It was around 2005 when I saw a small video that overturned the way I understood the Bible. It was a 4-minutes trailer to an upcoming documentary film. I must have stumbled upon it through some online news article. The film was called Iraq in Fragments, shot and edited by James Longley (US).
Before going to Iraq, Longley had spent time filming in the Gaza Strip. He then witnessed the US-led 2003 invasion and documented the chaotic years under the occupation. Here is the trailer.
Watching this today might feel very different from back then. We’re so used to images from Iraq or Syria, they have lost their dreadful novelty long ago. But remember, this was 2005. YouTube had just launched. People around the world weren’t yet uploading Terabytes of cell phone videos every minute. The dominating outlet for images from the Iraq War were TV reports and the press, thus, violence was carefully filtered by media professionals.
This trailer, however, was like a window into a dangerous foreign world. And it hit me with brute force. The unfamiliar sound of Arabic, the masses of people in religious agitation, the sights of deserts, smoke and violence rolling over you through this climactic montage… Yes, today we receive images from the region that are far more drastic, but at that time it was nothing short of a culture shock for me. And with that shock, a strange feeling started boiling up in my mind:
This is what Jesus’ world must have looked like.
A raw, masculine world stricken by poverty.
A country slowly torn apart by competing ethnic factions.
A place where charismatic religious leaders stir up masses.
A Near Eastern nation overwhelmed by the military might of Western empires…
History shapes theology
Growing up in Germany, my image of Jesus’ world had been shaped by bright illustrations in children’s Bibles, Easter TV specials of Gospel films, Sunday School cartoons, by Caravaggio, Dürer and Tissot. But something in that video made me “see” for the first time that the historical reality from which the Bible had emerged must have looked very different… less like The Greatest Story Ever Told and more like Afghanistan under the Taliban. This was my second shock. It dawned on me that Jesus’ culture was as alien to me as Iraq or Iran. And if my understanding of Jesus’ world had no substance so far, what then did I actually know about his role, his message in that world? If a 21st century Near Eastern country like Iraq felt so incomprehensible to me, how could I even start imagining a 1st century Near Eastern country like Judea… ?
Years later I managed to watch Iraq in Fragments. It is powerful, even by today’s standards. By that time, questions had been fermenting in my heart. I felt the urge to learn more about the historical and cultural background of the New Testament. And the idea to some day tell the story of Jesus like Longley did with his documentary: raw and real, close to the people.
The good news is that it’s now easier than ever for Christians to get informed. You don’t have to enroll in Princeton. There are many good books, podcasts, videos and free lectures that serve as windows into that world of antiquity and the historical Jesus. (I created a list of materials that helped me with my book here).
Once I began understanding better what Jesus’ “Kingdom of God” message meant to people back then, it reshaped my whole outlook on the Bible. We followers of Jesus must always challenge ourselves, examining and redefining our purpose by comparing the latest historical research with the realities we face today.
Question. What would Jesus do if he saw Iraq today? The US occupation? What would he tell ISIS fighters? What does he want us Christians to see there?
May there be peace of Christ in Iraq and Syria.