Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Gospel According to Everyone

It was a very dramatic way to begin an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The crew no sooner detects a temporal anomaly in space than another Federation ship comes out of nowhere, hits the Enterprise and they both explode into tiny bits. Cue the opening title sequence and theme music.

After the first break, we are back on the Enterprise before their fatal crash. We see a little more of that day and then the catastrophe repeats itself. And we go to a commercial again. The whole episode goes that way except that during each iteration the crew begins to get clues that something is out of whack. Besides everyone experiencing massive amounts of déjà vu, the number 3 keeps popping up: in their traditional card game, in computer diagnostics, everywhere. But the end result is always the same: the other ship rockets towards them and both ships explode. By the final repeat of events, they are starting to piece together what is happening. They are in a time loop. And they are trying to figure out what they can do differently to avoid getting stuck in the same sequence of events. Should they avoid the anomaly? What if avoiding it is what triggered it all? They are second guessing everything, especially the significance of the recurrent appearances of the number 3. When the other ship appears and they have seconds to act, both Data and Commander Riker are at the helm and make hurried suggestions to get the Enterprise out of the way of an imminent head-on collision. Captain Picard orders the logical android to carry out his suggestion. But just as he is about to punch the necessary buttons, Data notices Riker’s rank insignia: 3 pips. He intuits that Riker’s idea is the correct one and follows it instead. The Enterprise narrowly escapes hitting the phantom ship. Later they check the ship’s chronometer with Star Fleet’s and realize they have been in the time loop for 17 days. When they hail the other ship, it turns out they have been missing for 80 years! Data figures that during one of their unsuccessful attempt to abort the collision, in the split second before the explosion,he encoded the number 3, Riker’s rank insignia, into his positronic brain. When the loop repeated, the number leaked out into everything he did. Its frequency drew attention to the clue which indicated the person who knew how to save them.

What if humanity kept getting itself into a series of disasters by making the wrong choices? What if you were God and wanted to save them? What if they didn’t have a universal translator like the Enterprise but hundreds of languages and cultures and religions? How would you encode the clue to the person who could save them?

You might do what Data did: insert a meme, a persistent idea that would pop up everywhere, into their brains. The best place for it to manifest itself would be in their stories. Every culture tells stories of the hero’s journey, in which he is called to adventure, given supernatural aid, heads off on the journey, faces temptation and challenges, undergoes literal or metaphorical death and resurrection, wins a victory, is transformed, returns to his people with a great boon. Joseph Campbell called this the monomyth, the basic story that underlies the stories of countless cultures. It is the basic structure of many Greek, Roman and Mesopotamian myths and specifically the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, and Buddha. It also sounds a lot like the life of Jesus Christ.

Because of that, some people think Jesus is either fictional or that the gospel writers changed his story to make it fit this pattern. But that takes a level of literary awareness not found in the gospels. C.S. Lewis was a professor of literature who studied the myths of other cultures, in the original languages when possible. He said the gospels were not as well written as the myths. They struck him as reportage. But he did see the similarities and one of the things that led Lewis to become a Christian was that he became convinced that in Christ, myth became fact. The existence of pagan stories of dying and rising gods didn’t bother him. If the gospel were true, if this was God’s plan, then we should expect him to grant these prophesies even to pagans. “Good dreams” Lewis called them.

Joseph Campbell listed 17 stages in this universal hero’s journey. Few myths have all of them. Let’s see how close these pagan prophesies come to describing the gospel.

The first stage is the call to adventure. The hero is called from his mundane life to go on a quest. The parallel would be John the Baptist’s announcement that the Kingdom of God is near. It is at this point that Jesus comes to John to be baptized and begins his ministry.

Next the hero receives supernatural aid from a mentor or helper. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on him. Jesus says that it is by the power of the Holy Spirit that he casts out demons.

The hero crosses the threshold from the mundane world into a unknown and dangerous realm. It leads to his transformation. After his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil.

The hero walks the road of trials, facing tests he must overcome. As Jesus walks the roads of Galilee, he is tested by Pharisees, scribes and those who have no faith in him.

At this point the hero usually encounters a goddess or a temptress. The closest we have to this in the gospels is the woman taken in adultery and in a reversal on the myth, Jesus protects and forgives her.

At the center of the hero’s journey, he encounters the father with the power of life and death and makes atonement. The hero dies and is reborn. Jesus makes atonement for us with his Father by undergoing death on the cross and then rising again.

Having achieved his quest, the hero is granted the great boon he sought, often one that gives life or immortality. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus brings us life everlasting.

The hero returns over the threshold, sometimes facing further trials, and becomes the master of the two worlds. He achieves freedom from the fear of death. The trials Jesus faces after his resurrection is convincing his disciples to believe he has returned. They overcome their doubts and fears and proclaim him the Lord of heaven and earth.

Were it not for Jesus, the monomyth would be an interesting cross-cultural artifact, a oddly common story plot. But Jesus of Nazareth is real, a person in history. Paul’s earliest letters, written just 20 years after Jesus’ earthly life, already proclaim him as the Son of God who died for us and even mention 500 witnesses to his resurrection, most of whom are still alive at the time of the writing. The first gospel, written by Mark, the protégé of both Paul and Peter, will be written shortly after their martyrdoms. This is a mere 40 years after Jesus, well within the lifetime of witnesses who could contradict it.

Could what we have in writing have been altered or the truth lost over the years? We have literally thousands of early manuscripts with which to reconstruct the original texts. Look at the footnotes of any modern translation and you will see the variant reading, which are largely trivial. In addition we have hundreds of translations, which allows us to reconstruct the versions they were based on. Finally we have enough quotes in the early church fathers that we could construct the entire New Testament, except for 11 verses, from them alone. The only alternate gospels we have are more fantastical than the canonical 4. What we don't have is a demythologized account of Jesus. 

If we do not believe the writings of the New Testament, and the Jesus they describe, we must dismiss all ancient writings as well as the existence of all significant ancient individuals, such as Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Pythagoras, and Archimedes. Because the gap between the earliest copies of their writings and the original manuscripts is not mere decades but 800 years or more. Throw out Jesus and you must also lose any reliable evidence of the beginnings of science and reason in ancient Greece.    

Historians know that Jesus was born somewhere between 7 and 4 BC. He was crucified about 30 AD. Within 20 years he was worshipped as divine in communities across the Roman Empire. 40 years after the first Easter most of his disciples had gone to their deaths, joyfully proclaiming his resurrection. If it weren’t true, it would be like a growing community of people proclaiming President Kennedy’s resurrection at this close an interval to his death. In contrast, the legend of King Arthur doesn’t arise until nearly 400 years after he might have lived. And in Arthur’s case we have documents that show us how the legend evolved and the sources from which the elements were drawn. To say the same thing happened with the gospels in a 10th of that time is to assert something for which there is no historical evidence and which in fact goes against all historical precedent.        

C.S. Lewis was right. In Jesus, this myth, whose variations cross all times and cultures, became a fact. God seeded the human psyche with the clues, so that we would recognize him who can save us. And the story so answers our needs that we still consciously or unconsciously use it to weave the modern myths we tell in movies, TV, and comic books. Superman, the creation of two Jewish young men, is a kind of messiah. So are Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, Neo, Mr. Spock, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Aslan the lion and multiple characters in “The Lord of the Rings.” All these characters from pantheons past and present are clues leading us back to the original hero, Jesus Christ, who made the myth reality and calls us to the adventure of following him, offering us his aid through the tests and trials we encounter, and at the end of our journey, everlasting life in his kingdom.

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