Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Identity confusion hexes Adams, Jesus |

Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Identity confusion hexes Adams, Jesus

Observers made similar mistakes when they encountered John Adams and Jesus. They confused the identities of these men. Today, some still err, trying to figure out who Jesus, the Christ, really was.

Almost two decades before his 1796 presidential election, Adams served as a U.S. diplomat to France, arriving in 1778. He blushed when Parisians flocked to him, assuming he ranked as “the famous Adams-Ah, le fameux Adams!”

Admirers confused John with his celebrity cousin. Samuel Adams exchanged brewing beer in Boston for life as the American Revolution’s premier propagandist. Leading the Sons of Liberty, Adams plotted the Boston Tea Party. If caught, British magistrates would have hung him for this raid.

Cousin John Adams failed trying to correct mistaken assumptions regarding his identity. Some Parisians applauded him for writing Thomas Paine’s popular pamphlet Common Sense. This broadside swept across Europe, justifying America’s colonial uprising that unfair taxation caused.

Pity John Adams. He made diplomatic rounds introduced as the cousin he wasn’t. Adams bluntly denied his name was Sam Adams. No, he didn’t write Common Sense. Still, few Parisians believed him. They said he labored under false humility.

Finally, some Parisian groupies for celebrity Sam Adams accepted John’s assertion. Overnight, his star-power flamed out. Adams became the person nobody recognized. Acting like a thick fog, obscurity hid his identity. Adams groused, as he expressed it, how he became “a Man of whom Nobody had ever heard before, a perfect Cypher, a Man who did not understand a Word of French-awkward in his Figure-awkward in his Dress-no Abilities-a perfect Bigot-and fanatic.” When dining at state dinners, French ladies dismissed him as “the other Adams.” They still wanted to shine in Sam’s celestial orbit. His radiant image in Paris made Sam the American Revolution’s international star.

Jesus battled similar frustrations when clarifying his identity. Some regarded him a Hebrew prophet. Others addressed Jesus as “Rabbi,” a Jewish teacher. Fewer whispered how this Jesus sounded like the Messiah sent from heaven to rescue Israel from Roman tyranny. Detractors called Jesus a crackpot, a dangerous enemy to established religion. They demonized him as “Beelzebub, “son of Satan.

Jesus’ identity shifted among listeners. Whenever someone boxed him into an identity niche, Jesus broke these shackles, like Houdini escaping a locked coffin.

Sometimes we distort Christ’s identity, assuming we have him figured out. Jesus always escapes our definitions, calculations and attempts to definitively describe who he is. Father Andrew Greeley, writing in a 1986 New York Times Book Review, shows the absurdity of fencing in Jesus. “The only real Jesus is the one larger than life,” declared Greeley, “who escapes our categories, who eludes our attempts to reduce Him for our cause. Any Jesus who has been made to fit our formula ceases to be appealing precisely because He is no longer wondrous, mysterious, surprising.

“We may reduce Him to a right-wing Republican conservative,” warns Greeley, “or a gun-toting Marxist revolutionary and thus rationalize and justify our own political ideology. But having done so, we are dismayed to discover that whomever we have signed on as an ally isn’t Jesus. Categorize Jesus, and He isn’t Jesus anymore.”

Some say Jesus is a good guy. Others salute him as the grandest person who ever lived. Still more within the Christian community confess what they can’t satisfactorily explain — that Jesus is God’s human face.

Some constrict him as exclusively human. Others applaud his divinity that soars beyond finite limits. Mystified admirers split the difference, concocting a mixture that makes him half human and half divine. Such identity searches are stabs in the dark.

An angel came to father Joseph, telling him to identify Mary’s newborn. “You shall call his name Jesus,” instructed the angel, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Joseph realized only God possesses power to extend mercy that covers our mistakes. Because Jesus in his ministry forgave sin, what stunning claim about his identity is made? Is the squirming baby really God?

Today, some guess that Jesus is either human, divine or a composite of the two. If you interviewed Jesus regarding his identity, what profile would emerge?

Who is this Holy One, born in Bethlehem’s manger?

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (, which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.

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