The pursuit of truth, I have come to learn, is not an easy path. It is very tempting – as so many are content to do – to find a comfortable, sheltered place along the road and settle there. Sometimes it does seem attractive to me, I need to admit, to just cling to the religious traditions I have been born into. It would be attract less criticism and would certainly be a lot less lonely. But the thing about the truth is that once you have glimpsed it, even fractionally, it enthrals you. Like the man in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 13) who found a pearl in a field and sold everything he had to buy the field, the allure of “truth” entices one into very uncomfortable and seemingly foolhardy decisions. But it is very hard to relinquish the thread once you have found it. I have been dragging my readers – many, I suspect, against their better judgment – along with me as I journey deeper down the rabbit warren I have found.
One of the avenues this journey has taken me down is that of history. Faith is inextricably tied up with history. To understand why we believe what we believe, why we have developed the value systems we have, how we have rendered an invisible God visible, we need to understand where we have come from and the forces that have shaped us. I have come to understand more and more, through reading Girard and Freud and N.T. Wright, to name a few, that the reasons we hold the beliefs we hold, participate in the rituals we engage in, or observe the taboos we revere, are infinitely more complex than we can imagine. And they are deeply tied into where we have come from as – for lack of a more dignified term – a species.
I want to start to explore that history with you a bit. I need to clarify that I make the assumption that if you are following this blog, you have some sort of interest in unpacking Christianity, as I do. That is the perspective I write from, and so I take for granted that you understand I write from a Christian perspective. You will need to apply what is relevant to your own journeys and discard the rest. Obviously, I cannot possibly do justice to the volumes of scholarly work by the likes of those I have mentioned, in the brief space afforded by a blog, and so I would urge any true seekers after truth to do their own research. If you want an idea of the origins of religion and human culture, read Freud and Girard and Levi-Strauss. If you want insight into the praxis and ethics of the early church, read N.T. Wright. These are top thinkers in their respective fields, and one would be frankly foolish to ignore them. But if that sounds too much like a way to find trouble (and it is), and you are content to substitute real research for the byte-sized crumbs I offer, know that this is exactly what you are getting. I do not pretend to offer real nutrition. Don’t expect that here.
Disclaimer delivered, we return to the subject at hand. Modern Christians, I have found, are fixated on the notion of “growing spiritually”. I think the concept is fraught with problems, but assuming that this is a noble pursuit, my contention is that “spiritual growth” will not come from church attendance, listening to sermons, singing theologically uninterrogated but very pretty songs or even having ‘quiet times’. Ultimately, all of these pursuits are a sort of spiritualised navel-gazing. They are completely self-referential. By that I mean that the value we believe we have derived from spiritual activities is linked virtually entirely to how those activities make us feel. Ie. did we “enjoy” them? (obviously, I use ‘enjoy’ fairly loosely, in the sense that we feel affirmed in some way by them). We have become our own arbiters of truth.
The problem is we do not see that. We refuse to acknowledge that while we vehemently oppose the postmodern notion that we are all responsible for making our own meaning in life and that truth is subjective, in practice we believe exactly that. We refuse to see that when we read the Scriptures we interpret them through an array of subjective filters, when we ‘worship’, we assign value to experiences that induce positive feelings. We deny that we have conflated God with the ways we think about God ie. We equate God with theology, so that to question how we think about God is to question God Henself, and so we steer clear of critical thought.
Unraveling all of this so that we can begin to quest after truth in a meaningful way, I think, requires us to start by engaging with history. After all, we profess to root our faith in the historical figure of Jesus. More, our theology is heavily vested in a certain way of understanding the various historical texts that constitute the Bible, to the extent that we believe that these texts have particular and necessary insight into the way God has revealed Henself in human history. I argue, then, that if such a thing is indeed valuable and desirable, “spiritual growth” necessitates that we engage with history.
If faith is linked to history (and I need to remind you that I am talking specifically about Christian faith), then we need first to develop a proper approach to studying history. A logical starting point is ensuring that we have a proper understanding of what history is. I think that a poor conceptualisation of history has been responsible for much of the bad theology that is the terminal disease ravaging the Christian church today. And, as an aside, that is not intended as a sensationalised statement. I think the reason that the church is finding it increasingly difficult to find academic legitimacy and that its popular critics – like Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins – find such fertile ground to work in, is that is steadfastly refuses to critically engage with its beliefs. I think this will kill the church as we know it (which is not an entirely bad thing). And part of that is attributable to the fact that we think of history in very naïve ways.
Simply put, we think of history as events, things that happened. And when that is how you understand history, you read historical accounts – like the gospels – in very particular (and erroneous) ways. Of course, history is based on events. Things happen. But those things are only a foundation for history. History is how we interpret what happens. And so the study of history is not the study of events; it is the study of narrations of events. And that distinction makes all the difference to theology.
Once we know that we are dealing primarily with narratives, rather than with the events themselves, we ask a different set of questions:
- How did the narrator interpret the events? What did that narrator believe the events signified? If this is not explicitly stated in the narration, which is unlikely, then we need to make inferences. We need to interpret the interpretation. What would the narrator have likely believed, given hens culture, circumstances, personality, and the prevailing ideologies at the time of narration?
- Who is the narrative directed at, and for what purpose?
- How has the text been designed to suit that purpose?
- Are there protocols and conventions around text design particular to that time and place, different from my own, which might influence how I understand the narration?
- What are the assumptions that inform the narrator’s interpretation of the events?
- What are my assumptions when interpreting the narrative?
- What are my motivations for engaging with this narrative at all? What am I hoping or expecting to find? Why am I engaging with this narrative and not others?
- How does this narrative differ from other narrations of the same events? Why?
I could go on, but I think the point is clear enough: so long as we believe we are looking at events when we read Biblical texts rather than at narratives of events, we will fail to ask the sorts of questions of the texts (and of ourselves in engaging with them) that will lead to any sort of meaningful and transformative understanding (making the assumption, of course, that the reason we study history at all is because we believe that it has the potential to positively transform our own lived experiences).
Let’s take an example from the gospel of Matthew. Modern readers don’t really know what to do with some of the descriptions in the gospels regarding the supernatural events accompanying Jesus’ death, like this one:
The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people. (Matthew 27: 52-53)
Preachers today tend to avoid or gloss over passages like this because they are frankly too difficult to deal with plausibly. At least from their post-Enlightenment paradigms. One would think that events like the sun going out for several hours, the temple curtain being ripped spontaneously in two, or a massive earthquake that broke open the catacombs so that the dead could wander the streets of Jerusalem would probably warrant reports from other non-Biblical historical reporters, like Josephus, for example. But ancient writings are mysteriously silent regarding this mini zombie apocalypse. Even the other gospels don’t care to mention it alongside Jesus’ healing the sick and turning water into wine. From a modern perspective, this renders the account questionable.
But the ancient writers didn’t work with Modern assumptions about truth. In an age where only what can be substantiated through empirical data and verifiable observation can be regarded as “truth”, Matthew’s account seems to us to be a blatant and sensationalist lie. Because when we tell historical stories, we value only empirical facts. But that is not how ancient writers told stories. Symbolic truth had value for them too: truth wasn’t confined only to what could be verified through observation. The obsession with “facts” only is a relatively recent one.
Matthew wasn’t writing for us, in the 21st Century. He wrote to a people who would have understood what he was doing, the truth he was attempting to convey, and the manner in which he did so. They would not have questioned his methodology, even though they might not have agreed with his message. The truth Matthew is attempting to convey are not always to be located in a literal interpretation of the events he describes. In the ancient world, the deaths of prominent figures are frequently described using this kind of apocalyptic imagery. Look, for example, at the descriptions of the assassination of Julius Caesar from Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, written around 75 AD:
“For many strange prodigies and apparitions are said to have been observed shortly before this event. As to the lights in the heavens, the noises heard in the night, and the wild birds which perched in the forum, these are not perhaps worth taking notice of in so great a case as this. Strabo, the philosopher, tells us that a number of men were seen, looking as if they were heated through with fire, contending with each other; that a quantity of flame issued from the hand of a soldier’s servant, so that they who saw it thought he must be burnt, but that after all he had no hurt.”
Such comparisons between Jesus’ Kingdom and Caesar’s are rife throughout the gospel accounts, which is perfectly understandable in a context where the primary question was what it meant to remain Jewish and therefore set apart for God while under the oppressive gauntlet of the Roman Empire, where Caesar was god. That Jesus and Caesar should be constantly juxtaposed is to be expected. And Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience (as evidenced also in the way he constructs the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning of his account), would have been speaking to those who believed that the reign of God on earth would be ushered in by a literal resurrection of the dead (while some groups, like the Sadducees didn’t hold to this view, it was an otherwise very common belief). In a narrative tradition where creative embellishment is not seen as compromising the integrity of the narration, Matthew’s description of this mini-resurrection, which is found in none of the other gospels (and not surprisingly, because they were written for more Hellenised audiences), is perfectly appropriate. He is making the powerful point that through Jesus, God is ushering in a new era, one that will displace the Roman Imperial machine that dominates the political landscape currently. In a creatively appropriate way he is inferring that Jesus is the Messiah who will conquer Israel’s foes and restore them.
You are certainly under no obligation to believe Matthew’s narration of the life of Jesus, but you cannot evaluate it using the paradigms you currently use to gauge truth. Centuries of an emphasis on rationalist ways of understanding the world, layered with Protestant preoccupations with crime and punishment, layered with a relationship between violence and the sacred that goes back to the dawn of humanity, have shaped the way we interpret history. But they are all constructs, even though familiarity has framed them as natural. And once you start to question the validity of those constructs in terms of their usefulness in both framing theology and shaping how we relate to each other, you will start to uncover the pearl in the field. I warn you: once you do so, there is no turning back.