Friday, November 22, 2013

The Undeniable Influence of a Man

Last time I wrote on the blog, I talked about needing our eyes opened to the reality of who Jesus is. We take him for granted, we look at him like an interesting teacher, a good, moral person, a wise scholar... but we owe everything to him.

And not just us Christians. Whatever faith you are (or aren't), I think the reality is that more of your worldview, more of your life, has been shaped by Jesus and his followers than you realize. No one, in all of history, has been as influential as Jesus.

I'm not a fan of plagiarism, so before going further, I want you to know that most of what I'm about to share comes from the books Who Is This Man? by John Ortberg and The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark. I highly recommend those two books if you're interested in learning about the influence Jesus has had through the ages.

Say what you will about Jesus, the life of this one Jew from a small town in Israel has impacted yours. Probably way more than you realize. Streets, cities, and even nations (El Salvador) are named after Jesus and his followers. One-third of the world's population claims to worship him as their God. Children are named Paul, Peter, Mary, Elizabeth, even Jesus... because of the impact of this one man. Dates are set according to his birth. In most of the world, whether we choose to follow Jesus or not, we acknowledge his birth every time we write a check, add an event to our Google Calendar, date a government form, or refer to a historical event. Today is 22 November in the year 2013, 2013 years after Jesus' supposed date of birth.

The life of this one man, who lived in a small town on the edge of the Roman Empire and died almost 2000 years ago, has impacted our lives more than seems appropriate.

The legacy of Pharoah Tutankhamun has vanished. Alexander the Great is barely a shadow. The great caesars of Rome, emperors of China, and tsars of Russia live on only in history books and Hollywood films. Yet the life of this one man, who never conquered a nation, never built an empire, never led an army, persists to this day.

Our whole idea of human dignity can be traced to Jesus. Before him, dignity came from position, strength, power. Greeks competed in the Olympics to highlight the strong and worthy, Pharoah and other kings were said to be the image of God. And then Jesus came along and said that we all bear the image of God, rich or poor, young or old, strong or weak. He said we must become like little children (weak, dependent) if we're to see the Kingdom of God. If you see all people as being worthy, if you've seen value where there is no strength or power, you've been influenced by the thinking of Jesus.

Our idea of compassion on the weak comes from Jesus. Again, Jesus came into a world where it was recommended parents kill their own children if they were born malformed or disfigured or sickly. In philosophy and social thinking, only the strong and powerful were valued. The first orphanages and hospitals were started by Christians, followers of Jesus who saw in their Master a devotion to help the helpless, care for the weak, and heal the sick. If you've ever been to a hospital, you can thank Jesus for that one. Prisons have been reformed from hell-holes without hope to places where even the bad can become good. Why? Because one man, Jesus, told his followers to show compassion on prisoners. Slavery, once a completely normal institution in the time of Jesus, is almost universally condemned (though not wiped out), because one man's followers took it seriously that it's written, "There is neither slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all" (Colossians 3:11).

The concept of equality between the sexes isn't something invented by progressive 1960s feminists but by Jesus himself. The world Jesus entered was grotesquely anti-female. Roman citizens would usually care for their male babies, but if a girl was conceived, more often than not, the baby was either aborted before birth or killed shortly after. Infant girls were "exposed," a nice word that means the babies were left outside to die of starvation or be eaten by wild animals. Archaeologists investigating sewers in ancient Roman cities have found pipes clogged with the bodies of baby girls. If a girl made it into life, she was usually denied education, and her legal status was much closer to that of property than a human. In this world, Jesus came along and allowed women to follow him in ministry, to sit at his feet and learn among his disciples. He entrusted to women the details of his resurrection before he appeared to the men. And so the early church, in Jesus' footsteps, valued and cherished women instead of treating them as inferior like the surrounding society. Equality between men and women? That was Jesus' introduction to your thinking.

The value of education was something Jesus and his followers introduced to the world. Maybe you hate school, so you'd be happier without Jesus' influence here, but for the rest of us, we have Jesus to thank for our educations. Jesus told his followers to "Love the Lord your God with all your mind," and to that end, his disciples have gone all over the world establishing schools, developing written languages, creating alphabets (Cyrillic was invented by a monk), teaching people to read, and encouraging educational advancement. The first universities were all started by Christians, followers of Jesus. The early scientists were mostly Christians who were studying the world to know more of their orderly God - Johannes Kepler, William of Ockham, Francis Bacon, Galileo, Copernicus, Blaise Pascal, Joseph Priestley, Louis Pasteur, Isaac Newton...

Our idea of humility comes from Jesus. If you've ever cringed at someone boasting in their own greatness, that's Jesus' influence in your worldview. Before Jesus, philosophers and social thinkers viewed humility as weakness. Men like Aristotle and Plutarch taught their disciples how to do great things and effectively boast in them. Roman literature is filled with the self-exalting writings of men who thought they deserved praise but could find no other voice to praise themselves but their own. Then Jesus came on the scene and said things like, "Blessed are the meek" and "If you want to be great, become like a servant." His early followers went on to say similar things, Paul telling his churches, "Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position." Why did Paul have to write that? Because it was so contrary to the normal thinking of his day. And ours, really.

The whole idea of forgiveness comes from Jesus. In the ancient world, forgiveness was weakness. To forgive an enemy would be a sign that he defeated you. Yet Jesus came along and said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." Scholars have suggested that Jesus was really, truly, the first thinker / philosopher to put forgiveness in a positive light. Before him, it just wasn't an idea in the world.

Our ideas of hypocrisy, our hatred for it, the sick feeling we get when we see someone acting hypocritical all come from Jesus. Before Jesus, a hypocrite was simply a Greek term for an actor. Then Jesus came around and talked more about hypocrisy than anyone else. He literally re-invented the term, creating in it the negative associations it carries today. He was the first person to condemn hypocrisy, acting one way for some people and another way for others - before him, it wasn't a bad thing, just something you had to do to get by in life. Scholar Eva Kittay noted, "It is clear from the literary records that it was Jesus alone who brought this term hypocrisy and the corresponding character into the moral record of the Western world." If you can't stand when people are acting like hypocrites (even Jesus' own followers!) that's a mark of His influence in your thinking. Without his thinking on hypocrisy, you wouldn't care about it. You'd call it wisdom, just like everyone else before Jesus called it.

Most of our ideas of sex and marriage come from Jesus. It's funny to me that people call Christianity's ideas of marriage without divorce and sexual purity "traditional" and "old-fashioned." The reality is that these ideas were new things to the Western world when Jesus introduced them. In the ancient world, marriage was flexible. Men had multiple wives, concubines, and mistresses. It was considered normal for men to visit prostitutes and commit adultery, as long as it wasn't with a married woman. Homosexuality, bestiality, incest, and sex with children wasn't just accepted but in many ways held up as the ideal. The emperor Comodus had over 200 young boys and girls kept as sex slaves, doctors prescribed orgasms to children to help with certain sicknesses. Even the gods of ancient Persia, Greece, and Rome lived lives of sexual promiscuity and misconduct. If you've ever felt disgusted by pornography, if something inside you cringes at the thought of adults having sex with children, if it seems somehow wrong to engage in sex with animals, that's Jesus' influence in your life. If you want your marriage to last for life, if you've dreamed of that perfect man romantically sweeping you off your feet in devoted love, if you've watched Pride and Prejudice and found yourself wanting a romance like that of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy... you have Jesus to thank for showing you a better way of sex and marriage.

Say what you will about him, the fact remains that Jesus has shaped everything in our world today for the better, often in spite of the foolishness and stubbornness of those of us who call him our leader.

Jesus is the reason you think the way you do. He's the reason our world looks the way it does. Say what you will about him, his influence is undeniable.

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