Ninja Turtles Vs Planeteers: Reading the 4 Gospels

It’s been awhile since I last blogged, but I’ve been having these moments in class where my childhood of watching cartoons in the late 80’s and 90’s is informing the way I think about talking about a few things. Rather than voice my thoughts in front of my peers/professors at school (it’s slightly embarrassing to mention Whinnie the Pooh in a class oriented toward reading fancy  theologians) I will share them here. With you.

That said. Here we go.

I’ve been thinking lately about the gospels. I’m in a New Testament class where we talk about them frequently. I’m beginning to realize that in my youth a lot of people liked to make what my friend Dave calls, “A Jesus Milkshake.” That’s to say that lots of people in the church are prone to reading the 4 gospels as one large blended gospel.  This is a problem for many reasons. I’ll list a few so you get the drift:

Jesus Milkshake problem A: It ignores the art. Whatever your stance may be on scripture, I think inevitably you’re going to have to face the facts that people wrote it down. Brilliant people. People who loved Jesus and had an array of things they wanted Christians to understand. So they wrote literature! It is not to say that some of the events didn’t happen. It is to say that the meant to write it how they wrote it. Nobody takes any painting and tries to blend it with all the other paintings of the same subject. The way each painting is done matters deeply. When you blend the gospels together, you forget that it matters how they’re written. It’s art!

J.M. problem B: It privileges certain forms of thinking. What I mean to say with this is that when I’ve spoken to people who attempt to do this or are excited about attempts to do so, there seems to be a drive to put the stories about Jesus in chronological order, emphasize particular concepts, etc…Inevitably, scripture then becomes what you want it to be. Jesus’ life becomes a chronologically convenient source of information, a text book on the man who is God, and so on. The task at hand whilst reading the gospels, in my opinion is to hear what the texts themselves want to tell you. There’s something happening, beyond what you want to pull from the gospels. Maybe it’s about something else…Which brings me to my next point…

J.M. Problem C: It ignores the Jesus proclaimed by Scripture. Surely this point comes off as a bit far-fetched. It sure does seem that the Jesus you get from the milkshake method is indeed the Jesus proclaimed by Scripture, right? Except…for a few things. One of my professors at school made the point that philosophically it is impossible to understand anyone’s life apart from a narrative. That’s to say that giving you a list of my attributes, statuses, roles, etc…makes no sense to you unless you understand the narrative of Chauncey in which the narrative of these things are anchored. So, in the same sense to make the Jesus Milkshake, you’d have to remove isolated parts of the proclamation of Jesus’ life, miracles, and so on from the narratives in which they are given to us. As much as we all may appreciate our ability to do composite artwork, these texts are part of the body of texts that have helped form the life of the Church for the past 2000 years. I think whatever story the gospel writers made is probably more important than whatever you or I would like to hear about Jesus. At the end of the day, the Jesus proclaimed by Scripture comes to us in the manner that Scripture proclaims Him. When we take the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John out of the gospel they made we have hindered our ability to know who Jesus is.

Hopefully those points made sense. In summary, I’d like to point out that reading the gospels in the “Milkshake” approach is like the Planeteers.

I spent a good deal of time in my younger years watching reruns of the Planeteers hoping that something better would come on, but I watched all the same. There are 5 planeteers. Each of them has a ring that comes with an elemental power. There’s earth, fire, wind, water, and heart. Yes. Heart was the crappy power. That kid got kidnapped EVERY EPISODE. Try and kidnap someone who can shoot fire at you. Not gonna happen. Anyway, inevitably these Planeteers would be combating bad guys who wanted to ruin the environment. Action would get intense, the Planeteers would be up against the wall, and then…it would happen. They’d summon Captain Planet! They’d combine their powers–losing them for the time being–and this goofy blue dude with a suit would fly out and fight the bad guys!

Except that in most of the really intense episodes (yes. I said intense. When you’re 10 this is gold.) the bad guys would just dump toxic waste on him and then tie him up. Then he’d have to be saved by the now powerless planeteers so that he could save them.

See, this is like the Jesus milkshake. You blend the specificity of the 4 gospels, make one Jesus milkshake…then you realize how awesome it isn’t. Captain Planet mostly sucks, and all the Planeteers lose their powers to make him.

What I’d like to propose is reading the gospels in a way that’s like the Ninja Turtles. There are conveniently 4 turtles, each named after famous artists: Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo.

These turtles fight crime and eat pizza. They each have different things they’re good at. Michelangelo is great at eating pizza and being funny. Raphael is good at being moody. Donatello is good at inventing things. Leonardo is good at being a leader. They all have to work together to be a part of the team. No one is trying to blend all 4 turtles into one turtle. They’re all important and valued for what they individually bring to the team. Moreover, all 4 of them together are the teenage mutant ninja turtles. They are best when they’re working together toward a common goal as a community of crime fighters.

Hopefully this is a helpful way to think about approaching the gospels. I think reading them like the Ninja Turtles helps us to avoid the problems I mentioned above.  We get to appreciate the individual gospels for what they bring and see more of who Jesus is through them as a team. We don’t want to change the Turtles, combine them, or make them do things other than what they’re about. It might behoove us to read the gospels in the same way.

PS: It’s also important to note, for emphasis, that Captain Planet is lame. Ain’t nobody got time for that.