Jesus in Contemporary Culture: Part One (Skinner)

This semester I am team-teaching a new course entitled, “Jesus in Contemporary Culture,” with my colleague, Dr. Hollis Phelps. We have a class of 30 students from diverse backgrounds and we anticipate that substantive discussion will shape a great deal of the course content and experience. We have structured the course around five Jesus films (The Passion of the Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus of Montreal, The Book of Life, and The Life of Brian) and we will be looking at a host of topics including masculinity, the glorification of suffering, cultural and comic book superheroes, and humor as it relates to the Jesus tradition.

Since this is a new class, I wanted to spend some time posting about it so that (1) I could share the experience with others; (2) I could learn from what others have done in similar courses; and (3) I could gain some new insights and/or fresh ideas from those who read the blog. Today I wanted to post briefly about our first conversation last Friday.

We began the first session with two questions: (1) Who is Jesus? and (2) When you hear the name “Jesus,” what thoughts or feelings arise? The discussion was fantastic, and as you can imagine, the whiteboards were filled with incredible responses. One thing in particular stood out to both of us was that even though roughly half of the class indicated no particular commitment to any form of Christianity, it took about 15 minutes of conversation before anyone identified Jesus as a human. Students threw out the typical exalted titles of Jesus–sacrificial lamb, son of man, son of God, messiah, etc.–but the thought of Jesus as a real, flesh and blood human didn’t immediately jump to mind. I think this experiment confirms something I have observed for some time. In our modern discourse about Jesus, and especially in the Church, there is a pervasive tendency to lapse into an almost docetic understanding of Jesus. This understanding accounts for a lot of the problematic dialogue we have.

Today, we will be attempting to “problematize Chalcedon” by looking at the Chalcedonian definition and then getting students to think about what it means to be human and what it means to be divine. Then we are going to go back to the views of Jesus in the canonical gospels and work our way forward. I can’t wait to see what today’s discussion holds. I’ll be saying more about this in the coming days.

6 thoughts on “Jesus in Contemporary Culture: Part One (Skinner)

  1. Thanks for sharing. Would you consider sharing your syllabus as well? I like the idea of starting with the creedal Jesus and then problematizing that. With so much material to chose from, I can see the benefit of building the course around films–though I would have added/used Dornford-May’s Son of Man (2006), too. Are you looking to other genres/forms of media? I’ve used Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ to good effect before. And the brand-spanking TV sitcom, “Black Jesus,” by Aaron McGruer, is on the Adult Swim network every Thursday night and is well worth considering.

    1. Eric, I will look into the Son of Man film and the Pullman resource. Always looking for good material. Though I didn’t mention it, we have also decided to use some of the new “Black Jesus” show toward the end of the class when we focus on the Life of Brian and using humor to discuss Jesus. The problem is that Black Jesus has been criticized by some for buying into racial stereotypes, so we want to be careful. We are also skipping class one week in lieu of having students join as at the movies to see the new Left Behind (which happens to be around the time we are talking about Jesus and apocalypse). I will be happy to send the syllabus if you send me an email address. Thanks for weighing in.

  2. So out of curiosity, what do you mean by problematizing Chalcedon? And will you be looking with students at the definition in its context? (I.e., looking at Cyril and Leo and Nestorius and Theodoret.)

    1. Nathanael,

      Many thanks for the question. By “problematizing” I mean that we are looking at the creed (in its context, as well as in the context of other Christological heresies in the first five centuries of the church) and discussing its substance and how it became dogmatized. Then we discuss difficulties in concept and practice for fully understanding such a definition. During our next class, we will look at how the canonical gospels move from a less divine Jesus (Mark, ca.70 CE) to a much more explicitly divine Jesus (John, ca 95 CE). Our goal is to get students thinking about the historical development of dominant Christological ideas within early Christianity.

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