From the very beginning of his service as Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Michael Curry has donated vocabulary to us that, although not new, is likely to become more and more common among us. He reminded us that “This is the Jesus Movement, and we are the Episcopal Church, the Episcopal branch of Jesus’ movement in this world.” While there are signs of the nomenclature catching on, many of my friends — smart, wary, “fool me once” kind of people — don’t much care for the hype or are even worried by it.
I get it. “Jesus Movement” reeks of the worst kind of trendiness, a transparent attempt to be au courant while simultaneously failing to latch on to any trends. (I am reminded of a friend who eschewed the title of “Senior Pastor” in favor of “Ethos Sculptor.”)
There was, of course, a “Jesus Movement” in the ’60s and ’70s, known alternatively as the Jesus People or Jesus People movement, but it seems doubtful that nostalgia for this countercultural movement is inspiring the current revival of the expression. A church wanting to reach Burning Man millennials is not likely to succeed by evoking Woodstock among the AARP set.
A more likely candidate is the ubiquity of “Jesus movement” in New Testament and Christian origins scholarship (for some geeky fun, click here for stats). Here, the expression is offered simply as an attempt to refer with some neutrality to the countercultural following that arose in the immediate memory of Jesus of Nazareth. The alternative nomenclature is preferred to “church,” which, despite its ancient and biblical pedigree, has aggregated to itself too much anachronistic baggage. It suggests too much institutionalism and religious differentiation from Judaism, obscuring any fresh appraisal of the dynamic and diverse movement in its primitive stages. In this community of academic discourse, “Jesus movement” is neither trendy nor arcane; it’s just a commonplace: “things Bible scholars say.” Actually all kinds of historians of early Christianity say it, with all kinds of agendas or even little apparent agenda at all, sharing in common perhaps only a desire to pitch their accounts as social description.
But maybe there’s the rub. Is there mischief in the circumlocution “Jesus movement” for “church”?
There is evidence to support the charge. Various “re-visioners” of the Church and her mission — invariably “post-something-or-others” — also seem drawn to this language (e.g., Brian McLaren, Alan Hirsch). And, not incidentally, it could be noted that their vision for the Church (er, Jesus Movement) is marked more by creativity than by continuity, so that the circumlocution might also function as a circumnavigation of, well, most of our corporate history.
But what about Episcopalians? I mean, really: can a church as churchy as the Episcopal Church now pretend that it isn’t or disguise itself as something more serendipitous or spontaneous? If that first-century thing was a “Jesus movement,” it’s too late now: we’re a church.
But we need not regard “Jesus movement” rhetoric as naïve or disingenuous. Is there not a more generous reading? I doubt that many are replacing “church” with “Jesus movement” wholesale, so instead of a circumlocution, perhaps we should think of this as a supplementary descriptor. Indeed, “Jesus movement” is (or could be) an admission of our having strayed from our raison d’être or having obscured a truer identity; or it might be a sign of our aspiring to a more energized and robust iteration. Taking recourse in this language could be a mark of humility, a bracing jolt of re-description. It could even be repentance, a way to pledge that we would be truer, please God, to him who is our source and head, of whom, by grace, we are the body. This is the way I like to think about the expression. This is what it calls to mind.
But how do we know how to hear “Jesus movement”: Cynically? Hopefully? Penitently?
Perhaps there is a clue in what might be implied by each of the words. Aspirational, “movement” language might well prove helpful, but it is also precarious. A Jesus movement should be preferred to a Jesus stagnant, but “movement” language runs the risk of harboring conceit, even self-importance. We should be wary if “movement” wishes to galvanize or even valorize a self-styled activism. If there is anything we can say with relative confidence about the original Jesus movement, it is that the early Christians did not fashion themselves a movement, if by “movement” we mean a body organized to make its mark or to effect cultural change.
The early Jesus movement did not lack ambition, but its ambition was in the main to stay true to the reorienting and liberating Christ, hoping for just enough space on the margins to “worship God without fear.” Grandiose ambitions of making the world a better place, the empire “a more just society,” would have to wait. That the earliest Christians were not in a position to do this is no excuse for us not to pray and work toward these ends. But it should be self-evidently unfitting to invoke primitivizing “Jesus movement” language to underwrite an agenda discontinuous with the recovery implied by the slogan. Thus, any use of “movement” language that smuggles political ambition (even very noble political ambition) under the cover of what had been social description can justly be viewed with suspicion.
Perhaps the more revealing criterion will be what is meant by “Jesus.” In the modern era, we are heirs to an endless and sometimes productive conversation as to the proper referent of “Jesus.” Jesus was both a historical person and is the chief protagonist of our canonical narrative. Whether “Jesus” more properly refers to the former (as in “quests for the historical Jesus”) or the latter (so, e.g., Martin Kähler, Hans Frei, Luke Timothy Johnson) is a theological question both interesting and consequential.
At the very least, we can agree that the latter in some sense mediates the former, and it would not be naïve for members of the “movement” to continue to believe with its founders that the mediation counts as a normative “value added” rather than a degenerate “pale imitation.” Thus, “Jesus” — at once historical, mediated, and (the movement believes) present with us — would naturally function as the movement’s criterion, its abiding discrimen.
This Jesus, normatively disclosed and present in the movement’s own narratives, will inevitably recalibrate the movement that claims him, if it really claims him. Otherwise, we are left with the unhappy confession that the movement is inaptly named, or the even unhappier conclusion that the name is disingenuous.
There is, after all, yet another “Jesus,” neither historical nor canonical: “Jesus” as pseudonym for all that is good, for our best selves, for the most just society that we can imagine. This “Jesus” authorizes those aspirations, and, being more malleable and compliant than his imperious namesake from Nazareth, this “Jesus” tenders his endorsements promiscuously.
So I suppose I know why some of my friends find a “Jesus movement” dubious: the aspirations of this recently constructed movement may be liable to conscript Jesus to their purposes. But I expect the wisdom of the Presiding Bishop’s slogan shall be vindicated by its children. So long as the neologism sets “Jesus” before us, the ancient question cannot be far behind.
“But who do you say that I am?”
 E.g., Rodney Stark, Sean Freyne, Gerd Theissen, Sheila McGinn, Richard Horsley, Ekkehard Stegemann, James Charlesworth, James Dunn, Bruce Malina, Paula Fredrickson, Craig Evans. This list could fill a page.