Time to Re-mythologize Jesus?

A Challenge to Re-gather the Jesus Seminar

Editorial by Gordon W. G. Raynal

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 4 – Order this issue
July – August 2016

Can the Christian proclamation today expect men and women to acknowledge the mythical world picture as true? To do so would be both pointless and impossible. It would be pointless because there is nothing specifically Christian about the mythical world picture, which is simply the world picture of a time now past which was not yet formed by scientific thinking. It would be impossible because no one can appropriate a world picture by sheer resolve, since it is already given with one’s historical situation.

—Rudolph Bultmann (1941)

Seventy-five years ago with words such as these, Rudolph Bultmann, the great German biblical scholar, challenged scholars and church leaders to approach the study of the scriptures with an open-eyed, thoughtful engagement of modern thinking and learning. The seminars of the Westar Institute took his clarion call to heart. Three decades plus of patient scholarly work have produced a bounty of historical-critical scholarship that has given us access to the historical figures of Jesus and Paul and an opening to discover the history of the earliest era of Jesus’ followers (through the work of the Acts Seminar and now the ongoing work of the Christianity Seminar). It is an inconvenient fact that people still cling to ancient patterns of imagination and insist that the old stories aren’t mythic, but historical reportage. That way of thinking is at odds with the way people engage the everyday realities of living in a world shaped and formed by democratic politics and the results of scientific and technological thinking. Such make-believe thinking is receding and will continue to fade.

What these stories demonstrate is the great hunger for imaginative worlds that engage and connect us with the realities of life ... in ways that make life rich and meaningful.

Having noted that, however, I ask you to consider the phenomenon surrounding J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and George Lucas’ and now J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars. As master storytellers, Rowling, Lucas, Abrams, and their associated screenwriters have produced works that excite and delight audiences across the globe. The most recent Star Wars is the highest grossing movie in cinematic history. And J. K. Rowling is about to roll out a prequel to the Potter stories that will surely captivate many the world over. What these stories demonstrate is the great hunger for imaginative worlds that engage and connect us with the realities of life—growing up, facing death, discovering one’s gifts and friendships, embracing causes greater than ourselves, etc.—in ways that make life rich and meaningful. As holistic thinking is about far more than what can be directly experienced, good imagining is the gift that helps humans discover wholeness in living and being. Stories about Potter, Skywalker, and many others show us the profundity of fictive imagination.

And so to the title of this editorial and the question I want to raise: Is it time for us to take up the project of re-mythologizing Jesus? To ponder this, I point you to a statement by John Dominic Crossan that has become something of a meme on Facebook:

My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically, and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

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In a world of ongoing, rapid change where many still cling to ancient mythological storytelling as fact, a world of incredible dangers posed by religious, ideological, and political fanaticism but also a world where, perhaps soon, humans will become a multi-planet species, we could use a new master story that brims with imaginative possibilities of a future founded in wisdom, established in justice, love, and peace, and infused with hope. To create such a master story surely calls not only for clear-headed thinking, but also good imagination.

And so to play off of the trope used by rock and roll musicians who were sensations several decades ago, but whose hits continue to be played: isn’t it time to get the band back together? Is it not time to re-gather and re-form the Jesus Seminar to engage in thinking about a new master narrative rooted in the excellent work of the original seminar? Is it not time to study intensively the gray and black sayings and deeds attributed to Jesus (in other words, the creative output of the early writers and communities) and to think about their imaginations in relationship to their real-world circumstances? Is it not time for a third volume to go along with The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus? I think it is, and therefore I want to challenge the scholars to get back together to think about Re-mythologizing Jesus!

Gordon Raynal photoGordon W. G. Raynal is a graduate of Clemson University, Union Theological Seminary in Virginia and The Presbyterian School of Christian Education.