The Bible story as seen by me

This page started as a mail I wrote on the COIN general mailing list in a discussion on "What is a Christian?", in which someone had started the discussion with a rather doctrinaire statement, and then seemed pleased when it caused a disgruntled response.

> That fairly ruffled your feathers.
> I thought the fruit of the Spirit was love, joy, peace, patience,kindness,
> goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
> Nice to see it practiced.

Whoops, we've evidently been giving the wrong answers, and so are not going to be Saved.

The correct answer must be "You obviously are a Real Christian. Please Teach us, so that we can be more like you, and be Saved."

But, seriously, a strong doctrinal position defines a strong in-group, and many people feel inadequate and rejected in their lives and are hungry to feel that they are members of something (and that they are therefore as good as other members of it), and beliefs are assented to faster than the mind can evaluate whether it really belives them, and thinking (that might lead to coming up with ones own views on something credal) just can't happen, because of the fear of being different from the group, of no longer having the defining characteristic of group membership... of being out of the group. And thus motivation to believe, and grounds for belief, become separate things, and that (as seen from outside) entails a loss of integrity.

(I'm not meaning mock views I haven't held myself; I've been along this road, and looking back, it looks pretty wide to me.)

And thus, you get strong religious organizations, of which one is either a member or not a member, and members can be easily recognized, and joining is a definite decision, and leaving is to throw your soul into everlasting flames (and thus become Not One of Us).

I'll tell it the way I see it -- what it means to me to be a follower of Jesus:

Once long ago, there was a culture in which an instance of this membership-religion happened (as it was wont to do; cultures are like that). It was quite well-defined; you could tell who was a believer and who wasn't, and everyone knew who the Ministers were, and what the duties of believers were -- it was all written down quite clearly in a collection of scrolls; and the rules were quite clear, and anyone who didn't keep to them literally was dealt with exactly as prescribed by the rules. And so everyone was happy, except for those who weren't, and they were obviously those who secretly didn't keep to the rules and were thus being punished by God (who made the rules).

But an inconvenient and disturbing thing kept happening. Quite awkward really. Some strange people kept popping up within this culture, some kind of mutant I suppose, who claimed that they were speaking directly for God, and giving some very dodgy teaching about going by the principles underlying the rules... about what God actually wanted people to do. Well, of course they were laughed right out of court, especially when they said God wasn't so bothered about literalness of rule-keeping and was going to punish his people for the way they worshipped anyone who would give them corn and the way they mistreated the vulnerable (i.e. anyone they could use to their own advantage) -- this was obviously silly because they'd got away with it so far, so God must have approved or at least not minded -- and then, of all things, forgive them. So, of course, some of these weirdos got what was coming to them, but they left a bit of an uncomfortable taste -- there was something in what they said, that people couldn't simply write off -- it left their teeth on edge somehow, and so they kept the rantings that the prophets had written down, which included something odd about someone they said would come along and change everything -- someone they referred to as "The Anointed" which apparently meant that he'd had some special oil poured on his head like at a coronation, and had been told to do something in particular, although the details seemed pretty vague although it might involve him getting some rather rough treatment. They also had strange catchphrases like "I desire mercy not sacrifice", which made it easy to tell that they were dodgy, a bit like saying that going to church didn't matter and that if you tricked someone while keeping within the rules you weren't in fact OK...

But anyway, these folk stopped popping up after a while, and the religious establishment pulled everything together so it was safe and stable again, and everyone could know who was a believer, although many were quietly hankering after something more than just know that they were believers (they kept quiet about this), which is how it is that when a crank appeared in the deserts, saying that people should change their minds completely and make a fresh start (which implied that the usual idea of being a Believer didn't really matter) just about everybody who didn't know about Religion flocked out for a token washing-off of their sins (instead of making the payoff -- sorry, offering -- in the temple, like the rules said). It was a bit like one of those "prophets" coming back, but worse (people actually liked him).

And then something really strange happened. You pretty much had to admit that the prophets, and this neoprophet, were filled with the Spirit of God, but it was also clear that, despite the strange and frightening powers that some of them had shown, they were, when it came down to it, only human. A carpenter (whose birth, his parents admitted, had come about in a rather unusual way) became a freelance religious teacher, completely outside the system, no qualifications, and with, shall we say, a distinctive way of regarding the rules, that went beyond merely disregarding them and twisting them so that you could get on with everyday life, but actually coming up with an interpretation that seemed completely inside-out to anyone with a theology degree. Unfortunately, he was even more popular than that nutter in the desert (who must have lost his marbles altogether when he met this new guy, as he said this one is "The Anointed") and his miraculous powers were even greater than those in the legends about the prophets; he healed just about everyone who came to him.

He also had some pretty strange ideas about the Kingdom of God, like that all sorts of rabble would get in but the people who kept the rules wouldn't; and he talked to women, and to all sorts of national enemies, and terrorists, and prostitutes, and the occupying army, and answered the authorities back with confidence that suggested he actually knew what he was on about (and his answers were so clever that they gave up asking him, because there's nothing worse than something you don't want to hear but which is convincingly argued) and basically he didn't seem to care whether someone was a Believer in good standing.

Fortunately for the religious leaders, he want too far, and claimed to be able to forgive sins... as if he were not only filled by the Spirit of God, but actually was God as well as being human. So, of course, they got a show trial set up quietly at night, and he got the end he seemed to be asking for.

At this point it all got rather disturbing (definitely not family-valued stuff; no-one respectable would want their children to see this on television) as graves split open and the dead walked again, and there was a strange storm, and something changed the sergeant who had been in charge of the execution, and the temple curtain, which kept the Holy separate, was torn but not by human hand (the tear started at the top where no-one could reach it)... and three days later, That Carpenter was back! And ever weirder psychic things were happening, and even more people started to conclude that this man was not only filled with the Spirit of God, but that he actually was God. Yes, they really believed that (they were mostly not theologically educated; everyone who Knew About God knew that God favoured Law and Order, and particularly that God favoured those who Knew About God).

And it's this wandering rabble-rousing ex-carpenter that I try to follow... because I reckon that, according to the evidence I've seen, it was in him that God pitched his tent among us in a way that goes beyond the physical first tabernacle; in him that God rolled up his sleeves to work with us; in his life, that God brought to life things that would otherwise just be rules; in his death, that God went through what we must all go through; in his rising to life again, that God brought to life people who would otherwise just be rule-followers.

I don't have much claim to know what I'm talking about, particularly when I say that I'm trying to follow this guy. (I do know enough to tell that I'm not very good at it. And also enough to know that that's not what counts.) I should for example "take up my cross" which could mean all sorts of things; I know that I'm "blessed" in various situations that I try hard to get out of; I know that I should seek God's Kingdom and not my little empire; I know that respectability (membership of a respectable group) is at best meaningless and at worst the thing that'll destroy the real you; that if I try to defend myself I'll lose myself.

I reckon he was utterly immune to peer pressure (OK, he was peerless anyway, in earthly terms) and emotional blackmail attempted on him wouldn't have the desired effect; he had a remarkable ability to cut through the rubbish people present on the surface, to see down to the real issues, which is part of why his answers to questions were so offputting (and often incomprehensible) to those who questioned him aggressively. I often give incomprehensible answers to questions (particular those asked aggressively) -- usually for the wrong reasons, but I'm working on it. He didn't always do what was "nice" or outwardly "kind", because he understood more of the situation than we do; and, just as he didn't seem to give some people the kindness they thought they deserved, he often gave people kindness no-one thought they deserved.

I can't claim to have powers like he had, or to have such insight, strength or compassion. But I can learn some form of those, partly by looking at him, and partly by studying those writings which were thought to be rules, that people thought he was breaking, and by studying the rantings of those nutters the prophets, who suddenly start making rather a lot more sense when you look back in the light of Jesus.

I don't reckon I'll have much success in trying to follow him (even less, if I try to deduce some rules from his actions and to follow those rules) -- fortunately, I don't reckon that's what he said matters -- or, as rephrased in one of the old services, "not weighing our merits but pardoning our offences".

Meek. Mild. As if.

[John's Christianity page]
John C. G. Sturdy

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