1. Kicking off this week we take a bit of a deep dive into all the Jesus articles that appeared over the holiday season, which featured no small amount of controversy. On Christmas Eve, Peter Wehner wrote in the New York Times of “The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus,” assembling a variety of gospel narratives to argue that Jesus’ ministry was radically inclusive, crossing traditional boundaries of purity, ethnicity, social class, and morality. Jesus drew all people to himself regardless of their worthiness. In Wehner’s words:

For Christians, the incarnation is a story of God, in the person of Jesus, participating in the human drama. And in that drama Jesus was most drawn to the forsaken and despised, the marginalized, those who had stumbled and fallen. He was beloved by them, even as he was targeted and eventually killed by the politically and religiously powerful, who viewed Jesus as a grave threat to their dominance. […]

Jesus’ connection with outcasts undoubtedly had to do with his compassion and empathy, his desire to relieve their pain and lift the soul-crushing shame that accompanies being a social pariah and an untouchable.

But that is hardly the only reason. Jesus modeled inclusion and solidarity with the “unclean” and marginalized not only for their sake but for the sake of the powerful and the privileged and for the good of the whole.

If that sounds like good news to you (and it is), then the five scholars of early Christianity co-writing a rebuttal in the Daily Beast wish to burst your bubble. In their view, Wehner’s contrast between Jesus and his social context reflects a long tradition within Christianity of no less than Marcionite anti-Semitism.

The correct term for this notion that Jesus invented a new and better God is “Marcionism,” a heresy named after the early Christian teacher who claimed that the Old Testament and New Testament gods were different deities. Jews understood grace; they understood God as a source of comfort (that is why the Psalms remains so relevant to both Jews and Christians); they understood redemption. They understood the need for care for the orphan and the widow, the poor and the stranger well before the first century. […]

In the name of inclusivity and the need for humility and self-criticism about one’s own myopia, Wehner has demonstrated precisely such myopia vis-à-vis Jews, both of Jesus’ own time period and today.

If Wehner occasionally exceeds the extant evidence and veers into exaggeration, I would argue that the Daily Beast article is occasionally guilty of the same. To refute Wehner’s assertion that tax-collectors were outcasts it appeals to a parable(!) portraying a tax-collector praying in the Jewish Temple, glossing over the repeated stories of the Pharisees’ shock that Jesus would even eat with tax-collectors. They suggest that Jesus’ healings are remarkable because he “practices free health care.” And they accuse Wehner of Marcionism because he saw Jesus’ blessing of the poor to be a novel idea in Judaism. The comparison to Marcion is an overreach, to say the least, whose actual beliefs bear little resemblance to Wehner’s claims.

The relative dearth of internal evidence for first-century Palestinian Jewish practices is worth noting here, but the crux of the debate has to do with whether, and to what degree, a contrast between Jesus and his Jewish context can be made. This is not a simple task, but the inescapable fact of Jesus’ life (as presented in the gospels) is that his thoroughly Jewish teachings and practices were routinely criticized by his Jewish contemporaries. Within the multifaceted, complex Judaism of his day, Jesus was controversial to everyone at different points, the sum total of which at least contributed to his early death — just like many prophets before him.

And on that point, I’ll give the final word to Howard Thurman, who was recently highlighted in a New Yorker piece on Thomas Jefferson’s Bible:

“The basic fact is that Christianity as it was born in the mind of this Jewish teacher and thinker appears as a technique of survival for the oppressed,” Thurman wrote. This is a Jesus that Jefferson could never understand.

In a world as compromised as ours, a soul so exalted was always destined for the Cross. […] For Thurman, the Crucifixion was an emphatic lesson in creative weakness: by sticking out his neck and accepting the full implications of his own vulnerability, Christ had radically identified himself with the worst off. Those societal castoffs who could never get a break now had a savior, and a champion, and a model. This, for Thurman, is as great a teaching as anything that Jesus merely said. Where death, for Jefferson’s Jesus, is an ending, for Thurman’s it is a necessary precondition — just a start.

2. Over at Vox Rebecca Jennings outlines what she calls “The Paradox of Online Body-Positivity.” The movement toward greater acceptance that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, large and small, has gained remarkable steam through social media campaigns and advocates. The movement took off during the pandemic when the only person we regularly saw was/is our reflection in the mirror. But these advances have also come with a cost. Social media usage correlates strongly with depression and anxiety. And the algorithms of these social media companies are indifferent toward morality, providing weight-loss ad content to users who express body positivity. While social media is routinely likened to a tool, it seems that it is ill-equipped for effecting lasting social change:

Though TikTok is still too nascent to have been the subject of any such academic study, the anecdotal effects on its users’ body image have been, by some accounts, severe. This summer, NBC News spoke to seven women in their teens and 20s who said that the content they viewed on the app had “pushed them to fixate more on their diets and exercise regimens to a dangerous extent.” Sissy Sheridan, a 16-year-old actress and social media star who is often cited as “body goals” among TikTokers, tweeted earlier this year that “i liked my body before I downloaded TikTok.” […]

Yet early 2010s-era Tumblr was also her first exposure to the backlash against mainstream self-presentation norms: the rise of fat and body-positive bloggers who documented their style and clothes, showing that having a larger body didn’t have to be an obstacle to living a photogenic life. As a young teenager, most of the content she’d consumed rarely included anything outside the typical internet beauty standard: “That was like the first time that it was like, people are big and that is a thing that is natural and normal,” she says. […]

If you are a woman who spends time on social media, who maybe follows a few brands or influencers but for the most part people you’re connected to in real life, there is a good chance that Instagram thinks you are very concerned about your body. On the Explore page, where content is recommended based on users’ past engagement habits, women I’ve spoken to say they have noticed a significant increase in body-focused posts. They’ll see tons of explainers around concepts like intuitive eating and women encouraging self-love, yet they’re often directly adjacent to plastic surgery before-and-afters, diet tips, and thin people showing off their thinness — despite never consciously engaging with related content.

3. For some laughs this week, check out the Hard Times spin on the classic Clash song: “Poser Report: Okay, but What if You Found a Way To Fight the Law Where You Can Both Win?” And the satire of “It’s Time To Put the Christ Back in Toyotathon” is almost too much to handle:

Just once I would like to see a Toyota advertisement where a customer signs the dotted line on a 2021 Toyota Sienna — practically a steal with the amazing deals going on at your local Toyota dealership or www.toyota.com right now — and says, “Thank you Lord Jesus Christ for it was your sacrifice and triumph over Satan that ultimately made this moment possible.”

You are born a sinner, complicit in the failure of Adam and mankind’s exile from The Garden. Until you can reconcile that fact, you don’t deserve great financing on a RAV4.

And in case you haven’t had enough, this week the internet did what it was made for: Bernie Sanders memes.

4. Advice columns aren’t exactly a regular go-to for cataclysmic, life-altering revelations, but that’s precisely what the latest “Ask Polly” feature in the Cut accomplishes. A reader writes in with a simple predicament: “I Want My Family to Love Me Unconditionally.” Isn’t that what we all want? For those whose families lean heavily on judgment and conditional love, it’s kind of the dream. But Polly takes this desire and turns it on its head, unexpectedly revealing the extent to which the demand for unconditional love can become a proxy for wanting love on our own terms, demanding grace because you are worthy of it. The kind of demand that ultimately leaving you alone and terribly judgmental of others. The questioner, WDIE, writes Polly after having cycled through nine different therapists, none of whom have been helpful.

Dear WDIE, I hear you. You’re saying: I’m sad, I’m exhausted, I’m angry, and I have nothing to give anyone. I deserve to feel loved by a family, by cousins, by siblings. I deserve friends who are warm and loving. I deserve to feel good and happy and whole.

I’ve felt that way before and I completely understand. And unfortunately, what I can do from here is limited. So before we get to my words, I want to urge you to take your depression seriously, above everything else, and talk to a therapist about medication if you haven’t already. You don’t deserve to feel sad all the time. […]

But you already feel sure that a therapist won’t understand. And you feel that friends aren’t enough, either — they don’t care enough, or they’re neurotypical and don’t have the same problems, so they won’t get it when you describe the folds of your reality. You specifically want your cousins to love you and understand you, not friends. You want your cousins to treat you as part of the family, embrace you with all of your strengths and flaws, love you unconditionally, always. […]

Your reality won’t change dramatically just because you want it to. It’s set in stone. What you can change is how life feels inside of you. You can feel less shitty immediately, by putting all of your intellectual efforts and your narratives aside for a minute and opening your mind to one thought:

What if I’m wrong about everything?

This is (not coincidentally!) the most terrifying thought you could ever have. As someone who’s carefully constructed a detailed list of what’s gone wrong in her life, as someone who uses those delineations to explain herself (why wouldn’t you?), as someone who experiences other people as misunderstanding her and rejecting her based on her peculiarities (anyone in your shoes would do this!), as someone who feels like she’s alone on an island a lot of the time (it would be almost impossible not to feel that way, given your circumstances), the worst possible thing you could think or believe is that YOU MIGHT BE WRONG ABOUT EVERY SINGLE THING YOU’VE CONCLUDED ABOUT YOURSELF AND THE WORLD. […]

When my mother couldn’t shower me with unconditional love under every stressful condition under the sun, that didn’t mean that she didn’t actually love me unconditionally. It only meant that she had her own emotional challenges and therefore she could not become the kind of mother I wanted, who welcomed my emotions and listened closely when I was emotional. She struggled to show up in the moment and meet me where I was.

And even though that felt like rejection, every time, that wasn’t remotely her intention. The reality was that she has trouble joining other people in their own emotional territory. She’s someone who likes to stay in her own emotional country and have people visit her there. This is true because her own mother was loving, smart, and supportive but she was also an alcoholic who raged and turned punitive out of the blue, randomly, depending on her drinking choices on any given night. Visiting other people’s emotional realities is and will always be threatening and scary for my mother as a result.

But the fact that she doesn’t just tolerate but welcomes my writing on this subject tells you that people can slowly change. They just can’t change in the exact ways you want and take the exact shape you want. If you’re fully committed to keeping them in your life, you have to accept the small changes they can manage, and love them and feel proud of them for those changes.

5. As always, Arthur C. Brooks’ latest at the Atlantic offers a pitch-perfect diagnosis of the human predicament. This week he outlines the perils of a score-card approach to life, seeking happiness through acquisition and achievement. As one wise prophet once said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it … for what benefit is there to gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mk 8:35-36).

Every cultural message we get is that happiness can be read off a scorecard of money, education, experiences, relationships, and prestige. Want the happiest life? Check the boxes of success and adventure, and do it as early as possible! Then move on to the next set of boxes. She who dies with the most checked boxes wins, right? Wrong. […]

We have every evolutionary reason to want to keep score in life — passing on genes is a competitive business, after all. But there is no evidence that Mother Nature gives two hoots whether we are happy or not. And, in fact, this kind of scorekeeping is a happiness error for two reasons: It makes us dependent on external rewards, and it sets us up for dissatisfaction.

You can be motivated to do something intrinsically (it gives you satisfaction and enjoyment) or extrinsically (you are given a reward, such as money or recognition). Most people know that intrinsic rewards are the sweeter of the two. That’s basically what graduation speakers mean when they employ hoary nostrums such as “Find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”

But there’s a twist: Psychologists have found that extrinsic rewards can actually extinguish intrinsic rewards, leading us to enjoy our activities less. […] You will like your job less if your primary motivation is prestige or money. You will appreciate your relationships less if you choose your friends and partners based on their social standing. You will relish your vacation less if you choose the destination for how it will look on social media.

The scorecard approach to life also feeds right into a known human tendency that drives us away from happiness: People often have trouble finding lasting satisfaction from worldly rewards, because as soon as we acquire something, our desire resets and we are looking to the next reward. Check one box, and another one immediately appears. 

6. Along the same lines, Kevin Hale’s “Jesus Died for Life Wasters” in 1517 offers a way out of check-boxing for those whose lives haven’t met their own expectations and whose New Year’s resolutions have already fizzled now three weeks in:

Jesus died for life wasters! This preacher, and those like him, keep telling you not to waste your life, so that maybe you finally can be saved. They drop into your life in 60-second sermon jams and memes and misquotes, and they wreck you. Jesus knew you couldn’t keep from wasting your life. He knows you and everybody else come from a long line of life wasters going all the way back to Adam. Jesus died for life wasters! Let go of your bootstraps. Stand back up. Your Father loves you. See! There he is, running to meet you, to embrace you. YOU! A life waster. Can you believe it? Your Father is running toward you. He wants to give you a hug. He has already order the fattened calf to be killed and barbecued, because, despite the protests of some, he’s throwing a party for you. An utterly wasteful party where all the life wasters are going to sit around and eat fattened calf and drink the good wine and revel in their Father’s love. Stop trying to prove his love isn’t misplaced. Your Father loves life wasters. He always has, that’s why he sent Jesus to die for them.

Many years ago, I read John Piper’s book, Don’t Waste Your Life, something of a spiritual checklist for well-meaning Christians. At the time (in my early 20’s) the book felt like a much-needed pep-talk. A kick in the butt to shed the “nominal” label and be serious about Christianity. But Hale’s antidote here is far closer to what Christianity is actually about: good news for those whose life seems to be a waste.

Strays:

Finally, after a brief hiatus, a brand-new episode of the Mockingcast drops this weekend! Look for it later today or tomorrow.