* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas Inspiration: Leaping Forward to the Tales of Jesus (a sort of prologue)

A few conversations over the recent holidays have inspired a shift in my organizational thinking about these writings. I began with considering the Old Testament primarily because so many loud voices seem to refer to these ancient Israelite writings as prototypes for how twenty-first century Westerners should see the world. It is the poetic mythology of the Old Testament that leads some to conclude that creationism is rational. It is the brutal tribal justice depicted in the Old Testament that encourages some modern day Christians to justify violence in the name of religious superiority. In many cases, it is the pseudo-historical accounts of the Old Testament that some people attempt to prove in order to demonstrate the the Bible is inspired and infallible.

While it is understandably great fun to use the Bible as a weapon of judgment against other people, few who claim to revere its words seem to apply Old Testament prophetic judgment personally in their own lives. They seem instead to live by the principle, "Judgment for others; grace for me." However, there are many people in Christian churches who disagree wholeheartedly with the obnoxiously loud and violently unyielding extremists that can be heard constantly on the radio or seen on the television or online. Perhaps out of a quiet wisdom, they don't buy as much airtime, but in their lives, they intend to purposefully live out the love and grace practiced and taught by Jesus in the New Testament stories. Some people take seriously the revolutionary teachings and admonishments attributed to Jesus, without taking upon themselves the mantle of judge over the rest of humanity. One such person encouraged me to bring the figure of Jesus more fully into what I write here, finding the deconstruction of the Old Testament somewhat tedious. Fair enough.

In a separate holiday conversation, a believer told me, "Jesus was born to die on the cross." My question in response was, "Why are there so many stories about his ministry if the only thing that matters is that he was crucified?" With gentle and utter conviction, this person replied, "so we'd know he was the real deal."

While I realize that this viewpoint is not in any way representative of the whole of American Christianity, I also think that it is lacking in depth. Maintaining a faith of single-minded simplicity may be quite sufficient for some people, and if an individual chooses to stop thinking at a certain point and just do the best they can to make the world a better place, I have no real complaints. My concern is that there are those who would use simple single-minded faith to manipulate others or to justify actions that don't even come close to making the world a better place. It's worth examining closely the actions and teachings of the namesake of the Christian church.

Of course, it was always the intention to arrive at the New Testament after examining the Old Testament. The plan is simply shifting slightly to accommodate a bit of back-and-forth. Thus, over the next several entries, teachings from the gospel writers will be introduced in alternation with a continued exploration of the Old Testament. In light of that, a disclaimer is in order regarding my approach to the Christ figure.

While I do not begrudge anyone the freedom to hold as divine any person or thing they may choose, my personal beliefs do not find any justification for belief in a god, Christian or otherwise. Thus, my personal beliefs do not find cause to view Jesus as any more divine than anyone else. In fact, I find no compelling evidence that the man written about in the gospel stories ever actually existed in the form portrayed in the Bible. We could just as easily find lessons in the tales of Odysseus, King Arthur, or the Norse pantheon, and we could no doubt draw some valuable truths from such a study. Culturally speaking, however, there is a valid reason to look more closely at Jesus than other mythological figures, since so many diverse claims continue to be made about what he said or what he intended for twenty-first century American culture.

Although I do not believe in a historical Jesus as depicted by the biblical writers, I do believe that the gospel authors had a purpose in writing what they did. They were establishing new ways of expressing spirituality and community at a time when the old system was failing. Through the believable figure of a humble god-man, the biblical writers offered new interpretations of ideas that were already ancient two thousand years ago, encouraging people away from rigid legalism and tribalism and toward something different -- something more feasible in the new reality of the Roman Empire. Other Jewish scholars wrestled with the old traditions differently, producing volumes of commentaries to clarify and expound upon the Jewish scriptures. Some ideas held in common between these Jewish commentaries and the early Christian sect are also reflected in the inspirational writings from other faith traditions as well, hinting at the revelation of some universal truths that may hold value for all people regardless of geography or culture, as opposed to the ethnocentric and xenophobic tradition reflected in the Old Testament. Those who wrote what would eventually become the New Testament contributed to a sect that ultimately gained the support of a Roman emperor and established a cultural foothold that has lasted almost two millennia.

In order to legitimize the figure of Jesus as someone worthy of attention with greater authority than other spiritual leaders of the day, the gospel writers wove a unique biography for the Christ figure. On the one hand, they used thematic elements common to many hero tales across every culture; for more reading on the universal hero archetype, one can do no better than Joseph Campbell. The gospels also draw upon Jewish prophetic writings (many of which were not actually intended to predict a future messiah figure) to credential Jesus. This is reflected in the birth story heard throughout the Christian world last week, from Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-3.

Obviously, there are discrepancies between the two accounts, in the two genealogies as well as the actual events related. The bottom line is that readers are supposed to conclude that Jesus was special and supremely qualified in spiritual matters. Symbolic and fantastical accounts aside, there is no real value in dismantling the birth story of Jesus here. If one chooses to believe in the unique divinity of a historical Jesus, perhaps that belief will lead to authentic expression of Christian teachings in one's daily life. I believe we will find greater spiritual value in the deeper truths and teachings recorded by the biblical authors through the character of Jesus.

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