Meeting Again…For the First Time?

And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” Mark 1:27

This semester at Georgia Tech, ACF is studying the question “Who was Jesus?” from the Gospel of Mark. This is a timely topic, since every year about this time in the church calendar we celebrate the Epiphany of Jesus – the revealing of the Christ (Messiah) to nations outside Israel, namely, the “Gentiles.”

But the Israel/Gentile categories present our first challenge: Gentiles at the time of Jesus (anyone not a part of the Jewish family/nation) generally had no idea who or what a “Messiah” was, much less that they needed this type of Savior figure and King. I wonder if those outside Israel were tempted to lump all the various claims to Truth in a general category of “not for me” and write them off.

Psychologists call a similar phenomenon the “out-group homogeneity effect.” The gist is that people outside your group, no matter how diverse they might be, tend to all look more alike than they actually are. They are simply other, roughly the same as one another and therefore not worth the investigation of their differences or uniqueness. Today, it’s reasonable to assume my atheist/agnostic friends simply hear all the religious voices and group them into one category, effectively reducing all claims to true faith as white noise.

The problem is – Jesus wasn’t like any other religious figure! Just as controversially, neither was he like any other prophet or leader from Israel’s history.

This presents our second challenge – what if those inside Israel were just as likely to mis-understand who this Person was? And what if those of us who grew up in church and heard innumerable Sunday school stories about Jesus may miss him as well?

Another fancy psychology principle for you: the “familiarity heuristic,” otherwise known as the “it’s worked before!” approach. Human beings tend to assume that the underlying circumstances in any situation are more analogous to past situations than they actually are, which leads us to apply the same behavior or thought patterns that worked in the past to new data/circumstances which may or may not be appropriate.

Which brings us to the good news according to Mark: the power and authority demonstrated by Jesus had never been seen before. One student wondered what it would have been like to actually hear Jesus teach, much less make diseased cells disappear, exorcise evil spirits, or restore paralyzed and atrophied limbs to life. Is this the One we have given our allegiance to, the one who came to heal and restore us and all creation?

Maybe we all need to reconsider the Jesus we claim to know – is he the same Person of Mark’s gospel who commanded and the very elements of nature obeyed? Or is he a figure of our “familiar heuristic” imagination?

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