Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mythtaken Ideas

I love the show "Mythbusters" even though it is misnamed. After all, they are not disproving stories of Zeus or Venus. They are testing urban legends. In fact, during the first season they had a folklorist, who recounted the origin of the stories. In literary circles, a myth is a sacred story of divine beings. To scholars of myths, like Joseph Campbell, a myth is not a big lie but a big truth in the form of a story that resonates in a culture. That's how Plato used them, as did Freud. If the story is about fairies or giants or humans, it is not myth but folklore. And if the protagonist is a human hero or a saint and the story can't be historically verified but has been handed down by tradition, it is a legend. The stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood are legends. Many historians now think there may have been actual persons who were so popular that stories about them were embroidered upon. In the case of Arthur we can actually see the development of his tales over time because we have several versions written at different periods. We can see how other tales were added to his, even if they were originally about other heroes, like Bran the Blessed. The stories of the Holy Grail and Lancelot were additions to his saga that eventually became integral to the Arthuriad.

The reason I'm defining these terms is because of our Sermon Suggestion for this month: "Lore, superstition, mythology and religion: where do we draw the line? And why or how?" One could write a book on this so I'll have to stick to a few highlights.

First let's take care of the term "superstition." It's basically magical thinking. It is observing a ritual or heeding omens in the belief that doing so will magically protect one from bad luck or insure good luck. Some people equate magic and religion and so they see religion as a form of superstition. But magic is the belief that one can impose one's will on the universe by means of special words, rituals or objects. Theistic religion is the surrender to God's will. We ask for things in prayer but we do not believe that we can make God do anything. Even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane did not presume to tell his Father how things must be. He said, "Not my will but yours be done." All Christian prayer must include this qualifier, at least as a subtext.

Of course, there are some traditional religious practices that do smack of superstition. Some Christians treat objects, like crucifixes, scapulars, and prayer cloths, or certain rituals, like prayers to saints or certain forms of prayers, as if they were magical. But even the sacraments, which are outward visible signs of inner spiritual grace, are not magical. Paul writes that those who partake unworthily do not receive the benefit of communion. That's because one's faith must be in God, not in the object which is the channel of his grace. And one's relationship with God must be in a good state, not clouded by unfaithfulness and sins.

Put it this way. One may desire to have a picture of a loved one or a lock of their hair or a ring they gave you. The purpose is to remind you of them or to symbolize their love. But it would be weird for you to tell the picture to make you dinner thinking it would make the person do the same or to tell the ring to make the person dial their phone and call you. That would be magical thinking or superstition. We aren't dealing with that.

But how does one separate mythology from religion? If myths are stories of gods, does that make all the stories in the Bible myth? How do we know the stories of the Bible are true if the Greek or Roman myths are not?

Here's where it would take a book to explain all the differences. For our purposes, I'm going to concentrate on just one story--that of Jesus. If Jesus, as God Incarnate, fits the criteria of a myth in that it is a story about a god, doesn't that make him just one of many dying and rising gods? What makes the story of Jesus unique?

There are plenty of books out there that claim that Jesus of Nazareth never actually existed and his story was composed of bits from all the other dying and rising gods. There are several problems with this line of argument but the really fatal flaw is that the evidence for such gods just isn't there. This idea got started in the 19th century when Scottish anthropologist Sir James Frazer tried to put together an evolutionary framework for religions (since discredited) and created the category of the dying and rising god, which he thought was common in agricultural societies and would be based on the dying of crops in winter and their coming back in spring. The problem is that to make Frazer's schema work you have to force most gods into the category. Almost all of the gods who die are never resurrected, though, like Osiris, they may continue in the afterlife. Some die as men and are made gods after death. And a number of them actually come after Jesus and thus are more likely copies of him than vice versa. Scholars of Attis, the only resurrected pagan god, concede that his mythology was changed to better compete with Christianity.

There is a film on the Internet and on Netflix called "The God Who Wasn't There." In it, ex-Christian Brian Flemming lists 17 attributes that he says other gods share with Jesus. A careful examination shows that 8 of these so-called common attributes, such as riding into a city on a donkey, being betrayed for 30 pieces of silver, sharing a communal meal with his followers in which bread and wine represent the savior's flesh and blood, dying on a tree or cross, are in fact unique to Jesus. Attis is the only one to rise on the third day and as we've seen, this appears to be a later addition to his story influenced by Jesus. Most of the other attributes, such as healing people, casting out demons, performing miracles and rising into heaven, are the sort of things one expects in any story of a god. For more on this subject, go here and here. These sites examine the "Jesus as copycat god" thesis, go to the original sources and find nothing of substance to support this idea.

C. S. Lewis, himself once an atheist who found to his horror that the evidence for God was compelling, made a number of remarks about Jesus and mythology. When he read the gospels in the original Greek, the literature professor in him discovered that they did not read as myths but as reporting. They weren't "good enough" to be myths. However, Lewis did come to the conclusion that in Christ, myth became fact. Jesus' healings and miracles, his death and resurrection took place, not in some special mythic time, but in history. Nor was Lewis troubled by any parallels, seeing them as the pagan equivalent of the messianic prophesies in the Old Testament.

So is there evidence that Jesus was an historical person? Yes. Besides the New Testament, Jesus Christ is mentioned by a handful of other non-Christian writers. The most accepted references include one in Josephus, the Jewish historian on whom we rely for much information about 1st century Galilee and Judea. Another is found in the writings of Tacitus, a Roman senator and one of Rome's greatest historians. He is the first secular historian to mention Christ. He says that Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate and details how Nero blamed Christians for burning Rome and persecuted them. His friend Pliny the Younger was a Roman governor who tortured and executed Christians. He writes that genuine Christians are truthful and will not curse Christ even under torture and the threat of death. Pliny is also the only person to write a contemporary account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. I mention this in response to the question of why there aren't more references to the historical Jesus. If a fiery cataclysm that buried thousands of people in 2 towns less than 6 miles from Naples didn't rate more than one write-up (and that 30 years after the event), then in comparison, the handful of mentions Jesus gets is downright amazing.

Granted that Jesus existed, how do we know that his followers didn't turn an executed Jewish preacher into a legendary figure who was later promoted to God? Let's look again at King Arthur. If he existed, he would have lived in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. The first reference to him that we can date is 3 centuries later. And there he is called a soldier or battle leader who won a key battle over the invading Saxons. It takes another 3 centuries for him to be listed as a king. So it took 600 years for Arthur just to reach royalty. How long does it take for the historical Jesus to be called God? No more than 20 years. That's how long it was from Jesus' crucifixion in 30 AD to Paul's earliest extant letters. It doesn't seem anywhere near long enough. How could a bunch of devout Jews, monotheists, come to worship a man?

The only answer is his resurrection. When Jesus rose from the dead, as he had predicted, it made his followers rethink everything. They saw him forgive people, heal them, raise the dead, walk on water, command the storms, die and come back again. He called himself the Son of God. After Easter, it was hard to argue that he was anything else.

The earliest account of Jesus' resurrection occurs in Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. He says 500 followers saw Jesus after the resurrection. That's a pretty gutsy thing to say when most of them were still alive. But it does explain the explosion of Christianity so shortly after Jesus' earthly life ends. After all by 60 AD there are enough Christians in Rome for Nero to see them as a dangerous sect. It explains how Jesus was hailed as God in 1/30th of the time it took Arthur to be called a mere king.

There is a lot more that can be said about the topic of mythology, legend and religion. Such as, are there any myths in the Bible, non-historical stories that embody great truths? Some Christians think there might, especially in the first few chapters of Genesis. And we would still have the affirmations that God created the world, that humanity was made in his image, that we sin through our bad choices, and that God is both just and merciful. Because it has an explicit moral about God's universal love and forgiveness, the story of Jonah works just as well as a parable as it does as a true story. The Book of Job loses nothing of its power as an acknowledgement and exploration of the fact that bad things can happen to good people whether it is historical or not. But wouldn't granting the possibility that not everything in the Bible may be up to 21st century standards of scientifically-verifiable facts compromise the whole Bible? Only if saying that when you met your future spouse, your heart leaped from your chest, something which is medically impossible, also invalidates your love. The truth remains whatever language or literary device is used to express it.

Martin Luther had a very good analogy about the relationship between Christ and the Bible. He compares it to the infant Jesus in the manger. The manger contained Christ. It held him up and cradled him. In it, he was presented to the shepherds who came to find the newborn Messiah. But our focus should be on Jesus, not the feedbox or the hay. We don't want to be like the baby in the Mastercard commercial who ignores the gifts of love sent to her and plays with the box instead. There are skeptics who are so focused on the construction of the manger, so to speak, and the quality of the hay that they ignore God's greatest gift, his Son. And there are Christians who seem to be more interested in proving that the manger meets modern engineering and child safety standards that the Jesus gets lost in the haze of arguments. I have a high view of the trustworthiness of Scripture. But I try not to lose track of what is essential: who Jesus is, what he has done for us and is doing in us, and what we should do in response.

Here's an example of why it's important to focus on the central message of the Bible, the good news of Jesus. Ravi Zacharias tells the story of Hien Pham, an interpreter who worked with Zacharias and other missionaries in Viet Nam in 1971. After South Viet Nam fell to the Vietcong, Pham was imprisoned for working with the American forces. It was 17 years before Zacharias heard from Pham again. And this is what he told him.

Pham's captors began to indoctrinate him with a constant stream of communist propaganda in Vietnamese and French and after a while his faith in God began to waver. He was sent to clean the latrines, the most loathsome job in the prison. While emptying a tin can full of used toilet paper he saw a sheet of paper in English. He washed it and hid it on him. That night, after his roommates went to bed, he pulled it out. It read "Romans Chapter 8." His eyes fell on the words "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him." That page concluded, "for I am convinced that nothing shall be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Pham wept for he had just decided that day to stop praying to a God he had begun to doubt.

So he volunteered to clean the latrines every day and every day he found a page of the Bible, which he cleaned, hid and read that night. Someone was showing their contempt for Scripture by using it as toilet paper, not knowing that God was using those very pages to save Hien Pham's faith and his sanity.

When Pham was released from prison, he and 53 other men decided to escape Viet Nam by building a boat. Days before they left, 4 Vietcong knocked on Pham's door and confronted him with rumors about the escape. He denied it and they left. But he felt he had let God down by not telling the truth. Then, just hours before he was to leave, the 4 Vietcong returned and asked him if he was planning to escape. Trembling he told them the truth. They dropped their voices and asked if they could go, too!

58 men went to sea on a handmade boat. They hit a storm and it looked as if they would drown. And they would have, were it not for the sailing skills of those 4 Vietcong. They made it to Thailand and today Hien Pham lives in America.

That's the power of God's Word. It preserved a wavering Christian during imprisonment, indoctrination and degradation. It gave him the courage to tell his enemies a dangerous truth. It made those enemies allies and ultimately saved the lives of 58 men.

So when people say the Bible is all lies, that Christ didn't exist, or that the Jesus of history couldn't be the Christ of faith, when they heap all kinds of crap on the Gospel, just clean it off and let Scripture speak to you. Let the power of the living Word of God come through his written Word which has outlasted thousands of critics over thousands of years. And focus on Jesus, because all things work for the good of those who love God his Father and nothing can separate from the love of God that we see, hear and experience in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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