The following is a review of Paul Metzger’s recent blog post: “What if Jesus was Fake News? And What If He is Not?” The entire piece can be found here.
Metzger (in this section he engages Soren Kierkegaard’s, “Philosophical Fragments”): “In his critical assessment of the Greek rationalist tradition hailing from Socrates and Plato and extending to Hegel, Kierkegaard argues that we must look beyond ourselves for truth, for within ourselves we will only discover “untruth,” “for the learner is indeed untruth.” In contrast to Socrates as the midwife who serves as an occasion for the awakening of truth…Kierkegaard refers to the teacher who is not simply a teacher, but who is “the god himself.” This teacher reveals truth and provides the basis for understanding, transforming the student in the process.”
Response: Here Metzger rightly affirms Kierkegaard’s profoundly Christological view of truth: the origins of truth as well as how one acquires or “learns” said truth. For Kierkegaard, Jesus Christ, “the god himself”, is not only our teacher and our curriculum, but he is also the mediator of reality, the very logic of our learning.
Metzger (in this section he engages Soren Kierkegaard’s, “The Attack Upon ‘Christendom’”): “Kierkegaard does not leave off dealing simply with Jesus’ claims about himself, but elsewhere talks about his radical claims on our lives. . . his remarks challenge all of us ‘priestly types’ regardless of our theological orientation:
(Kierkegaard) Here then is the proof and the disproof at the same time! The proof of the truth of Christianity from the fact that one has ventured everything for it, is disproved, or rendered suspect, by the fact that the priest who advances this proof does exactly the opposite. By seeing the glorious ones, the witnesses to the truth, venture everything for Christianity, one is led to the conclusion: Christianity must be truth. By considering the priest one is led to the conclusion: Christianity is hardly the truth, but profit is the truth. No, the proof that something is truth from the willingness to suffer for it can only be advanced by one who himself is willing to suffer for it. The priest’s proof—proving the truth of Christianity by the fact that he takes money for it, profits by, lives off of, being steadily promoted, with a family, lives off of the fact that others have suffered—is a self-contradiction; Christianity regarded, it is fraud.
(Metzger) To apply Kierkegaard’s hyperbolic exhortation one must view ministry not as a means for comfort and glory, but as a profound call to service, even to the point of glorious suffering for Jesus and others.
Let’s be honest… Kierkegaard’s two-sided challenge can prove quite unsettling to each of us. After all, who wants to be told they are “untruth,” “frauds,” “fake news”? At least, the apostolic community responsible for supposedly conjuring up the scandalous biblical account of Jesus as Lord and God who calls on us to lay down our lives for him really did lay it down for Jesus. Unlike those cult leaders today who claim that if you want to make a million bucks, start your own religion, Peter and Paul’s religion required that they lose their lives for Jesus… There was nothing fake about that. Perhaps all our direct and indirect discounting of Jesus and his claims, as recorded by his followers, is simply a smokescreen so we do not have to follow in their footsteps.”
Response: Metzger summarizes Kierkegaard’s critique saying, “To apply Kierkegaard’s exhortation, one must view ministry not as a means of comfort and glory but as a profound call to service, even to the point of glorious suffering for Jesus and others. …” Unfortunately Kierkegaard’s challenge cannot be simply boiled down to changing ones “view” of ministry from “comfort and glory” to “service and suffering.” Kierkegaard is not offering us a gentle reminder or even an “exhortation.” Kierkegaard has unleashed what he calls, an “Attack on Christendom”, which is to say, an attack on our way of life. Kierkegaard’s “Attack on Christendom” is not something we simply “apply” like sunscreen or a bandage. No, an “attack” is not something that one simply considers, but something that one is made to suffer.
His “Attack Upon Christendom”, is Kierkegaard’s challenge to all of us who ‘live and move’ and ‘buy and sell’ in this place called, “Christendom. It is a call to reflect upon the conditions that we condone and perpetuate through our routine participation. Kierkegaard’s “attack” is ultimately an invitation to repentance, but repentance requires that we think deeply and courageously about how we got here, so that we might find a new way forward, a way beyond the rules, spoken and unspoken, of Christendom.
Kierkegaard’s “attack” is aimed at breaking through the frozen ground of our unreflected habits and norms, habits which have become impervious to mere sermons and “exhortations.” Kierkegaard is asking us to question the validity of this strange fact, namely, why is it that the careers and lifestyles of our “priestly types” are predicated upon the fact that others have suffered? Others have suffered and now we get to build our careers on their legacy! It is this privileged position of the “priest” and todays “priestly types” that Kierkegaard calls a “contradiction” of the Christian faith.
Metzger writes, “In a…world where God exists to safeguard our happiness, Kierkegaard’s remarks challenge all of us ‘priestly types’” and again, “Kierkegaard’s . . . challenge can prove to be unsettling to each of us.” From this statement, it would seem the author had accepted Kierkegaard’s challenge for himself on behalf of the rest of us “priestly types.” But then suddenly, Metzger pivots away from his concession and instead of engaging Kierkegard’s challenge, he side-steps the confrontation by subverting Kierkegaard’s critique of the “priest.”
Metzger pivots away from Kierkegaard’s challenge to the “priest”, first with a rhetorical question, “After all, who wants to be told they are ‘untruth,’ ‘frauds,’ ‘fake news,’? (spoiler alert: Metzger has no intention of unpacking his question). Metzger continues to pivot away from Kierkegaard’s line of fire by replacing the “priest” with a caricature of his own making, a “cult leader” and a charlatan who uses religion as a way to make “millions.”
Metzger: “Unlike those cult leaders today who claim that if you want to make a million bucks, start your own religion, Peter and Paul’s religion required that they lose their lives for Jesus.”
A cursory review of Kierkegaard’s definition of “priest”, however, reveals neither a “cult leader” nor a charlatan and nowhere does Kierkegaard say that the “priest” intentionally deceives in order to exploit. There is literally nothing about Kierkegaard’s “priest” that merits the dubious designation of, cult leader/charlatan. What is surprising about Kierkegaard’s description of the “priest” is just how parochial and pedestrian he is. The “priest” is someone who Kierkegaard tells us, “proves the truth of Christianity by the fact that he takes money for it, profits by, lives off of, being steadily promoted, with a family . . .” What makes Kierkegaard’s description of the “priest” so “unsettling,” is that it describes a person who we would today call, a “family man”, a “pillar in the community” and a “professional minister” (professionals simply receive money for their service).
Metzger’s “cult leader” has eclipsed Kierkegaard’s “priest”, and as the author continues to pivot away from the original Kierkegaardian challenge, he invites us to join him to arbitrate between the self-serving “charlatan” and the faithful “apostolic community.” By redirecting the searchlight from Kierkegaard’s “priest” to the “cult leader”, Metzger and the “priestly types” are no longer the focus of Kierkegaard’s challenge. The “priest” may have succeeded in avoiding the searchlight, but he has not vanished; he is still very much at large. The “priest” has now moved from in front of the searchlight to “behind the curtain”, where he has assumed full control of the narrative!
Further proof of Metzger’s total subversion of Kierkegaard’s challenge appears in his concluding statement, “Perhaps all our direct and indirect discounting of Jesus and his claims, as recorded by his followers, is simply a smokescreen so we do not have to follow in their footsteps.” Wow! Did that just happen? The author, who is a self-described, “priestly type”, completely side-steps Kierkegaard’s challenge and then reasserts himself as the ‘moral authority’, challenging those who would use “smokescreens” to side-step Christ’s call! In the end, Kierkegaard’s challenge to the “priest” has been subverted and set aside, and in its place we are confronted with a new challenge, the challenge of the “priest” himself!
This reminds me of the old shell game, where one quickly moves the nut from one shell to the other. As the shells begin to move, the observer is caught up in the sleight of hand, and loses track of the nut. If we fall for the shell game here, we will naturally side with the “priest”, who has succeeded in introducing and “courageously” resolving a moral controversy. We will then thank the “priest” for his faithful service to our blessed tradition! However, if the “priest” himself falls for his own game, then he is what we call “double-dipped”, since his own “fraud” is gilded with the purest of all possible motives, “Christian service!”
Other names for the “shell game” are “red herring” and “straw man.” Metzger’s straw man is an indefensible caricature in the form of a money grubbing, “cult leader.” By substituting Kierkegaard’s “priest” for Metzger’s “cult leader”, all of the “priestly types” are encouraged to stand with Metzger in united opposition and judgment over Metzger’s dark figure. The scent of this red herring (“cult leader”) has effectively drawn us away from Kierkegaard’s stated challenge!
The problem of equating Christian “fraud” with gross acts of immorality and treachery is that it allows us to relativize and ignore our undetected and unconfessed “fraud.” The root cause of “fraud” for Kierkegaard is subtle, and commonplace, which is what makes it so insidious – it is a “fraud” which hides in plain sight – it is the “fraud” of the status quo. Also, the “profit”, which Kierkegaard refers to includes but is certainly not limited to money. Christianity, according to Kierkegaard, becomes “fraudulent” when the “priest lives off of the fact that others have suffered.” And again, rather than accepting Kierkegaard’s challenge and responding as a “priestly type” (career theologian), the author creates a caricature out of whole cloth and injects it into the narrative, pitting his “cult leader” figure against the faithful, “apostolic community.”So, in conclusion, let me be perfectly clear as to why this author-theologian and his blog post has become the subject of critique here. Paul Metzger is very familiar with my criticism as it relates to this subject – he and I have had this conversation many, many times (see, for example, my response to: “Only Decentered Deities . . .”). My personal motivation for writing this very public critique springs from something far deeper than one brother’s need to simply “straighten out” another brother. To riff on Metzger’s above quote: Let’s be honest . . . we simply cannot presume to speak critically or prophetically to the church or the world, if we are not first willing to assume the full brunt of God’s judgment on our “priestly” privilege.
Paul Metzger’s treatment of Kierkegaard’s critique of “priestly types” is an all too common example of how professional ministers appear to be unwilling to relinquish their “moral authority.” Instead of standing naked before the Kierkegaardian challenge, Metzger’s response allows him, and all of us “priestly types”, to stand just “above” and just “outside” the reach of the searchlight of repentance. It is this “priestly” immunity, which is the fountainhead for the Therapeutic Moralistic Deism that Metzger regularly decries.
Kierkegaard’s “Attack” on Christendom” is an attack on our everyday “normal” – it is an attack upon our status quo, but ultimately Kierkegaard is inviting us to participate in our own repentance and reform! There is no room here for easy answers, obvious solutions, or spiritual slogans such as, WWAD, “what would the apostles do?” For as we have discovered, in the world of Moralistic Religious Careerism, where “moral authority” sanctifies our career ambitions, surrendering one’s “priestly” privilege is easier said than done.
As a member of Christ’s household, and a disavowed “professional minister,” I am compelled to confront our stubborn and habitual practice of deferring to “priestly types.” Also, the “priestly fraud” is not just limited to the fact that the “priest lives off of the fact that others have suffered.” The “priest” also lives off the fact that there is sin and injustice in the world (he builds a career, gets published, promoted and paid etc. in light of this fact). It is a certain kind of “leaven”, that goes by the name, clericalism and careerism that is responsible for perverting the Good News of the Gospel with the “fake news” of the religious professional!
Furthermore, I am convinced that this kind of “priestly” immunity, only comes out through radical confession and vigilant confrontation of all our “fraudulent” mentalities and practices – our “fraudulent” relationship with clerical privilege does not respond to clever rhetoric and endless equivocation! In short, I want to keep this crucial conversation in front of us, for as Walter Sobcheck reminds us, “This affects us all, man!”