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What Does Theology Have to Do with Climate Change?

October 12, 2018

The United Nations released a new and alarming study a few days ago on the rate and effects of climate change.  It came with several calls-to-action.  Scientists want us all to take various and broad-ranging (and not necessarily painful) action because their clear and informed view is this: Determined, systematic action must be taken, right away, to avoid drastic consequences if too little is done.

This won’t surprise people who have been watching the issues, seeing more and more data presented that reveal a rapidly worsening situation.  The report can be found here.

This blog is oriented around theology, spirituality and the natural world. I’ve seldom dealt much here with climate change issues.  However, they are unquestionably theological as well as scientific issues.  And in the current “climate”, I must do my small part to help inform and hopefully inspire action (one of which, critically, is voting in November if you are in the US … on climate change the partisan difference is vast).

I cannot make some of the important points as well as they are made in statements by one of the world’s most significant thought leaders.  He’s a man not widely known as a public figure though he’s long been a prolific writer and speaker, held in the highest esteem by those who have known him and his work over many decades. (I’m very lucky to be one of them.) I refer to retired professor, John B. Cobb, Jr.

The earlier of two short articles, here, was written almost two years ago but is very pertinent right now in relation to the dire warnings and precise prescriptions coming from the United Nations.  Cobb shares how and why he’s “keeping the faith” (in relation to hope for the physical world, not just spiritual belief or practice).

The other article, here, will be fascinating to people interested in the broad economic and biological context of how global warming has developed and continues, and what it will take to at least slow if not reverse it.  Additionally, it’s interesting to see how a brilliant teacher and theologian adjusted his thinking and priorities mid-stream, stemming initially from things his young son learned at church!

Cobb refers to books he co-authored with biologist Charles Birch and prominent economist Herman Daly.  He shares a vital insight into the practicality of both philosophy and theology, summarized in this reference to these two books:

These may be my most valuable theological books, even though they are not what most people would think of as “theological” at all.

Have you read these or similar books? What are your thoughts about them or about the relationship of spirituality, religious beliefs, philosophy, economics, etc., to climate change?


Review of “Destiny of Souls” – Part 1

September 29, 2018

Destiny of Souls: New Case Studies of Life Between Lives by Dr. Michael Newton is no longer “new”, in terms of date, published in 2000.  But…

… it is significantly new in terms of what Newton explores via his many clients. At least I’m not aware of other works that have built upon or replicated what he has laid out, in great detail, in the book.  Of course, other “past life regression” therapists have done similar work and continue to write books.  Without having read them, I imagine they would tend to confirm core implications of Destiny of Souls”.  

However, Newton’s focus in both this book and his others (one was prior, Journey of Souls, 1994) is what happens in people’s disembodied state between the many incarnations he believes most people have. (This became his focus from early in his long career, though not something he had even believed in when starting out.) One potential boon for us is what it may help us discern about both about our personal soul-life and the nature of life and consciousness more broadly.

In my view, there is valid reason to have some questions about the details of client descriptions or about the author’s conclusions on certain matters.  Some of these issues Newton addresses in various places in the book, though I suspect the “defenses” are missed by many readers, especially the stronger skeptics (generally 1 and 2 star reviewers) who often read only a couple chapters or skip sections.

Finer-point skepticism aside for now, here is why I believe the overall work by Newton, and this book in particular (I’ve not read his others, said to be overlapping) to be very important:

It presents a credible fleshing-out of the dynamics of reincarnation, widely believed in but little understood.

It offers alternative explanations of ideas on both “sides” of the resurrection/reincarnation divide (Judeo-Christian vs. “Eastern”). 

Let me elaborate on these a little (there’s a lot to potentially include). Some background: Reincarnation is a majority view of the “destiny of souls”, taken worldwide.  Even in the “Christian nation” of the USA, polling indicates around 20 – 25% believe in some form of reincarnation, including many who identify as Christian.  Whether you’re a believer or not in reincarnation, there must be some basis for its wide appeal and some reasons why so little is commonly understood about how it actually operates, and toward what ends. Might this book be at least a strong clue and maybe much more? In it we get a lot of specifics going beyond reincarnation as either merely “an endless cycle” or “eventual enlightenment”.  Newton believes he has uncovered many of those specifics and a clearer view of the larger “Plan”.  He believes his data also tell us a lot about the nature of spirit life while not embodied.

Stepping back a bit, at the same time some Christians are at least open to reincarnation, orthodox Christian teaching clearly opposes reincarnation in favor of belief in one human lifetime followed by some form of “final judgment”.  Just how “biblical” is this historic view is a topic for another post (or many).  The Bible, regardless, adds relatively little further information on either the judgment process or life thereafter.

This leads to a lot of presumption, guessing and the creation of an endless stream of “Peter at the Pearly Gates” jokes.  (Actually, these are often quite funny!) More soberly, future resurrection of the body and the nature of soul existence after death is debated within traditional Christianity, along with how one may obtain “eternal life”, etc.  Understandable curiosity leads to the wide speculation, admitted to by most Christian theologians.  Aside from threads in both Hebrew and Christian Scripture that focus on apocalyptic “end times”, ancient forms of both religions, particularly Judaism, focused primarily on this-world issues and claimed little about what happens after.

I’m far from an expert on the contrasting Eastern religions but have become generally familiar.  There are places where some specifics on the nature of reincarnation and spirit-life are described but there is not widespread agreement on specifics… on whether “transmigration” (to non-human species) happens to souls, for example.  Also missing, to my knowledge, is much discussion of what happens between lives, as to any review and learning processes.

These are issues which Newton’s work does focus on.  Precisely because it purports to fill in numerous holes in either “revealed” or more investigative information (such as the many studies of people’s “near death” and “out of body” experiences), this book is both a fascinating read and important for further research.  Many reviewers testify to it helping them greatly in dealing with grief or in gaining a sense of their purpose or direction in life. (I well realize many Christians as well as atheists/skeptics will discount or “disallow” this factor, along with all of Newton’s information, based upon belief systems that differ, but it must be taken as one factor of significance in evaluation.)

  31NbFe6qeBL._SY200_ The late Michael Newton

Now, I happen to be intent on religious and “spiritual but not religious” people, atheists and everyone being in respectful dialog.  We need to find places and ways to cooperate on shared goals for human betterment.  There are problems with every single religious or spiritual view, institutional or personal.  More solid and stable foundations come from common wisdom — principles and insights widely agreed upon.  In one sense, these can be pursued without consideration of differences on the destiny or growth process of souls.  But humanitarian this-world goals cannot be fully separated from the larger picture of how our souls (or “personalities”, for unbelievers in any consciousness beyond this life) came to be, where they are headed and how this all proceeds.

For example, the common, often nagging questions of “What’s my purpose in life?” or “What does this all mean?” have powerful impacts on well-being and the ability for many people to actually be compassionate and active in support of others.  These issues are addressed, with widely varying answers, by religions and many forms of spirituality. Some, such as Buddhism, do so without much speculation on the being of God, or even if such a “supreme being” exists.  This book might be considered to have a similar approach regarding that matter.  For purposes here, I’ll merely say in summary that Newton’s research indicates a complex spiritual world of beings and functions, apparently originated or directed, in some sense, by “God” though God is not a key focus and never really defined or directly encountered in reports by Newton’s subjects.  My own take is that Newton is describing something like a benevolent “field” or “ground of being” within which all aspects of reality and all life forms exist and grow.  (Whether or not he/she/it is “personal” is largely a matter of fine-point definitions.) This would seem to fit within perspectives along a broad spectrum from the Bible to scriptures and beliefs of classical Eastern origin and current more “New Age” thought.

In Part 2, I will give some further specifics of both Newton’s data-gathering method and what he believes are valid general points to be gathered that may provide answers we crave and sometimes comfort or desired direction.  I will address, via his work, what I consider a potentially close parallel between Christian “reap what you sow” and the Eastern concept of karma.



What’s in a Title? (Of Religious Texts)

August 27, 2018

This post is being prompted by my reading of a review of a new translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (more often called “Old Testament” by Christians), by Dr. Phillip Long, found here.  If you follow such things, his review is worth a few minutes.  I actually don’t keep up on recent biblical translations much, but having read this prompted some thoughts about the importance of how we title things, especially those that are so widely read or referred to.  And, on top of that, given a special sacred and often authoritative status, as is the Bible, whether only the pre-Christian Jewish Bible or the expanded one including the “New Testament”.  My thoughts, below, come from reflections based on my ongoing reading of scholarly works (and others) on the Bible, history of the Ancient Near East, Christian origins and Christian spirituality.  So below is what I posted as a comment on Dr. Long’s blog regarding this newly released translation called “The First Testament”.

I’m glad to see a move away from the title “Old Testament”, but not fully satisfied with “First Testament” either. I’d like to see Christians broadly get more comfortable with what a great many scholars of the Bible have been using for a long time: “Hebrew Scriptures”. Of course, coupling “New Testament” to that is not good parallelism, and “Greek (or Greco-Roman) Scriptures” for “NT” is not quite apropos, either, as “NT” authors were mostly Jewish also, though writing in Greek… so it’s complicated.

But the fact that the big majority of Judaism takes the “First Testament” as the ONLY canonized Bible, the implication of a second or later testament without the qualifier of “Hebrew” seems too disregarding of what actually came via their ancestors. And, at least in some sense, that body of work has been co-opted by Christians in adding to and re-labeling the historical first portion, whether as “first” or “old”.

Another reason I feel including “Hebrew” with “Scriptures” or even with “Testament” is appropriate is to keep from implying (as in “First Testament”) that these scriptures are necessarily the earliest or the only (maybe with NT added in) “Word of God” given to humanity. I know many from India and regions nearby (Hindus and others, including Western scholars or devotees) would like to chime in with a probably-valid contention that at least portions of THEIR scriptures are significantly older and they have a comparable claim to being divine revelations.

I think I’m o.k. with Testament, in that covenant/testament is central there, so if that is kept, right now my preference would probably be “Early Hebrew Testament”, leaving room for a later “new covenant” (Hebrew scriptural term) potentially called something clumsy like “Later Hebrew Testament in Greek”. This might be seen as both more accurate and more suitable to keeping respect for Jewish beliefs that do not recognize the later as “testament” or scripture. Not a “hill to die on” but something to give further thought to.

Jewish-Christian Feuds in the New Testament – Review of “The Reluctant Parting”

June 22, 2018

If you’ve been a Christian for a good while or if you are not a Christian, let me emphasize something about my title above: it does not refer to feuds between Jews and Christians but to quarrels and debates between Jewish groups which followed Jesus as Messiah.  In this, I’m following the book I’m reviewing.

Let me interject this before getting into specifics: I highly recommend this book! It is very readable for those with little background yet meaty for the well-informed.  With that said, I will develop some of the reasons and a broad outline of the book.

The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book, by Dr. Julie Galambush, is far from the only book to focus in on the great variety Christian beliefs among communities of Jesus followers in the first to early second century.  (But it takes a unique and in-depth approach.) Such communities were almost always partially to fully Jewish.  So it should not surprise us that the New Testament (NT) was written primarily by Jewish authors, for a mostly-Jewish audience (Luke being the main likely exception).  And that group going beyond the “Twelve Apostles” who were reputedly direct disciples of Jesus and may or may not have written any of the NT books.

However, the real significance of this strongly Jewish authorship, and of the heavily Jewish context and content of our specifically “Christian Scriptures” (NT) we almost completely miss.  This is true of almost all Jews as well as Christians.

This is pointed out by both the author and by the writer of the powerful forward, James Carroll, prolific author and former priest.  Author Julie Galambush is in an unusually good position to know of our misperceptions, as both a highly qualified biblical scholar and a Jewish convert, previously having been a Baptist minister.  Carroll points out in the forward that, despite hundreds of years (and thousands of books) of focused historical and spiritual searching, “Jesus remains the hidden man of Christian faith. He is the hidden man of Jewish memory, too…. But Julie Galambush suggests that this hidden Jesus… can have a fresh set of meanings to Christians and Jews alike.  Christians can recover Jesus as their Jewish Lord who preached nothing but the God of Israel.  Jews… can… recognize in him an embodiment – as this Christian sees it, at least – of the longing for God’s reign that remains central to Jewish hope.” (xiii.)

The core thesis of The Reluctant Parting is partially told in the title.  Followers of Jesus-as-Messiah, particularly the large proportion who were observant Jews and wanted to remain so, separated only slowly and painfully from the larger population of Jews who rejected the idea of Jesus having been the expected Messiah.  This fact is fairly widely recognized among Christians – at least those who have read the NT carefully and gained some historical knowledge.

What is very little understood yet critical to understanding the setting and meaning of the NT is that the pain and acrimony of separation we see at various places throughout it involve conflicts specifically within the relatively small “family” of those who did follow Jesus-as-Messiah.  These small communities were geographically spread apart, apparently even in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (current Israel), and in scattered diaspora Jewish communities around the Roman Empire. So conflicts and separations were not just among strangers, but often involved family and neighbors.  The adage that fights are often more intense or bitter the closer are the combatants seems to have been at play significantly in the early decades of the gradual transition out of Judaism.  This affected particularly ethnic Jews but also newly converted Christian Gentiles and the near-Jewish “God-fearers” worshipping among Jews.

The book accomplishes a lot more than Galambush pointing out and illustrating the “insider” Jewish-Christian struggles and separations. I also consider it an excellent introduction to the NT overall.  Like the typical “introduction” text (and most are written in basic textbook style for college or graduate students), it covers all the NT books and their basic groupings.  This one is more readable and interesting than most, I find more so than any I’m familiar with (far from all of them).

What else you’ll find in The Reluctant Parting is a generous amount of well-summarized “backgrounds” material.  This is critical for understanding both the books of the NT and the real-life setting of its original readers and the authors – cultural, political, economic, religious and other conditions and belief systems.  In the process of reading the author’s explanations, one can gain a lot of insight about the establishment and growth of sects in the Ancient Near East (which in the case at point, Jewish Jesus-following, became a separate and major religion).

If you get a copy of this highly insightful, important book, be sure to read both the introduction and the epilogue.  The introduction sets up the issues regarding why the perspective Galambush takes on the NT writings and their setting is highly relevant to our forms of faith today… to our subconscious as well as conscious views toward those of differing traditions and beliefs (particularly Christians toward Jews and vice-versa).  In it she describes Parts One and Two, and how they can be read separately (not recommended by me, for anyone).  She says of Part One that it “… provides an overview of the history of the post-exilic period, and introduces the contents and arrangement of the New Testament, including a brief discussion of early Christian writings that were not included in the Christian canon.” Part Two covers the specific books of the NT.

The Epilogue is “The Image of the Jew in Christian Scripture”.  Here’s one statement of how and why major problems developed and still persist in this area to this day: “One might hope that a sensitive reader could come close to hearing what the authors intended to say, but in the case of the New Testament, the barriers to an ideal reading are very high indeed.” The author goes on to develop the specifics.

The way most Christians have treated the New Testament, if they even read it seriously at all outside of snippets at church, is as a guide to personal salvation and spiritual practice.  They’ve had very little historical sense or interest.  Thus the traditions of centuries of often-distorted Christian theology and attitudes toward ancient (and now modern) Judaism and Jews then and now are just taken in without the moderating and correcting effects of much that is right within the New Testament itself.  But it does take some background and careful reading to discern much of this.  And this is precisely what this book helps provide in an exceptionally clear, interesting and readable way.

A Fascinating Spiritual Memoir: Review of “The Hardness of the Heart”

May 15, 2018

The Hardness of the Heart is an interesting form of autobiography covering a portion of Wade Fransson’s life.  It is the second volume of a trilogy which focuses primarily on his spiritual transformation and maturation.

It covers a couple decades of Fransson’s life and ties periodically back to issues and themes begun in volume one, The People of the Sign, which covers the author’s earlier years.  As you’d suspect from there being three volumes (the last soon to be published), the book goes into a lot of detail. I found the specifics to be engaging and often fascinating.  Whatever one may think of Fransson’s religious beliefs and spiritual emphasis, there is plenty of drama in his life experiences and in the way he describes them.  As a former preacher in the Worldwide Church of God, he knows how to tell a story.  And he does it throughout the book.

The narrative, along with the transparency of a man exploring his own psyche, willing to expose his failings and falterings, keep the theological reflections interesting.  I presume this would hold for most readers even with little religious background or interest.

For readers who do have similar religious backgrounds, there may be special “aha’s”, a feeling of camaraderie, or perhaps an experience of support in growing beyond the boundaries often set by conservative or “literalist” styles of church.

I personally found particular interest in how the author progressed through stages of deeper understanding, confrontation both inwardly and outwardly toward others, and step-by-step withdrawal from the “Church” (basically a small denomination).  This was sometimes painful and always stressful.  The story has an extra layer than that of most who’ve gone through a similar process, as I have myself — Fransson was a minister and missionary of some repute in the Worldwide Church of God when it went through a series of splits.  So this meant not just a quiet, simple withdrawal but a number of wrenching person-to-person tensions and partings.

The frustrations and trials of organizational life don’t end there in this book.  Minister Fransson becomes Corporate Man Fransson, only to encounter a similar set of personal ambition, authority and ethics struggles in some of America’s medium-sized to very large corporations… names you will probably recognize.  This slice of the book I consider perhaps as valuable as the insights on personal development and “demon slaying”.  What you probably realize goes on in corporations you will get an inside glimpse of here; and sadly, it’s not a pretty picture in all too many frames.

There is a further level of self-revelation in The Hardness of the Heart — that of Fransson’s romantic life and family life.  We get to see the slow agony he underwent in the collapse of his first marriage.  This is part-and-parcel of the other elements he develops in greater depth and his inclusion of it certainly fills out the picture of his life… going beyond the “religious” or belief-system and career aspects.  Happily, we see him learn and grow into a readiness and ability to build a deep and harmonious new relationship.  His telling of this process and a suspenseful proposal to the woman he’s come to completely adore (as well as be a true friend to) I found to be a great finale.


The “Strange” Gospel of Judas and its Window into Early Christianity

April 26, 2018

The Gospel of Judas is no longer “new” and is out of the news coming from the popular press.  However, it retains a place of importance, if we keep it in right context.

As radical as its thesis seems to us in this century, this gospel’s revelation just a dozen years ago fits right in with many discoveries in the last 75 years or so, and the great significance they hold for our understanding of how Christianity formed and grew in its first two to three centuries.  In this article, after some important context, I’ll give only a very short review of Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and The Shaping of Christianity” by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King.  They both are highly accomplished scholars of the New Testament, early Christianity and its milieu.

So how is it that, after nearly two millennia, discoveries have been made in recent decades which profoundly affect our picture of Christianity’s origins and early nature? Were historians and archaeologists not searching in earlier times? Certainly they were.  And they made important finds in various periods.  Some significant ones were in the latter part of the 19th century, particularly in Egypt, others mid-twentieth century.

Luck (or “providence” or “synchronicity”) may have played a part.

For example, Bedouin explorers happened upon, without knowing what they’d found, the treasure trove we call the Nag Hammadi library (a good number of bound volumes dating to early centuries of the Common Era, buried in a vessel in a remote area of Upper Egypt).  That was 1945. Like the Gospel of Judas, these volumes were in the Coptic of the area, having been translated from Greek originals in many cases.

We can’t very precisely date the Gospel of Judas, but we know something by this title existed during the 2nd century, and with some amount of circulation, because it is named and opposed by the proto-orthodox Irenaeus, writing around 180 C.E.  The assumption (it being very likely) that this is the same book places its composition within less than 100 years of our four Gospels of the New Testament, probably within roughly 50 years of the Gospel of John.

However, in the few-to-several decades that are likely between this gospel and the canonical gospels, and which is roughly a century past the writings of Paul, things changed… a lot in some areas.  Among the most critical of these is increased persecution of Christians, parallel with their increased separation from Jewish (fully or partially “observant”) followers of Jesus in the first few decades after his death.  The latter generally could benefit from a “Jewish exception” the Romans allowed to the typically-required worship of the Emperor, earliest Christianity being primarily a Jewish sect rather than a new religion apart from Judaism.

Returning to the context and importance of the Gospel of Judas, it involves this: As the Romans had begun persecution of certain Christians, particularly leaders, various Christian groups were reacting differently.  According to Pagels and King, this document particularly reveals the internal “family” tensions and acrimony over how to react. Literally, lives were at stake.  Anxiety must have been high, to say the least.  This drives at least much of the emotion and invective found in this short volume.

There were worldview differences in addition to the martyrdom issues driving the counter-narrative of Judas as the most loyal and “getting it” disciple of Jesus.  But a similar kind of hostility is evidenced within the other gospels and epistles of the New Testament, whether toward “the Jews” or other break-away Christians (as seen in 1 John).

Analyzing the content further, as to the beliefs involved, becomes difficult.  This is made worse by there being substantial missing pieces in the manuscript due to physical decay and damage.  Textual damage aside, the range of novel expressions of Judaism, emerging Christianity and pagan or “classical” (e.g., Platonic) religious views makes understanding many documents of this period particularly challenging.  Determining if and how the Gospel of Judas may fit in with the broad range of Gnostic documents we now have (mostly since 1945) is a specialized process with debated conclusions, beyond even summarizing here (and beyond my more detailed areas of study).

Here’s why this relatively short and quite accessible (for non-scholars) book on the Gospel of Judas is of particular importance, in my view: It analyzes this recently-discovered document in relation to the broader religious and societal issues of its period, one in which we have relatively few documents outside of those preserved by the gradually-developed orthodoxy of the late 2nd century and beyond (particularly works that became our New Testament and a number of works largely harmonious with them).

The very fact that only in the last century or so have we discovered numerous “Gnostic” (this label being hard to define or delimit) or other heterodox texts indicates the powerful effect of winning doctrinal battles.  With dominance it was, in that day, possible to almost completely “bury” opposing viewpoints (or force their burial by those hoping to preserve them).  One of the key things strongly confirmed by their unearthing is the broad diversity of early Christianity.

Seeing this reality undercuts the “received” narrative pushed by Luke in Acts of the Apostles (placed right after the Gospels in our NT) that a single and relatively unified “church” developed from the first weeks after the death of Jesus.  Per Luke, this simple Spirit-led development continued at least until the unspecified “ending” he gives to Acts around the time of Paul’s final imprisonment and journey to Rome.  (In this, conveniently ignoring the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and its massive impact on both Judaism and Christianity.)  After Luke’s story, unwritten legend takes over for a lengthy period.  It isn’t until Constantine and his hired “historian”, Eusebius, early 4th century, that anyone picks up on Luke’s beginning and tries to create the picture of continuity of authority and orthodoxy going straight back to Jesus and his original Apostles.  Among other key documents from this over-two-century period is the Gospel of Judas.

If the Gospel of Judas or this work by Pagels and King on it is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend reading their book.  It is well written and moves one along without bogging down in details of a scholarly nature.  Still, it is well footnoted with scholar references as well as good added explanations, so I recommend at least perusing these (special notes section, actually).

The introduction section is strong and certainly not to be skipped.  Then follows four chapters about the setting and contents of the Gospel.  After that is an English translation of the text with notation of the places where some of the text is missing or has been reconstructed, if suitable.

Wrapping up, before “Notes” (see above) and indices is “Comments on the Translation”.  This is not technical, as it may sound, but important commentary that is definitely not to be skipped….  As long as one has read this far, silly to miss the meaty stuff included here.

If you are, like me, doing “catch up” reading (years after publication), or are merely interested in the history and nature of how our most widespread world religion developed in its early days, I think Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity” is worth your time.
















































































































































































































































































































































































Easter Stretches Minds as well as Spirits… Approached with or without “Faith”

March 27, 2018

I’m re-posting what I put up just before Easter last year. It has a couple links to articles that are still live and the articles pertinent.

I didn’t comment on the photo attached last year, but will now, given its fascination for me and interest more broadly, I imagine.  It is one I took in fall of 2016 in Ulm, Germany, the Danube just out of frame.  It was shot, among many others, well up the high spire of the “Ulm Minster”, the highest church in the world (technically not a cathedral – originally under Catholic construction, but Lutheran since the Reformation).

Its height is 530 feet.  I climbed the narrow spiral staircase to the observation deck, 469 feet up, and highly recommend the adventure (unless you have heart trouble… there is a defibrillator about 2/3 of the way up).

The other addition to the original post, below, is that since then, the ground-breaking historian of religion and anthropologist enthusiastically referenced there, Jonathan Z. Smith, has died.  The article of last year:


Did you ever wonder why it’s “news” that the Pope celebrated Mass on Easter Sunday? Or that Christians all over the world were commemorating Jesus’ Resurrection? Oh, well… understanding that one is out of my field of studies, I presume.

My headline points out that, as seasonal creatures, we naturally tend to cycle what’s on our minds in parallel with our cultural and/or religious celebrations.  Whether you’re religious, spiritual-but-not-religious or non-religious and non-spiritual in your interests, you may encounter extra articles, radio or TV pieces and such that deal with Jesus around now.  I hope you take time to read some of them.  Fascinating stuff.

Fascinating on more than one level.  Some of them deal with the question of the existence of an actual historical person known as Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Christ.  This makes it fascinating in terms of a puzzle of history.  And a revelation of the difficulties of finding any “objective” history from ancient times or even perhaps today.    

One good article by a solid biblical scholar is in The GuardianAnother, which I’ve commented on under the article, interacting with other commenters, is by psychologist and former Evangelical Christian, Valerie Tarico, found here.  They come from differing perspectives and both cite relevant modern experts and ancient documents, or the interesting lack of them.  Neither is technical nor hard to read so I recommend them both for a broad audience.

Another level of fascination brought out by informed discussions on Jesus and very early Christianity is “watching” the formation of the world’s largest religion (though we are missing much more of the story than the parts we do have).  There are so, so many lessons applicable to today’s situation both in the Middle East, here in America, and everywhere else.  Issues of cultural and ethnic tensions and how they sometimes are transcended, sometimes remain tense for incredibly long periods.  Issues of how the seemingly necessary “myths” of life’s meaning, spiritual “reality”, our destiny and such things are developed and sometimes changed rapidly.

I’ll expand briefly on just the matter about myth-making.  This comes up quickly and often emotionally in discussions of what is historical or not, from Jesus’ very existence, to what he said and did, to how Christianity was actually founded and by whom.  It’s right that it should come up.  Believers (all types of Christians, not just “born again” or literalist types) need to much better understand the reality and process of myth-making in general and in the founding of their faith in particular.   And non-believers or doubters with nagging questions often need to be much better informed on myth-making as well, and on what does stand on solid historical ground regarding Jesus and his early followers, even when much of it cannot be pinned down with specificity.

My own fascination may exist because of an early and quite long education in the Bible and Christian faith followed by a long widely-searching period and then much more study in both formal and self-guided modes in particularly New Testament and related texts and the subject of “Christian origins”.  This last phase has included exploration of the process of myth-making and its relation to cultural and/or nationalistic issues.  I will say categorically,

It is impossible to very deeply understand even one’s own culture–its values, memes, sense of place in the world–overall what drives it, without some examination of the mythology behind it.  This is particularly true for “Christian America”.

The scholar I’ve encountered who has developed the most (in my exposure in English language work) on myth-making within Christianity is Burton Mack (“Who Wrote the New Testament”, “The Christian Myth”, etc.)  He has developed “Social Interest Theory” along with anthropologist Jonathan Z Smith in a lot of detail.  It has strong explanatory power… a key test of the validity and usefulness of any systematic theory.  Some of his work is fairly technical, some of it not.  So I recommend some exploration of him to readers all along the scale of education on religion or Christianity and its formation.

But there are a whole lot of other authors who have made important contributions to this area.  Too many to begin naming them here.  But I do encourage you to look into any author’s credentials and try to identify his or her perspective (religious commitment and in what setting, an anti-religious sentiment, etc.).  This almost inevitably coincides, to varying degrees, with intellectual bias and with reasons a person researches and writes on a given topic.