Re-imagining Jesus


The following quote is taken from a recent sermon delivered by Jim Burklo, pastor of Sausalito Presbyterian Church. You can go to the web site to read the entire sermon:

There was a rabbi named Jesus who preached and was said to be a healer. He was crucified by the Romans.

There you have it: that's the only really reliable information we have about the historical person named Jesus. It's the only information we have about him that is supported by a first-century source that was not part of the early Christian community. The early Christians, who wrote the four gospels, almost certainly embellished the story of Jesus to create the accounts of him that we see in the Bible. Along with virtually all academic historians who have studied the historical Jesus, I assume that anything we see in the four gospels that refers to something miraculous is probably mythological.

The Jesus Seminar, headquartered up the road from us in Santa Rosa, is a large group of academic scholars of the Bible who have voted on what they think the historical Jesus is most likely to have said and done. They have color-coded the gospels accordingly: red for highly likely, pink for somewhat likely, grey for unlikely, and black for very unlikely that the historically real Jesus said it or did it. Not too surprisingly, very little of the gospels is in red, and not that much is in pink, either.

But the myths in the Bible about Jesus, and the words put into his mouth by his later followers, are still very important and contain much spiritual truth. Just because something didn't really happen doesn't mean it isn't true, in the sense of truth that applies to matters of the heart and soul. The early Christians had important spiritual reasons for coming up with these myths and these words which they attributed to Jesus. The un-historical Jesus is just as important as the historical Jesus. That was true 2000 years ago and it is true today.

Because the story of Jesus isn't over. We get to embellish it, too. That's part of being Christian: we get to figure out who Jesus was, for ourselves.

Now there are plenty of Christians who would argue these points. In the past week, for some reason, I got a flood of hate emails from Christians around the US who objected to Pluralism Sunday, which I coordinated nationally for The Center for Progressive Christianity. They objected vigorously to the idea that other religions might be as valid as Christianity. Their arguments were based on a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. They believe that the Bible effectively dropped down from the sky all at once, as we know it now, with one portrayal of Jesus shown to us intact. Unfortunately there is no factual basis for this assumption. The Bible turns out to be vastly more interesting than they suggest. It has layers and nuances and contradictions, opening up all sorts of interpretive possibilities.

There are plenty of folks who would deny it, but let's face the facts: there are a lot of Jesuses to choose from in the Christian religion. And there is room for even more. Which Jesus do you prefer? That may sound outrageous, even here in a liberal, progressive church. But it really is an okay question to ask. Which image or understanding of Jesus helps you best to come into communion with God? You do have a choice, so why not be conscious about it? And why not be creative about imagining Jesus?

I have mixed feelings about this call for re-imagining Jesus. On the one hand, I think Jim Burklo has put his finger on something--specifically, the evils of dogmatism and orthodoxy, and the need for people to work out their own theological understanding. On the other hand, the assertion that "the un-historical Jesus is just as important as the historical Jesus" raises a lot of interesting questions. Certainly, in the history of Christianity, the importance of the un-historical Jesus--or, as Marcus Borg puts it--the post-Easter Jesus--has been crucial in the evolving dogmas of Christian orthodoxy. Jim Burklo's point alludes to the fact that people were re-imagining Jesus from the moment he died. Maybe it is an inevitable truth that any founder of a significant movement cannot control what they have started once they pass on. I've been reading the book The First Coming, by Thomas Sheehan, in which the author offers his theories on how the religion of Jesus, which concerned the present and future in-breaking of God's immanent Kingdom, evolved into a religion about Jesus; this book dovetails nicely with this question.

But then again, almost from the time after Jesus died, Christianity was not just a religion about Jesus. It was actually several, and Jesus movment soon flowered into multiple Christianities, as different communities and individuals imaginatively spun new understandings of who Jesus was and what he stood for. And imagination played a key role in this process. Each of the canonical Gospels expressed the particular author's imaginative, mythology-laced perspective on what Jesus meant. The Gospel-writers used mythological stories about such things as a virgin birth or a literal ascension into heaven in order to convey, in the words of Jim Burklo, a deeper truth. As Christianity continued to spread, Christians continually churned out among themselves competing ideas about Jesus and his life and message, producing a diverse set of Christianities: Gnostics, Ebionites, docetists, Johannine Christians, Thomasite Christians, to name a few. There was clearly something about Jesus that seemed to inspire a continual process of re-imagining.

Was this re-imagining always such a good thing? It seems to me that, in many ways, the best of what Jesus taught became lost, diffused, toned down, or reversed. The religion that Jesus preached about the Kingdom of God became instead a religion about Jesus. His inclusiveness became replaced with gate-keeping. His opposition to religious authorities became replaced with a religion governed by a new set of religious authorities.

On the other hand, the problem with Christian orthodoxy is that it took what was, essentially, just one mythological re-imagining of Jesus among many, and declared that one to be the Truth. In all the diverse set of re-imaginings that took place, one set was defined as the orthodoxy, while other re-imaginings were deemed heretical. This, in my view, was a critical error, and has taken Christianity down the wrong path.

Perhaps the problem, then, is not that of re-imagining Jesus to our heart's content, but of imposing our own re-imagining and declaring it to be the final truth. It seems to me that is where Christianity went wrong in the first place. I think that there is value in breaking through the mythologies to appreciate the best of Jesus's message for what it was, but I also think that there is an inevitable tendency to re-imagine Jesus, one that cannot be denied. How do we take the best of those competing tendencies, which seem so contradictory: de-mythologizing Jesus, and at the same time re-imagining Jesus? Are there parameters that define how far we should go in our mythologizing?

As Thomas Sheehan wrote in The First Coming,
Christianity took a local and idiosyncratic myth about what allegedly happened one morning in a tiny corner of Palestine, and turned it into a supernatural event that supposedly transformed the ontological structure of the world.

Jesus' message, which had started as an invitation to live God's future in the present, devolved into a dogma about what had happened in the past. What began as a challenge to work God's mercy in the world was reduced to apocalyptic myth. A movement that should have accepted the fact that Jesus was dead, and then gone on from there, ended up trying to hope him out of the grave. (p. 162)
If there is a tension between de-mythologizing and re-imagining, then, like Thomas Sheehan, I admit that I lean towards the de-mythologizing side of things. And yet, I also think Jim Burklo is on to something. Religious pluralism necessarily understands the value of mythologizing, recognizes that all religions tend to mythologize, and sees value in playfully re-imagining religious mythology. Can we maintain a balance between our desire to mythologize and our desire to get at the literal truths that lie behind those mythologies?

Or am I making this all too complicated? Is mythologizing fine as long as we recognize that we are mythologizing? Is the problem not with myth-making, but with literalizing our myths?


John Shuck said...

I am reading Walter Wink's the Human Being. In it he suggests the the 300 year quest for the historical Jesus is really a quest for the authentic human being, or the myth of the human Jesus. The myth of the god-man Jesus is no longer functional for many of us, yet the historical person (if one could be found) is simply an historical person.

His suggestion is that our need is for the authentic Self. The myth of the human Jesus is really the impetus behind this quest even though we don't admit it.

Matthew said...

"A movement that should have accepted the fact that Jesus was dead, and then gone on from there, ended up trying to hope him out of the grave."

Of course! The solution to our problems is to stomp on both metaphor AND hope! Genius!

"Is mythologizing fine as long as we recognize that we are mythologizing?"

I don't even think we have to continually unpack our specific myths. That seems a little like attending a play and reminding yourself every few minutes, "it's no big deal, these are just actors, and this is just a play."

Instead, I think a little intellectual humility would be a good place to begin, starting with the observation that we speak entirely in metaphor, and so the story or proposition that I affirm as true will always be slightly different than the story or proposition that you affirm as true, even if we use exactly the same words.

Heather said...

**On the one hand, I think Jim Burklo has put his finger on something--specifically, the evils of dogmatism and orthodoxy, and the need for people to work out their own theological understanding. **

This is why I don't think there's such a thing as "Sola Scripture." It's more like "Sola Tradition." I can't speak as to why you're not a Trinitarian, but when I read the Bible, it was vague to me, and become more so when I started studying the Greek and the traditions around the Bible. And yet those who hold to "Sola Scripture" would say I'm wrong -- even though I'm going by the Bible alone.

John also made mention of the god-man no longer being functional. I think much of that has to do with how can one possibly follow a god-man? Such an entity would be perfect, whereas humans are flawed. Failure at some point is inevitabl. Would we set a standard before our children that they could never reach?

Rather, in reading the Gospels, especially the Synoptics, I see Jesus coming to show people how to be truly human. How to truly connect with each other, with our world, and with God. And the key to being human is that what works for one does not work for the other.

Mystical Seeker said...

I think the idea of "the authentic self" or being "truly human" is an interesting one. I once viewed part of the "Saving Jesus' DVD, which is a sort of adult education curriculum for churches designed to get people to think about who Jesus is; I recall that the idea came up from one of the theologians who spoke on the DVD of Jesus being fully, authentically human, as such served as a sort of model for how we can try to be more fully human as well.

Of course, there are a lot of things that we associate with humanity that don't really jibe with divinity. To err is human, after all; to be human is to be vulnerable, uncertain, and to fail sometimes.

Matthew, regarding your analogy with a play, I understand what you are saying. The only comment I would make is that none of us when we view a play actually thinks that it is real. There is a shared understanding that we all have about what dramatic fiction is. But that isn't the case with religious myths; a lot of people do take them literally. That is why I think it might be necessary to at least be consciously aware of the non-literal nature of religious myths, in a way that is unnecessary with viewing a play or reading a novel.

Matthew said...

"That is why I think it might be necessary to at least be consciously aware of the non-literal nature of religious myths"

Nod. That's what I meant to get at when I said "we speak entirely in metaphor".