Darken our Liteness: (Re-)discovering Christianity
I have recently been reading Diarmaid McCullouch’s A History of Christianity, which has led me to many new discoveries (or in some cases reminders of things I knew already), and these in turn have led me to a perplexing thought.
Among the (re-)discoveries are: the fact that the first five books of the Old Testament were written hundreds of years after the writings of the major prophets (who were not fortune tellers but interpreters of God’s will), that Moses was half Egyptian, that Jesus almost certainly was not born in Bethlehem, and that the Romans did not hold censuses in occupied territories. And so on.
McCulloch also observes that Origen, the early third century biblical scholar and Christian theologian, asked ‘Who is so silly as to believe that God … planted a paradise eastward in Eden, and set in it a visible and palpable tree of life, … that anyone who tasted its fruit with his bodily teeth would gain life?’ McCullouch wryly comments that Origen would have been sad that seventeen centuries later millions of Christians are that silly.
Now, all these (re-)discoveries have in no way perturbed my Christian faith, but they have, not for the first time, made me wonder why so often when I visit churches I find a world where historical accuracy is dispensed with, and self-evident metaphor is talked about as if it were literal truth, even when the talker (often with the benefit of years in theological college) knows perfectly well that it isn’t.
Why, if in a few weeks time I attend a Christmas service anywhere in the country, will I hear – not just in traditional carols but from the mouths of learned clergy – an account of a baby born in Bethlehem in a stable because there was no room in the local inn? Why do I so often hear the adult Christ portrayed as a kind of magician, a panacea for all kinds of petty human woes, a grown-ups’ comfort blanket, rather than the man in whom we, sometimes terrifyingly, encounter God.
I can happily put up with (some of) the embroidery because, strangely, I know it’s not true, but also because I know that there is a deeper truth, a greater Mystery. Of course, sometimes the way to the Mystery is through the myth and the metaphor. But the way should never stop at the myth. My concern is that preoccupation with, or even hiding behind, the myth does a disservice to the church itself and its founder. More, it is a betrayal. Paradoxically those who most vehemently argue against myth and metaphor are often found to be propagating the fertile fallacies of the worst kind of myth.
Instead wouldn’t it be better if we focused on living myths, those mysteries we can truly enter into, live by even? True and living myths are places to be visited where fact and story creatively collide, with each illuminating and enhancing the other. Living myths contain the deepest and most meaningful truths. The Living Christian Myths, of course, contain not just earthly but eternal truths. The beauty of the living myth is that it allows those who take it seriously to move beyond mere cognitive (historic and scientific) acceptance of facts.
Failure to take myth seriously leads to grave misunderstandings, like those of the man who, when he put money into the Christian Aid collecting tin my wife was holding, said, “Of course, I’m Darwin.” “I’m sorry?” “I believe in evolution!” “So do I.” “Oh, but I thought Christians…”
Churches so often try to appeal to those outside their (literal and metaphorical) walls by offering Christianity Lite – sugary, sentimental, simplistic – and then seem surprised that attendances continue to fall. I think that if churches stuck to the hard stuff, the Gethsemane moments, the real message of the Cross, they might be surprised how many would turn to them in their existential angst. People may need simplicity, but they also need straightforward substance. Paradoxically, they then might be able to hear the angels sing!