The Beginning of the World as We Know It: Civilization, Empire, & the Counter-Cult of Jesus with John Dominic Crossan

I’ll never forget being a undergrad student at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, and my roommate Philip handing me a copy of The Resurrection of Jesus John Dominic Crossan and N. T. Wright in Dialogue. Having grown up in the God-soaked, Christ-haunted USAmerican South, I was encountering new ways to interpret the faith I grew up with. I eventually declared a Religion minor, while being active in starting an open, participatory house church on campus and tracking the early flickers of what became known as the emerging church conversation. I began intentionally exposing myself to the variety of Christianities that existed in grassroots congregations and rigorous academic study alike, when this book fell into my lap. Even the moderate Anglican N.T. Wright was stretching me beyond my comfortable fundamentalist roots, never mind the radical ex-monk and legendary biblical scholar, Dr. Crossan.

In their debate on the mode and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection, I was far more familiar with Wright’s arguments than Crossan’s. Indeed, I’d been warned about the allegedly “slice-and-dice” methods of The Westar Institute‘s Jesus Seminar, of which Dr. Crossan was a prominent member, and their attempts to distinguish the authentic sayings of the historical Jesus of Nazareth from later attributions to the Christ of faith. I found resonance with Luke Timothy Johnson‘s critiques of The Jesus Seminar that argued that the New Testament — literary pastiche and all — contained the irreducible sacred memory of Jesus’ story. Parsing verses into ‘history’ and ‘faith,’ this counter-argument went, was a modernist interpolation on a premodern genre, unintelligible to the compositional world of the Bible and unhelpful to contemporary churches — the only interpretive communities with a vested interest in stewarding this story.

But what of the wider world’s interest in Jesus, inquirers who might not share in Christianity’s convictions? I wasn’t sure. In my early 20s, Crossan and his fellow New Testament scholars were like a pebble in my shoe.

By my mid-20s a funny thing happened: socially radical, intentional community-dwelling evangelicals like Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, in their talks and books like The Irresistible Revolution and To Baghdad and Beyond: How I Got Born Again in Babylon, gave me permission to engage scholars like Crossan and his friend and colleague Marcus Borg, not to reach unanimity with them on historical-critical analysis of the text (or mode), but to glean from their insights on the meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry, a meaning allowed to emerge precisely through their seemingly-fearless excavation of the textual, social, archeological and historical data of the New Testament world, dogma and vested religious interests be damned. And so I finally made my way to ‘forbidden’ titles like Borg’s Jesus: The Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary, and Crossan’s Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography for myself, as well as meatier academic tomes like The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

20-something me began realizing, with humility, that ‘liberals’ like Borg and Crossan could teach me — a cradle conservative Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian ‘mutt‘ — a lot about what faithfulness to Jesus and his sweeping vision of Scripture actually entailed. Their way of less-flinchingly exploring stories, social settings, literary genres and possible meanings of stories that I’d taken for granted since Sunday School liberated me from stuck thinking, contradictions I’d unknowingly imbibed, and simplistic sorting of the world into black-and-white, right-and-wrong players. Instead, I developed a love for clarity and mystery alike, play and paradox, and a sharper spiritual and social vision more formed by the convictions of Jesus than millennia of cultural accretions about Jesus.

Fast-forward through the years, and I thankfully compost it all: I allow scoundrels and saints, mystics and misfits, scholars and sages through the ages (across camps that might be conventionally divided into ‘conservative,’ ‘progressive’ and many designations diagonal and perpendicular to these) inform my deepest spiritual and communal experiences. Within this wider circle, I was finding that 19th-20th century Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, and even (!) “unbelieving” scholars could teach me a lot about how to conceive, appreciate, and critique the biblical and ecclesial milieu I was raised in, sprouting more actually Christ-like fruit in the process.

This widened aperture served me well as I began my postgraduate studies in Strategic Foresight (aka Futurism), and deepened interfaith dialogue and interspiritual engagement. I began realizing that while dysfunctional religion often threatened hells and apocalypses of its own making in order to maintain social coherence among the people its cosmovision governed (what could less-charitably be described as its sphere of control), healthy varieties of religion accurately identified very present this-worldly threats of violence, abuse, and dehumanization while offering equally this-worldly technologies of spiritual practice, imagination, conviction, communal containers and storytelling that could direct us to what religion rightly names liberation or salvation — a way of living in greater coherence with each other, ourselves, our environment and the more-than-human world that supports and surrounds us, Whom some of us name ‘God.’

As unfettered weapons proliferation, nihilistic profit-seeking, runaway commodification of people and planet, numbing forever-wars and echo-chamber reality-silos threaten to pit mechanically-reactive neighbors against each other while our earth is scorched and our collective health is depleted, we need bolder imaginations, subtler spiritual practices, more grounded convictions, more coherent community containers and savvier stories than ever before.

This is why I’m so grateful that I was finally able to sit down with John Dominic Crossan — Dom to anyone who knows him — and have what is to my mind one of the most important conversations we could be having in the West today:

How did things get as bad as they are now?

And where might we stand in order to leverage our way to wholeness?

Dom’s insights in this conversation speak for themselves; I want you to watch this as soon as you’re able. But to preview…part of why Dom is one of my favorite biblical scholars alive today has little to do with unanimity with every detail of his hermeneutic (way of interpreting text), or metaphysic (way of interpreting the nature of the more-than-human world, if any). While I consider myself thoroughgoingly socially and theologically radical in my 40s (rather the opposite of what I was assured would happen), I still don’t agree with Dom about everything. In fact, we get into it a little about about the nature of ‘the miraculous’ — healing vs curing — about 3/4 into our conversation.

But we’re in full agreement about what I think is the most important spiritual and social consideration of the 21st century:

The soul-sickness we face today is deeper than what Latinized Christianity often short-hand as ‘the Fall.’

It’s older than what socially-astute economists would identify as ‘Capitalism.’

It’s more far-reaching than what political scientists would identify as ‘Empire.’

The fruit of our current existential poison — manifesting in war-on-all-fronts and climate collapse — has its roots in the Civilization project itself.

But isn’t “civilized” supposed to be a good thing? Not so, claims a growing chorus of anthropologists, historians, archeologists and cultural commentators. This is the sort of sweeping meta-historical analysis one might expect to encounter in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesDaniel Quinn‘s Ishmael trilogy, Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, John Zerzan’s A People’s History of Civilization or Karen Armstrong’s Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. But it’s rare to find a mainstream biblical scholar who’s familiar with this conversation, and adding something genuinely new and important to it. But this is exactly what Dom does in his God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now, and Render Unto Caesar: The Struggle Over Christ and Culture in the New Testament.

In our dialogue we talk about how regardless of one’s religion or irreligion, the Hebrew Bible and life + teachings of Jesus reflect an emotionally-accurate, anthropologically-resonant tracing of humanity’s collective wound as civilization unsheathes over the past 6,000 years, as well potential routes of salving, smelting these weapons into instruments of peace.

Dom’s obvious love of Jesus and Scripture, science and humanity, history and teaching are evident in his gentle voice, clear thinking, and wise studies-in-contrast between the destructive ways of civilization and life-giving Way of Jesus and the People who formed him.

Without demonizing empires or white-washing religion’s own harmful potentialities, he invites all of us who have been formed by Abrahamic faith to take our seat at the global table as we discern what will help humanity mature and evolve into a more loving, generous, pro-social species…because the fate of our planet depends on it.

So please…give this important conversation a view or a listen:

 

If this speaks to your soul, I have some great news: Dom is co-teaching an entire course on similar themes alongside my bestie, the Good Doctor Tripp Fuller of Homebrewed Christianity. Drawing from decades of scholarship and hundreds of vivid original photos from Turkey — taken during his years of co-leading biblical pilgrimages there with his wife Sarah and Marcus and Marianne Borg — The Historical Jesus: The Evolutionary Challenge of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant is launching soon, just in time for Lent.

WATCH A SHORT VIDEO to learn all about the class!

This course contains:

5 Video Lectures

Each pre-recorded video lecture will feature Dr. Crossan and powerful visual teaching from his many archeological visits across the Holy Land.
5 Livestream Q&As
Each livestream session will feature a Q&A with Dr. Crossan, Dr. Tripp Fuller, and special guests including Brian Zahnd, Dr. Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, Brian McLaren and Dr. Diana Butler-Bass.
Online Community Group
Everyone will be invited to join the private Facebook group to connect with other participants and access all lectures and live stream replays on the Class Resource Page.
The Lectures Include:
  • Jesus’ Theater: Potential Anti-Semitism on Stage and Screen
  • Jesus’ World: How is Global Peace to be Imagined?
  • Jesus’ Vision: How did Tradition Become Traction in Galilee?
  • Jesus’ Execution: What Happened That Passover in Jerusalem?
  • Jesus’ Vindication: How is that Exaltation to be Imagined?

Class starts soon, but it’s asynchronous: You can participate fully without being present at any specific time. Lectures and livestream replays are available on the Class Resource Page.

Church Groups and Circles of Friends: You are welcome to use this class for your Sunday School class, small group, or bands of buddies. More details available in the FAQs.

How much is this? A course like this is typically offered for $125 or more, but Tripp & Dom invite you to contribute whatever you can to help make this possible for everyone — including free if you’re unable to give. They want to make sure this important material is accessible to absolutely everyone.

If this resonates with you, register at CrossanClass.com today. And let’s join together to discern our roots, and grow better fruits.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Devoured or Digested: What’s Eating You this Lent? | Mike Morrell - February 14, 2024

    […] I highly recommend this affordable (pay-whatever-you-can) course with John Dominic Crossan and Tripp Fuller. Drawing from decades of scholarship and hundreds of vivid original photos from […]

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