[I’m skipping a few chapters — as I’ve said before, I don’t have much helpful to say about the spirit or gifts of the spirit…]
Sacrament and Sacrifice
To me, the sacrament is a beautiful reversal of the ancient order of sacrifice.
Blood sacrifices are ubiquitous in human and religious history. Most often, these sacrifices were performed as a way to ritually feed or otherwise appease the gods. The first chapter of Leviticus lays out the method of sacrifice. It repeatedly mentions the idea that the sacrifice is to be a “sweet savour” to the LORD, reminiscent of the origins of the practice of blood sacrifice.
The sacrifice is directed toward the god. It is something that it demands of its people. By sacrifice, the subjects of a god are able to extract favors or at least hold back its wrath.
The sacrament — at least as I understand it — reverses this logic. In the traditions that I am familiar with, the officiator breaks the bread and pours the wine (or water) at the altar. Rather than the offering being consumed upon the altar by fire (perhaps thought of as the incarnation of the god on earth?), it is distributed to the congregants.
The sacrament is directed outward toward the people. It is offered to all. Through the sacrament we are fed and reminded of the bounty provided to us.
The outpouring of God
In Luke’s version of the events of the Last Supper, Jesus says of the wine, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (NIV).
The radical theologian, Thomas Altizer got himself into some controversy when he began to preach the death of God. But there is something beautiful about his thought. Altizer explored what it might mean for God to truly have been sacrificed. Christians are fond of reciting, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son….” But this doesn’t seem like much of an offering if it is only temporary — just as long as it takes for Jesus to be installed on the right hand.
I think we run a risk of cheapening Jesus’ sacrifice by focusing on the fantastic, unimaginable glory that he gained as a result. This seems to turn the sublime sacrifice into merely an exchange. I am a little uncomfortable with the lyrics of the sacrament hymn, “Jesus Once of Humble Birth”. The hymn juxtaposes Jesus’ humble past with his glorious future. We sing,
Once he suffered grief and pain;
Now he comes on earth to reign!
As if his grief and pain were done away with! The God that appeals to me is the God who suffers in the present tense. The Jesus that returned to the disciples still bore the scars of his mortal life. In the powerful words of modern scripture,
Which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—Nevertheless, glory be to the Father, I partook…
Here we have a God who remembers that suffering and is transformed by it. We read that Jesus will indeed return to reign, but he comes not as a conquering warrior drenched in the blood of his enemies. His robes are red with his own blood. Even the propagandistic tone of Revelation turns somber when we are suddenly confronted with a Jesus that takes the form of a “Lamb as it had been slain.” As another has paraphrased, Altizer taught that the incarnation of God was an act that poured the sacred irrevocably into the profane and was thus obliterated. We maybe are reluctant to follow him that far, but I think we have ample support for the idea that God’s experience on earth was transformative in some sense.
The God who Changed
I am haunted by a few lines from Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday.” In the second stanza, after the narrator has been consumed by leopards who gnaw on his bones, God commands the bones to prophesy and they sing these words:
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
At the sacrament table we are called upon to remember the “greater torment” of Jesus’ love. A love that exists in the world with all of its attendant sorrow and disappointment, and more importantly, we are called upon to spread that love.
I’m not sure why us Mormons insist that the Church is the same today as it existed anciently. For some reason organizational resemblance has become an evidence of the ‘truthfulness’ of the Church. This seemed to be of particular importance to truth-seekers in Joseph’s day, but I’m not sure why it should remain the hallmark of the ‘one true church.’
The manual lists several characteristics of the ancient church and our modern church. Let’s take them in turn:
The manual draws a parallel between the way that Jesus led his ‘church’ while he was on the earth and how God continued to direct the affairs of the Church after Christ’s death. I don’t want to quibble too much with the idea that Jesus was actively creating some kind of institution during his brief ministry. Let me just say that I think it is a pretty big stretch to try to see in Jesus’ band of followers the same kind of organization that exists in the Church today.
Reading through the New Testament, it becomes clear that these people thought that Christ’s return was immanent. Although we like to try to interpret some of Paul’s letters (or those attributed to him) as foreseeing a ‘falling away’ that needed to come first, it is plain that this wasn’t a generally held belief among ancient Christians (and I would be a little surprised to learn that Paul — or whoever wrote the epistle — interpreted ‘falling away’ in the same way as the popular Mormon reading of 2 Thessalonians 2). So, if God was leading the primitive Church, he or she wasn’t very interested in imparting specifics.
Authority from God
But the manual tells us,
That there might be order in His Church, Jesus gave the greatest responsibility and authority to the Twelve Apostles. He appointed Peter chief Apostle and gave him the keys to seal blessings both on earth and in heaven (see Matthew 16:19). Jesus also ordained other officers with specific duties to perform.
I’ve talked before about Paul. I am persuaded by the accounts of Paul as something of a renegade apostle. He wasn’t a part of the original Twelve, and he was proud of that fact. He seems to openly challenge Peter’s authority, and he is constantly warning the churches that he is said to have established as part of his extensive proselytizing efforts against ‘false brethren’ and ‘false prophets’ and people preaching ‘some other gospel.’ We like to fit these into our own apostasy narrative, but it seems at least plausible that Paul could have been referring to the church in Jerusalem.
The manual tries to tells us that Christ put together the church as a “a carefully organized unit.” However, as Elder Holland recently pointed out in General Conference, the first thing that Jesus’ inner circle did after the Resurrection was return to their former lives. This isn’t the behavior of people who have been installed in the leadership positions of a fitly formed together organization.
Indeed, it makes a lot more sense to me to interpret much of what the New Testament has to say about organizational structures in the Church as post hoc apologia to justify and give scriptural support for a hierarchical organization that was taking on the leadership of the Christ movement.
First principles and ordinances
I talked about covenants and ordinances last time… not much new to say here.
Ordinances performed for the dead
I remember as a missionary really loving 1 Corinthians 15. There it was staring anybody who was willing to look at it in the face. Proof positive that the ancient saints practiced baptism (and of course one can naturally assume other ordinances) for the dead.
I’ll talk more about this later in a dedicated post on temple work for the dead, but I really love the sentiment behind performing ordinances in behalf of those who cannot do them for themselves. However, this passing reference by Paul is pretty thin evidence, and it is not at all obvious that he is endorsing the practice. Apparently there is some more compelling evidence that ancient Christians practiced vicarious ordinances, but this scripture is rather controversial among biblical scholars.
This one is really interesting to me, and it perhaps highlights better than anything else the problems with too much yearning for the ancient order.
Reading accounts of the early days of the Church in Kirtland and Nauvoo, one gets a very different picture than our rather reserved, well-ordered Sunday meetings in the 21st century. Charismatic expressions of faith seemed to be commonplace (or at least not uncommon). People spoke in tongues (and not the ‘I-picked-up-Spanish-slightly-faster-than-I-might-have-otherwise’ kind of tongues, but the full-on ‘pure-Adamic-tongues-of-angels’ kind of tongues). Members of the congregation would prophesy. People would see angels and the heavens opened. It is really difficult for me to imagine any of this happening in my upper-middle class ward, and in those rare moments when someone goes ‘off-script,’ you can almost feel the waves of discomfiture sweep across the congregation.
So if the 21st century incarnation of the Only-True-And-Living-Church is so different from the ‘same’ church in the 19th century, why do we expect or even want there to be a high degree of similarity between the church in ancient times and the church today?
A while back, I read Phillip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The novella retells the story of Jesus by replacing him with two characters — twins — named Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the radical and powerful preacher, goes about ancient Judea gathering followers and spreading a message of brotherly love and forgiveness. Christ, on the other hand, is conflicted and jealous of his brother. Ultimately, he is persuaded to record his brother’s life and teachings. In his recording, he is encouraged to emphasize the fantastic and the miraculous — even to invent it and insert it into the narrative — to serve the higher cause of Truth. He is assured that if he will do this the teachings of Jesus would continue to live through an institutionalized church. By the end of the story, Jesus is killed and Christ steps in to fulfill the miracle of the resurrection.
Pullman’s tale is a little too tidy, but it raises some interesting questions. When I talked about the Gospels, I made the point that our ‘primary’ sources are built from “copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago.” Our institutions, as valuable as they are in preserving these stories and memories, have the unintended side-effect of calcifying assumptions around them.
Take for example, the idea of the virgin birth.
I didn’t realize until just a few years ago that when Catholics talk about the “Immaculate Conception” they are referring to the birth of Mary rather than the birth of Jesus. According to the (il)logic of the original sin doctrine, Mary had to be born without sin as well so she wouldn’t pass on the guilt (associated with sexual union I am guessing?) to Jesus. In my mind, this is theology at its worst — bad assumptions built on top of one another.
Lest any Mormons get smug about silly Catholic teachings, let me remind the reader of some unfortunate Mormon speculation on the matter. One does not have to dig too deeply to find scandalous quotes from Brigham Young, Orson Pratt, or Bruce McConkie on the logistics of Jesus’ conception.
What can we know?
I don’t want to go too far down the post-modernist ‘there-is-no-such-thing-as-truth’ rabbit-hole, but we should remember that we are dealing with pre-modern authors here. They weren’t so concerned with factual accuracy in their stories. The gospels and other writings that make up the New Testament had an agenda (and it certainly wasn’t to put down Jesus’ biography).
Two of the four gospels don’t even discuss the events surrounding Jesus’ birth. Mark and John both basically begin with Jesus’ baptism (John tacks on that bit about the Beginning and the Word). Paul’s silence on the subject of Christ’s birth seems suggestive to me that it wasn’t that important to him whether or not Jesus was born miraculously.
The biblical authors who were more concerned about Christ’s earthly origins don’t themselves agree on his family history (see this article for some discussion of the discrepancies between Matthew and Luke).
We might expect the details of Jesus’ birth to be a little hazy, but even events that were presumably better documented than the Nativity are problematic. The LDS Bible Dictionary includes a Gospel Harmony that attempts to correlate the different accounts of the same events in Jesus’ ministry (you can find a more extensive Harmony here). Of the 160 events listed in the linked Gospel Harmony, only 11 (less than 7%) were mentioned by all four Gospel writers. Nearly half (76 out of 160) of the events discussed in the Gospels were only mentioned by one of the four authors.
It gets even worse. The gospels are not four independent accounts of Jesus’ life. Scholars believe that the gospels of Matthew and Luke draw heavily from Mark’s (older) account, so some of the correspondence we see in the Gospels results from the fact that they are drawing from the same second- or third-hand source material. There is also likely some selection bias in the Gospels that were ultimately canonized. I would guess that the Church Fathers who were responsible for canonizing the gospels were inclined to make their choices — at least in part — based on the consistency of the accounts.
The devil is in the details
For centuries, Christians have been trying to piece together the details of Jesus’ life. The incomparable Alan Watts described the problems with focusing too much on the particulars (emphasis added):
the Church, still bound to the image of God as the King of kings, couldn’t accept this Gospel. It adopted a religion about Jesus instead of the religion of Jesus. It kicked him upstairs and put him in the privileged and unique position of being the Boss’s son, so that, having this unique advantage, his life and example became useless to everyone else. The individual Christian must not know that his own “I am” is the one that existed before Abraham. In this way, the Church institutionalized and made a virtue of feeling chronic guilt for not being as good as Jesus. It only widened the alienation, the colossal difference, that monotheism put between man and God. (from this site)
Separated as we are by 2,000 years of history, we should be a little more cautious in what we claim to ‘know’ about Jesus.
I’ll return to the rest of the standard works shortly, but doing these last few posts on scripture has gotten me thinking.
In my discussion of the Gospels (and now that I mention it, I had intended to do a post on the Pauline epistles as well, but I skipped straight to the Book of Mormon… maybe later), I talked about how I am not so interested in the particulars of Jesus’ life and ministry. I think it is just too difficult to separate out what he may have actually said from what others have put into his mouth over the centuries (for all of its flaws, Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus has a great title).
What is interesting to me is how Jesus is re-imagined over time. This morning, I was reading a really interesting post on the “war on Christmas” nonsense that pops up every year around this time. To quote the post,
You see, the baby we remember this time of year was not part of the dominant culture the way the religion he started now is. The religious stories that were told in those days were told under the shadow of the dominant culture. They were stories of oppression and hardships, stories of overcoming unthinkable odds, stories of hope for a people living in times and cultural positions that, quite frankly felt hopeless.
But today, our stories are told from places and positions of power. Today, Christianity is the dominant culture. So, instead of story of a olive skinned middle-eastern, unwed, pregnant mother, who was seen as little more than property, giving birth to what the world would surely see as an illegitimate child who was wrapped in what rags they could find and placed in a smelly, flea-infested feeding trough in the midst of a dark musky smelling animal stall, we end up with a clean, white-skinned European woman giving birth to a glowing baby wrapped in impossibly white swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger that looks more like a crib than a trough in the midst of a barn that is more kept and clean than many of our houses.
The way that we tell the story changes over time, and the Jesus that we imagine for ourselves is–in all probability–quite different from the one that we claim to worship.
It is a scary thing to give ourselves over to the idea that the only way Christ exists in the world is in our collective imagining, but I can’t help but think that is a more healthy position than believing that we have some special access to his true reality. Too much confidence in an idea as powerful as Jesus can lead to dangerous places. When we acknowledge our own limited capacity for imagination, we acknowledge the possibility that we have him wrong (a type of religious humility that is too often lacking in Mormon thought).
This is exactly why I believe that dialog is so important. When we acknowledge that we cannot see the whole picture, we are ready to listen. An imagining of Christ that happens alone — never exposed to the contrary opinions of others who are similarly striving — will always be incomplete.
Through Sunday School, early-morning youth seminary, institute and personal study, I had always had the impression that the gospels were penned by eye witnesses of Christ’s ministry. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — in my mind — must have been following Christ around and taking notes.
It turns out I was wrong.
While there appears to be some debate as to the actual timing of the four canonical gospels, the consensus seems to be that the Gospel of Mark is the earliest. The earliest credible date for Mark’s gospel is around 60-70 CE, and the earliest complete manuscript we have dates to 360 or so (older fragments exist, but none much older than 200 CE).
So the earliest account of Jesus’ life was not written down until 35-40 years after his death, and we don’t even have the original!
Even access to the original texts probably wouldn’t really settle anything. The gospels were essentially early missionary tracts. These were not intended to be accurate histories. Rather, they were used to win converts to the burgeoning Christian movement. As one who has spent two years of his life distributing religious propaganda, I have learned to be a little wary of the historical accuracy of this kind of literature.
None of this is to suggest that I don’t find value in the Gospels. To the contrary, I find them quite beautiful. As I’ve said before, it is difficult to separate that beauty from ancillary associations that build up over time, but I think there is a reason these texts have persisted in human memory that goes beyond the geopolitical position of Christianity in the ancient and modern world.
When it comes down to it, I’m just not that interested in the historical truth of the bible. From what I understand, there is fairly good evidence that there was a man who lived in ancient Judea that fits the description of the Jesus in the gospels. Whether that man actually was born of a virgin, or turned water into wine, or healed the sick, or cast out devils, or walked on water, or raised the dead, or even was raised himself from the dead seems of fairly little consequence.
What I love about the gospels is the idea of Jesus. Dostoyevsky famously said, “If anyone could prove to me that Christ is outside the truth, and if the truth really did exclude Christ, I should prefer to stay with Christ and not with the truth.” This reminds me of Joseph Smith’s famous line about evicting the devil from hell and building a heaven there with the Saints — the idea of Jesus is so beautiful and right that it transcends the question of his historicity.
William Blake talked about “Christ the Imagination” — I won’t pretend to know exactly what Blake might have meant (I never realized how wonderfully strange Blake’s prose is) — but his construction prompts me to consider the ways in which Christian cultures and communities are in a continual process of re-imagining Christ. We certainly can only “see through a glass, darkly.” Our own humble ruminations are built from copies of copies of memories and reflections from a handful of poor fishermen that lived 2,000 years ago in an obscure corner of the Roman empire.
The fact that these dim memories live on in the human imagination (admittedly, to lesser and greater effect) gives me hope in humanity.