Jesus Christ, Superstar – why are you not more popular?

According to a poll conducted by Leger for the Association for Canadian Studies, and published in the National Post just before Christmas, 27 per cent of Canadians have a negative view of Jesus.

Although they aren’t believers, a surprising 8.5 per cent of atheists have a very positive view of Jesus. It’s a bit of a shocker that, percentage-wise, more Muslims than Catholics (57 per cent vs. 45 per cent) have a very positive view of him. As might be expected, Jesus enjoys higher popularity among seniors than younger Canadians.

The news story doesn’t reveal why the Association for Canadian Studies conducted the survey. The likeability of Jesus doesn’t seem like a pressing question for our time. It’s not something you hear around the water cooler.

“How was your weekend?”

“Not great. Saturday night, the old guy and I were fighting again. I tell him I’ve gone negative on the Son of Man. And he says, ‘Seriously? You’ve got to be joking.’ Then we really get into it.”

I’ve worked in offices a long time, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard a conversation remotely like that.

The issue, if there is one, seemed to be settled in the hymns of my youth. “Oh, how I love Jesus,” we sang. “Because he first loved me.” But that doesn’t resolve it. Any teen can tell you loving someone’s not the same as liking them.

Is Jesus likeable?

The historical and Biblical narratives reveal little about him from his birth until he begins teaching, preaching and raising the dead at around age thirty. Three years later, the crowds call out, “Crucify him, crucify him,” an unpopularity poll of an entirely different magnitude.

Today, the Jesus who gets the most play from church pulpits seems pretty likeable. He suffers little children to come onto him. He tells us we will be blessed if we become like those who are poor in spirit, who mourn, who are meek, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. He speaks passionately about jubilant rejoicing when the lost is found. He came, not for the prom king and queen, but for the kid in the corner with the bad teeth and the funny hair. The marginalized. That Jesus, you have to like.

Then he goes and spoils it. There’s this other Jesus who speaks of casting people into utter dark where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. This Jesus came not to send peace but a sword. People will be divided, he says, father against son and son against father, and so on. Bushes are withered. Unjust judges rule. Slaves sent to carry out the master’s wishes are beaten or slaughtered. I could go on. No Facebook smiley faces for this Jesus.

I have no way to wrap this up and tie it with a pretty pink bow. But I wonder whether likeability is the right question.

For years, Father Graham Keep of St. Thomas has been saying Jesus is fully human and fully divine, not 50/50 but somehow 100/100. It’s a mindbender. But possibly in speaking both peacefully and brutally, the Son of God is establishing divine authority while offering clues to an otherworldly perspective. Perhaps many Gospel stories are meant to be read as metaphors or allegories, dare I say, “Not literally, but as guides to the spiritual life?” In that life, there is no light without darkness.

Another priest, Father Kevin Storey, now Superior General of the Basilian Fathers, once told me, “If we think we know what we’re talking about, it’s probably not God we’re talking about.” Or as Augustine put it, “Si comprehendis, non est Deus.”

It wouldn’t work in a survey, but a better question might be, “If Jesus didn’t care whether or not he was liked, why should anyone else?”