For my write-up today on church, I’ll use the prayer of confession as a starting point:
“Forgive us, O Lord, we pray. How many times will we fail to see the life You have placed around us? How many times will we fail to believe that You are the God of resurrection? We come like Martha and believe in only half of your promises. We come and stand in the shadow of the cross and still fail to see the open tomb of life. Forgive us, we pray, in the Savior’s name. Amen.”
This reminded me of what I read yesterday in C.S. Lewis’ Reflections on the Psalms, in the chapter, “Second Meanings.” Lewis was talking about the argument that the Gospel message about the death and resurrection of Christ had its origin in “the agricultural experience of early man” (page 106)—the annual cycle of death and rebirth that occurs in nature. This caught my attention on account of my readings on the Hebrew Bible this week—particularly my reading about the Ugaritic story about the god Baal defeating death (Mot), thereby bringing fertility to the land, as well as the motif of the dying and the rising god, which the ancients associated in some manner with the seasons (see here, here, here, and here). C.S. Lewis refers to the Christian view that the devil was aping the plan of God with these sorts of stories, but Lewis offers another perspective, on pages 106-107:
“Other Christians who think, as I do, that in mythology divine and diabolical and human elements (the desire for a good story), all play a part, would say: ‘[The similarity between the death and resurrection of Jesus and pagan stories] is not accidental. In the sequence of night and day, in the annual death and rebirth of the crops, in the myths which these processes gave rise to, in the strong, if half-articulate, feeling (embodied in many Pagan ‘Mysteries’) that man himself must undergo some sort of death if he would truly live, there is already a likeness permitted by God to that truth on which all depends. The resemblance between these myths and the Christian truth is no more accidental than the resemblance between the sun and the sun’s reflection in a pond, or that between a historical fact and the somewhat garbled version of it which lives in popular report, or between the trees and hills of the real world and the trees and hills in our dreams.'”
Lewis’ remarks here are laden with Christian presuppositions, so I wouldn’t expect them to convince non-Christians. Why, for example, should we assume that the natural cycle and the pagan myths about dying and rising gods point in any manner to Christ? As C.S. Lewis acknowledges, one could easily say that the Christian Gospel was based on the pagan myths about the natural cycle—only the Christian Gospel historicized them. But I don’t necessarily look to Lewis for arguments that can buttress my faith—the way that conservative Christians do when they tell me to “Read C.S. Lewis”, even though they conveniently ignore or have not read the more liberal parts of C.S. Lewis’ works (such as, for instance, C.S. Lewis’ statement on page 110 that the creation account in Genesis may have derived from “earlier Semitic stories which were Pagan and mythical”). But I read Lewis because he offers interesting things to think about, and, quite frankly, he comes across as more open-minded and friendly than many of the people who recommend him to me in their attempt to shove their religion down my throat. Example: C.S. Lewis suggests in the passage from pages 106-107 that even mythology can contain a “divine” element. When I watch Star Wars, am I seeing something of God?
We see in nature a cycle of death and rebirth. Could that offer us hope that there can be rebirth in our own lives? When I was at DePauw University, there was a Dean of Chapel who did not believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ; rather, he believed that the “empty tomb” story was about a general opening of tombs—people’s situations becoming better, presumably as a result of social action or community service. He exemplified an attitude that an evangelical professor of mine criticized this week—an idolization of good works, which neglects Christian doctrine and thus deprives people of the strength and inspiration that they need to help others. I can see this evangelical professor’s point, only I personally do not understand how the message of evangelicalism can inspire anyone—with its notion that God will torment everyone in hell except for a few people who said the sinner’s prayer before they died. How inspiring!
But the liberal Dean of Chapel’s point came to my mind as I read the prayer of confession at church this morning. Of course, my church would say that Jesus Christ literally rose from the dead. But the prayer of confession says that Jesus’ resurrection was not the only resurrection that occurred. We see it in nature. We see it in events in the world around us.
The pastor in his sermon this morning said that we see it in the history of Israel—as when she was restored from exile under Cyrus, and when she became a nation again in 1948. (I doubt that my pastor is a radical Christian Zionist. What I like about this church is that it doesn’t harp on what’s important to right-wing Christianity—such as the ideas that gays and liberals are evil, or that God gives Israel a free pass to oppress Palestinians because she is “God’s nation.”) This also was relevant to my reading on the Hebrew Bible lately, especially because I read minimalists who question the whole concept of Israel’s “restoration from exile.” According to minimalists, there wasn’t necessarily a connection between those who occupied Palestine in the Persian Period and those who lived in it before Israel’s “exile.” And, as Niels Peter Lemche points out in Ancient Israel (which he wrote before he was a radical minimalist), only a small percentage of Jews were even exiled. There are even passages in the Hebrew Bible that suggest that there were Jews who were left behind in the land, which conflicts with what it says about the land enjoying its Sabbaths for seventy years. The returnees from exile were people who claimed to be the “true Israel”, when, actually, there was already an Israel in the land when the exiles returned and sought to ramrod their vision of Israel down the native’s throats. And how much of a miracle was the restoration of Israel under Cyrus? Cyrus benefited the exiled Jews because he wanted friends in Palestine—people who could be a buffer between Persia and Egypt. Plus, Cyrus permitted other nations to return to their lands, as well as supported other national cults.
At the same time, I cannot dismiss the remarkable history of the Jewish people—how they have survived numerous attacks on their very existence. How many other ancient peoples exist today—especially after they have endured threats to their survival? The hand of God may very well be in that.
Back to C.S. Lewis. In his chapter on “Scripture” in Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis suggests that the creation story in Genesis could have been borrowed from pagan creation myths, and yet that God has guided some of the retellings, especially when it “achieves the idea of true Creation and of a transcendent Creation (as Genesis does)” (page 111). Moreover, on pages 116-117, Lewis entertains the thought that “the Scriptures proceed not by conversion of God’s word into a literature but by taking up of a literature to be the vehicle of God’s word”. And so, whether or not the biblical concept of restoration from exile was part of a political agenda that may strike some people as rather crass, maybe God can use that concept as a vehicle to offer hope to people—that God can bring new life.
But does he? The pastor this morning said that some people are healed, whereas others are not. He talked about trusting God even when things do not make sense. I struggle some with this, especially since I am now one who picks and chooses from the Bible—some things strike me as fair and just and good, whereas other things do not. I’m not the sort of person who tosses my moral sensibilities to the curb, just because some fundamentalist demands that I do so. At the same time, when I look at life, it doesn’t appear to be fair and just and good. Yet, God allows that sort of situation to exist, for some reason. And so should I trust God when it comes to the unfair passages of Scripture—seeing them as fair when they don’t appear to be so, the same way that I’m supposed to trust that life is fair because God rules it, when it does not seem to be? I don’t know. One thing to note is that Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus. Jesus did not throw his sense of righteousness to the curb in a blind act of faith, but rather he opposed evil.
I’ll stop here.