True Christianity

I believe there probably was a real Jesus, who lived around two millennia ago, and became a spiritual and political leader and caused a hell of a lot of problems for the Romans. There’s significant evidence to suggest that such a person existed, inasmuch as there’s evidence that any particular person existed that long ago. I figure, if a consummate skeptic like Michael Shermer can take for granted the existence of Jesus, that seems good enough for me.

I believe that Jesus probably said a lot of the things attributed to him. I think that believing he said all the things attributed to him paints a picture of a man who may have been highly unbalanced, who may have suffered from any number of psychological or physiological maladies. However, I like to think the best about people, so I tend to believe that he was genuinely humble, that he genuinely wanted people to love one another and live in peace, and that he was genuinely upset at the state of religion and politics and his people’s general well-being. I believe he probably did some travelling and learned some of these ideas from people versed in Eastern philosophy, given the striking parallels between the words of Christ and the teachings of Buddha. I believe that Jesus was executed by the Romans, using the method of crucifixion, for causing political unrest.

I watched “The Last Temptation of Christ” tonight, and I really enjoyed it. Until seeing that, I couldn’t have seen someone with Jesus’s track record on speeches about peace and love and kindness would then go and say “I come to bring a sword,” and do all the things that “Spectacle Jesus” went on to do. Yet, I think Kanzantzakis and Scorsese gave a fantastic vision of a conflicted, insecure Christ who perhaps tried too hard to be all things to all people. I think they gave a very realistic interpretation of what might cause such shifts in the personality of such a man.

I believe that Christ’s disciples, following his death, began telling his story and spreading his teachings in a near-universal mythological context. The stories of mythical heroes like Dionysus, Heracles, Gilgamesh, Mithras, and many others, all follow a basic pattern that Joseph Campbell called the Monomyth. Even Biblical figures like Moses and Joseph fit the template. Certainly Jesus’s followers knew these stories, and they would have seen these rules as guidelines for telling epic tales. They fit the life of Jesus into the model provided by the Epic tradition, embellishing the details in order to compare Jesus with the other great heroes of Hebraic and Indo-European traditions, and to give a framework that would impart his teachings and give them gravitas and divine authority.

The story of Christ became an Epic Narrative, following the traditional rules of an Epic Hero tale, in the same way that the Elizabethans followed the traditional rules of sonnet-production when writing their sonnets. This would make the Christ story resonate with the mythological traditions of the era, and would make it far easier to remember and repeat in the oral traditions necessary to spread the word among uneducated commoners.

This wasn’t necessarily an uncommon practice. Even before his death, people told the story of Caesar Augustus in such a framework. His mother, Atia, was entered by Apollo in the guise of a serpent, and he left a mark on her that would not come off. Ten months following, she gave birth to Octavian, who would become Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. Royal leaders, like Augustus, were supposed to be the children of their gods. The Messiah, the king of the Jews, was to have a similar divine right. Is it so hard to believe that Hebrews living in a society that made such narratives out of the lives of their kings would do so with their own king? It immediately drew the parallel between Augustus, the great Emperor of Rome, and Jesus, the great Emperor of the Jews and the commoners. It was heretical, it was blasphemous, and I’m sure it made many decide to follow them.

Some Christians today would claim that the above is heresy. If Christ’s life story is false, they might say, then Christianity is like unto a house built upon sand. If Christ’s life story was fabricated or embellished or exaggerated by his followers, then why belive in him at all?

If ever there was a case of seeing the forest and never glancing at the trees, it is this argument. Caesar Augustus is said by some to be the greatest of the Roman Emperors. When we tell the story of Rosa Parks to our children, we tell it as though she were a regular woman who suddenly got swept up into the civil rights movement due to that bus incident. We leave out the fact that she had been active in the movement before that, and was engaging in an act of nonviolent protest. It makes for a better narrative, and the kids can learn that detail later on. Are their works invalidated, made somehow lesser, by this embellishment?

I daresay they are not. Neither, then, are the words and teachings of Christ. Just because his followers packaged the teachings in an Epic Narrative doesn’t make the teachings any less valid, applicable, or positive. Even if the guy who said “Love thy neighbor” wasn’t the son of God, it doesn’t make loving your neighbor any less of a good idea.

Too many Christians get too hung up on Christ’s divinity and authority, when those concerns are really incidental to what’s important about Christianity. You can debate the textuality and theology of the sacrifice on the cross and Original Sin and transsubstantiation all you want, it has very little practical, real-life application. Meanwhile, you’re missing out on the point of being a Christ-ian, which is to be like Christ. J.C. didn’t sit around contemplating his navel over abstract concepts and issues. He taught people, he spread good messages, he gave to the poor and attacked the power base of the rich. He made the common people feel like they mattered, like they deserved respect. He acted.

So it seems to me that the ideal of Christianity ought to be living a Christ-like life: preaching kindness and forgiveness and love, supporting the rights of the common people, and opposing tyranny and hate and oppression. It should be action, not prayer; faith in the goodness of humans, not in divine intervention. The true Christians are the ones who act, who do more than talk, who provide a positive inspiration, who live like they want others to live, preach what they want others to preach, and treat others like they want to be treated. Is this not the true ideal of Christianity? Should this not be the focus of Christians trying to spread their gospel, to spread their beliefs?

But it’s easier to bash gays and deny science, for all the good it does society, for all the credibility it lends to the church, for how well it inspires people to do good things for their fellow humans. It’s easier to trash this world and destroy and tear down, believing that there is something better in the afterlife, than it is to build up and be constructive. Don’t these people believe that Christ was persecuted and suffered and died? Did he take the easy way out? How is it “Christian” to do only what comes easily to human nature?

If all you believe is that Jesus was born in a manger and died on a cross, then you might as well be a Mithraist or Dionysian or Osiran. The narrative’s purpose is to present the greater message, the stories and speeches that made Christ (relatively) unique. To ignore those is to ignore the “Christ” part of being a Christian.

Next: The coming of Slacker Jesus!

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2 Responses to True Christianity

  1. Anebo says:

    There is something to your idea, referenced in several posts here, that there is a basic similarity between theology and fannish speculation, and something I hadn’t thought of before. A few points, and just to use the appeal to authorty, let me say I’m a Classics professor and a specialist in ancient religion:1. There is no chance that Jesus traveled to india or anyhwere else he may have learned about Buddhism. This is a racist argument first thought of by Schopenhauer (and dear to Wagner). The way it works is that if Jesus’ ideas come from Inida then they must be Aryan, owing to the ancient Aryan conquest of that country. You see where this leads.2. Joseph Campbell is to ancient religion what ID is to evolution (he was also a Fascist, but no need to go into ad hominem attacks). Instead you might want to look at Walter Burkert.3. The oldest strata of Gospel production incudes Q and the signs source. Mark does not draw on these sources but is a much more sophsitcated form so is somewhat younger since it reprsents a litterary approach for an audience further from eye-witnesses to Jesus. Thomas comes from the same age as Mark if not a little earlier since it is msotly an elabroation of Q and related sayings materials. Matthew and Luke draw on Mark and Q and so are younger–no way to tell which is older that the other, though. Don’t forget that Acts is the second book of Luke (i.e. by the same author)John uses the signs source and some Markan material. It is often thought to be late becuase it is more interested in theology than the others, but this is not necessiarly the case.

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    Let me just start by saying that I had to go re-read the whole post to understand what you were talking about, since I’ve not looked at it in years. It’s interesting to see how much my mind has changed on these issues. I think I may have to do a follow-up. 1. That’s interesting; anymore, I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the parallels between the two philosophies are anything significant. Most of Jesus’s good advice is stuff that anyone could (and many did) come up with through a slight application of reason. 2. I’d like to hear more about Campbell. I know about his sexism and Catholic-centric views, and I tend to muddle his work with Lord Raglan’s in my mind, but I’m curious about how the ID comparison works. Anyway, at the time I had some quasi-Jungian view of the Monomyth, and I was just a little too enamored with it. I put it in a causal relationship here, and that was a major mistake. 3. The subject of textual criticism and the history of the book is one I’m very interested, but not very knowledgeable, in. I read “Misquoting Jesus” a year or so ago and absolutely loved it, but I haven’t really looked into it since then. In all honesty, that seems a much more interesting story than the one told in the text.

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