Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Symbolism of Bobblehead Jesus

Last night I was cooking dinner at the home of a couple of local, and realtively new friends. On their fridge there were several paper clips, photos, advertisement - the usual, and also on top was a Bobblehead Jesus.

Now apparently this had scandalized at least one person in the past, or at the very least I believe that was its latent intent. And perhaps when it comes right down to it I shouldn't be cool with Jesus being presented as a super-casual figurine customized for front of the car entertainment, but I can't say it bothers me. But why?

In simplest form it's that I don't really associate the Jesus being portrayed by the Bobblehead doll is the Jesus of my faith. I don't really have the ecumenical gene that says there was a historical Jesus who was the ideal and all Christians groups worship him partly right, although we've only got part of the truth and blah blah blah. That kind of mindset would see this particular doll as besmirching Jesus' honor, and rightly so. After all, if you take this line then it's Jesus qua Jesus who's being insulted here.

But for me Jesus is functional - he's a list of characteristics and teachings derived from Scriptures that teach me how God sees the vocation of being truly human. Sure he was a man, but I've never known him that way. for me I've always known him as the guiding truth of my own life and times.

The Jesus I believe in is a very gritty thing. No that's not even it - a primal thing. God is flat out a primal God. He speaks in metaphors of the most foundational human experiences - sacrifice, life, Covenants, death, war, darkness/light, sex, idolatry, agriculture, treachery, and harlotry. He demands that we die to our fleshy ambitions and arise to walk in the ways of God, living as citizens of heaven even though we're on earth, and humbly repenting when we fail to harken to His will.

I don't see this as being the same Jesus who's pre-packaged in individual servings of Welch's grape juice and a saltine, droned on about like someone's all-time best significant other in monotinous chorus-driven pop songs, and always one quick call away from answering all the "really important" questions in life like "is this the one?" and "Given that I should vote Republican, who would you chose in the primaries?" and similar vitals.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that the pop Jesus is a savior in some kind of weird abstraction - you say a few words and then you're going to heaven. Between now and then is just killing time until your friends are burning in molten hell and you can really lord it over them how right you were.

The Jesus I worship is a savior in fact - one day you live for the things of this world and they guide your perspectives and your actions. You fear death and failure and the marginalization of those around you. You seek to live in some sort of secular Utopia and have the recurring hope that some mix of politics and rights' expansion can accomplish such a thing... in short you "put your trust in princes, in sons of men."

Then Jesus says differently. He comes to turn all of those perceptions on their head. If God will care about us ultimately, and will remember us even in our lowest state... indeed if he has already shared our lowest state in his birth, who he chose as his messengers, and even his death, then there is no need to bemoan the inability of the princes of men to deliver heaven. We can thumb our nose at worldly expectation because our hearts and minds look elsewhere for validation.

Death and the remembrance of history will not have the final word on the value of our life. When I pray I see the same darkness, the same emptiness, the same nothingness as anyone else. Like Job I wait vainly for God's answer, and the answer is silence. The answer is in time, but not my time. And there is something beyond that darkness, and it allows one to be unafraid of the darkness, knowing that the light will never be totally extinguished. How we answer the fact of the darkness, the finitude and shortcomings inevitable in an earthly life si the real difference between a believer and an atheist. Is the darkness all there is?

In the Bobblehead Jesus I find a critique on the other Jesus; the cuddly teddy bear Jesus of too much of middle America. I guess the statement in making Jesus into a doll for commercial sale is itself a jab on this kind of Jesus - if your theology can make him a teddy bear, why can't others make him a Bobblehead? It's basically irreverance that shows the ongoing irreverance of the supposedly reverant, if that makes sense. It's a challenge of sorts: If your Jesus is this cheap and easy, if he's nothing but a friendly ticket puncher for the heaven train, then why not take the next logical step? And if you can't accept that step, should that not challenge you to rethink your own sentiments?

We hear too much Gospel of nice guy Jesus. And it comes from all angles; liberals are just as complicit as conservatives. Both basically assume that what God would do is what they would do minus a little self-interest. It's presumed that God is always a friendly, happy-go-lucky God, even if he might have to roast a few who don't see it that way. But rarely is the tough God invoked.

One of my favorite Psalms nowadays is the Psalms 136, which Orthodox usually hear in Saturday Vigil as the Polyeleion. Each of the mighty and great works that God has done for his people are recounted, and after each is the refrain "for his mercy endureth forever". But we rarely look or listen to exactly what's being said. Among the "merciful acts" are the slaying of the firstborn of Egypt, the purging and guiding of the people in the wilderness, the vanquishing of proud kings and the obliteration of Pharaoh's armies in the Red Sea. God absolutely will put you through trials and travails, before he remembers you in your lowest estate. He will humble you, and not answer you, and even stump you when you thought wrongly that you were among the righteous. This is the teaching of Jesus that he came 'to bring not peace, but a sword'. It's not about war, but it's about the tumult that logically follows when some on this earth refuse to serves those who are its masters.

Somehow I don't think the makers of the Bobblehead Jesus are really picking at that sort of Jesus.


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