Spoiler alert: if you’re a Christian who believes that today you celebrated the birth of someone who actually existed, stop reading--if you don’t want to run the risk of having your belief balloon punctured.
Since I’ve never had any allegiance to the historical Jesus, I had no problem breezing through Tom Harpur’s eye-opening “The Pagan Christ,” subtitled “Is Blind Faith Killing Christianity?”
Harpur, a former Anglican priest and professor of Greek and New Testament at the University of Toronto, argues that Christianity is nothing more than warmed over Egyptian and Greek mythology. Jesus never existed as a historical personage. His Gospel story is an amalgamation of allegories that have no basis in literal fact.
Makes sense to me. But not for lots of others. I note that right now this book is selling for a rock-bottom $2.99 direct from Amazon. Probably the Christmas season is a slow period for books about the pagan origins of Christianity.
And Harpur, not surprisingly, comes in for some heavy criticism from erudite fundamentalists like James Patrick Holding.
My brain is still too much in my stomach after excessive gorging on a Christmas dinner to wade through Holding’s lengthy screed. I’ll simply observe that Bible skeptic Robert M. Price has his own extensive critique of Holding, along with critiques of numerous other apologists for Christian dogma.
Myself, I resonate with Harpur’s freeing message:
The personal Jesus concept is truly a limiting, and deeply divisive, dead end. The historical evidence simply isn’t there. It’s a classic example of the emperor’s having no clothes.
What is more, it commits idolatry by making a flesh-and-blood man into God—thus forever alienating Jews, Muslims, and believers of a host of other religions, and making full religious harmony on the planet a perpetual impossibility
It has, most notably in the United States, created a kind of passive-dependent Jesus cult totally prone to extreme magical thinking. It restricts Christhood to one person in all of history, instead of acknowledging the deep, archetypal power of a universal—yes, cosmic—principle and ideal.
Jordan Stratford is a Gnostic Christian blogger who likes “The Pagan Christ.” He straightforwardly lays out the choices: “Either Jesus Christ was a man who lived 2,000 years ago, suffered under Pontius Pilate and died, or he was not.”
Stratford points out, as does Harpur, that middle of the roaders like The Jesus Seminar participants try to have it both ways: Jesus really existed, but the Bible doesn’t accurately reflect who he was or what he taught. Stratford chooses one lane.
In my opinion it is far more honest to accept the premise, as put forth by a new current of writers including Freke and Gandy, that the Jesus story is entirely mythical with absolutely zero historicity.
So what happens with Christmas? If it isn’t a celebration of the birth of a once-real person, what is it? Just an opportunity to stoke the economy, or something more?
Harpur says that it definitely can be something more, so long as we take the Jesus story as a symbol of how divinity can be born in every person. He quotes John Dominic Crossan:
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.
We’ve got to wise up, Harpur advises.
This is to refute the charge that if the events of religious festivity are thrown out as non-historical, Christmas and Easter and ceremonies like them will lose all their gripping impressiveness.
On the contrary, [Alvin Boyd] Kuhn affirms, the symbols will exert a far weightier significance when they are envisioned truly as symbols and not falsely as events. I can only add that this has been my personal experience too.
The celebrations of Christmas and Easter have become infinitely more potent for me as I have learned to penetrate beyond the externals to the realities within. As Origen says, taken in its literal, allegedly historical sense, “Christ crucified is teaching for babes.”
Or, to quote St. Paul, “But when I became a mature man, I put away childish things.”
Yes, it’s time to grow up and become churchless.
Yes, How we picture Christ, real or mythological, has no importance. More important is read the Gospel, meditate on it, get good stuff and follow Jesus Christ example.
I believe that Jesus Christ is the better pattern for me even though I don't believe that Jesus Christ was actually existed. It don't change Gospel teaching value.
But not only Gospel has teaching value for me, any thing I meet on my way such as "Church of the churchless" ;)
Bye bye and Season's Greetings.
Posted by: Willy | December 26, 2006 at 02:21 AM
Ah, but Lao Tzu (yet another most likely fictitious person)advises us to be LIKE children as we encounter life. It's the child-like things that make us most human. Besides, what does St. Paul [McCartney] know anyway? ;-)
Posted by: The Rambling Taoist | December 26, 2006 at 02:48 AM
Yes, it’s time to grow up and become churchless.
You cannot, in my opinion, make the leap from acknowledging the moving power of deep archetypal myth to "becoming churchless". Churches are not factories for teaching false histories; they are communities of Seekers exploring and celebrating these myths and their impact on their lives.
Just because these myths are not literally true does not mean we become churchless. The classical pagan myths were not taken to be literally true, and yet the cycles of the liturgical year, state temples and intimate household shrines held civilization together.
Let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater.
Posted by: Jordan Stratford+ | December 26, 2006 at 07:45 AM
Hi Brian, read this book a couple of years ago and it had a huge impact on my life. I felt liberated from having been lied to all my life. Unlike Harpur though Christmas and Easter are not more meaningful for me except as celbrations in a more pantheistic sense. David
Posted by: david stobbs | December 26, 2006 at 09:20 AM
Jordan, I appreciate what you're saying. To me "churchless" is more an open, receptive, non-dogmatic state of mind than a staying away from a physical building or congregation of spiritual seekers.
Yesterday I found myself tuned to Fox News watching Christian pastor Rick Warren (of "purpose driven life" fame) conducting a service at his mega-church.
I rather liked it. My wife said, "What are you doing watching that?" Well, the music and singing was pretty impressive. And if I ignored the "Jesus saves" message, the rest of what Warren was saying about helping the poor, and such, I agreed with.
We do need some ritual in our lives. Most of us, anyway. Or at least coming together with other people and sharing a sense of wonder and "good god, what's it all about?"
Posted by: Brian | December 26, 2006 at 10:28 AM
It's the magic of Jesus' name invoked that saves souls. Presumably to be eaten later.
When christian teachings join with taoism, buddhism, islam, jainist, hindu, and all the other worlds words of wisdom, we must still use our own minds and hearts to filter the true from the false, the metaphor from the fact, the workable from the obsolete. When we do not, and thereby unbalance the world and harm other living creatures, we do nothing short of evil.
Posted by: zhoen | December 26, 2006 at 01:39 PM
I don't know that because what survives is not accurate historically somehow means that there is no truth to the accounts of Jesus' time on earth.
There's a good and valid reason that the Biblical accounts that have survived are not reflective of history; canonical franchisees did not want competition in the thoelogical marketplace. So the monks watered down, changed or simply excised the passages and facts that assaulted thier stranglehold on kings, or schools or anyone who wanted a bath or a book of their own.
I vacillate from churchless to Unitarian and back. I like the idea of a theological goulash served up to me without being smothered in allegorical pap, with the whole papal infallibility argument as a chaser the way the RC church does. But I don't like the way that the Unitarian personality-cult schticks in my throat.
The message to most rituals and symbols boils down to something I can toast almost any occasion with.
Posted by: benandante | December 28, 2006 at 07:34 AM