Christian writers for this Voices column mirror to some extent the diversity of scriptural beliefs current in the world today. We agree the Bible contains truth, but opinions on how we are to perceive and retrieve that truth are all over the map.
Some would say the Bible contains literal, word-for-word instruction from God; that the Bible may have been transcribed by men, but the text was dictated from above. For these, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a historically accurate event which took place about 33 A.D. And many of them would add that the Bible provides all the spiritual information they need.
Others see the Bible as a collection of stories, a compilation of tales not necessarily true historically, but full of distilled wisdom in a way exemplified by the parables of Jesus. For example, Jesus never said there was a real “Good Samaritan.” He created the story to illustrate the meaning of “neighbor.”
Some read all Bible stories as if they were parables. For them, the crucifixion-resurrection is more a retelling of the “mono-myth,” the “hero’s journey” described by Joseph Campbell, powerful not for its historic truth but because it resonates in the human imagination.
Liberal Bible “scholars,” such as the so-called Jesus Seminar, try to sort out the Bible’s inspired writings from the political. They ask which verses were teachings from Jesus, and which were added by scribes with a political-religious agenda as their motivation. They claim such corruption can be found in the Old and New Testaments, and many of them believe the resurrection of Jesus to be untrue.
Since the Enlightenment, the increasing dominance of the reason-based vs. faith-based approach to the scriptures has for many reduced the importance of the Bible to just another historic text, to be read as one might read the excluded Gnostic writings. And historic events of the Torah-Bible have been challenged by archeologists, some of whom claim, for example, there was never a Hebrew exodus, as described in scripture, from Egypt to Israel.
With such fragmented opinions about the Bible, it’s hard to imagine that if some Muslim fundamentalist, mirroring Pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn Qurans, torched a few hundred Bibles, that millions of Christians would riot in the streets. Our Holy Book is not treated as holy any more. (I recall how surprised I was when a young woman in an airport, a perfect stranger, asked me to hold her Bible while she used the ladies’ room; she believed the Bible was too holy to take into a bathroom.)
On the other hand, one reason the Quran retains its “holy” status for Muslims is that Islam forbids historic scriptural analysis and textual comparisons of the various versions. No doubt they fear what scholars might uncover about how the Quran came to be.
In past columns, I have argued that the Bible is a special form of deep truth; that beyond our current comprehension, historic and scientific fact underlies the “myth” that makes up the Bible stories. In this way, the Bible is “super-natural,” an icon in words through which we can actually see God’s face in the face of Jesus.
For me the crucifixion took place not only in 33 A.D., but also occurred outside of time in a way that has resonated through history. It doesn’t merely repeat the mono-myth, it’s the source story for the mono-myth, and has had breakthrough ripples even before the Jesus event in Jerusalem.
Debunkers claim that Jesus’ resurrection is just a retelling of Persian Mithraic and Egyptian Osiris legends. I would say these “earlier” stories are the Jesus story, which stands outside of time, but breaks through everywhere and always into this matrix world we foolishly call reality. As Mark Twain put it, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
Here’s the thing: all genuine spiritual wisdom, including biblical truth, comes out of encounters with the mystical — a gifted glimpse of the other side. These are experiences commonly described as ineffable, unspeakable and transcendent, but only because we don’t get it yet. They are unusual, often unique, and therefore considered suspect by scientists, who rely on repeatability as proof.
But God doesn’t suffer fools gladly. If Moses had expected the burning bush to speak endlessly as a controlled experiment in a sterile lab, the Hebrews still would be living in Egypt. Anything is possible, whether science can replicate it or not.
Miracles are unique, and yet they happen every day. We have been brainwashed blind to the fact, but events that seem contrary to the laws of nature (such as visions and healings) are happening all around us all the time. We have to wake up to the fact St. Augustine noted some 16 centuries ago: “Miracles do not happen in contradiction to nature, but only in contradiction to that which is known to us of nature.”
I’ve just returned from an annual meeting of the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS), held this year in Denver. The power and consistency of out-of-body and near-death experiences (OBEs and NDEs) are being described by people all over the world every day. Gallup polls indicate that 5 percent of Americans, approximately 15 million people, have experienced their souls leaving their bodies and visiting spiritual realms, before their heartbeats were restored. I have no doubt that many reading this column right now have had such an experience, or some experience similarly mystical and powerful, perhaps life-changing in its power.
God is still speaking to us, through Bible text, through the clues of daily living, and sometimes through miracles, as well. We would be wise always to be open to all the possibilities.
For those who would like to share their own experiences of visions and miracles, I’d be glad for an e-mail. We might even consider forming a local IANDS group here in Bangor to talk about near-death experiences. If you’re interested, please let me know.
The Rev. Dr. Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.