Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jesus and the Twelve

In my freshman-level Gospel Narratives course I have a lesson on "Jesus' Disciples" that tries to explore the significance and function of the Twelve within the context of Israelite tradition. I begin that lesson by rejecting the popular idea that interprets Jesus' choice of twelve disciples in terms of small group leadership theory and practice. I begin that lesson the with the following:
Like Jesus’ healings and exorcisms (see Lesson 9), Jesus’ calling and equipping of twelve disciples to participate in the gospel program is largely misunderstood. Contemporary preaching, heavily influenced by the last couple decades’ emphasis on leadership, portrays Jesus as a leader of a small group of men facing an impossible challenge: to change the world. As a brief experiment, I googled the words Jesus leadership disciples, which returned over 200,000 hits. The very first search result [!] returned an essay by Barry McWilliams, “Jesus’ Leadership Principles and Method of Training His Disciples.” McWilliams frames Jesus’ choice of twelve disciples in terms of small-group leadership. “Jesus could have made a play for the masses and sought to usher in the kingdom by popular acclaim.” But large numbers of followers, apparently, would not have served Jesus’ purposes. “The Lord knew that quality of discipleship and not quantity of disciples was more important” (my emphases). McWilliams emphasizes the point a little further on: “[Jesus] did not try to reach all the masses with the Gospel. Even if He had wanted to, the task would be too big. Rather He concentrated on a few selected ordinary men, who were ‘with Him’ and to whom he gave both verbal instruction and a constant example—preparing through their time with Him to do the same. A similar method of discipleship was practiced by the early churches in Acts.”

I don’t want to single McWilliams out as a “bad” Bible teacher. Quite the contrary. Precisely because of his (apparent) lack of formal biblical education McWilliams provides an excellent glimpse into how Jesus’ relationship with and purpose for the Twelve is understood in popular Christianity. I also don’t disagree with McWilliams’s larger point, that leaders are more effective when discipling a manageable number of close relationships rather than broadcasting themselves to massive crowds. Rather, I am concerned that views such as McWilliams’s miss what’s actually going on with Jesus’ selection of twelve disciples and the references to them as “the Twelve.” For this reason, I want in this lesson to put Jesus’ calling of his disciples, and his commissioning of them to continue his mission, back into historical and biblical perspective.

It's one thing to take aim at popular-level Christian thinking and aim at greater precision. But this morning, as I was preparing for my senior-level Gospel of Mark class, I was going over David Rhoads's book, Reading Mark, Engaging the Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), which my students have reviewed. In his fifth chapter, "Network for Mission: The Social System of the Jesus Movement in Mark," Rhoads analyzes Jesus' program and relation with his disciples and larger circle of followers in terms of sociological analyses of networks. I'm struck that there's an awful lot to disagree with if I read Rhoads in terms of Jesus' intentional decision to employ networking principles and practices (a reading Rhoads's writing readily encourages). But Rhoads's essay is more helpful if we read it as an analysis in terms of networking principles and practices without ascribing any these to Jesus' intentions (which, I think, is how Rhoads intends us to read his analysis).

Even so, I think there are some larger connections and similarities between McWilliams' popular analysis and Rhoads's technical one. Given my own affinity for sociological perspectives and the questions they open up for biblical scholarship, I'm especially concerned that such perspectives don't facilitate our reading the texts in contemporary rather than ancient contexts. Of course, all readings of the text are contemporary readings. But I can't help but think that there's a real difference between analyses that help us register and begin to account for the differences between our worlds and the worlds in which the NT texts were written, performed, and read, on the one hand, and those that help us smooth over those differences and appropriate the texts more easily, on the other. I suspect that "Network for Mission" may be more of the latter than the former.

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