Right from the beginning, people were ambivalent about Jesus. He answered a lot of questions about how to connect with God, but he also raised some new, uncomfortable questions. Even his disciples were often uneasy in his presence. They usually felt reassured, safe and fulfilled. But as soon as they relaxed in his acceptance, he might throw out a new challenge to their understanding or their faith. They had to stay on their toes. Sometimes he spoke in simple street language about their everyday lives, but then he might throw out a radically edgy challenge in terms that sounded like they were part of an apocalyptic science fiction story.
As soon as Jesus’s followers settled in, after the climactic end of his life on earth, they became the Church, which is an institution dedicated to maintaining an accurate memory of his person and his teachings. However, in order to fit him into the institutional container, they had to domesticate him. They had to trim off the wilder parts of who he was and what he taught. Dogs and cats make good pets, but they have to be housebroken first. Horses have been hardworking partners for humans through thousands of generations before the Industrial Age, but they have to be broken in a different way, so they become willing to fit into their owners’ purposes. What we need to realize is that when Jesus is domesticated by his human followers, he’s been broken as well.
The Jesus of the Medieval Church was made to fit into a beautiful cathedral, where he could be contained in a magnificent but inert statue portraying one incident in his life. However, he wasn’t at all relevant to the daily lives of the actual peasants who worked the land around the cathedral. The Jesus of the missionaries who accompanied the European colonizers of the New World was designed to inspire the submission of the newly conquered and enslaved people to their masters, and to reassure the masters that they were entitled to their privilege. The modern American Jesus is comfortably upper middle-class, tolerant of racism and social inequities and ready to give a reassuring wink to his earthly buddies when they mess up. Each generation of Christians has found a way to domesticate Jesus to make him comfortable in the dominant culture of that time and place. They feel they need to break him so they can domesticate him. But have they lost the essence of who he is in the process?
In his classic allegorical story about the journey to faith, Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis chose to portray Jesus (Aslan) as a lion, an animal that can’t be broken or domesticated. Here’s how this is explained in the story:
“Aslan is a lion— the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Don’t try to make the real Jesus into your house pet!
— Pastor George Van Alstine