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What Does it Matter?
By: Erick Nelson
Last Updated: Monday November 01, 2004
"Light and truth are what you need not just when your intellect is curious and needs stimulating but when your whole being is lost, downcast, depressed, thirsty for God." - N.T. Wright
Does is really matter whether the MG Theory is true or not? Most people think it does. The proponents of the view certainly think their view is true and important
What if it's not All That Important?
But first, what if it doesn't matter all that much? What if, at the end of the day, it's all a wash: all of the deeper Christian meaning turns out to be true whether Historic Christianity is true or the MG Theory is true, or something else is true - and we discover that nothing life-threatening or life-saving is at stake here? Would that mean that this inquiry is illegitimate, that to determine the truth of the matter would somehow be an unworthy endeavor?
Early in my study of this subject, I talked on the phone with a Fuller seminary professor. He wanted to know right away whether (a) I was experiencing a crisis of faith or (b) this was merely an academic exercise. Either way, he didn't want any part of this. He didn't envision the possibility of a legitimate interest in his own field by an outsider!
No, even if it were proven that there are no practical benefits to be gained, I still believe that to get to the truth of this subject is justification enough. Truth matters, even if it's mundane truth.
But I wouldn't have spent all this time if I thought this had no practical importance.
It Matters to Them
Let me start by pointing out that the advocates of the MG Theory are the ones who have pushed the issue by "taking it to the streets." They believe that they are providing nothing less than a fundamental and crucial contribution to Christian thought by explaining the true meaning of the Bible. They see this as a modern-day Copernican revolution. They expect nothing less than to overturn and redfine ("re-vision") Christianity.
It Matters to Marcus Borg
Marcus Borg is primarily concerned to show us how the Bible should be understood today. He wants to make room in the Christian fold for the critical thinker who has rejected Christianity because s/he has found it untenable in today's world. Borg's view includes and presupposes the truth of the MG Theory. In his most recent work, he says (emphasis mine):
"Conflict about the bible is the single most divisive issue among Christians in North America today. And because of the importance of Christianity in the culture of the United States, conflict about the Bible is also central to what have been called "the culture wars. (Reading the Bible Again ix)
As we enter the twenty-first century, we need a new set of lenses through which to read the Bible. The older set, ground and polished by modernity, no longer works for millions of people. These lenses need to be replaced. The older way of seeing and reading the Bible, which I will soon describe, has made the Bible incredible and irrelevant for vast numbers of people. (p 3-4)
The very last words of his book are these:
"Through and within the Bible's many voices, we are called to discern the voice that addresses us in our time. And listen: what we hear matters greatly. It makes all the difference." (p 302)
Borg clearly understands that his opponents consider this to be not only important, but hugely important, as well:
"Yet not all Christians agree about the need for new lenses. Many vigorously defend the older way of seeing the Bible. For them, what seems to be at stake is nothing less than the truth of the Bible and Christianity itself." (p 4)
It Matters to Bishop Spong
Spong, the one who has made an entire literary career out of "Liberating the Gospels" and "Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism" agrees, loud and clear. In this passage he actually declares that a "literalist" view means death (metaphorically speaking, of course - see, I can tell):
"A title more proper than "liberal" might well be "open" or "realist." They are the ones who know that the heart cannot finally worship what the mind has already rejected. They know what fundamentalists do not seem to know, mainly that literalization guarantees death." (Born of a Woman, p 176)
It Matters to Dominic Crossan
Crossan does not mince words when he characterizes a literal interpretation as "brutalizing" the Gospel writers (Tipp p 163), and explicitly vowed never to do that to them. One reason is that it's simply a mistake and unfair to the genre. We should care about getting it right.
A second reason is that viewing things historically can defuse the quest to find the real meaning.
If it was history, that might be explanation enough. If it was parable, the explanation was only beginning.
And finally, and most important, he feels passionately that the 'literal' interpretation of the Bible has motivated injustice within the church and in the broader world; it has tragically ruined lives.
"He talked at length about what had happened years before and how he had felt about the church all those years ever since. He saw now that there might be hope for a church that would never do such things again, that would not demand people believe literally stories that were intended metaphorically, and that would insist on justice inside and outside itself." p 203 (emphasis mine)
Crossan's objection to the literalization of the gospels, and championing of the Metaphorical Gospel Theory, is passionate and clear:
"The last chapters of the gospels and the first chapters of Acts taken literally, factually, and historically trivialize Christianity and brutalize Judaism. That acceptation has created in Christianity a lethal deceit that sours its soul, hardens its heart, and savages its spirit. ... And because I am myself a Christian, I have a responsibility to do something about it." Westar Institute web autobiography
The Great Misunderstanding?
What does it matter? It the MG Theory is true, nearly all Christians throughout history have unwittingly been the victims of the greatest misunderstanding of all time. I'd consider that a big deal.
First, I'd like to point out the sheer magnitude of the claim. The theory contends not only that Christianity as it has been believed for centuries is untrue, but that it has never even known what its own beliefs were supposed to be.
I'm not saying that this means the MG Theory is false, but I am saying that if it's true, this is a big deal.
Historic Christianity Not True?
First, the MG Theory contends that Christianity, as held by most believers throughout the centuries, has simply been refuted by rigorous scholarship. This is the claim. If these scholars are right, then Christians should abandon their (false) beliefs and participate in this Copernican revolution.
If the MG Theory is right, there is no weaseling around it.
If the MG Theory is right, "traditional Christians" will unfortunately be shown to be like children who believe in a literal Santa Claus. It is not an option to hold on to Historic Christianity by saying the "spiritual" meaning of Christianity is still valid and beyond scholarly proof or disproof. For part of Historic Christianity's very contention lies the claim that these things actually happened and that Jesus is God's Son, raised from the dead - in a real and literal sense.
No, if Historic Christianity can be shown to be untrue, it must be abandoned.
Christianity Has Always Misunderstood Itself?
According to the Metaphorical Gospel theory, Christianity has radically and systematically misunderstood itself - virtually always and everywhere, throughout the ages! It took a hard right turn immediately after the gospels were written and has been going astray ever since!
The MG Theory's truth, if established, would entail that virtually all of the saints, martyrs, and theologians throughout history (until the last few decades) were victims of a horrible exegetical mistake, thinking that their gospel was about who the man Jesus of Nazareth was and what he really said and did.
Joseph Campbell once commented that all religions have an archetypal, or metaphorical, or mythical, or spiritual "view", and that all religions except Christianity accompany this mythical view with an explanation. Unfortunately for Christianity, he says, it actually believes that its mythical view is the explanation, and therefore has no explanation. Campbell further suggested that Hinduism's explanation might be used as a key to unlock the meaning of Christianity. This understanding is entirely in harmony to the Metaphorical Gospel theory, for it contends that Historic Christianity has done just that - it has mistaken its metaphorical symbols for a literal explanation.
I'm a Skeptic
I think that we should exercise our critical thinking in these matters. We should be skeptical of the skeptics.
I've heard this sort of thing before. I've heard other people claim that the disciples of the Founder of every World Religion all misunderstood their Founder and his teachings - that none of the followers of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, the writers of the Bhagavad Gita, etc. ever understood their message. Until now. Fortunately for us, these folks have figured it out - for they alone truly understand what was really meant.
Now this new (MG) claim is all very exciting, and comes wrapped up in a package of scholarly words, copious footnotes. It seems to be on the forefront of our quest for knowledge. But we shouldn't believe everything we hear just because it sounds good and is new.
This kind of claim is not only important, but it truly requires significant and rigorous proof.
Teacher or Dialog?
[In this section, I'll pretend that the only two, or primary, alternatives are Historic Christianity and MG Christianity. In reality, of course, there are lots of possible scenarios where neither are true. I'll leave it to the reader to delineate the implications of these scenarios.]
If the Metaphorical Gospel theory is true, there is a profound practical impact which is acknowledged by proponents and opponents alike. The whole relationship of the Christian with the New Testament is different.
Borg, from the MG standpoint, sees a stark contrast. To him, Historic Christianity views the Bible as a dictator, while the MG Theory views it as a partner in Dialog with us:
"Like an ancient monarch, the Bible stands over us, telling us what to believe and do.
The result: the monarchical model of biblical authority is replaced by a dialogical model of biblical authority. . . Yet because the Bible is a human product as well as sacred scripture, the continuing dialogue needs to be a critical conversation." (Reading the Bible Again, p 30)
Borg is more or less correct, except I'd view the Bible more as a "Teacher" than as a monarch under the first scenario. Here's why.
If Historic Christianity is true, then the New Testament is the record of what Jesus really did and said, and stands as teacher in relationship to us. If I want to follow Jesus, and Jesus said this and that, then that's what I must do and believe. It acts as a fairly specific guide in life, although it is not nearly as detailed a "handbook" as Borg might think.
There are many areas of Jesus' teaching that I like and enthusiastically accept. "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden" is my absolute favorite, for fairly obvious reasons.
Unfortunately, there are also, to be candid, several areas of Jesus' teaching that I don't like. I would explain them away if I could.
- The call to deny myself and follow him can be a hard one.
- I'm not very eager to love my enemies (ok, I actively don't want to) and would have that expunged from the gospels if I could.
- Billy Graham pointed out to Dick Cavett that chastity was the "least popular of the Christian virtues."
- C.S. Lewis once commented, about someone who thought the Sermon on the Mount was beautiful, that they probably hadn't read it closely enough, because in reality it was frightening.
Thus, if I think Historic Christianity is true, I am stuck with the whole teaching - the parts I like and the parts I don't like. The hard sayings, too. I have to deal with something that I would never have made up. And if it really is true, then I will have been forced to learn something new, to change, to come around to a new way of thinking, to wrestle with the brute fact of it and become better for it.
However, if the MG Theory is true, what we have in the New Testament is a collection of human opinions. True, we may view them in general as "responses to the divine", mostly good and wise opinions, no doubt, but we must still view them critically and embrace that which makes sense to us.
Borg and Spong, especially, have talked about layers or strata of teaching in the Bible. Some they can accept, and some they cannot. In the MG view, we are free to select those strata of teaching that are true, that are valuable, and reject the rest. In fact, we must do so. There is, therefore, a certain unavoidable element of subjectivity in the process.
According to Borg, there is a certain balance to be maintained. The Bible is our Dialog partner. If we discontinue the Dialog, we are no longer Christians, we are something else. We may, thus, legitimately profit from certain aspects of the Bible while operating from within another Dialog, with Buddhism or Hinduism, or presumably some personal world-view.
But this must also be a "critical" Dialog. There's the difference. The benefit here is quite clearly that all those messy problems posed by the New Testament may be quietly disposed of. We are free to acknowledge the fallibility of the writers, the uneven-ness of their wisdom, and embrace only that which seems right to us. Thus, we have a built-in mechanism for keeping our world-view coherent.
The downside is that it will be especially difficult for New Testament to teach us anything new. That's because, when all is said done, we stand in relation to the Bible primarily as critic rather than as student. Presumably, if we are always on our guard, we might be able to be so honest with ourselves that we are even yet open to new truths, new teachings, even when they seem to go against the grain of our cherished beliefs. But this will be difficult, and will be rare.
What is more likely (and I have seen this phenomenon in practice) is that people tend by nature to accept those elements they have already come to believe and jettison the rest. Thus, Jesus' words cannot act as our teacher, they can't tell us new things, they can't challenge and even starkly disagree with us. They cannot convert us. We can never be forced, by them, out of the spiritual ruts we have dug for ourselves.
Now, which situation is better? If I'm honest with myself, I have to say that sometimes I like having a Teacher and sometimes I'd rather have Dialog. Do I want direction in a confusing world, or do I want to be left alone to break away from the constraints of all the demands made on me? Depends.
But the way to decide the issue is not to examine my desires. The way is to examine the evidence and decide where the truth lies.
Either way, this makes a difference.
The Concrete and the Spiritual
[Again in this section, I'll pretend that the only two, or primary, alternatives are Historic Christianity and MG Christianity. In reality, of course, there are lots of possible scenario where neither are true. I'll leave it to the reader to delineate the implications of these scenarios.]
I have corresponded with several people, discussing the "power of the story" - the story itself, fiction as well as non-fiction. This caused me to think about the movie Braveheart, which is one of my favorite movies. What impressed me was William-Wallace-as-portrayed-by-Mel-Gibson. This character as a hero, person. I have rarely seen that kind of quality person portrayed in any movie. His clarity of thought and expression, his passion, his desire for peace but readiness to lay his life down - all of that and more. Even Gibson's facial expressions were telling: when he was angry, he'd kind of snort inward through his nostrils; when he was arguing for the truth, the sincerity on his very face was compelling.
Now I know that's based, more or less, on things that really happened, but I don't really care. Not at all! I value this as an archetypcal portrayal of the "noble man" - at least one kind of noble man. If William Wallace was really like that, then so much the better. But the point to me is not necessarily what this man - a long time ago - was like and what he did; but the point is what kind of man there could possibly be. It functions as a beacon, as a magnet, do draw people to this ideal.
So, as I explained with the idea of metaphor, I totally "get it." I don't de-value the "power of the story." I was moved by Lord of the Rings a long time before it came out in movie form. "The Wall", a short story by Sartre, stunned me with the issues of life and death, so much so, that I walked the streets near Pomona College late at night wrestling with those issues.
But there's more to this issue than the power of stories to move us. There's the issue of Reality, as well.
A very good friend of mine, singer/songwriter Bob Bennett, has a line in our of his songs about "the integration of the concrete and the spiritual." There is a very practical, experiential thing that happens when the "spiritual" meets the hard realities of dust, flesh and bone, sky and sea. I am sure that I cannot do justice to this insight.
When I was a kid, I believed in the physical existence of Santa Claus. I even had proof: the milk and cookies we set out Christmas Eve were replaced with a very nice thank you note in the morning. I remember thinking about that Man, Santa, the very best person in the whole world, who spent all his time giving precious gifts to children like me. He was the smartest person, too, since he knew each of us by name and knew all about us. Best of all, he was more real than God and Jesus, because he was made of flesh and blood, and really came to our house.
I imagined what it would be like just to see Him, to touch Him, to talk to Him. To do that, I would gladly have traded all the toys in the world. This was, I think, a real experience of numinous wonder. (But, alas, I knew meeting Santa was impossible, because Santa would not allow it - he only came when you were asleep.)
When I finally discovered it had all been "make-believe", I was disappointed. And even though I have always believed in the "meaning" of Santa, and never again received the thrill, the physical sensation, of being near Greatness in that way. I can testify from my own experience that my "religious experience" of Santa may well be truer now, more spiritually grounded, but is not as vivid and profound and moving as it was, and never will be again.
Interestingly, it appears that one of the essential components to my experience of this archetype was precisely the integration of the concrete and the spiritual.
I grew up with the teaching that faith was pretty much the same thing as make believe, although nobody ever phrased it exactly in those terms. Once, I actually asked my Sunday school teacher whether I could fly if I just believed it strongly enough. Unfortunately, he said "yes." Christianity, for many of us, was make believe. Tinkerbell would only recover if we really believed she would. God was spirit, and spirit wasn't connected in any noticeable way to the real world around me.
On the other hand, I remember wondering what Jesus was really like. It was too bad, I thought, that he lived so long ago and I lived here and now, because if I lived back then I would have hung around him, listening to stories, touching him, getting to know him. That fired my imagination. But, there was nothing I could do about it.
Later, after having my own spiritual encounter with him, I read about the Shroud of Turin. Whether it's genuine or not, it focused my attention on the physicality of what happened. On the reality of it. That fired my imagination again.
Around that time, I read C.S. Lewis' science fiction trilogy. The viewpoint hit me, like a ton of bricks, that this "Christianity" was not a religion, an opinion, a "faith", a "spiritual" thing, removed from reality - but was the fundamental FACT of God entering time and space.
And then I read some of the books by John Warwick Montgomery, where he made a surprisingly strong evidential case for the truth of Christianity, and followed up with other books. I grew, more and more, to distrust the view the "faith" in the Christian sense means "make believe."
And so, if Historic Christianity is true, I see a wonderful integration of the concrete and spiritual. If the MG Theory is true, this is gone. To me, this is a huge practical difference. If I become convinced that the MG Theory is true, Jesus will be debunked just like Santa was. That would be a great loss. Even the archetypal experience would never be the same.
But if it turns out that Historic Christianity is true after all, I'd like to introduce the MG guys to the concrete risen Lord.