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Which Jesus?

2009 December 9

baby jesus dollsWhen I first stumbled across this image, I thought it could be a perfect illustration of the commercialism of Christmas. You know, something along the lines of how we have replaced the true meaning of Christmas with crass consumerism. But as I thought about it, I was more struck at how it represents what we in the church so often do to Jesus. We’ve packaged him and turned him into the equivalent of cheap plastic crap that has no greater impact than kitschy home decor. We’ve made Jesus innocuous and safe. Jesus gets reduced to a nice cross necklaces or fish stickers on our car. We sing love songs to Jesus and claim the power of his name without ever taking the time to understand him. This Jesus exists only as a part of the financial transaction of saving us from our sins, as if the point of our existence was to give lip-service to someone so that we can get the goodie in heaven when we die. As I’ve mentioned before, this Jesus is little more than a talisman or fetish. Like the baby in a cheap plastic mass-produced creche, this Jesus is there for adorning our lives when we feel like putting him on display.

This Jesus always makes an appearance at Christmastime. We fight to win the war on Christmas making sure his name gets mentioned or his image displayed. We are more concerned with chanting his name as our mantra and forcing others to do the same than we are following a real person. But when Jesus is just there as decoration, or reminder of a past transaction, I feel as if we are denying the Incarnation. If the particularities of how Jesus lived and the way of life he called his followers to live are ignored in favor of a generic consumer-ready figurehead, then what was the point of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us? We could just as easily have created an idol that looks pretty and unassuming on the mantle without having to have had God go to all that trouble. Unless the Incarnation prompts us to do something other than create cheap plastic Jesus’s for our own sake then I think we’ve missed the point of the whole thing.

In an interview about my book recently, I was asked why people who are saved and just living out their lives as good Christians should even bother complicating their lives by caring about justice. On one hand answering that question is part of why I wrote Everyday Justice. But at the same time, it amuses me that the faith tradition that taught me to pity and ridicule those that say “I’m a good person, why do I need to follow Jesus?” are now the one’s saying “I’ve said a prayer to Jesus, why should I follow him?” Fully embracing the Incarnation means that we actually let it transform us – not just in some brief moment of salvation but in the entirety of our lives. A flesh and blood incarnate Jesus calls us to follow him in tangible flesh and blood ways. Plastic figures and cheezy slogans are insubstantial next to this incarnate God. This transformation makes us the hands and feet of Jesus in such a way that we can no longer ask why we should bother caring but instead accept that this is the only possible way we can live as true Christ followers. Incarnation isn’t a cheap decoration that adorns the veneer of our lives, it’s earthy and messy and complex and demanding. The incarnate Jesus grabs hold of our lives and wakes us up from our complacency.

Some days I honestly would prefer the mass-produced piece-of-plastic-crap Jesus I can idolize or ignore at whim while believing myself to be a “good Christian.” I don’t want to come face-to-face with the flesh and blood Jesus who demands I serve him in real flesh and blood ways. I fight it. I make excuses. I’m a miserable follower. But having woken up enough to start to see the Incarnate Jesus, I can’t go back to sleep.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. John Munzer permalink
    December 9, 2009

    Ever seen the movie _Dogma_? This one reminds me of “Buddy Jesus”…

  2. December 10, 2009

    I love this. For a weird sidenote, there’s a really obscure shock rock band called Rackets & Drapes, and in the 90s they released a song called Plastic Jesus. It’s hard to find these days, but the song/lyrics are at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLGojOIMOxA.

  3. December 11, 2009

    Peter Walker at Emerging Christian has a fantastic vlog comment on this topic:

    http://www.emergingchristian.com/2009/12/keeping-christ-in-christmas-really.html

    EP

  4. Him on Earth permalink
    December 24, 2009

    You’re better off sticking with the plastic crap jesus that’s been commercialized and evolved into a social earmark and placeholder. If you decide you’re going to go back to the ‘real’ jesus, it’ll be disappointing. No more christmas, easter, financial security or families (if you follow a strong Pauline tradition).

  5. December 30, 2009

    I agree about the commercialism and all, and yet…

    There’s something in that image that is profoundly theological or theologically profound. If we really want to represent Christmas, perhasp in some ways it is better not to have one baby in a manger, but dozens and dozens of them. If you want to hid a needle, the best place to hide it is not in a haystack, because there if you search for long enough you will find it. No, if you want to hide a needle, the best place to hide it is in a box of other needles, because then even if you do find it you will not know if you have.

    Man likes to keep God in his pocket, and God got tired of this so he put himself completely in man’s pocket, and revealed his presence only to those who whom he chose to reveal it — the shepherds, the wise men. But the song of the angels could not be heard over the drunken songs of those carousing in the bar at the inn.

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