Diana Butler Bass discusses her new book, “Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence.”
Author Diana Butler Bass is a leading voice in progressive Christianity and one of my favorite authors. She writes and lectures about American religion and culture, and she is the author of 11 books, including Christianity for the Rest of Us and Christianity After Religion. Her new book, Freeing Jesus, just came out in March 2021, and we were delighted to catch up with her.
S&H: This book calls to mind the game show “To Tell the Truth.” Will the real Jesus please stand up? How important is knowing Jesus in terms of following him—which can feel frustrating because sometimes there isn’t much known—or should Christians feel comfortable with a mystery?
Diana Butler Bass: Most of what we know about Jesus comes through two sources—history and theology. Although there’s little historical evidence of Jesus outside of the New Testament, the political, social, and religious contexts of the ancient world broaden our understanding of Jesus and provide evidence to help reconstruct his life. As Christians reflected on Jesus and the stories of his life, they developed a body of interpretation to help others know about Jesus. That interpretation—we call it doctrine or theology—is another way of knowing Jesus. In recent decades, these two approaches—the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith”—have been in conflict, often to the point of actually losing any real sense of Jesus’ enduring appeal.
While history and theology are worthy intellectual paths, how can anyone really know Jesus separate from love, compassion, healing, and liberation? Ultimately, knowing Jesus means somehow experiencing all these things in our own lives. Even Jesus teaches (in Matthew 25), that we cannot know him separate our convictions and actions. Knowing Jesus is primarily experiential. In Freeing Jesus, I want to recover that central truth. Our lives—not just history or theology—are the places where we encounter Jesus. And yes, there’s quite a bit of mystery in that. Not only is Jesus a mystery, we are often mysteries to ourselves. It is quite a spiritual quest, really, to come to know both Jesus and ourselves.
I can’t speak for all Christians, but I love mysteries.
In your book on page 29, you talk about how of the 90 or so times Jesus is directly addressed, 60 of those refer to him as teacher. Do you think that is how Jesus would want to be remembered?
Yes. To call someone teacher is holy. We forget that in our culture. A friend of mine gave a eulogy upon the death of a much-beloved professor saying of him, “He gave us instructions and he set us free.” That’s a perfect description of Jesus—a teacher who liberates.
It is telling that upon meeting Jesus at the tomb in the story of the resurrection, Mary Magdalene cried out, “Rabbouni!”, that is, “Teacher!” If she thought calling the risen Christ “teacher” was appropriate to that occasion, it seems Jesus would have no issues being thus remembered.
And where does Jesus go, from that mention of him teaching at age 12, and then we don’t hear more until he’s baptized by John a decade later? Are there any thoughts on what Jesus was up to? Lost teenage journals? (I’m kidding on that last part of course.) Why does the Bible have that gap?
People love to speculate about that gap. I imagine that Jesus was up to what most Jewish young men were up to at the time—struggling at the edges of poverty to survive being subjects of Roman oppression, learning the stories and traditions of his faith, loving his friends, and caring for his family. I think of young Jesus as I think of impoverished young Black men in America—at the bottom of political and racial systems, fulfilling obligations of church and school, having fun with friends, and working hard to survive and care for those they love—all the while fearing the authorities might kill you in the streets. It isn’t very romantic or mystical. It was the hard reality of being a poor Jew in an outpost of the Roman Empire. That experience of being a deeply marginalized and despised person is the crucible in which Jesus’ wisdom and compassion was formed.
To me, that is far more profound and challenging than some of the alternate mythical stories about Jesus’ “lost” years. Jesus wasn’t sitting on a mountain somewhere meditating. Jesus was at the bottom of one of the worst, most oppressive social structures of empire ever devised. He took the worst of human experience and turned it toward beauty and justice. That he survived to proclaim ideas like “blessed are the poor,” or “blessed are those who make peace” is stunning.
The Bible isn’t very interested in the gap because most of its earliest readers knew that this was exactly what Jesus’ early life was like—he was one of them. They knew he suffered what they suffered. So, the gospels jump from his birth and that one childhood story to the really interesting stuff: How did this particular Jew attract so many followers? What did he teach? Why was he so compelling? And why did Rome murder him in this particularly gruesome way?
In your book, you talk about wanting to understand the Bible better even as a very small child. Do you believe in the idea of soul purpose, and if so, do you feel that is why you are here, that you are serving this mission to do this work? Or is it “eh, I also could have been a dentist …”
The idea of me being a dentist is hilarious—because I’m terrified of dentists! That said, my actual dentist clearly has a vocation to be one. She’s like a priest of teeth.
Yes. I do trust that our souls have purpose—I use the word “vocation” to describe that. Vocation is a larger, more embracing term that “job” or “career.” My vocation is to share words into the world that draw people to a deeper understanding of their lives so they can practice compassion toward others and the earth. I might have done that as a college professor (something I did for a dozen years), as a minister (I’m not ordained, even though I do preach), a spiritual director, a poet, an editor, a librarian ... a number of particular jobs might embody that vocation. But, at the core, is this calling toward the beauty of words and their power to create a better world. We all need to hear and follow what’s at the core of our being. That’s our vocation. And it may take different forms through the course of our lives. But the calling, the vocation, that’s the grounding thing. Purpose, yes. It is that.
Your book reveals quite a bit of disturbing sexism you have encountered toward female Christian leaders and scholars. Has that eased up over your career? Or is it still just as bad?
I wish I could say that it has. But misogyny and sexism—especially in religious spaces—is very bad. In some ways, it is worse now that it was, say, 20 years ago. For a time, public displays of sexism were (at the very least) verboten, and that made things a bit better. That’s no longer the case. Sexism and racism are twin sins in America, and both are sadly in vogue in large swaths of public discourse and practice.
The #metoo movement has changed some things when it comes to empowering women and men to talk about sexual abuse, especially in regard to work, and insist on environments where violence, assault, and insult aren’t permitted. That is better. On a personal note, since I’m over 60, I now understand the double-whammy of sexism and ageism. It is shocking, really. Our culture is brutal toward older women. And I’d rather that my own daughter might not ever be able to speak from that same experience when she reaches my age.
Did anything surprise you as you researched this book? If so, what?
The book is framed as “memoir theology,” telling the story of Jesus through the text of my own life. Two things surprised me—how easy it was to recall and recover my earliest memories of Jesus, and how much of the New Testament speaks to even my childhood spiritual inclinations. There’s a lovely, nostalgic tone to the early chapters of the book and that arises from learning from my own theological inner child!
Do you feel like Jesus is longing to be known?
The Gospel of John opens with this mystical description of Jesus:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Word, Source, Light. All those descriptors point toward a Jesus longing to be known, an always-communicating, ever-emanating, and expressive Christ. Ultimately, Jesus is the embodiment of God speaking—a sacred longing to be in eternal conversation with us and with the universe. What could be more compelling and beautiful than that?
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