Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Did Jesus Die . . . and What Happened Then?

Chapter 3 – The Cross as Futility, not Forgiveness

Meyers wants to do two things here.  First, to give some background on the creation of the gospels, focusing on Mark as the earliest of our four.   In this regard he wants us to know that Mark was written some 40 years after Jesus lived, and that, therefore, there is not a whole lot of historical “fact” to be found in it.
            He is right that as Jesus taught and worked there were no journalists following him around taking notes.  The disciples were likely not literate, and Meyers says elsewhere that Jesus probably couldn’t read or write either.  Besides, at the time no one would have been thinking about recording what Jesus said and did – he was a popular teacher, but no one could have guessed just how popular he would be 2000 years later.
            So the writing of the gospels that we have didn’t happen until (in Mark’s case) the 60s to mid-70s.  (Matthew and Luke perhaps in the 80’s, John the late 90s.)  Scholars do seem agree, though, that there was another written gospel earlier than Mark – now lost – and that there was a significant “oral tradition” before that.
            So the timeline:  Jesus dies around 33-37;  his followers very quickly experience his ongoing presence in their midst – a resurrection of some sort that convinces them Jesus sill lives, not merely in their memories, as say, we remember a favorite uncle, but within them, among them, empowering them.  
            One would think that immediately people would be telling stories about Jesus . . . “Remember the day that he . . . “   And they would have been repeating his teachings – told, remember, in parable form, and in catchy, folksy images that would lend themselves to memorization.  These stories about a revered great teacher would have been circulating through the early Christian community, for say 15-20 years before people started writing them down.

So yes, there is a gap between the living Jesus and the written stories about him.  But not terribly long . . . not centuries.  And there surely would have been a strong oral tradition formed early on.

Sidebar:  Meyers also talks about the manuscript record of the gospels, citing a book by Bart Erheman:   “ . . . the gospels we have, Erhman reminds us, are copies of copies of copies, in which all the mistakes, both accidental and intentional, have been multiplied exponentially over the centuries. In fact, there are now more known differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament. “  (p. 62)   
            This implies that the texts we have probably have little to do with the original texts produced in the first century.  But that is not the case.   I would quarrel with here in his use of “exponentially” -- typical of his exaggeration and, ironically, certainty about things that are not certain.   At times he sounds rather like the fundamentalists he attacks, when he throws in an “obvious” here and a “clearly” there for statements that are hotly debated among scholars.
           So the first point of the chapter is to sketch the origin of (and, to his mind, the historical unreliability of) the gospels.  That they were written primarily to make a theological point, and had less interest in “history” than we do, is probably right.   But just how far from history their stories are removed in not at all certain:  a lot? A little?  Some? 
            The second theme of chapter three is the meaning of the crucifixion.  And I agree with him that the traditional “blood atonement” interpretation, first, makes little sense to people today, and second, I suspect it was not the intention of Jesus in the first place.  What, then, is the meaning of the cross?  Meyers says that it reveals the futility of violence. 
“Justice was his passion. Healing was his passion. Gathering up the last, the least, and the lost and helping them to stand up straight in a world that kept them permanently bent over was his passion.”  (p. 71)       

Chapter Four – “Easter as Presence, not Proof” -- addresses the meaning of “resurrection.”  And here he begins with the assumption that a “bodily” resurrection – the resuscitation of a dead body – is simply not credible to people today.  (A whole bunch of people do in fact believe it, of course.)  But if you can’t buy a bodily resurrection, what does Easter mean? 
            For Meyers the power of the first believers – power to overcome great opposition, love their enemies, model a new kind of living, being willing to die for their faith – that came not because they thought Jesus had literally come back from the dead, but because they experienced “Jesus” in their midst.
            That is, they kept the faith by following Jesus, not by affirming a belief about him.  They sought to serve Jesus, rather than worship him.   Meyers describes this new kind of believer this way:  “They accept the laws of nature [as the scientific naturalist/rationalists do] yet refuse to live in a universe devoid of mystery or stripped of all enchantment. By following, not by believing, they remain open to the possibility of resurrection in this life, not just in the next. (pp. 94-95)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Borg Revisited

When we read Borg’s Reading the Bible Again for the First Time we were introduced to the idea that how we modern – post-enlightenment -- people use the word “believe” in our religion and how pre-enlightenment folk used it are very different.  WE associate it with the head – propositional truth, factual truth, reasonable and scientific truth.  We want "evidence" for our religion, even if that means sometimes tortuous argumentation.  A “believer” is one who intellectually assents to a set of statements, as in the creeds of Christendom.

What Borg – and Meyers after him – argues is that a “believer” in the New Testament sense is one whose heart has been grasped (Kenneth Haught spoke in this way in Is Nature Enough?) by an experience of God, a “spiritual” experience.  One does not come to it by argumentation (although that might be part of the journey), but by experience.  Meyers (p37) says,   “Marcus Borg reminds us that there are four meanings of the word “faith” in the history of Christianity, and only one of them, assensus, has anything to do with intellectual assent, or faith as a “head trip.”

 The other three meanings  “ . . . are faith as fiducia (radical trust in God), as fidelitas (loyalty in one’s relationship to God), and as visio (a way of seeing creation as gracious).

That concept is foundational to a new understanding of faith – key to what the progressive, emergent Christian movement is about.

Meyers in Chapter Two goes on to give a sketch of the historical Jesus of the Gospels (differentiated from the post-Easter cosmic Christ of the Gospels): 

“Jesus of Nazareth was born just before 4 BCE to Joseph and Mary in a tiny hamlet. He was perhaps the firstborn, but more likely not, and had at least six siblings.
. . .   It is reasonable to assume that Jesus went to school in the synagogue in Nazareth to study Torah and became a woodworker.

. . .   He was dirt poor, living just a notch above the degraded (outcasts) and the expendables (beggars, day laborers, and slaves) . . . most likely illiterate,  . . . and he knew, like the vast majority of his contemporaries in an oral culture, the foundational narratives, basic stories, and general expectations of his tradition but not the exact texts, precise citations, or intricate arguments of its scribal elites.”

Meyers goes on – 

“If his family was reasonably devout, Jesus would have been raised in the practices of “common Judaism.”
 But  one day, without question, Jesus left home to became a follower of the most famous, most eccentric, most apocalyptic wilderness preacher of his day—John the Baptist.

Even though Jesus was a follower of John, there came to be a great difference in their messages:  “John preached grim justice and pictured God as a “steely-eyed thresher of grain.” Jesus preached a God of love and forgiveness and compared him to a father who throws a party for a prodigal son. John said the hour is growing late. Jesus said it is never too late.”

The mistake of traditional Christianity is  that we have made Jesus' message to be about himself, when it was about God:  “His message was theocentric, not Christocentric—centered in God, not centered in messianic proclamations about himself. . . .   He was charismatic, a gifted speaker, and a teacher of wisdom. He taught the “narrow way” as opposed to the broad way of convention and tradition . . . . life is seen as a joyful return from the exile of law and judgment to the unconditional love of a recklessly gracious God.

In the end, Jesus had undercut the power and purpose of religious professionals, excited the poor and empowered the powerless, and quickly attracted large crowds in an occupied territory that was smoldering under Roman occupation. Then, as now, the solution to this problem was simple.  (p. 54)

That solution was the crucifixion . . . which is the subject of Chapter 3.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Saving Jesus from . . . Us?!

I think it is curious (a word that in itself is rather curious) that Meyers – like Doug Pagitt and Bruce McLaren, whose books we have read – is coming out of a fundamentalist background.  And I do mean Fundamentalist.  As in Church of Christ Fundamentalist.  NOT United Church of Christ, folks.  That’s who WE are.  Meyers’ “Church of Christ” is quite sure (of everything, really) that you and I are unsaved, unregenerate, heathen pagans bound for hell.  Hell, they don’t even believe in having instruments in their church!  (That’s because the Bible doesn’t mention pianos, still less pipe organs.  So of course we shouldn’t either.)

The point:  Meyers, now a very liberal and progressive UCC pastor, has come a very long way from his roots.  The faith to which he is reacting is very fundamental, but it is still fair to say that MOST of Christianity, even the more liberal brands, have until recently held to some very fundamental creeds:  biblical authority (and perhaps even inerrancy), the divinity of Christ, a literal/bodily resurrection, the historicity of Jesus’ miracles, and so on.  What Meyers is saying (and Marcus Borg and others said earlier) is that it is time for liberal churches to start telling people what liberal pastors for a very long time have been learning in seminary.  That is, let’s trust the flock to understand what scholars have been saying, in order to have a faith that is intellectually sound.  It is a daring proposition.

Meyers’ goal in the book is to answer this question:  How can our faith become biblically responsible, intellectually honest, emotionally satisfying, and socially significant?  (p. 7) And that is a great statement; that is what people, if they are interested in exploring Christian faith, are looking for – and have not found in the traditional formulations and experience of the Christian church.

Meyers is going to raise the issue that we began with long ago – the issue of “knowing” what is true:
“Our clues will come not from holding the text under the magnifying glass of modernity, where veracity equals truth and mythology equals falsehood, but rather from what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté”—the posture of hearing truth in stories that are not and never were intended to be taken literally.”   (p. 31)  (Italics mine)

Elsewhere he says . . .
“The truth of which Jesus speaks is wisdom incarnate, not [mere - me, sorry] intellectual assent to cogent arguments made on behalf of God. Indeed, a quick glance around this broken world makes it painfully obvious that we don’t need more arguments on behalf of God; we need more people who live as if they are in covenant with Unconditional Love, which is our best definition of God.” (p. 21).

The first chapter – Jesus the Teacher, Not the Savior – includes a good summary of what contemporary liberal scholarship says about Jesus and how we got from an itinerant preacher in Palestine to a God sitting on a throne in heaven.  Evangelical scholars will want to argue with these conclusions.  We could sometime read what they say in defense of a more traditional understanding of Jesus, and there are reputable scholars out there who do deal directly with what people like Borg, Crossan, and Spong are saying.   But for now, Meyers is providing for us an excellent summary of what scholars in our part of the theological Christian world have learned.