Meaning of the Jesus Story; History v. mythology

I was just catching up on some blogs this morning and read Jerry Coyne’s thoughts on the virgin birth, the resurrection, and their importance in Christian (specifically Catholic) faith.  Towards the end, he says this:

…as has always been clear, the things that to Christians are non-negotiable “truths” of the Bible are those fables on which their faith rests most heavily. Therefore they can dispense with the parting of the Red Sea and the curing of lepers, [but] not with the Resurrection, which is the most important fable that Christians must accept as literal truth.

But if that’s the case, then why not treat Adam and Eve likewise?. For without the Original Duo, and Original Sin, the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus would make no sense (as they say, “Did Jesus die for a metaphor?”).

It is a set of points that I have thought about (and probably written about) myself over the years.  But it got me thinking; How do we approach the significance of an idea depending on how historically reliable it is? How do we think about the meaning of an act if we think it really happened versus if it is a mythological metaphor for something? How do the standards of import differ in contrasting history from mythology?

If a friend took off work to do you a favor, that would be appreciated and would have some real import.  If a person were to push you out of the way of a car, saving your life and sacrificing theirs, that has more import.  For many, Jesus’ sacrifice, is seen as the superlative sacrifice.  Further, it transcends the mere saving of a short mortal life, and becomes the transformation of an eternal life.  We are all doomed to death/separation from god/whatever and Jesus steps in to take the bullet.  And many believe this really happened, and is not merely a metaphor.

But our litany of stories from various religious, philosophical, and cultural sources contains a multitude of stories with moral, social, and philosophical import, many of which attempt such universality.  And it is clear, at least to me, that these stories are myths, even if they contain some historical truth to any extent.  They are, in essence, products of our imagination.  The complicated morals, literary structures, etc that such stories convey, and often contain high moral and philosophical import, are fancy fabrications.

And while reality may occasionally, accidentally, resemble such fabrications in terms of narrative complexity, moral import, etc, the rule is that the design of mythology is better at creating meaning and import than reality.  A narrative with more complex interwoven philosophical themes, governing more broad area of impact and importance, is more likely to be mythology.  The story of the New Testament, with its universal import and intended (but ultimately failed) sacrificial plot, is a good example of a story which is clearly mythological, even if potentially based on historical facts.


So, the essence to my question today foes something like the following.  If I believed that the Fall of Adam and Eve, as well as the resurrection, were literal things that happened, does that mean that the import of the acts involved have more impact than if they were mere stories about the human experience? Would the fact that these actions really happened give them greater impact, emotionally and philosophically, than if they were mere stories?

Consider my example of someone taking off of work to help you with some problem; imagine that this story were part of a religious canon, rather than a thing that really happened to you.  If you found this story in the New Testament or the Koran, would you be impressed by it? Probably not.  But if someone really did this, for you or someone you know, it would have some importance and meaning, even if it were a small amount of such.  The fact that it is real gives it more import to your life, even if the act has less moral and philosophical complexity than mythology.

The thesis is that when things really happen, their personal and social importance is greater than if they were mythological.  Mythology has to be exaggerated, embellished, or at least rare to survive as a story of significance.  It may be that extraordinary real events inspire such mythology in some cases, but such stories always take on legendary status the more they are told and re-told, because story-tellers have to sell the story.  Thus, we will microfy the import of a story which is mythological because we understand that it is embellished, whereas reality, which sits in front of us, is not.

So, a story about a sacrifice, in order to be held as ultimate import, has to become embellished.  Religion, then, is part of our story-telling nature, and only stories with universal themes and import can survive to legendary status.  And while these stories sit behind our lives as an influence for our behavior and beliefs, reality continues on and we continue to act in less than superlative, but meaningful ways.

And many religious apologists argue that this is what makes religion great; it stands as an example for us and helps preserve our cultural norms and values in narrative form.  And for those that believe the stories are true, there is a greater amount of reverence towards those acts (and those who perform them), beyond mere inspiration.  But, for those people who don’t believe the literal truth of these religious stories,such stories can still remain as inspirational narratives, even if the non-historical nature of the story takes something away.

Of course, by not believing they literally happened, one can also criticize the import and morality of the lesson.  It seems more appropriate, for many, to criticize a story rather than a real act.  If we see Jesus as a metaphorical example, and not literally a person (or god) who “died” for our sins, then we can hold him up as an example (even if not a great one) of what humans can do for one-another.  But if he was (and is) god, then that fact puts the story on a level of import which dwarfs any mere myth.  The same story, depending on whether it is true or not, has different import.

But here’s the problem; if stories such as the all and the resurrection are literally true, including that a god is behind it all, then the distinction between mythology and reality breaks down in this respect.  The basis for real actions having inflated import is that such things occur within a real of minimal control over the circumstances, whereas in a story the composer has, well, god-like control over the circumstances.  A friend taking work off to help you is only in control of their own actions (taking off work and helping you), not the circumstances which led them to have to make that choice.

The story of Jesus, if we saw him as a mere human who acted in the real world, could be of great import as an inspiration towards sacrifice and love (assuming we ignore the non-loving stuff in there, of course).  But as an intentional creation of an all-powerful god, the Jesus story is designed, and poorly, because a better story could have been designed.  The world could have been different, the sacrifice unnecessary, and a greater story could have been written.  The more true the Bible is, the less powerful its story ultimately is; the more control the author of the story has, the less impressive it is.

As a set of inspirational stories, the New Testament has some philosophical and moral import on their own, but if Jesus was real and did a lot of the stuff in the gospel accounts, then the import increases because a person actually did those things, rather than them being idealistic narratives of some authors.  But if God is real, and god designed and orchestrated the whole thing, then I’m not impressed, because I think that I could write a better story than that.  God didn’t just compose the narrative of Jesus, but he also composed all of the circumstances which allowed them to be necessary.  In short, God is a terrible composer of stories (and universes).

The Bible, as a collection of stories, is a work of human minds and hands.  It takes the nature of the world, indifferent and often unpredictable, and comes up with a set of narratives which offer some consolation and moral import.  Bu those imports are inflated, exaggerated, and as a result they take on universal import through hyperbolic fabrication, rather than by being real.

We, with our imagination, intelligence  and articulate genius have come up with narratives which make reality look pale in comparison.  Our stories tell us about our dreams and nightmares, hopes and fears, and our height and depth of philosophical notions.  But what ends up mattering are the real acts, the non-miraculous human decisions,  which have a real effect on our lives.  Mythology might inspire,but it can only do so via exaggeration, by figurative flashing lights and shiny objects.

And, what’s worse is that the mythology, the meaning, of the essential Christian message is flawed and many subsequent stories have surpassed them in many ways.  Not only is the Christian message not truly universal, it isn’t even good.  So, not only should we not believe in the virgin birth or the resurrection, we should not even be inspired by such things.  Fabricated acts have no real meaning in the world; they only can attempt to make reality seem pale in comparison, but often merely succeed in making themselves look artificial, forced, and Platonic.

So, while stories are fun and inspire the imagination, what ultimately matters is reality.  Give me friends and lovers over a million Jesuses (Jesi?) any day.

The Great Awakening and anti-Intellectualism in America

The Great Awakening

I have, for some time, had an interest in the historical period around the Revolutionary war.  I am, by no means, a historian but I enjoy reading about the 18th century in America, especially as it pertains to the development of our Republic here in the United States.  It’s certainly not a common topic for discussion on this blog, but today is an exception.

Today I grabbed one of the books I had bought some time ago (probably from a used book store, which is my personal kryptonite) about this time period to do some reading.  I ended up pulling out a book called The Role of Ideology in the American Revolution edited by John R. Howe Jr. (I wonder if there is any relation to the General Howe of the Revolutionary war).  It is a collection of essays, and I began with the first essay entitled The Revolutionary Era as an Age of Politics by Edmund S. Morgan.

The thrust of this essay is about the shift from religious to political influence in colonial thinking during the 17th and 18th centuries.  And in talking about the Great Awakening, started in part by the English minister George Whitefield, Morgan says the following:

Men and women who had worshipped for years without result under the guidance of an erudite but undramatic minister, found grace after a few hours at the feet of some wandering apostle.  The itinerant was often a layman who had never been to college and knew no Greek, Latin, or Hebrew, but had a way with an audience.  If God selected him to do so much without learning, was learning perhaps more a hindrance than a help to true religion? The thought occurred to many converts and was encouraged by the increasingly confident, not to say arrogant, posture of the itinerants.  Whitefield had warned broadly against ministers who preached an unknown and unfelt Christ.  His followers did not hesitate to name individual ministers as dead of heart, blind teachers of the blind.

The time-period here is the middle of the 18th century, the 1740’s to be more precise.  But what we are seeing here is precisely what many preachers, specifically televangelists, have become today; largely ignorant, charismatic people with an ability to keep an audience.

What we see here is the beginning of a part of the anti-intellectual protestant Christian American mindset.  Granted, it has become more complicated over the last 250+ years, but the basics are all here.  Most Americans are ignorant not only of theology, but of their own scripture’s history and the history of their religion.  They are simply acculturated, entertained, and emoted towards their faith, and then subsequently sustained by the occasional inspirational feeling that they associate with the charismatic mythology that they have been fed with a flailing spoon by people who don’t know very much more than their congregations.  Yes, they often know much of the scripture itself, but not the context of its composition nor how it relates to higher learning in the sciences, history, and philosophy.

Morgan continues in talking about what happened to the “erudite but undramatic ministers” after they were deserted for the more charismatic and entertaining itinerants:

At first the deserted clergymen merely looked upon the Awakening with skepticism.  But as its exponents (known at the time as the New Lights) became more and more extravagant, skepticism spread and grew to hostility.  Ministers who had spent their lives in the study of theology and who had perhaps been touched by the Enlightenment, were appalled at the ignorance of New Light preachers and dismissed their convictions and conversations as hysteria….

This reminds me somewhat of Karen Armstrong’s point in The Battle for God that fundamentalism (which this movement seems to be a necessary precursor to) is a reaction to modernity.  These “New Lights” (perhaps comparable in some sociological sense to “new atheists”?  Or perhaps not 😉 ) were in part a reaction to the recent Enlightenment, being a primarily emotional and anti-reason approach to religion.  The educated and Enlightenment-influenced clergy were understandably affected by this movement, since it took away not only from their sophistication and effort, but also from their wallets.

With historical hindsight, we can reflect that this is sort of pre-cursor to what is happening now.  These educated 18th century theologians were dissociating themselves from the uneducated and charismatic itinerants only to find that their congregations were abandoning them for those for said itinerants.  And, like many liberal theologians today, these sophisticated clergy were not quite yet aware that they were being deserted by reason and science as well.  Today’s clergy don’t have the excuse, like their 18th century analogs, of having less conflicting scientific discovery to deal with (no Darwin yet, for example) but they were often aware that what people such as Newton had discovered were at least raising their theological dander a little.  And while Newton himself was a pious man (to some degree), the discovery of natural laws was the beginning of the conflict between faith and reason, science and religion, naturalism and supernaturalism.

When we put this into our contemporary context, the appearance of Rob Bell and other accommodating religious thinkers is not a surprise.  Reason and much of the religious instinct, especially that led by our emotion, are in conflict.  To soften the blow of the success of scientific naturalism’s effect on religion and its many revelations, the liberalization of theology is a reaction to the fundamentalism which is, itself, a reaction to the Enlightenment.

It is a resignation on the part of some of today’s religious leaders that the Enlightenment and it subsequent naturalistic worldview (and to gnu atheism, ultimately) are forces that cannot be beaten, ignored, or entertained away; they must be dealt with, even if some insist upon maintaining their belief despite the immanent conflict between the faith that sustains such a belief and the reason that tells them they must resign–even if not all the way.

The Signing of the Constitution (note lack of Christian symbolism)

Fundamentalism is anti-intellectual, especially when it tries not to be.  Many are starting to realize, as we gnus are especially aware, that even the anti-intellectual cannot hide from the quality of reason’s success in changing our world.  And so religion and its allies resign and accommodate to this realization by shifting, a little at a time, until their religion is not much more than the a watered-down new age paganism, some Sunday social gathering of hymn-singers and socializers, or to some vague deism recognizable to many of our Constitutional fathers.  And if deism is all that can survive this neo-Enlightenment which is the science-driven worldview of the skeptic, the atheist, and the gnu, then that’s the right step in the right direction of history.

It makes me wonder if I should be less cynical and misanthropic.  I’m still skeptical about hat though.

Finally, I wonder (as I have before) if when American religious thinkers claim that this is  Christian nation, they are referring to this attitude that exists from before the Constitution.  Well, yes we are largely a Christian culture, but the simple fact is that the Constitution was composed, signed, and ratified after a period of time when the Colonial culture that spawned the Great Awakening and its anti-intellectual attitude gave way to a somewhat elitist deist crowd of people in Philadelphia in the 1780 and 1790s.  Yes, our culture is largely influenced by this anti-intellectual worldview from the Great Awakening (And, later, the Second Great Awakening), but our Constitutional Government arose despite this, not because of it.

Our attempt, here in the United States of America, at creating a more perfect union occurred despite our anti-intellectual Christian culture, not because of it.  The Great Awakening was not what created America, after all.  What created America was a desire for a secular government conceived of by men who, mostly, saw the effects of the Great Awakening as I see it; anti-intellectual riff-raff in a time of need for reason and education.

Let’s get on that.