"Dear Lord Baby Jesus . . .”
Gathered with his family at the dinner table, NASCAR legend Ricky Bobby is leading his family in prayer, giving thanks for the KFC set before them, when his wife gently interjects, “Hey, um . . . you know, Sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him ‘baby.’ It’s a bit odd and off-puttin’ to pray to a baby.”
“Well, look,” Ricky Bobby retorts, “I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grown-Up Jesus, or Teenage Jesus, or Bearded Jesus, or whoever you want.”
I know I shouldn’t love this moment as much as I do. But Will Ferrell’s unsophisticated Christology in the 2006 Talladega Nights reveals what is true of many American Christians: we’ve fashioned an entire pantheon of Jesuses to our liking. And the nature of our Jesuses is revealed in the “Christians” they produce. Like Ricky Bobby’s Jesus—“just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent”—who is being thanked for $21.5 million in annual endorsements.
For Ricky Bobby, for any of us who identify as “Christian,” that’s a pretty safe Jesus to pray to.
So, clearly, there’s been a terrible misunderstanding. No one who ever encountered the real Jesus ever thought of him as a “cherub with a trust fund.”
The real Jesus was offensive. Disturbing. He consistently embraced those who were socially, religiously, and legally marginalized. He challenged those who earned the ancient equivalent of $21.5 million annual endorsements. He commanded his followers to die. He called out the religious for their paucity of grace.
There was nothing “safe” about encountering this Jesus.
Pointing to this real Jesus in Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard concurs, “Does any-one [sic] have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke?” she demands. “Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets.”
The real Jesus is way more dangerous than NASCAR.
Straw and velvet hats obscuring our view, we too often reduce Jesus to a more manageable version of the one first century Jews and Gentiles knew was not safe at all.
C. S. Lewis also articulates the risk in encountering the real Messiah in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, as four siblings wrestle to understand the nature of his Christ-figure, Aslan. After dinner at Mr. Beaver’s house one evening, Susan discovers that the fabled hero wasn’t a man at all, but a lion. Anxious about meeting him, she wonders aloud whether or not he is safe.