June 21, 2010

Pulpit Fiction

Since the New Testament was written, church 'traditions' have added to, built upon and filled in the blanks about what happened in between scripture's pages. Some of the oldest are also some of the most ridiculous - like inventing the names of the 70 disciples mentioned in Luke 10, or that Thomas fought dragons in India, or that he was transported from there to witness Mary's bodily assumption (from the grave!) into heaven. No offense to my staunchest of Catholic friends, but I suspect someone concocted those stories.

In Protestant circles, however, a similar kind of historical embellishment has become far too common. The very same post-reformation trajectory which brings us closer and closer to theological anarchy has also led us all to invent (or adopt) our own fictional Jesus stories. Now instead of one sanctioned collection of stories, we have endless variations. For this, partly, we can blame every preacher who ever stood up and said "Scholars tell us we don't know for sure, but this is what I think might have happened".

It's the "we don't know" part that bugs me the most. Not to quibble just now about what we do or don't know about earliest Christian History, but - to echo one of my constant refrains - why don't the same preachers express such blanket agnosticism about their theology? The same pulpiteers who assert with such confidence their own denominational 'isms' will then turn around and proclaim that we know NOTHING about what Jesus did for his teens and twenties. So, we're afraid to say Jesus was part of the Nazareth Synagogue, I suppose. Hmmm.

A pattern begins to emerge. What do church 'traditions', doctrinal 'isms', and contextual embellishments all have in common? Creative control. Assertive preaching has always been more effective at establishing permanent institutions than... well, than anything else, really. Once a good pulpit fiction gets repeated enough times, it may as well be New Testament Scripture! Or, rather, that used to be true...

As the post-reformation trend towards anarchy interweaves with the postmodern rejection of authoritarian dogma, the proliferation of Jesus Stories is playing right into the hands of the unholy desire for an individualized Jesus.

The mainline denominations, meanwhile, continue resisting the inherently humble approach which is proper historiography. If our best Christian minds got together and produced two or three leading scenarios for earliest Christian History - from a standpoint of trusting the scripture - it would certainly help fill the immense historical vacuum into which so much ridiculous fiction continues to pour. It would also threaten most of denominational Christendom.

Meanwhile, as God loving Christians continue abandoning pews by the thousands, it gets somewhat easier to dream of a world without pulpits. But as living room Christians continue to bring in their terrible habits, it is not yet so easy to dream of a world without Pulpit Fiction.

1 comment:

Josh L said...

Good post, Bill.

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