Welcome to the Christian Origins, Modern Faith blog here at Theology Corner! You probably want to know what this title means and how it applies to the practice of Christianity. I've used this title for various projects, all with the goal of sharing what I've learned in my religion and theology courses for the better part of a decade. However, I've never actually explained what I mean by Christian Origins, Modern Faith, so this entry does just that!
A Modern Problem
First of all, I'm not here to make any claim to secret knowledge or to have an "in" with God himself. What I do have are experiences, both mine and those of many others regarding church life. I have all the same tools that all theology and divinity students learn: 1) the historical-critical method of reading scripture; 2) studies in various theologians; 3) a survey of church history; 4) demographic surveys of various religious communities, and; 5) an interaction with science and philosophy. However, almost none of these strategies make it to the average churchgoer, which I find mind-boggling. To be fair, many church leaders apply some of this material into their lessons, but never enough for the normal "Joe Schmo" to piece together a coherent narrative. I believe the main reason why many pastors are afraid to teach Christian origins, however, is to keep the status quo—the way things are. Frankly, we're losing this status quo at a breakneck speed, as many people think the secular world has better answers to life's questions. We have the internet to look up theological questions and social media to be our communities. If a sermon is no better than an open source collaboration or some random blog entry, then it's no wonder we're losing people from our churches.¹ It's not that most people are choosing to rebel against God, but they're disillusioned with Christianity as a valid way to answer complex problems. Simply put, too many pastors have been content with giving Sunday school answers to college-level questions. This was not true of the early church, which came to overshadow even the great philosophers because of their faith and authenticity.
Think about it this way: the "gospel" we preach is often, "God made the world nice. Then he created human beings, and we ruined it. So, now we have a 'sin nature' that causes us to be bad, and this makes God mad. He sent Jesus to die on the cross, to take God's anger so we don't have to. Then he came back from the dead to be our 'bridge' to God so we don't have to go to hell." I wish this was just a childish oversimplification, but it's not—we're sending even our best people away because this "gospel" is actually bad news. In reality, this tract version of Christianity is like a used car dealer telling us about a vehicle that runs well, but has no working seatbelts and comes with a 30% interest rate. Both are injurious to us, one in the spiritual world and the other in the physical. Even in human relationships, we refer to people who manipulate others with a system of reward and punishment as "abusive" and "toxic." Most of us run from these individuals, and rightly so! For the gospel to be good news, we need to redefine God as a benefactor of humankind, who saves us from our poor decisions and life situations. For sports fans, it's good news to see their favorite team win. In a time of war or socioeconomic chaos, it's good news to begin reconciliation, reconstruction, and recovery.² Simply put, the meaning of good news is really about new beginnings and better futures.
An Ancient Solution
The great thing about our time in history is that we have all the tools necessary to correct the problem. When N. T. Wright, a biblical scholar and theologian, says, "For too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first-century questions," he refers to two dying forms of Christianity that followed the Protestant Reformation and the Age of Enlightenment. Since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid-twentieth century, there has been a major torrent of Christian origins scholarship. Without delving too far into models and archaeology, the actionable trends include 1) the quests for the historical Jesus; 2) the documentary hypothesis for the Old Testament; 3) the new perspective on Paul; 4) the historical-critical way to read the Bible, and; 5) the Jewish roots of Christianity. While the Christians of the past had to read Paul through the lens of Martin Luther, John Calvin, or Jacob Arminius, we now have access to archaeology and an improved relationship with the Jewish people not based on our church superseding them as God's chosen. Likewise, these same original contexts reveal the historical and literary intents of an author, forcing us to let go of seeing the Bible as a textbook for politics and science. By viewing the scriptures in a modern constitutional and scientific manner, we forgot about the art of storytelling and narrative force. Personally, I do keep a "high view of scripture," but not in the wooden manner of the so-called "inerrantists." Some parts are meant to be literal, but that's only one way we read any book, newspaper, etc. In everyday reading, we know when to believe something and when to suspend that belief. The Bible includes many features of mythos, or a narrative based on historical details but not enslaved to them. At the end of the day, the gospel is about how we tell the story of Jesus. Consider this statement by religion scholar, Karen Armstrong:
We tend to assume that the people of the past were (more or less) like us, but in fact their spiritual lives were rather different. In particular, they evolved two ways of thinking, speaking, and acquiring knowledge, which scholars have called mythos and logos. Both were essential; they were regarded as complementary ways of arriving at truth, and each had its special area of competence. Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in our lives, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal.⁴
Don't read this as me suggesting that Jesus wasn't a real person, the incarnate Son of God, or experienced a physical resurrection. I believe all in all of these things, and more. However, the "Jesus" we all claim to follow, today, is a Republican or Democrat, a capitalist or a socialist. It's important that we reclaim mythos with a real understanding of both the "historical Jesus" and the "Christ of faith." No, we have never truly gotten away from mythos, but we too often tell an idolatrous story about Jesus through our cultural and sociopolitical narratives. The scriptural narrative of Jesus is one of a Jewish rabbi, who led a simple life and taught harsh lessons about the Law of Moses that the religious leaders scorned for Roman money. However, if that was the end of the story, Jesus would be no more to us in meaning than Simon bar Kokhba and other Jewish revolutionaries who "stuck it to the man." Our faith tells that the "historical Jesus" lived in first-century Judea, where he taught for a few years, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. It also tells us that the "Christ of faith" resurrected on the third day, ascended into heaven, and will return to consummate God's kingdom. Far from being a message of despair, the Revelation to John informs us, "He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4). Who doesn't want that?
If you're interested in reading my Christian origins research in a storytelling format, please visit my website at https://www.christian-origins-modern-faith.com.
Peace be with you ...
1. George Barna and David Kinnaman, eds., Churchless: Understanding Today's Unchurched &
How to Connect with Them (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2014), 18-20.
2. N. T. Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News & What Makes It Good (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015), 7-9.
3. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), 37.
4. Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God: A History of Fundamentalism (New York: Ballantine, 2011), xv.