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The difficulty of writing a review of a book such as this is that, to do it justice, one needs to impose limits, while, at the same time, doing justice to a work of incredible breadth of content and depth of insight. This reviewer has read over a hundred books about Jesus, most of them scholarly treatises by recognized scholars with considerable repute in the areas of Christology and biblical exegesis, but never before had I encountered a book with the originality and depth of this one.
Dr. Bartlett has achieved in Virtually Christian a decidedly new approach to understanding the meaning of the life and death of Jesus for the world of the 21st century. He has drawn on a wide variety of sources to support his thesis that the game-changing role of Jesus for contemporary (and all other) societies is that through his act of forgiveness for his executioners as he was hanging on the cross, he initiated an evolutionary change from the ubiquitous culture of violence enveloping the world to a movement towards equally ubiquitous non-violence.
Bartlett draws on the pioneering work of anthropologist Rene Girard, demonstrating that the application of Girard’s teachings regarding signs brings into focus the current reality, i.e. “the sign of the non-violent forgiving Christ can and will show up [and, indeed is showing up] as the only way through, the only way to transform the violence [of our world] into peace.” * In subsequent chapters, he shows this to be the motor that drives his contention that the world is already “virtually Christian.” He challenges traditional religious teachings based on philosophical and metaphysical ideas reflected in our theologies, but instead insists that religious meaning is not located in the realm of ideas but in the realm of signs as a this world reality. Citing Girard, he says that “our signs at some level always carry the birthmark of desire and violence…Or, alternatively, they can, because of Christ, signify the converse: compassion, forgiveness, love.” In the following chapters, Bartlett convincingly demonstrates that this is precisely what is already happening.
In Chapter One: No Name for a Non-Violent God, Bartlett opens his opus with a vision and a question. “I begin with a vision of extraordinary beauty: ‘The earth is robed in light like a jewel, like a bride dressed for her wedding…’ Can we share the vision? Can we let ourselves be drawn to it?” He leads us deeper and deeper into the vision, setting the stage for the following divination of what the church, and indeed, the world, is becoming. Thus begins the story—a story of incredible hope and optimism—bringing “an awareness of how the end is already playing out dynamically in the present. For the virtual character of Christianity is extraordinarily concrete.”
In Chapter Two: The Sign that Means the World, Bartlett analyzes “the character of historical Christianity in relation to the vision of the earth in communion with its lover…and with Jesus the nonviolent one.” He begins by pointing out that “enhancing a relationship with the earth” is not something with which Christianity has traditionally been concerned. Its focus has instead been on
“getting souls to heaven.” But Bartlett laments that “For Christianity not to try to realize its soul of peace on the earth (emphasis mine) …is to ignore something that is coming to realization from within its own innermost character and story. For today, for the first time, Christianity is coming into its authentic character as virtual.” He subsequently explains that “Christianity is neither one thing nor another! It is not the new earth, but neither is it the old earth. It takes a certain shape, yet progressively its shape is not certain. It is an impossible idea, but its impossibility becomes more and more its central possibility. ” With this Bartlett begins a step-by-step book-long explication, “a kind of light-footed dance across the landscape of Christian history and the system of signs in which it lives…”In this chapter he shows how already in the Middle Ages—despite contrary evidences—the sign of Christ was breaking into our culture with its transforming meaning of nonviolence and peace.
In Chapter Three: “Motion Pictures,” Bartlett shows how our motion pictures support, generally without being aware of it, the “in-breaking” of Christ and of his revolutionary influence in even the most violent of movies. For movie aficionados, he provides incisive commentary on movie after movie, after movie — such as Alien 3 (1992), A.I, Artificial Intelligence (2001), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and The Matrix trilogy (1999 to 2003) et. al. -- showing how even the most violent of them have not escaped the sign of Christ’s non-violence. Even though I am one who has been repelled by the seemingly gratuitous violence depicted by such movies, Bartlett’s commentary leaves me feeling that I may have missed something of importance – i.e. the mysterious in-breaking sign of Christ in these movies. Bartlett goes on to explore the presence of this sign in music videos and, particularly, in the music of Bob Dylan, of whom he says, “This Jewish-Christian-Secular artist who is called the Shakespeare of popular song stands as persuasive witness of the dynamic meaning of Christ at the heart of our contemporary culture, at the heart of our world of signs.”
In Chapter Four: “Alpha and Omega,” Bartlett argues that Christ is revealed “or, more precisely, draws close to us” through the historical and popular-culture account of the virtual” described in the previous chapters. This argument indicates a “sense of movement, of the vortex of images and the agency at its heart which is the self-giving of Christ.” In this chapter he argues that “it is Christ who is the generative source of [this] movement…” as well as “the irreducible role of movement for our contemporary theological and faith universe….If Christ is the source of actual human movement presumably it is to draw human beings to himself…” He notes that the heightened pace of everything suggests “that we are being carried necessarily toward something different, something new. “This movement becomes the key question of our age. Where is it leading us? What is its purpose?”
To address these questions, Bartlett turns to the thought of movement in the contemporary scientific worldview of evolution. “Evolution,” he notes, “has movement at its core.” Citing the French Jesuit and anthropologist Teilhard de Chardin, Bartlett observes that “there is de facto a curve toward consciousness in evolutionary genesis and this suggests to him a built-in impetus or inner principle, a reaching toward thought, to personal communion and to love, to what he calls an Omega point.” This for de Chardin was not only a “speculative model” but also its living reality.” Bartlett quotes at length de Chardin’s description of the noosphere or ‘mind-sphere’ and observes that “I am not the first to see here a prophetic description of the internet phenomenon, the layer of satellites and computers girdling the earth allowing simultaneous aural and visual ‘thought’ by humans.” For de Chardin [and I think for Bartlett] the technical advance of the internet is simply the latest and logical outgrowth of a possibility that was there from the beginning and enormously enhanced by Christ.
Bartlett continues with a critique of Girard’s hypothesis of original violence and the biblical teaching of original sin. “One of the criticisms of de Chardin and other thinkers who emphasize movement is that they underestimate the power of sin and hence the need for redemption: You would not think that anything could go wrong on the grand evolutionary journey to the Omega point. By inserting Girard here, and by means of the ‘hard’ biological science of mirror neurons, we open the evolutionary picture fully and formidably to sin.” Quoting John 1:1 & 10 – “In the beginning was the word/logos, and the word/logos came into the world, yet the world did no know him,” it is telling us that the divine principle of meaning arises in the midst of history, and yet is not recognized. But then later in the same gospel, we are told that when this principle is ‘lifted up’ (12:33), i.e. as the Crucified, he will in fact draw all humanity to himself. In other words the Crucified is the effective radical subversion of historical human meaning. (Emphasis mine) Continuing the discussion of revolution in human meaning, Bartlett asserts that “Jesus can thus be said to have made the act of love in a truly contingent and elemental way and there is a real sense in which Jesus gave birth to love in the world.” He concludes that “With Jesus there is an absolute affirmation of love, and the figure of the cross introduces a sign to the world which (de)symbolizes (reveals) the original murder, while it resets creation toward a meaning of absolute giving.”
For Bartlett, it is “the Christ who becomes the principle of human evolution after the principle of human violence has run its course.” He follows this with perhaps the only minor quibble I have with his book when he characterizes the responses to his evolutionary thesis. “Fundamentalists,” he says, “expect violent judgment from God, not nonviolent transformation.” This, I think can be easily documented ad nauseam. But “liberal Christians” he says, “see Christ as a metaphor for…a general principle of goodness floating somewhere in the universe available intellectually or spiritually to all.” Surely these are not the only options! I, personally, do not fit in either of these characterizations. Some, I suppose, might accuse both Bartlett and me of theological elitism, but I would take such claims as defensive reactions to the philosophy, evolutionary theory and solid theological reasoning and exegesis Bartlett has here demonstrated.
I would characterize Bartlett’s approach to Christ as radical. He speaks of the “intervention of Christ drawing all history to himself” and “Christ who has set the world in motion—toward himself.” “To be a Christian, “he asserts, “is to let yourself be pulled by Christ into a completely different quality of time and space.” And finally, “All contemporary human movement derives from and presses toward the Christ, the Alpha and the Omega…” I challenge anyone, past or present, who would claim to have a more unapologetic Christology than this.
In Chapter 5: God Save Me from God!, Bartlett takes on the challenges of those who would make the case for atheism, notably Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who rail against the violence of God as depicted both in biblical accounts and in Christian history. Bartlett counters that “they do not consider the possibility that religion in fact derives from the deep structure of the human and that their protest against its violence is part of an astonishing sea change in that very structure”-- a change that “is itself a product of the gospel of Jesus.”
Bartlett continues in this chapter to challenge our understandings of the the Chalcedonian Creed, Wisdom Jesus, the crucifixion, Resurrection, and Human Reconstitution, the latter exploring the neural basis for the mystical path to Christ. This chapter alone is a prodigious undertaking in that it seriously considers a broad swath of traditional Christian theology. He explains the “spiritual union of Christianity and Greek philosophy” and debates the nature of the question, who or what is God, concluding that the question is “immediate and existential, not speculative or religious.” God is to be found, “Not in ideas of the infinite in our heads, but in the limitless desire humans experience in their bodies, in their neural pathways.”
In his discussion of Divine Hypostasis or Personhood of Jesus, and drawing on the Gospel of John, Bartlett argues that this is nothing more (or less) than an infinitely nonviolent relationship with his Father demonstrated concretely in his life. He maintains that the “hypostasis of Jesus, his self-giving relationship to the other, brings us therefore to a stunning new sense of God. The human and divine transformation cannot be separated, and there is no way back.” (emphasis mine) Drawing again, I think, on the theories of Rene Girard, “If Jesus relates to God in his human existence by a practice of infinite compassion then by the rules of relational imitation, of compassion itself (i.e. if Jesus truly imitates God), God has to be of the exact same character. And then, even more radically, if Jesus practiced this infinite compassion all the way to his death…then we are required to follow him all the way to the death of any meaning of God not consistent with this, his absolutely self-giving human hypostasis.”
In Chapter Six: A Virtual Church, Bartlett turns to a discussion of the Virtual Church in which he deals “with the practical ways in which all this can impact in actual human life.” It seeks to answer the question of how the thought of human meaning radically transfigured by divine nonviolence would play itself out as community, as organization, as church.” A lengthy exploration ensues of how the concept of “church” has variously manifested historically from its beginnings to the present day. Of the early church he writes that what “these communities lacked in books or formalized doctrine they made up a hundred-fold in the existential matrix of the gospel message.” Now “we have had seminaries and libraries for centuries, but where is the existential matrix?...When we talk of the existential matrix in the first centuries it evokes a sense of liberating truth communicated from person to person, one of forgiveness, love and Holy Spirit.” He believes it still exists today, “but it comes laced in a body of doctrine and academic theology that sometimes makes it hard to taste the brandy in the cake!”
But Bartlett maintains that “the gospel is not simply communicated one-to-one, along the frequencies of personal forgiveness and freedom, but that the whole world has been set in motion toward the new humanity of Christ. (emphasis mine)
Bartlett identifies “six key practical elements for a form of church emerging out of the contemporary matrix of Christ…They are: 1. Informal structures; 2. Inclusive boundaries; 3. Local and networked grouping; 4. Non-rivalrous relationship with established churches; 5. Bible study as reprogramming our sign system; 6. Signs and Sacraments.” These constitute “what we can now begin to call a “virtual church”. Then follows a detailed explication of each of these elements.
In Chapter Seven: What Signs Did He Give? Bartlett endeavors to bring the many strands of his theological reflections together. “I feel” he says “a portrait [of the historical Jesus] has to be attempted if my overall argument of the world-changing work of Christ is to be rounded out. If what I am claiming is true, if the change in meaning brought by Christ is anthropological rather than metaphysical, it has to start in a real human being…It has to arise in a real human life and in the signs that communicate that life.” (emphasis mine)
In this final chapter, Bartlett, endeavors “to present the figure of Christ as someone who creatively and decisively orchestrated meaning and did so in reference to his own person and activity. He follows the hermeneutical development of our understanding of the historical Jesus from Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest for the Historical Jesus through Rudolf Bultmann’s existential theology to Norman T. Wright’s Third Quest for the Historical Jesus, citing the latter’s belief that “any history of Jesus has to answer at least four key questions: how does Jesus fit into Judaism, what were his aims, why was he crucified, and why did a movement dedicated to him arise after his death?” Bartlett observes that “It’s very difficult to conceive of a gospel of open forgiveness if its original author was seen as ‘dead and murdered,” implying that some kind of experience of resurrection on the part of the disciples was historically imperative. But he also concludes that “for the integral message of resurrection and forgiveness to be proclaimed so quickly and centrally by the primitive community it would have to have been backed by the consistent tenor of Jesus’ historical life and teaching. So, in answer to the fourth question, we can suggest there had to be both some transcendent event overcoming death and a radical teaching of forgiveness underpinning it from Jesus actual life.” Bartlett proceeds to exegete a number of passages which he identifies as signs of the nonviolent kingdom of God. He sees Wisdom to be the core sign and cites Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all you that are weary…and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls…” Jesus thus identifies himself “with Wisdom as his first-person truth and he understood that in terms of nonviolence.” “Wisdom provided the effective sign of his personal identity.”
From this same venue, the biblical Wisdom tradition, Bartlett explores the sign of Jonah (Luke 11:29-32 and Matthew 12:38-42, et. al.), noting that “for Jesus the figure of Jonah is the chosen alternative to Elijah as the prophet sign of God’s imminent action in the world.” He explores the semiotics of Jesus’ rebuke of demonic spirits, particularly as conveyed in the healing of the ‘Gerasene demoniac.’
He concludes that Jesus’ signs renounce the old order based in violence and they replace it with a Wisdom in the depths. They refer in fact to himself as the transfiguring of our human condition from within, and so also of all creation.
Bartlett has, in this one book, accomplished a recasting of virtually all Christian theology, identifying themes and exposing the nature of the work of Jesus, in ways that promise to shake and reshape the traditional theologies of the past. It is truly an original and creative work from start to finish. It may also be a fresh beginning, providing the Church and its theologians grist for the mill for decades to come. This reviewer believes it is a timely and timeless contribution which will prove to become a turning point in the history of the Christian Church.