He is Risen Indeed!

James Carroll, writing for the Boston Globe, has a very nice article on the significance of Easter. 

This is a follow up in theme to my past article on Biblical literalism and the symbolic value of Biblical stories.  I cited an article in The Christian Century lamenting our inability to read the metaphoric meaning in artistic and spiritual texts. 

“A literalist imagination— or lack of imagination— pervades contemporary culture,” wrote the article’s author, Conrad Hyers.

In today’s Globe, Carroll asks what would happen if there had been a video camera fixed on Jesus’ tomb, and what if it showed nothing?

…would Christian faith thereby collapse?

Of course not. Why? Because the resurrection of Jesus is addressed not to a machine but to the eyes of faith. The example, though, demonstrates the modern fallacy — the way a post-Enlightenment religious imagination gets easily sidetracked into questions of “scientific’’ or “historical’’ proof. What “actually’’ happened on Easter and in the days after? Were the laws of nature upended by a “miracle’’ or not?

…It trivializes what Paul means when he says “appeared’’ to reduce it to mere apparitions. There are apparitions in Virgil’s “Aeneid,’’ and in all kinds of ancient narratives. Revived cadavers are irrelevant. No, Paul is declaring that believers were enabled all at once to grasp that the abandoned Jesus was ultimately exalted by the one he called Father. That is what believers saw. Paul does not say how it happened.

The death of Jesus was not the end of the story. Indeed, with the death of Jesus, the human story is transformed, with death perceived now as entry into the ultimate reality — who is called God. Human destiny, therefore, is not nothingness, but meaning… Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was not a suspension of the laws of nature, but a fulfillment of them — a personal event without being physiological, a real happening without being “historical.’’ Christian faith is not in “after life,’’ but in eternal life, which is beyond categories of time. “Life,’’ as Jesus himself said, “life to the full.’’ To be fully alive is to be aware of being held here and now in what does not die, and in what does not drop what it holds. God. Resurrection is the word Christians have for this awareness. And why should it not have ignited the ancient world?

The Red Letter Christians today ran an article Do I Deny the Resurrection by Hugh Hollowell, which touches on the same theme.

“Do I deny the resurrection of Christ?” Hollowell wrote, “I can do no better than to quote Peter Rollins on the subject.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

Hollowell concludes: “If I act hateful, or in fact, less than loving to my neighbor, I have denied the resurrection… And I can believe whatever you want about what happened that Sunday morning, but if I am not using what power I have to help God bring the Kingdom into fruition, to help make it on Earth as it is in Heaven, I don’t expect you to call me a Christian.”

In the Beginning Was the Word

Not long ago I was watching a documentary on The History Channel and one of the interviewed scholars noted that Biblical literalism— interpreting the words of the Bible as literal rather than metaphorical— is a modern invention.  The scholar noted that this way of reading the Bible only dated back to the 20th century.

We most strongly associate Evangelicals and conservative Christians with a literal interpretation of scripture, but the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that modern atheists and agnostics also discuss religion within the framework of Biblical literalism, and their rejection of faith—our rejection as I was raised a good agnostic Unitarian—is a rejection of a literal interpretation, which is easy to attack as irrational and anti-intellectual.

The God that atheists do not believe in is the one described literally in the Bible’s pages.  They reject miracles because they cannot be scientifically or historically true.  They point out the contradictions from one Biblical story to another.  If they contradict, then there cannot be “truth” in them.

It is popular among secular humanists to reject the supernaturalism of Christianity while praising the historical Jesus as a wise teacher. (Who can really argue against “blessed are the peacemakers”?) Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to take this approach. He literally cut his Bible apart and excised the miraculous and mythic.  The resulting “Jefferson Bible” was a collection of the scientifically and historically believable sayings and events in the life of a human Jesus.

But what he edited out, along with the myths, was the powerful symbolism—the art of the imagination, the metaphorical understanding of the nature of life.  In Jefferson’s Bible there were no angels, no wise men and no resurrection. There was, as Stephen Prothero wrote in “American Jesus,” a son of a carpenter who “did little more than wander around Galilee delivering pithy moral aphorisms.”

Back in 1982, Dr. Conrad Hyers wrote an article for The Christian Century on the topic of Biblical literalism and the lost art of thinking symbolically, he wrote:

The early ethnologist R. R. Marett is noted for his dictum that “religion is not so much thought out as danced out.” But even when thought out, religion is focused in the verbal equivalent of the dance: myth, symbol and metaphor. To insist on assigning to it a literal, one-dimensional meaning is to shrink and stifle and distort the significance… Religious expression trembles with a sense of inexpressible mystery, a mystery which nevertheless addresses us in the totality of our being.

The literal imagination is univocal. Words mean one thing, and one thing only. They don’t bristle with meanings and possibilities; they are bald, clean-shaven. Literal clarity and simplicity, to be sure, offer a kind of security in a world (or Bible) where otherwise issues seem incorrigibly complex, ambiguous and muddy. But it is a false security, a temporary bastion, maintained by dogmatism and misguided loyalty. Literalism pays a high price for the hope of having firm and unbreakable handles attached to reality. The result is to move in the opposite direction from religious symbolism, emptying symbols of their amplitude of meaning and power, reducing the cosmic dance to a calibrated discussion.

There are different ways of understanding “truth.” There are scientific truths, mathematic truths, historical truths and then there are the other kinds of truths: the poetic, emotional, artistic and mythological truths.  These are truths that are best revealed through parables, metaphors and art.  Powerful imagery matters. The stories we tell matter.

We have, for example, been telling stories of death/destruction and rebirth throughout time and across cultures; from the floods of Gilgamesh and Noah to the resurrection of Jesus. These stories have been passed along from generation to generation because of the deep spiritual truths they contain. Thus they have the power, not only to spark our imaginations, and provide us a cultural context for art and expression, but also to bind us together with other human societies throughout time.

I contend Jefferson had it entirely backwards when he took the scissors to his Bible. If you had a choice between losing all evidence of the historic person of Jesus or losing the story of a being who was resurrected, then Jesus would be the much smaller loss. Fortunately, we have both the “pithy aphorisms,” the sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus which continue to inspire and the tales of miracles and wonder and even if it is one of the least accurate translations from a scholarly standpoint—we can still respond to the poetry of the King James Bible.

We have the capacity to explore the world with science and reason, and the intellect to use those tools to make the world a better place.  Our rational minds and the scientific method need not be incompatible with a sense of wonder or worship.  In our celebration of rationality, let’s not forget the other birthright we have as humans—the ability to think and communicate symbolically—the ability to share powerful stories and to find truth and meaning in them.

In the Bible Marriage Was Between Two Men

Yes, I chose that headline for its shock value.  But there is some truth to it.  Read on.
I just finished reading God and Sex by Michael Coogan.  Coogan is director of publications for the Harvard Semitic Museum and professor of Religious Studies at Stonehill College.  His book explores what the Bible really has to say about sexuality and gender relations within the context of its culture and time.
It provides an interesting counterpoint to those who claim Biblical authority for the concept that marriage is between “a man and a woman.”   
These claims are often made with a reference to Adam and Eve, the first couple.  (“Not Adam and Steve.”)  But the Bible never reports a marriage ceremony took place for Adam and Eve.  Adam and Eve are therefore not a good example of how the Bible defines “marriage.”
“I am sometimes asked by relatives and students to suggest biblical passages for use at their weddings, Coogan wrote, “but few are appropriate.  The Song of Solomon is too erotic—not to mention that the lovers are not married.  Most text concerning married couples are permeated with patriarchalism.  Many major biblical characters had more than one wife.  Because biblical views on marriage originated in societies whose mores were in many ways different from ours, biblical models do not necessarily inform either our practice or our theory of marriage.”
Marriage, as we understand it today, as a romantic union between two partners, was not what Biblical authors would understand marriage to be.
Marriage was a property arrangement— and the property was the woman.  The marriage contract was between two men—the father of the bride-to-be and the groom.  (Hence my headline.) The father sold the daughter for a bride-price to a man, who might have been a close relative.  (Jacob married his cousins Leah and Rachel, and one of Esau’s wives was his cousin.)
The husband might go on to marry another wife or two.  Abraham had three wives, Jacob had four, his brother Esau had five, Gideon had many.  Marriages were arranged and were often between one rather old man and a “woman” who was just past puberty, such as Joseph, aged 92, and Mary, aged 14.
Not even the most conservative Biblical literalist is out there arguing that we should, in keeping with Biblical tradition, sell our 14-year-old daughters to be one of the multiple wives of her first cousin, a senior citizen.  (When we hear stories about religious sects that engage in such behavior we consider it to be shocking and abusive.)

Opponents of same-sex marriage can make their case that a more inclusive definition of marriage flies in the face of their cultural traditions, and that those cultural traditions are important and worth upholding.  One argument that they can not make legitimately, however, is that the “one man one woman” model of romantic marriage is mandated by— or the cultural norm in— the Bible.