Sunday, December 27, 2015

Isn't the Nativity story just mythology? - part 2

Continued from last week….
I went through seminary from the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s. I was taught more about what the Bible was not than what it was. These were heady times, right after the Second Vatican council. I remember the first time I played the guitar at a hootenanny Mass.  I was an accomplished artist; I could play the chords G, C, and D and was working on E minor.  The music group “Up with People” was all the rage. The documentary “Smile 'Til It Hurts,” a documentary history, credits Halliburton, General Motors, Exxon, and Searle with subsidizing the cheery music group as the antidote to the hippie subculture.
Up! Up! with people!
You meet 'em wherever you go!
Up! Up! with people!
They're the best kind of folks we know.
If more people were for people,
All people ev'rywhere,
There'd be a lot less people to worry about,
And a lot more people who care!
Sixty years later I can still hear the lyrics to that song like some horrible echo in my brain. It is like remembering the song on the radio before the car went over the cliff. I was amazed to hear that the music group is still around and sang for the pope on December 2nd of this year. The wonder of it all!
Where was I? Oh yes, as Up with People was supposed to be the antidote to the hippie subculture. It didn’t work. We chose the hippie sub-culture because it involved drugs, sex and rock and roll.  The hippie subculture did however have something in common with the Up with People movement and its chipper theme song. Both were smugly optimistic. The theme song of Up with People urged us to care more and then everything would be alright. 
If the hippy subculture had a theme song, I suppose it would have to vote for “This is the Dawning of the Age Aquarius.”  Everything was going to more than alright. It was going to be great because something had happened in the constellations and the new age of openness was here and we, the hippies were here and we would do it right in our drug crazed haze. We weren’t going to screw it up like our parents did. We were going to be all natural, except for our recreational chemicals and our birth control pill fueled sexual revolution. We were nonviolent.
Now we are tenured professors. (All except for me. I never managed to score tenure. I still have to work for a living.) Many of us are still teaching the next generation, who would be our grandchildren if we’d managed to have any children.  We are teaching them to be nonjudgmental and nonviolent and non-polluting and non-married and non-parental and non-religious and non-employed. Maybe it will work better this time. Please excuse me. I have gotten off the track. Back to whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or not.
We conceived a colossal disdain for our parents and for everything that had gone before us. We were going to make everything better by a huge explosion of good will and niceness.  Part of our disdain was to smirk at how people before us were so very gullible. They believed in miracles and the Bible and a lot of other myths that were really just the same as every other mythological religion. You could create your own religion if you wanted to. It helped if you could score some peyote, or go on some Native American spirit quest to find your animal spirit guide (With my luck, mine would probably have been a hamster or a hedgehog.)
Ah they were heady times. We who were better than those yahoos who had preceded us could take apart the Holy Scriptures with the help of our de-mythologizing professors. Bethlehem was just a construct that fulfilled Old Testament prophecy, but it couldn’t be real, because there was no such thing as prophecy, unless of course you got one from your indigenous shaman or your animal spirit guide. Certainly the prophecies of Scripture were just after the fact inventions. 
I managed my way back to the faith through the Pentecostal movement, but still had the nagging suspicion that all the holy places and relics etc. were just part of the medieval tourist trade and we moderns who were scientifically and mentally superior to the rubes who wrote the Bible knew that these things were just too good to be true. After all, who could remember back 2,000 years? Then I met Amer Sahade.
Amer is a tour guide from the Holy Land. He is a Christian, and a graduate of the University of Albuquerque and a really smart fellow. He reminded us that his people had lived in the Holy Land since time immemorial. They were there from the beginning. (Genetic tests actually confirm this.)  He also pointed out that people before the invention of printing had great memories because they didn’t have the opportunity to write everything down and then forget it. His people had not yet lost that memory. He told a story about how his grandfather pointed out the tree that the old man had been shown by his own grandfather when he was a little boy, a memory stretching back perhaps one hundred and fifty years.
I remembered Cardinal George once reminiscing about how his grandmother told stories of her own grandmother and what it had been like to be Catholic in Kentucky in 1812. He talked about their meetings on Sunday during which they said the rosary, fear the Sunday readings from the lectionary and had a big meal. That was a memory stretching back almost two hundred years.  I was able to find my German cousins because of memories that stretch back from the present to 1866. These simple stories are remembered for centuries by people to whom they are important. How much more carefully would the memories of the amazing events surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth be remembered?  This changed everything. It was around 100 AD, a long lifetime after the resurrection of Jesus, that people started to come from distant places to search for the holy places revered by the indigenous Christian community of which Amer was a descendant and it was not long after this that these things were written down and have remained fixed until our time.
Next week: on to Bethlehem!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Isn't the Nativity story just mythology? - part 1

Dear Rev. Know-it-all,

I heard in a lecture at my church that the whole story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem was just mythology. Could this be true? 
 Nathaniel “Nat” Yvitei

Dear Nat,
I suppose it could be true, but I, for one, doubt it. To understand what is going on here you have to go back to the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a European philosophical movement in the 18th century. The gulf between the aristocracy and the poor reached a tipping point in Europe, and much of the hierarchy of the Church seemed to be just part of the aristocratic government. Reason, scientific progress and the questioning of state and church authority were at the heart of the enlightenment. In most countries church and state were anything but separate. The Enlightenment was all about free individual thought, experience, and empirical knowledge. Religious orthodoxy was particularly mistrusted by the philosophers of the enlightenment. 

So it was, that the Bible, the sacrosanct text on which the culture of the West was built, became fair game for critical scholarship. The enlightenment began in 1715, the year Louis XIV died and it exploded onto the European and American stage in the years following. The enlightenment begot the American Revolution, the American Revolution begot the French Revolution which begot Napoleon which begot the Franco-Prussian War which begot the First World War which begot the Russian revolution which begot the Second World War which begot the Chinese Revolution, etc. etc.

When Napoleon spread the Revolution to much of the rest of the world, it found its way into the established religious world as well. Catholicism was almost obliterated by the French Revolution, but survived because Napoleon thought it wise to make peace with the pope. There was no pope in non-Catholic northern Europe, whose Christianity was based on the principle of sola scriptura, Bible alone. When the lens of the enlightenment was focused on the text of scripture, the result was earth-shaking.

The enlightenment philosophers did not easily believe in things supernatural, and so discounted the miraculous nature of the Christian faith as a remnant of Dark Age superstition.  Combine Bible Only theology and Enlightenment skepticism and the Bible becomes problematic.  In 1804, or thereabouts, Thomas Jefferson, one of the great lights of the Enlightenment in the Americas, wrote “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”, also called the Jefferson Bible”, as representing  the true teachings  of Jesus in which he cut out sections of the New Testament.  He removed all the miracles of Jesus including the resurrection and any passages which supported the divinity of Jesus. He created a New Testament acceptable to the most materialist enlightenment thinkers. Fast forward two centuries to the aftermath of World War I.

In the 1930’s, the post-World War I turmoil in Germany produced Hitler as well as a movement for a German Christianity purified of its Jewish influences. This movement in turn, produced the “Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life.” In 1941, the Institute published “Germans with God: a German Catechism.” It left out miracles, the virgin birth, incarnation, resurrection, and portrayed an Aryan Jesus, just a human being who died martyred by the Jews. They wanted to make the faith acceptable to the Nazis, but the Nazis were opposed to Christianity even in its mildest most materialist forms. The Nazification of the Bible was of a piece with prevailing Christian enlightenment thought however. The enlightenment spawned numerous attempts to conform Jesus to the prevailing political and cultural need, to create an acceptable form of Christianity that a well-educated post enlightenment man could use to occupy his Sunday mornings. The Scriptures were not a superior revelation, but to those who were enlightened, it was a text like any other, something that they could purify of its unenlightened catholic superstitions.

Image result for Rudolf Bultmannopposed to their anti- Semitism, but nonetheless he was part of the move to demythologize the Scriptures. In his 1941 book “The German theologian Rudolf Bultmann was not a collaborator with Nazis. He was especially New Testament and Mythology” he claimed that it is no longer plausible for Christians to believe the mythical view found in the New Testament “We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament.”

New Testament mythology must be replaced by a more human understanding that “…discloses the truth of the kerygma (a Gospel proclamation) as kerygma for those who do not think myth logically…. There is nothing specifically Christian about the mythical world picture, which is simply the world picture of a time now past which was not yet formed by scientific thinking.” 

It was after the Second World War that Catholics really started to pay attention to the enlightenment currents in Scripture study. Many adopted the prejudice that miracles are impossible, and thus seemingly accurate prophecy must be an anachronism, a later text written as if previous to the event, or if a prophecy, such as the prophecy regarding the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem, it must be invented. These scholars point out that the journeys and place changes between Bethlehem and Nazareth are impossible, and that the possibility of a virgin birth is completely nonexistent.  These ideas rest entirely on the assumption that people who went before us were stupid or dishonest or both. The effort to rescue a sort of Christianity from the swamp of stupidity that they believe the Bible to be, just seems sad to me. If it is just a pile of myths with a few good slogans, why not give up the whole thing? (unless of course  you are a tenured professor of theology with a nice office and a good parking space on campus.)  In a fit of enlightenment honesty, most of Europe has given up its belief in the Jewish mythology that is the Bible. And Europe is dying.

I was rigorously schooled in the enlightened demythology of the 60’s, that hold-over from the pro- and anti-Nazi demytholigizers of the early twentieth century. I half believed them till I met someone named Amer, a tour guide from the Holy Land who was a graduate of the University of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He convinced me that Jesus really did multiply loaves and fishes and that he really was born in a cave in Bethlehem.

I’ll tell you about him in my next installment.