Baker Academic

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Would Jesus have Looked like a Charlatan to You? - Le Donne

Today I saw the latest P.T. Anderson film, “The Master.” One of the best directed and acted movies I’ve ever seen.  But I’ll admit that I love almost everything he does (yes, even Punch-Drunk Love).  The Master is a film inspired by the legacy of L. Ron Hubbard, founder of the scientology movement.  Here “inspired” means that the Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is a leader of a new religious movement, but his character is not named “L. Ron Hubbard”. I am told, however, that there are many parallels and that these are intentional parallels.

This is the second film wherein P.T. Anderson features a religious charlatan. You might remember that “There Will Be Blood” featured a charismatic, charlatan preacher played by Paul Dano. It makes one wonder why this particular theme is important to him.  Whatever the reason, seeing this film reminded me of a thought experiment I have employed a couple times for pedagogical purposes.  When discussing the historical Jesus in Church settings, I have posed this question:  If Jesus showed up today and started doing the sorts of things that Jesus (purportedly) did in the Gospels, what would be your first impression?  In other words, if a holy man wandered into town and started casting out demons, and preaching politics, and healing via faith, would you be intrigued or repelled?

Some folks beat around the bush with a non-answer, but many (more than I would have guessed) voice their honest inclination toward caution. For example, I was gmail-chatting with a good friend of mine recently when this topic came up.  Keep in mind that this person is highly intelligent, toward the conservative end of the spectrum, and self-identifies and a traditional Southern Baptist. I’ve renamed him “Christian” here. I’ve also censored his colorful language for the weak of heart:

11:02 AM me: hey dude
11:04 AM Christian: hey
 me: happy birthday
 Christian: thanks :)
11:05 AM Im older than Jesus now
 me: yeah, what did he know that you don't know now?
 Christian: He knew far less than me, most likely
 me: yeah! bloody do-gooder
11:06 AM Christian: He probably wouldn't have liked me at all
  what with my gentile blood
 me: he would have looked at you and thought... this guy speaks complete jibberish
 Christian: haha
11:07 AM me: do you think you might have converted to Judaism if you'd met Jesus back in the day?
 Christian: Weird counterfactual.
  you're saying: if I were raised in the first century as a gentile, would I have converted?
11:08 AM Probably not
 me: presumably, being a Jew would have been the only way to get close to Jesus
 Christian: If I were back there now, knowing what I know now, I think I'd just try to approach him very humbly and do whatever he said
 me: like the centurion
 Christian: yeah i guess so
11:09 AM me: what if he called you a dog
 Christian: but not knowing what I know now, given my personality, I probably would have thought that he was a charlatan
 me: that's funny... at least you're honest
 Christian: I think that to someone like me, Jesus would almost inevitably have come off at about the Benny Hinn level
11:10 AM Perhaps if I had met him in person and he had affected me in some supernatural way
 me: If I'm honest, I'd probably think the same thing
 Christian: Of course, that's partly because we're educated 21st century guys
  so the counterfactual confounds some of that
11:11 AM I'd have thought he was being a d**k if he called me a dog
 me: It's an interesting thought experiment... I use it with my students
 Christian: I wonder if he called her a dog with disdain in his heart, or if he was instead doing something else
11:12 AM me: hard to know how to answer that
11:13 AM Christian: I think Jesus would have bothered me with his hyperbole and obscure ways of making points
  I think I would have lost patience with him if I were arguing with him
  I would have thought he wasn't very smart
  just goes to show that I'm kind of an idiot about that sort of thing
 me: Well, he would make you look bad by taking an absurd position just to throw you a curveball
11:13 AM Christian: exactly
  I hate that
  it really bugs me
 me: are you sure that you're really a Christian?
 Christian: Yes, of course
  I just know myself
  in retrospect, what he would deserve from me is my devotion and humility
  But I wouldn't have known that at the time the way I know it nonw
11:13 AM me: back in a min
11:17 AM me: sorry… well, it's a good thing, then, that your American Jesus has been pre-packaged to suit your tastes
 Christian: idk about that
  I mean
  setting aside stuff like that
  there is something to be said for historical perspective
  it makes it easier to see who was important and who was just a charlatan
11:18 AM maybe that's what Jesus meant when he said to Thomas that those who do not see with their eyes and touch with their hands but believe are blessed
 me: well, I suppose that his death was proof enough for most folks that he was a pretender
11:19 AM Christian: I wonder how many of his followers never believed that he rose again
  Kind of sad
 me: yeah... I suppose that this is why Christianity is built on the belief in the resurrection - because otherwise, he was just charlatan
11:20 AM Christian: Yeah, that seems to be what Paul thought
  I always figured that Christ meant that people who come much later and only have history were worse off than Thomas, but mabye he meant that we're better off!
 me: so the question is .... was the resurrection a necessary element to continue the cult... or was it the thing that started the cult?
11:21 AM Christian: Oh, they were already underway at that point; without the resurrection, though, they would have been done.
  I don't call it a cult
  I don't think it's true that 'cult' just means 'fledgling religion'
 me: hahaha - in a technical sense, cult is the right word
11:22 AM cult
 Christian: WEll, it means more than that in the English language of 2012
 me: only if you're a Romney lover
 Christian: It's pejorative
  it has become pejorative, anyway
11:23 AM me: in one of the worlds I live in... its pejorative.... in the other world its just technical speak
  anyway, you're the one who called our Lord a charlatan
 Christian: In english, it's pejorative. In religion-academese who the f**k knows.
 me: blasphemer
 Christian: No, no
11:24 AM me: you're going to hell for sure now
 Christian: I said I'd have thought he was a charlatan if I had been alive then
  wrongly thought it
 me: hell
 Christian: right
  I can just imagine going to hell for something like that
  and being pissed off for all eternity
  that I got a bum rap
 me: have you seen the louis ck episode about Jesus on the cross?
 Christian: no
11:25 AM me: really worth watching... a bit sad, but thought provoking
 Christian: is it pretty offensive?
 me: no, less than most of his stuff
11:26 AM it has this long back story of him in catholic school
 Christian: I'll have a look
  he's definitely funny
 me: season one I think
 Christian: huh I thought I'd seen all that
 me:  hey I better run
11:31 AM Christian: Nice to chat with you
  have a good one
 me: cya

I include this conversation to illustrate a simple point. Jesus was faith healer, he was an exorcist, he taught in esoteric ways, and his disciples founded a movement that must be considered a “fledgling religion” or (to risk a pejorative term) a “cult.” Add to this the communalism practiced by this founding group and you’ve got a pretty good repellent for traditionalists. Many traditionalists (like my friend “Christian”) would have steered clear of Jesus simply because he looked like a charlatan.

Here’s hoping  – at the very least – that Jesus was better looking than Philip Seymour Hoffman.



  1. I agree with "Christian" in that I too would have avoided Jesus. Living during Jesus' time, I would obviously have no previous knowledge or education about his teachings. To me, Jesus would have been one of the many heads in a crowd, besides the fact that he preached, performed miracles and so on. I have walked past homeless people, who seem to be mumbling, what to me sounds like crazy ideas, but maybe for them it's something more for that. I feel like this is how I would approach Jesus when he was preaching his faith and teachings. I would have looked at him like he was talking non sense. Of course in hindsight, if I were to meet Jesus I would know that he is the Son of God and that what he is saying is not so crazy after all. It's amazing how the disciples had so much faith in this holy man, that they decide to follow him and support him 100%.

  2. I would also have to agree with Christian, I think that it would be a rarity to find someone who would honestly have believed what Jesus was preaching at that time period. Humans innately have a group mentality and will tend to go along with the majority. Jesus represented an anomaly, something that most people would stay away from. It is easy to criticize the people described in the gospel who did not listen to or follow Jesus; but what if we had been in their shoes? It really makes me wonder if there is another "Jesus" in today's society who is simply being written off as being crazy or an outcast.

  3. This is an interesting thought experiment. I too have thought about what it would be like to chit chat with Jesus about the issues, although I've never really tried to account for the realities of existing in his era. There's great difficulty in conceptually transporting my skeptical, analytical, post Enlightenment self back a couple thousand years. If I'm honest, I think that short of witnessing Jesus' many miracles in person, as experienced by my own senses and faculties of reason, I'd probably write him off as a charlatan. A big part of me can't help but imagine Jesus as a kind of Eli Sunday, especially due to his penchant for debate, his desire for authority over his community, and his ability to form a devoted following. Like “Christian,” I think I would have trouble with his argumentative methods, “his hyperbole and obscure ways of making points.” In any case, I tend to think that despite what I know about Jesus and his life, meeting him in the flesh would be like learning about him for the first time.

  4. The commentary in the beginning highly amused me, and got me thinking about if the Historical Jesus were to come here, to this time, with no changes in how he thought back in ancient times, what his reaction would be. The idea of him seeing all of these inventions 2000 years after his birth and death, and seeing the reaction he would have as a human, not as the Messiah, seems like something that would be highly entertaining. I have often thought about what the reactions of our past presidents, like Washington and Lincoln, would be if they somehow ended up in this time, and because they would likely be completely freaked out, I have always found it to be more of an amusing thought to have.

    More on topic however:
    If Jesus were to appear in this time, in reality, and started preaching as he did back in the day, I honestly believe that most people would think he was insane, and try to put him in a mental hospital. It is, in my opinion, the event that has the highest possibility of happening, as our society is so largely driven by science and logic in today's world. If I were to meet him personally, I would probably be filled with skepticism as well, unfortunately. Most definitely, however, a Jesus of this time would gather a large following as well, because of the number of people that have faith in him.

    If he were to come here and start exorcising demons, and not be thrown into a mental hospital, likely he will be an exorcist just like all the other exorcists in the world.

  5. I have heard the biblical phrase where Jesus said to Thomas that those who do not see with their eyes and touch with their hands yet believe are blessed often. I always thought it was easier to believe without seeing or touching.

    If I did not know what I know now and instead lived in his era, I am not sure how I would have approached him, if at all. I honestly think I would have kept myself at a distance and would have probably gotten the message Brian got at the Sermon on the Mount from the Life of Brian. It seems like the Jesus from the Gospels (meant to reflect the real Jesus) sometimes seems to be quite unapproachable.

    It is somewhat crazy to think that many place their faith on someone they do not know. I believe Jesus is the Son of God and that he truly did resurrect. However, after reading this post, I wonder now if there would still be so many Christians had Jesus not resurrected…?