Book Club: Can Christianity Survive Modernity?

Oberammergau Passionplay 2010 Final Dress Rehearsal

[Re-posted from earlier today]

That may seem a rather strange way to kick off discussion of a book about the beliefs of Christians in the decades and first few centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth. But it’s the question that lingers in my head after reading Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of A Jewish Preacher From Galilee.

What Ehrman does in this book – as he did most memorably in Misquoting Jesus – is explain how the texts that we have about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus came to be written. I am not qualified to judge the details of the scholarship – my knowledge of such matters is a tiny fraction of Ehrman’s. I know no Aramaic or Hebrew and very little Ancient Greek. Readers with more expertise may well, with any luck, deal with some of the specific controversies – such as the notion that Jesus probably wasn’t buried at all – as we go along.

But the book’s main claims about the origins and nature of the texts are not in any scholarly doubt. And bookclub-beagle-trthey challenge the traditional and reflexive mental universe that most Christians, and all fundamentalists, share. For many Christians in the modern world, there is an unchallenged notion of an inerrant text that contains what we have even come to call the “gospel truth.” It is entirely inspired by God. It has complete authority in Protestant circles and shared authority in Catholicism (along with church teaching and the sensus fidelium). It is the sole authorized account of the extraordinary story that changed the world.

And yet it isn’t the only account – we have many other extant Gospels that never made the cut. Those Gospels are not as compelling or as coherent or as influential – but they sure do exist. That very fact – established in the 20th Century – explodes any idea of “orthodoxy” among the first Christians. Like any human beings trying to grapple with grief and empowerment and fear and supernatural experiences, they did not understand them fully at first or ever. They disagreed among themselves about them. They had very different perspectives and interactions with Jesus. In the Gospels themselves, Jesus’ disciples are a mess half the time – misunderstanding him, betraying him, frustrating him, and abandoning him at critical moments throughout. Whatever else the Gospels teach us, they sure teach us not to trust Jesus’ followers for either truth or morality. Peter disowned him three times in his hour of greatest need. And most fled after his crucifixion.

And the Gospels offer radically different accounts of what Jesus did, said and meant. There is no single coherent account, for example, of Jesus’ last words in the cross, or of his first appearances after his death – critical moments that you might think would have been resolved as fact early on, but weren’t. If I were to come up with a phrase to describe what has been handed down to us in these texts, it would be a game of Chinese

Does this rebut Christianity in a decisive way? For many orthodox Christians, wedded to the notion of a single, coherent and inerrant text, it must. But since the scholarship is pretty much indisputable, it seems to me that it is not Christianity that should be abandoned in the wake of these historical revelations, but a false understanding of what the Gospels and Letters actually are. In the end, the sole criterion of a religion is whether it is true. And if you’re misreading its core texts and failing to understand their origins and nuances, you’re not committed to the truth. You’re committed to a theology that has become more important than the truth.

And I’d argue that seeing them in this flawed and human way does not reduce their power. In fact, their very humanness, their messiness, their reflection of competing memories and rival understandings and evolving theologies make the Gospels a riveting tapestry of anecdotage and love and grief. I think that when you treat these texts that way, the figure of Jesus does not become more opaque. He becomes more alive in moving and marvelous detail through the distorted memories of those who loved him and through the stories that the generations that never saw or knew him in the flesh told each other about who he was. Is this human mess guided by the Holy Spirit? That’s obviously a question only Christians can answer.

My own view is that the sheer vibrancy, power, shock, detail and beauty of these stories – and their enduring resonance over the centuries – makes the presence of the Holy Spirit obvious. In fact, if we want to understand how God interacts with human beings, these Gospels show the way. Even through their obvious literal imperfections, a deeper perfection shines. Agnostic and atheist readers will of course disagree. But my point is simply that, for Christians, there is no need to be afraid of the truth about these texts. Because as Christians, there can never any need to fear the truth. In fact, fear of what such scholarship might reveal exposes a defensive crouch and a neurotic denialism that can only lead us away from Jesus rather than toward him.

The truths of this book that only the neurotic or defensive Christian will deny are the following:

Jesus was not the only first-century figure who was deemed to have a virgin birth, martyrdom and resurrection. In fact, these were quite common tropes in the Greek and Roman world at the time. Jesus was far from unique in being seen as part human and part divine in his time. The understanding of his divinity evolved over the years, as his followers argued among themselves and tried to make sense of the incarnational mystery that emerged from his first followers. Jesus himself was clearly an apocalyptic Jewish preacher who believed that the entire world was about to end, to usher in a new kingdom of heaven on earth. The Gospels are a mishmash of competing memories filtered through decades of repetition and translation and manual transcription. The followers of Jesus in his lifetime were primarily illiterate rural Galileans – far removed from the Greek and Roman sophisticates who later tried to make sense of them. All of this comes down to these peasants’ memories and the stories they told each 0ther and then the world.

We see, in other words, through a glass darkly when we look at these texts. But through that darkness, one palpable truth also emerges. It’s a truth that Ehrman once didn’t believe but now does. There is no question that the very first Christians only truly realized the full import of what they had seen and witnessed after it was too late. Their beloved teacher and friend was dead – and executed in a brutal, if conventional, way. But something happened to them after his death. They believed that they had seen him again alive! The revelation of the incarnation of God was a very early Christian conviction – not something that emerged much later, as was once thought. And in that astonishing vision of a Jesus fully alive after death, so much that had mystified his disciples in Jesus’ life and teachings suddenly became clear. This man truly was God. And his teachings and actions in retrospect suddenly took on a deeper and more cosmic and even more urgent meaning.

To kick off the Book Club discussion, I thought it would be helpful to grapple with the core question of these Biblical texts and how they can be integrated (or not) into orthodox Christian belief and practice. Does this book effectively debunk Christianity’s core claims in modernity … or does it point to a new way of understanding and believing them?

Email us your response to this email address: Please keep them to a 500-word maximum, so we can better cope with the curating and editing. We can tackle more specific arguments and themes as the next week goes by.

(Photo: Frederik Mayet as Jesus Christ performs on stage during the Oberammergau passionplay 2010 final dress rehearsal on May 10, 2010 in Oberammergau, Germany. By Johannes Simon/Getty.)