National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

Going beyond the kiddie version of God


A few weeks ago, I heard a talk by Stephen Patterson, a Protestant scripture scholar who teaches at Eden Seminary and participated in the Jesus Seminar. He called his talk “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” using the children’s story (then the mouse will need a glass of milk, and then he will need a napkin to wipe off his milk mustache …) to suggest how many questions arise when you begin talking to lay churchgoers about the critical scholarship of recent decades. Charmed by the whimsy, people nodded and smiled.

“As a scholar, I don’t see the Bible as a historical document,” Patterson said, “and for most people, that’s news.”

The smiles faded.

Drawing a careful distinction between history and truth -- and watching his audience closely -- Patterson went on to question whether the Bible was inspired by God, as later Christians came to think it was. Whether sacred scripture could be confined to the texts selected at various points for inclusion in the Bible. Whether God was indeed almighty (an assumption that, if discarded, neatly dissolves the age-old problem of how a loving God could allow suffering). Whether Jesus’ divinity was a later interpretation Jesus himself never considered. Whether what was most godly about Jesus was perhaps not the breath-stopping miracles written about in the Gospels, but rather his quiet inclusion of society’s castoffs and his inversion of the categories of power, status and purity.

At least half the audience left boiling mad, the cookie long forgotten. Patterson had indeed raised too many questions, all at once, and all of them stabbing at the heart of their faith. How could a theologian, of all people, entertain such ideas?

Me, I came home exhilarated. I hadn’t paid close attention to the Jesus Seminar when it was taking place, nor had I ever really sat down and read, in depth, the scripture scholarship on which those discussions were based. I’d heard bits of information from time to time, but I hadn’t fit it all together.

The next day, I checked one of Patterson’s books out of the library, and followed that with several by one of his colleagues, Marcus Borg. Raising similar questions about the historical Jesus, the Bible and the nature of God, Borg noted that such thinking had been commonplace in Protestant seminaries since the 1950s, yet seemed to come as news to most Christians. He sounded resigned.

I felt my face go hot. Words gathered in the back of my throat and flew out unchecked: How dare they? I envisioned clergy all over the country whispering the latest thinking to each other but never raising their voices loud enough to carry to the pews. “I thought only priests censored scholarship to preserve power,” I blurted.

My husband looked up, amused. “People can’t take it.”

“Oh yes they can,” I spat back. “They’re sick of being patronized, patted on the head and told the kiddie version.”

“So how did they react at the talk?”

I sputtered for a few seconds and fell silent, remembering the glazed looks, the polite blank nods, the tightly compressed lips. “Well, it was a lot at once,” I said, “and there wasn’t time to really digest and explore the ideas. Maybe if this kind of thinking were regularly integrated into sermons and adult education, it wouldn’t come as such a shock. It doesn’t change anything essential -- Jesus is still Jesus, love is still love …”

Andrew let me rant for a good long while before he said, his voice very quiet, “What about salvation?”

“What about salvation?” I retorted, still mad.

“If God is not almighty and Jesus’ power wasn’t supernatural, what guarantees people life after death?”

I fell silent again. Inside, a small voice whispered, “That’s the problem with organized religion; everybody’s secretly just angling for eternal life.” But the rest of me was scared to death. I didn’t want to think creation was random, suffering was beyond the highest power’s control and this life was all we could count on. I’d been so comforted by the notion of a God who hadn’t orchestrated our suffering, I’d forgotten that such a God might not be able to orchestrate our rescue.

Bafflement came over me, a shroud so thick and dark, it left me as overwhelmed as the lecture goers I’d mocked. Like them, I reached for the certainty of anger, railing all over again at the priests and ministers who have kept these ideas out of popular circulation.

Then I jolted to a stop, brought up short by the truth: Why hadn’t I sought out those ideas myself? I’d had a library card since I was 6. Why was I assuming clergy bore the responsibility of keeping me up to date?

Who was keeping whom a child?

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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