It’s Holy Week, so it may be the perfect time for a holy confession: I’m not sure if I believe the Jesus story in its entirety. And by that I mean I’m not sure I believe in its historical accuracy. If it’s not historically accurate, can it still be true?
You may be wondering, how can this be? How can a person deeply engage in seminary studies and yet call to question the basic understandings of the Christian faith? Well, as I’ve learned a great deal about the Christian tradition, about how the church began and how and why our scriptures were written and collected, I’ve found that I cannot logically believe in the factual faith I’ve held so close. I cannot hold Biblical stories as historical fact. But, is that what they were intended to be?
I’m not exactly sure what Jesus said. Our gospels are a collection of short oral narratives that were pieced together by amazing story tellers at least 40 years after Jesus died. I’m not exactly sure what Jesus did. Nor do I know exactly what happened as Jesus was murdered. We have different accounts of resurrection in each gospel, so I’m unsure of when Jesus appeared and to whom he appeared and how he appeared. I don’t know the details. I can’t be sure of what really happened.
How can I believe in this Christian tradition if I can’t be positively sure that the stories are true?
I must consider what it is that I do know. I know the Jesus narrative, which fits perfectly into God’s meta-narrative. And what does this Jesus story tell me?
First, let me suggest that the general concept of Christianity has become something drastically divergent from the original narrative. It was with great sorrow and anger that I discovered how we’ve turned the Jesus movement into a hierarchy of personal salvation and unwarranted claims toward a societal construction of heaven and hell. We’ve built an institution upon solid facts, upon black and white, upon right and wrong. We’ve taken a truncated, skewed version of the narrative and built for ourselves a dynasty of religious power.
How’d we end up here? Is this what God revealed through scripture? Were we instructed to claim absolute knowledge and grasp it so tightly that we cast out those who may think or act or look a bit different than us? Is the story of Jesus one of a ruler who takes control, subdues the masses, and creates exclusive communities for those who can put on the best mask and act the most holy? Did God share this story with us so that we could meet for an hour each week, sing some songs, give some money and then go home and continue to climb the ladder in a society that promotes consumerism, sexism, racism and an all-out battle to be the best and most accomplished, no matter the cost? Were we given the scriptures so we could say a special prayer, put on the Christian costume and be carried away to a place with golden streets instead of burning forever in a pit of fiery damnation?
That is not the message of the Jesus story. No matter what our current religious context may tell us, the narrative wasn’t (and still isn’t) about accumulating power or leading an easy Christian life or being 100% right or being holier than others or being successful or going to a place called heaven.
The story is about a God who desperately loved creation and was therefore willing to come among us, to set things right. The story is about this God who, in human form, was poor and dirty and homeless. The narrative tells us that the religious system wanted a king; a brilliant, powerful king who could rally the kingdom and control the entire world. But God wasn’t about bells and whistles and institutions. Our scriptures tell the story of a Jesus who questioned religious and political authority, who told people to give away their possessions, who told people they would find life (everlasting life!) by serving others. The narrative describes a new age, where exclusive religious clubs no longer exist and all person are free to worship and live and love.
But the story doesn’t end there. You see, the authorities hated this radical Jesus who made claims against the religious and political norms of power and accumulation. Perhaps we need to hear this story because God knows that if we are to live in to this narrative, we also will be hated by the religious and political powers. So the story that continues is one of amazing freedom. This Jesus, this God among us, lived out our story. We are told that Jesus was betrayed, so that we no longer have to hold the many times we’ve been betrayed. We are told that he put up no fight, that the leaders murdered him for his radical ideas of an upside down creation where love and service trump accumulation and control. The story tells us that Jesus (God) assumed this journey so that we have the freedom to release the betrayal and sorrow and inadequacy and fully live into the radical dream of God.
So God’s narrative is all-encompassing. It shows us a new way to live, a way that is backward and upside-down from what the world (and often times the religious institution) tells us is right. The story also explains why and how we have the freedom to do this. We have that ability because God removes from us the things which prohibit us, and puts holy passion and love and courage in their place. The narrative culminates with the promise that God is still moving. Even though Jesus took our grief and failures to the cross, he was not contained there. The resurrection story lets us know that God has the capability to take on our hopelessness and continue to love us. God continues to live and comes to each and every one of us.
Wow. What a completely transformative and life-giving story. What a brilliant way for God to share more about who God is and reveal God’s hope and dream for all of creation.
Do I know the details? No. Can I claim to know exactly what happened or the exact specifics for following Jesus and living into God’s dream? Absolutely not. We weren’t given a set of directions, we were given a story. And the amazing thing about that is that we get to enter into the story ourselves. I can’t enter into a set of directions or a rule book, but God’s story continues, with me and you and all of humanity.
So what do I know, what do I believe? I know that I desperately desire to cling to the Jesus story with my whole life. I need to cling to it, I must.