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.

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