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Sunday, September 06, 2009  

Jerusalem Syndrome

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'

Mark 1:9-11

I was talking recently with a friend about the Jerusalem Syndrome, in which a tourist to Jerusalem, often a young male without a history of psychiatric problems, develops obsessive religious behaviors--abandoning traveling companions, donning a white toga, ritualistically visiting holy places, preaching sermons, and so on. Dan Bern wrote a song about it.

Anyway, it happens that we've been reading the Gospel of Mark in Bible study (and in the Sunday service most weeks during this liturgical year). And Mark's account of the life of Jesus opens with Jesus experiencing a private vision--he sees the heaven and the dove and he, not John the Baptist, not the crowds, hears the heavenly voice speaking to him. The later evangelists make a big scene of this, with John, heavens, and voice all testifying to Jesus's divine paternity in a public manner. But Mark, which is probably the oldest Gospel and certainly older than Matthew and Luke, shows us a Jesus whose personal sense of mission coexists with his long obscurity.

The discrepancy between Mark and the other gospels on this point is one of the earliest instances of a long struggle within the history of Christianity, a struggle to move from private to public, from interior to exterior, from subjective to objective. The battle between the supporters of the New Testament canon and the Gnostic Christians was about this: whether the Christian story is one proclaimed to any and held by faith, or rather a matter of secret knowledge available to a tiny elect. The term 'catholic' originally meant "according to the whole," as in the twelve apostles, as opposed to a special revelation granted only to one. It came to mean "according to the whole church," as represented by an ecumenical council. The emphasis in the Reformation on the oral proclamation of the Gospel, on the reliability of the sacraments, and on the perfection of God's wrathful judgment and merciful forgiveness was part of this struggle too--to keep the truths of the faith independent of you, your mental state, your dreams and visions, and so on. Luther and Calvin caustically referred to their opponents on the left wing of the Reformation as "enthusiasts;" that is, people who have God within them.

So what if Mark is right? Or maybe, getting away from unanswerable historical questions, what if Mark were our only gospel? What if we had no star, no shepherds, no wise men, no Simeon, no stunning lesson in the Temple, no John leaping in the womb at the approach of Mary with child? What if this whole enterprise hangs on a vision experienced by an obscure man in a river? To put it more provocatively, what if Jesus were a victim of the Jerusalem syndrome? Maybe he was a normal guy and his visit to the Jordan and the charismatic holy man John the Baptist flipped a switch inside of him and he saw himself as the Son of God and the person who would trigger the coming of the Kingdom of God. It's notoriously difficult to differentiate mental illness from charisma. This seems to be why Kierkegaard found the story of Abraham so terrifying, though at least Abraham's conversations with God were ratified by the birth of a miracle baby. If the Second Coming were to mimic Mark's description of the first, how would Jesus escape being hospitalized and shipped out of the region to recover?

As a culture we've become rather more comfortable with the idea of private revelation than we used to be. Some of us fixate on embracing Jesus as our "personal" Lord and Savior, as if the Bible had any such concern for personality. Others spin whole private cosmologies. We are encouraged, whether in church or on the therapy couch, to seek the truth of our condition within ourselves. Luther, on the other hand, had a horror at the work of the human mind that makes Freud sound like Joel Osteen. Nothing within could be relied upon. The truth of the matter, however, is that the external Word must echo with something in us to be believed. And that something, whatever it is, will be as unaccountable as a vision in the river or a tour that turns into a messianic pilgrimage.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 6:24 PM
On behalf of the Methodist movement, I accept this gesture as a fitting symbol of our newfound full communion.

Good post (sermon?) too!
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