Tuesday, August 18, 2009
SCOTT BARTCHY INTERVIEW (PART 2 OF 2)
NOTE: This is the second part of the 2-part interview with UCLA Professor Scott Bartchy conducted by Keith Giles
Scott Bartchy is a scholar, professor, writer and historian. He has spent a lot of time studying the early Christian Church. His studies have resulted in a personal paradigm shift that has impacted the way he personally looks at Jesus, the Church, and the practice of the Christian faith.
Having spent several years on the conference speaking circuit, Bartchy soon abandoned the business of faith for the more practical, and appealing, practice of the faith.
Bartchy’s personal spiritual revolution came when he was attending a church-related liberal arts college in eastern Tennessee. “I had some great teachers that one year and I was preaching at a church full of farmers, mostly, in the early sixties when the Cold War had really set in. People were holding Christ Against Communism Crusades and things like this. So, the elders in my church asked me if I would preach a sermon against communism. I was still idealistic enough that I thought I’d rather preach for something rather than against something so I literally stumbled over Matthew 25. I had never paid much attention to it before. I had never heard a sermon on it. I had gone to church-related undergraduate schools and had never heard of this passage before. So, I decided to preach on that text and the elders and the rest of the people came to me and said they had no idea that was in the Bible. I never did preach that sermon against communism,” he says.
In his classes at UCLA, Bartchy will often take the Religion section of the Los Angeles Times and hold it up for the class to look at. As he reads aloud the advertisements for slicker worship services, dynamic youth ministries, and other goods and services offered, he points out that the early church would never have participated in anything like this. They were too busy caring for the poor and loving their neighbors and living out the Gospel to put energy and money into attracting newcomers. Most students are stunned. Some of them wonder silently about how we got so far away from what Jesus originally intended.
WHAT WENT WRONG?
Bartchy contends that Constantine’s apparent conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, and his subsequent liberation of the Church from persecution was less a blessing and more a curse in disguise. Bartchy contends that Constantine’s brand of faith became polluted by his misunderstanding of who God really was. “How much more can you begin to add in before your idea of God has become imprinted on the historical Jesus? Did things get distorted with Origen? I don’t know yet, exactly what that tipping point was,” he says, “But what I do know is that the title of this book I might write one day is ‘The Betrayal Of Jesus At Nicea’ because I think the irony is that, at the point where Jesus is said to be ‘God of God and Light of Light’, at least from the point of view of Constantine himself, the God they were talking about was no longer the God that Jesus had been talking about.”
According to Bartchy, the major shift in the Christian faith of today and that of the early church took place under the rule of the newly converted dictator, Constantine. “We’re still trying to get out from under the cloud that he put over the Church,” he says. “Basically, Constantine decides in the fourth century that he’s going to become the sugar daddy of the Christian faith because there have been four waves of attempts to get rid of the Christians up to his reign, which involved fierce persecutions. So, if you and I were alive at that time we would have all known somebody who had been under persecution by the Empire. Constantine shows up and says he’s going to stop all of this and, of course, we have to wonder how else he could have done this without God’s Spirit being at work on his heart? Be careful, though. I would caution you not to believe him until he puts his sword away. Personally, I don’t think Constantine ever got it,” says Bartchy. “I don’t think he ever really understood Jesus.”
To Bartchy, one of the most fundamental ironies in the history of culture occurred at the Council of Nicea. “This was the first time the leaders of the Christian movement are called together for this big ecumenical meeting. They’ve been doing fine for hundreds of years without having any such meeting, but Constantine wants to know who wears the white hats and who wears the black hats.
So, Constantine calls all of these people together and he makes the first speech, stating namely that Jesus is the very same essence and substance of the Father. Nobody had ever talked that way before, but he wants an ideology, he wants unity, he wants to tie the Empire together, which has been divided. He makes sure that Christians are the glue that hold it all together and he wants what they think about God to be united.”
One of the things that’s largely not known is that Constantine himself was already a Monotheist previous to his conversion to Christianity. “He’s not leaving Polytheism to become a Monotheist when he decides to become favorable to the Christians. Before that he worshipped one God whom he was willing to call, along with the other traditional names of the high God, either Zeus among the Greeks, or Jupiter among the Romans. But Zeus and Jupiter are both kick-ass gods. In any case, that’s who he worships and so when Constantine stands up and says that Jesus is God he’s saying that Jesus is the son of Zeus, a kick-ass god. We still haven’t recovered from this. That’s why we still have people thinking it’s appropriate to kill people in the name of God,” says Bartchy.
HOW DO WE GET BACK?
If Bartchy is right, and the original essence of the Gospel that Jesus came and died to proclaim has been diluted, how can we ever hope to recover the essential power and truth of the Gospel for today? “I’ve asked myself numerous times what it would take to bring a restoration of this original concept of the Gospel to the modern church, about five thousand times,” he says. “I think what I am sure of is that a model is worth a thousand or more words and that our preaching is about a hundred years ahead of our action. So, I think we have to model it out. We’re not going to get young guys who’ve been corrupted into thinking that in order to be important or successful they’ve got to build a church building. I don’t think we’re going to be able to persuade those people not to do that. But what I think we can do is to do more of what I think Jesus did, which was grass-roots work.” This sort of grass-roots work, in Bartchy’s mind, begins in the home, not ironically, where the early church itself began and flourished. “I think there needs to be more networking between the house church movement. Some people respond to that and say it’s pretty fragile and you know, they’re right. It is pretty fragile. Not to go back on what I said earlier, that it can’t be stopped, but it can die out and then flare up again later. It has to be based on the quality of the interpersonal relationships between the people of God and we have to have ways of life that maximize the possibility and the necessity of these quality, interpersonal relationships that the Holy Spirit has been trying to get us into.”
THE POWER OF DEFINITION
In the American Church, there are two words that are used over and over again that are not very well-defined and therefore people can pour into them whatever meaning they need.
Those two words are ‘God’ on the one hand and ‘Salvation’ on the other. Bartchy believes that we need to return to a fundamental agreement about the definitions of these words. “So, do we mean by ‘God’ what Jesus meant? Do we mean by ‘Salvation’ what Jesus meant? Is ‘Salvation’ saving your spiritual butt, or is it salvation from meaninglessness, despair, from being a part of the people who opress others? I think salvation is a daily matter. I think what Heaven means, at least to me, is that some of the struggle that I’m involved in against so many people in powerful places, who live by a completely different set of values, is going to be over, and I’m going to have a chance to relax and play more music and talk with more friends and read all those books I’ve never had time to read and not spending all my time fighting against the principalities and powers.”
In the second chapter of the book of Acts, verse forty-two, its says that “The Lord was adding daily those who were being saved”, who were in the process. There’s two different ways, in the Greek, two different tenses, of putting things in the past. One is just like saying it happened and it’s over, and the other is about things that are ongoing, which is the imperfect tense. It’s imperfect because it hasn’t finished yet, so it’s an ongoing thing, in the Greek. That’s the tense you have in this passage which underscores the concept that salvation is a process," he says.
CHALLENGING THE MODERN CHURCH
Bartchy wants to challenge the modern church to look itself in the face and ask itself what it’s actually communicating with respect to the words ‘God’ and ‘Salvation’. "What I mean is, to do something that was hard for me to do initially. Something that happened to me when I was in Grad School, as I was seeing people who were coming to Jesus and at first they were really hot, and after a year they were pretty tame," he says. "What happened was they looked around and found out that the words didn’t have the same meanings within the church that they first thought. Just like little kids, they watch what the grown-ups do when they use certain words and they figure out what things really mean."
It was a course in the Sociology of Religion that helped Bartchy to re-think some of the cultural aspects of the Christian Faith in a critical way. "This course didn’t just rearrange the furniture in my head, it put me on a different boat. Finally I was forced to say, in order to be an honest human being, is that for any religious institution, what really counts is what actually comes out at the end of the pipe. I had to ask myself, ‘Is this good for people or not, is this fantasy land?’, and I have to have the courage to look at the answer and not look away from it. Can Christianity be used in such a way to make you sick? Absolutely. Can it be used to turn you into an enemy of God? Yes. But people don’t want to admit that. They have a very magical idea of the words that if you just say the right words then of course everything is going to come out alright in the end, even though it’s not coming out alright now, you just continue to act like it is."
This University course challenged Bartchy to either sacrifice his intellect on the altar of faith or to admit the truth about his faith. "I didn’t think faith meant trusting blindly, it means believing that Jesus is right about God and not anybody else," he says.
As a professor in a secular university, Bartchy has students in his office all the time who ask “Do you believe in God", and his answers always stun them. "I say, with a smile on my face, that I have no idea what they’re talking about. What I can tell you is that about 80% of what passes in the American media and in public life with the name of God in it, I don’t believe. I’ll be glad to hear who you affirm God to be and then I’ll tell you if I believe in that or not. But at the highest level, the big question is, “Does the Church believe about God what Jesus does and if so then why aren’t we spending our money differently, why aren’t we treating people better, why are we not known as lovers instead of as judges?” and these are questions that have dogged me all my life," he says.
*THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED HERE IN FEB OF 2007.