“Either [Jesus] was who he says he was and purported to be, or he was a bad man.”
I first watched Father (now Bishop) Robert Barron’s epic television series Catholicism in 2011, right around the time of my conversion to the Catholic faith. Father Barron took viewers to locations around the world in a high budget masterpiece explaining both the history and the tenants of the Catholic faith. The series was not responsible at all for my conversion – but it did help cement it and nourish it. I have no doubt that this series did convert at least some viewers, however. It’s powerful. And unlike many religious films, the production quality is extremely high. I’ve begun rewatching the series lately, and decided to share my thoughts. Today my focus is on Episode 1, Amazed and Afraid.
Who do you say “I am?”
The quote I opened with at once displays the profundity of the series and nails the coffin shut on the most popular contemporary view of Jesus. This idea that he was a “good man” and a “great moral teacher” – but nothing beyond that – falls apart completely under examination. In Episode 1 Father Barron thoroughly eviscerates this idea. He reveals Jesus to be a deeply subversive figure – both in the first century and the twenty-first century.
One idea I had in my head in my youth is that Christ himself never claimed divinity. It’s a common modern idea. I didn’t invent it, although I can no longer recall how I acquired this ridiculous notion. It’s also patently false. Father Barron shows us in this episode that Christ claimed his divinity outright on more than one occasion. More than that, however, Christ used his very language to continue this claim. We miss much of this in the modern world because we are deeply ignorant of the Old Testament scriptures. But for the Jews of his day, to whom Jesus taught directly, scripture permeated every aspect of life.
Father Barron shows us how every aspect of the Gospels proclaims Christ as God himself. And then he points what should be obvious. Either Jesus is God himself, among us, as he claims or he’s not a very good man at all. If he’s not God, he’s a blasphemer. If he’s not God, then he’s subverting both temporal and spiritual law. If he’s not God, he’s up to some very serious shenanigans.
What Father Barron doesn’t say, but what also follows, is that if he’s not God, some of the Christian morality that runs through our culture doesn’t make any sense at all. If he’s not God, Jesus is not a good moral teacher. Turn the other cheek? Sure, it works well… in modern, civilized society where people will stop the beatings. It works terribly in first century Roman society where nobody cares about cruelty. It works terribly in parts of the world today that don’t share our morality at all. It works terribly… well, honestly in most of the world for most of history. If Jesus is not God, then his teachings aren’t actually all that good.
The same modern thought that labels Jesus as merely a great teacher loves to sweep the resurrection under the rug. Clearly this was just a metaphor. No, wait – it’s just those pesky, superstitious first century rubes. They’ll believe anything!
But the resurrection is clearly more than a metaphor. As the series notes, nobody would have listened to Saint Peter if he’d run into the forum of Rome shouting, “I want to proclaim a dead man who’s very inspiring!” They listened to Peter because he ran into the forum shouting, “I want to proclaim the good news of Christ Resurrected!”
In one of the less theological parts of the series, yet one I found more interesting, Father Barron goes on to describe the use of Christian imagery to specifically subvert the Roman empire. The cross – the symbol, literally, of Roman terror and dominance – becomes the symbol of its own subversion. But it’s more than that, it’s also in the language. Iesus Kyrios, “Jesus the Lord,” directly co-opts Roman coinage, where the phrase Caesar Kyrios can be found. Evangelion, the Greek word for Gospel, is a direct rip-off of the term used to announce Imperial victories. These are but a few examples. The subversion runs deep.
Where is the successor of Caesar?
Finally, Father Barron discusses the longevity of the Church itself. Jesus wasn’t just some cult figurehead. There were plenty of great rabbis, plenty of great moral teachers, even plenty of faith healers wandering around the holy land in the first century. Yet nobody remembers them two thousand years later. Yet something about Christ still inspires people today. I found this part particularly compelling because had been a huge part of my own journey to the faith.
Father Barron gives us a great anecdote about the late Cardinal Francis George, and it seems a fitting place to end my thoughts on Episode 1.
Saint Peter, like ten of the other eleven apostles, was martyred for his faith. Specifically, he was crucified upside down in Rome. Cardinal George had the fortune to stand at the side of Benedict XVI as he was anointed pope in 2005. He is rumored to have thought at that moment, as he looked out over Rome at the ancient palaces of Caeser, “Where is the successor of Caeser?” He answered himself, “Who cares? But the successor of Saint Peter is right there.“