You’ve definitely heard it in the songs. Take for instance The Killers, who make Jesus seem like a guy you’d like to bring home to mom & dad:
He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus
but he talks like a gentleman
like you imagined when you were young
Think about it for a second…how closely does this line up with the Jesus presented to us in the Bible?
-He is relatively ugly.
-He’s poor—to the point that women are traveling with & supporting Him. (But He always pays His taxes…sometimes with coins that pop out of fish mouths)
-He sometimes loses His anger and flips over tables in a fit of rage.
-He is constantly, publicly cursing all the pastors in your town whom the rest of the community reveres. etc.
Would you really want to bring Him home to ma & pa?
How about another example, this one from Tom Petty regarding the followers of Jesus:
She’s a good girl, loves her mamma.
Loves Jesus, and America too.
Same idea. How do we know she’s a good girl? Well, because she loves Jesus and America (but we’ll ignore that association for now). It’s ironic because the most radical, dedicated Christ followers I know are not necessarily what the world would consider nice, quiet girls like the ones Petty refers to. They’re usually the ones who have sold their homes or belongings and live with the poorest of the poor. Or the ones people think are drug addicts.
Rich Mullins went barefoot everywhere, didn’t have a home, and gave the vast majority of his money to Native Americans.
Mother Teresa had disgusting feet because of how she dug through each shoe donation box and pulled out the worst possible pair for herself.
My friend Josh would always scream at the top of his lungs when he saw me in the streets of Chicago, even from three blocks away, “HEY ETHAN! I LOVE YOU MAN! PRAISE GOD MAN!” Everyone on those three blocks hears, then looks at him and then at me. He’s a bit wild and unpredictable, not unlike John the Baptist. Josh and his wife sold all their things and moved to Cambodia a few years ago, where they also work with some of the poorest people in the world.
Are these the type of people who come to mind when you hear “Free Falling”?
Have we replaced the Jesus of the Bible with some soft, mushy milquetoast? Do we imagine a lamb-hugging dude (which…never happened in the Bible) whose greatest characteristic is that He’s really nice?
If that’s all Christianity can cough up in regards to its central figure, I’d want nothing to do with it. Nor would most guys I know. Probably most women, for that matter.
What’s more, if Jesus is nothing more than nice, that means His followers need to do nothing other than be nice. Is that all the kingdom is about? Is that why I got “your kingdom come” tattooed over my heart, just to remind me to be more nice?
Niceness alone won’t save the world. Niceness won’t overthrow the Third Reich, dole out justice for sex traffickers, or fix systemic racism.
Yet this caricature of Christ has sunk so deeply into our collective subconscious that we blindly accept these references to Nice Guy Jesus without a second thought. Then, when we do get around to cracking our Bibles open, we’re surprised that He sometimes says mean things,
that He gets pretty heated and goes nuts,
that He won’t let go of this idea that He is actually…God,
that He comes a second time wearing a robe drenched in blood,
that He looks at the religious teachers of His time and basically says f— you.
Wait a minute…I thought Jesus was nice!
Are you reading the Bible through the tainted lens of our culture, or are you reading the Bible as it is? Are you letting Jesus be who He is, as presented in the Bible, or have you also fallen prey to this strange character known as Nice Guy Jesus?
Granted, there are myriad weird presentations of Jesus in mainstream media. There’s Kanye West’s Prosperity Jesus (“Man how’s you get so much favor on your side?/ Accept Him as your Lord and Savior, I replied”), or Family Guy’s straight-up weird manifestation who sometimes appears in random episodes.
Perhaps some of the more accurate depictions of the Carpenter from Nazareth come from people earnestly seeking answers to the world’s most complex questions. Noah Gundersen asked Him through heartrending vibrato,
Jesus, Jesus, could you tell me what the problem is
With the world and all the people in it? …
Jesus, Jesus, there are those that say they love you
But they have treated me so goddamn mean…
If all the heathens burn in hell, do all their children burn as well?
What about the Muslims and the gays and the unwed mothers?
What about me and all my friends? Are we all sinners if we sin?
Does it even matter in the end if we’re unhappy?
More haunting questions are asked by Brand New in their song “Jesus“:
Well, Jesus Christ, I’m not scared to die
I’m a little bit scared of what comes after
Do I get the gold chariot?
Do I float through the ceiling?
Do I divide and fall apart?
And the ship went down in sight of land
And at the gates does Thomas ask to see my hands?
The bottom line here is that, if you get your theology (or your Christology) from pop songs, TV shows, or basically anything but the Bible itself, you’ll end up with an inaccurate picture of who Jesus is and what He came to do. If it’s been a while since you’ve opened the Bible for yourself, you may be surprised at the Jesus you find.
He will not be just nice, nor will He be a tormenting monster trying to throw all the gay people into hell. You’ll find a Jesus who snaps when people are thinking too small of God and His kingdom, but one who is also the friend of prostitutes and other outcasts.
He’s not just any one of those things either; He is a lot of things.
He is complex, and perhaps this is why culture has such a hard time categorizing Him. Sadly, evangelicalism seems to have pigeon-holed Him as just a super nice guy, most likely because this is a safe bet, and if there’s anything we know about evangelical culture, it’s that it’s safe. (Maybe because people get banned when they’re edgy or just use the word ‘penis.’ )
The Jesus of the Bible is far more interesting (much less, true) than any of these mainstream iterations of Him. May we familiarize ourselves with Him so much that we can identify fallacies in misrepresentations, but also see truth wherever it may exist.
And as Calvin said, may we seek Christ purely for the joy of seeking Christ.