can find so much of what they are looking for in the person and work of Jesus that it is possible to have many good and solid views re/presented. There is merit is so many of them. Ross Douthat said it this way:
“the New Testament’s complexities [have] forced churchgoers of every prejudice and persuasion to confront a side of Jesus that cuts against their own assumptions. A rationalist has to confront the supernatural Christ, and a pure mystic the worldly, eat-drink-and-be-merry Jesus, with his wedding feasts and fish fries. A Reaganite conservative has to confront the Jesus who railed against the rich; a post– sexual revolution liberal, the Jesus who forbade divorce. There is something to please almost everyone in the orthodox approach to the gospels, but something to challenge them as well.”
– Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (p. 178).
Here is the new conversation: with the plethora of ‘stars’ in the night sky, how do you connect the dots in order to form a ‘constellation’ and construct a narrative that is both coherent and compelling?
It used to bother me that there were four gospels and that they didn’t always match. I really preferred the ‘harmony of the gospels’ and was always attempting to eliminate difference – which I thought led to confusion.
Now, I love that there are four gospels in our cannon and that they are each so rich with insight and perspectives. The Jesus that they portray is overflowing with significance, providing a surplus of meaning at every level of interpretation.
Having said that, Douthat provides a severe caution:
“For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology. These simplifications have usually required telling a somewhat different story about Jesus than the one told across the books of the New Testament. Sometimes this retelling has involved thinning out the Christian canon, eliminating tensions by subtracting them. Sometimes it’s been achieved by combining the four gospels into one, smoothing out their seeming contradictions in the process. More often, though, it’s been achieved by straightforwardly rewriting or even inventing crucial portions of the New Testament account, as the Gospel of Judas’ authors did, to make them offer up a smoother, more palatable, and more straightforward theology.”
So, while I acknowledge that this ‘surplus of meaning’ approach calls for a level of caution and seriousness, I am far more interested in being a part of this conversation than one that attempts to reduce Jesus to a simpler or more palatable, boiled-down version.
Let me know what you think.
* Joel J. Heim and Nelia Beth Scovill, “A Spectrum Pedagogy for Christian Ethics: Respecting Difference without Resorting to Relativism,” Teaching Theology & Religion 13, no. 4 (October 1, 2010): 350–70.