You may remember the old slogan, "Jesus is the answer." Maybe it comes from a song by Larry Norman. The usual response was, "to what question?" But perhaps that misses the point. Maybe one thing that makes Jesus uniquely the answer, is the plurality of questions to which his life, teachings and works provide the best answer.
I was thinking about this the other day when I was teaching my students how to take the written part of the SAT test. I ask them to develop a number of stories, especially true stories and histories, that they can draw on to support their answers to the SAT prompt. Normally, I good SAT essay is 400 words or more, providing a clear intro, two or so supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion, in 25 minutes -- pretty hard for Chinese young people to write, so they need help in preparation. So I told them I'd limit myself to just two or three supporting examples -- "Jesus, contemporary Chinese or American society" -- and try to write full essays in half the time. And they could choose the question for me to answer at the last moment.
I found it easy to support almost ANY point from the gospels, without force or distortion, consequentially and substantively. For instance:
"Are there benefits to be gained from avoiding the use of modern technology, even when using it would make life easier?"
Sure there are. Picture Jesus wandering Galilee with his closest friends, camping out, telling stories, training a coterie of future world-changers. (And one member of a de facto ISIS sleeper cell.) How much we lose by depending on modern technology for communications, for entertainment, for life! How much Jesus accomplished by using those "low-tech" methods!
"Should we care as much about people outside our communities as we do about people within them?"
Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan, and his actual practice, reveals how wrongly framed this question is. We should care about those whom Providence entrusts to us, whether foreigners or fellow countryman. This is the truest meaning of the word "neighbor." Of course, those within our community are more likely to cross our paths, and to belong to our circles of responsibility -- therefore love of family and nation make sense, but do not circumscribe, the sphere we must care for.
"Do rules and limitations contribute to a person's happiness?"
The Sermon on the Mount. All of Christian theology.
On and on it goes. Partly this is because the SAT essay tests the ability of a writer to access a broad extant of background material and draw lessons quickly, so older and widely-read readers practiced in expressing their views, who know a few stories well, and care about them deeply, have a natural advantage. But I doubt any life story goes to the root of so many existential questions, as does the life of Jesus, so deeply. (One of my students has taken to using Confucius in a similiar way -- he's not bad, either.)
Anyway, here's one of the two essays I ended up actually writing, in about 12 minutes 40 seconds, using a computer, true. I think I ended up writing nearing 700 words, and this little exercise actually made me think in a new way about the Gospels. I wish I hadn't secularized it so much (with SAT readers in mind), and would have been more overt about the divine role in the gospels, if I'd taken time to revise. But you might find it interesting. Just one of many, many ways in which it remains true that "Jesus is the answer" -- the hints in the final paragraph showed that I was just beginning to think through the theological implications of looking at Jesus' life from this one perspective.
"As geologists can tell you, many kinds of rock form best under high pressure: marble, for instance, which is simply limestone that has been heated far under earth for a long period of time. How about human beings? Do we similarly respond well to pressure? Can we become "precious stones" under the geological pressures of social expectation and even danger? I believe we can (though not that we always do). In what follows, I will offer two examples to support my opinion, one from ancient history, and the other from contemporary Chinese society.
"My first example is Jesus Christ. Few people have been under more pressure than him. The leaders of his country had come to hate him, accuse him of lack of education, misleading the masses, endangering the Jewish nation, even being possessed by an evil spirit! The bit about endangering the nation was especially piquant, given that Israel was, at the time, ruled by the vicious Roman Empire, known to literally crucify those who dared defy their power. So did Jesus fold? Did he become a nonentity? On the contrary, it was precisely in the face of these challenges that he spoke some of the greatest moral teachings ever given. Furthermore, those teachings challenged the abuse of raw power at a deeper level than was the norm even for common Messiahs and political pretenders -- he challenged his followers to love their enemies, go the extra mile -- yet also to "speak truth to power" in a manner that continues to inspire political reformers like Gandhi, Aquino, Martin Luther King, the founders of the Bengali Reformation in India, and many reformers in East Asia. (Even Sun Yat-sen.) Would we have heard of Jesus (apart from religious considerations) had he not run afowl of the Jewish authorities and of Pontius Pilate? Probably not.
"My second example is my own students, who are studying for the SAT presently. If their parents did not expect great things from them, would they even get out of bed in the morning? Or would they spend the whole day playing with their little electronic gadgets and shopping for choudofu on-line? I strongly suspect the latter.
"Consider the various and sundry forms of pressure that they face. Not only are the adult figures who brought them into the world -- and can take them out, heh heh -- daily asking them about their progress. In addition, they are given frequent tests, which are publicly reported to their fellow students. That's why they call our school "Yali." (Note: a pun on the Chinese word for "pressure," also the school name.) Finally, if they do poorly on the SAT test next month, they know they will have to spend their lives working as teacher's assistants, like the bedraggled canine who serves them as a daily example of the worst fate that can befall a lazy student, Pipi. (Note: The stuffed dog I use as a teaching example.)
"In summary, these two examples demonstrate that pressure can help mold us into great human beings who can change the world for the better. Of course, it is true that pressure does not always have this effect -- nor are all metamorphic rocks good enough to be used on the floors of mansions. Some people are, in fact, broken by pressure, and we should pity them and try to help them. But even there, might it not be the case that someone like Jesus reached out to those on the margins precisely because he had the experience of being marginalized in so forceful and difficult a set of circumstances? So while pressure can hurt, even evolution tells us that as a species, we evolve and progress through the trials that we face collectively. It is our unique genius to recognize that "no man is an island," and therefore, once we have endured and learned from these pressures, we are then called to help others endure and thrive in the difficult circumstances in which they also will inevitably be placed."