Thursday, July 16, 2009

Narratives of the Bible - The Priestly Story

And now, to wrap up these three major narratives of the Bible (at least as framed by my not-yet-met friend Marcus Borg - I mean the man is in Oregon - we are destined to meet!), here's the Priestly Story. Hang on -- it's not nearly as droll as the title may lead you to believe...!

- Within this story, the priest is the one who makes us right with God by offering sacrifice on or behalf. This is not a story primarily of bondage, exile and journey, but a story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. In this story, we are sinners who have broken God's laws, and who therefor stand guilty before God, the lawgiver and judge.

(This is the story that most of modern-traditional Christianity recognizes as *the* story of redemption ... that we fell from grace, that we are separated from God, that our relationship with Him has been severed, and that there is a blood-price to be paid ... that someone must die to appease the wrath of God. But it was neither the earliest story, nor the only story ...)

- All three of these stories [the 3 narratives of Borg's which I've been sharing here] shape the message of Jesus, the New Testament, and subsequent Christian theology. Jesus' own message speaks of the bondage and exile caused by the world of conventional wisdom, and of the sense of sinfulness and impurity generated by the purity system.

(I notice that the sense of sinfulness and impurity is generated *by* the purity system ... apart from the Law there is no sin ... and are we now not apart from the Law...? Are we perhaps not connecting the dots...?)

(In order to better understand how we traditionally see Jesus and the Atonement, it would be helpful to break down and describe 3 "main" understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus in the history of Christian theology.)

- The oldest of these atonement theories is called "Christus Victor," a Latin phrase that means "Christ victorious." It is an image that understands the central work of Christ to be a triumphing over "the powers" that hold humans in bondage, including sin, death and the devil. In relating this to the three narratives we're exploring here, this understanding can be likened to "the powers" holding us in bondage as Pharaoh and Egypt, on a cosmic scale - or, the bondage/exodus narrative.

- The second major understanding of the Atonement is called the "substitutionary" or "objective" image. This image pictures the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin that makes God's forgiveness possible. Though sacrificial language is used to speak of the death of Jesus in the NT itself, this understanding of Jesus' death did not become dominant in the church until the early Middle Ages. This image clearly sees the death of Jesus through the priestly narrative.

(I recall hearing the startling fact that stories/art/focus of the Crucifixion as being central in Christianity did not occur until 1000 years after the death of Christ...! The early church largely focused on the resurrection - new life - as the primary message to share.)

- A third understanding of the Atonement can, with some modification, be correlated to the exile story. This understanding portrays Jesus neither as the one who triumphs over the powers nor as a sacrifice for sin, but as "revelator" or "disclosure." The emphasis is not upon Jesus accomplishing something that objectively changes the relationship between God and us, but upon Jesus revealing something that is true. [Selah. Pause and think on that.] What is revealed is more than one thing. Sometimes the emphasis is upon Jesus revealing what God is like (for example, love or compassion). Sometimes the emphasis is upon Jesus as "the light" who beckons us home from the darkness and exile. Sometimes the emphasis is upon Jesus' death and resurrection as the embodiment of the way of return, a disclosure of the internal spiritual process that brings us into an experiential relationship with the Spirit of God. Within this way of seeing Jesus, he is the incarnation of the path of return from exile.

(This feels huge to me. I've been seeing this, and sharing this, for some time now. That we were never separated from God, except *in our own minds* -- and that we were stuck there until Jesus came to *show* us the nature of God, and that we are IN relationship with God ... though we left Him in our own minds (like the prodigal), He never left us...! The joy that floods me as I ponder that is almost overwhelming...!)

- Though all of these stories were important for Jesus, the early movement, and subsequent Christian theology, one of them - the priestly story - has dominated the popular understanding of Jesus and the Christian life to the present day. It is, of course, the core element in the popular image of Jesus as the dying savior whose death is a sacrifice for our sins, thereby making our forgiveness by God possible. To say, "Jesus died for our sins" is to interpret his significance within the framework of the priestly story.

(I'm very aware at how alarming it can be to many people, that I, or anyone, would even dare to question whether this story is an absolute-foundational truth. I could not have looked at this, much less questioned it, just a few short years ago. And yet I dare to believe that it is the Spirit who is leading me to question this now ...)

- The priestly story of sin, guilt, sacrifice, and forgiveness is most commonly the primary story shaping our sense of who we are, our image of Jesus and of what God requires, and the nature of the Christian life. Because I am about to be very critical of the priestly story, I want to first acknowledge its power and its positive meaning ... the image of Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins is a sign of God's great love for us - the story's meaning is simple, direct and radical: we are accepted, just as we are. It means that our own sense of sin, impurity, and guilt need not stand between us and God. It means that new beginnings are possible; we do not need to be held in bondage by the burden of our past. And some people - those for whom the central issue in their live is guilt or a radically negative sense of self-wroth - very much need to hear this message. But when the priestly story becomes the dominant story or the only story for imaging Jesus and the Christian life, it has serious limitations - it produces severe distortions in our understanding of the Christian life [and of God].

(Before he then lists six of these distortions, I wanted to comment. I have to wonder whether that very sense of guilt and negative self-worth is not *caused* by believing in this narrative...? What manner of God do we envision when we believe in a God who must kill God to appease God ...?!?)

- The priestly story leads to a static understanding of the Christian life, making it into a repeated cycle of sin, built and forgiveness -- it does not often generate the question, You are accepted - now what?

(While I've come to see the "Christian life" as an institutionalized concept, and a poor substitution of the Abundant Life that Jesus spoke of, his point is not lost on me...!)

- It creates a passive understanding - rather than seeing life as a process of spiritual transformation, it stresses believing that God has already done what needs to be done - it leads to a passivity toward culture as well.

(On one hand, I *do* see that God has done all that needs to be done ... but even deeper, that there was nothing to be *done* except in our own skewed perspective. There is nothing more to strive for ... there is nothing left, and never was anything, for us to accomplish where a relationship with God is concerned ... there is only "wake up and SEE what you've always HAD...!" I see that the endless cycle of "try harder, fail, repent, try harder, fail, repent.." does lead to utter exhaustion and defeat -- and causes many to either become passive, or else to discount God altogether -- who wants intimacy with a harsh task-master, much less one who says, "love me or else I will torture you!"...?)

- The priestly story tends also to lead to an understanding of Christianity as primarily a religion of the afterlife. The crucial issue becomes being right with God before we die: believe now for the sake of salvation later.

(Thus life today, here and now, is largely discounted -- it's all about "dying or waiting for Jesus to return" - as if life here on earth doesn't matter ... and, since Jesus is going to "burn up most of the planet and most of it's inhabitants", why bother with taking care of the earth? why bother interacting with "others" unless it's to give them a tract ... after all, this life doesn't matter, it's all about "getting to heaven when we die.." Sad that we don't recognize this life for the gift it is.)

- The priestly story images God primarily as lawgiver and judge. God's requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements. Yet the sacrifice generates a *new* requirement: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and will not forgive those who do not believe. God's forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional. Thus, though the priestly story speaks of God as gracious, it places the grace of God within a system of requirements. The overarching image for God's relationship to us is a legal metaphor, which pictures God as the giver and enforcer of a set of requirements. The priestly story most often turns the subversive wisdom of Jesus into Christian conventional wisdom.

(Whew! I had to read that passage over and over, several times, to let it sink in. The utter absurdity of calling that grace...! We just replaced the requirement to keep the law, with the requirement to believe the right thing! It's still back on US! It's still about us performing a "work" to *earn* God's favor...! HOW is that grace?!? How does that line up with God, who was in Christ, reconciling the world - from before the foundation of the world - to Himself...? How did we sink from a living relationship to a static legal situation..?)

- Moreover, this story is very hard to believe. This notion that God's only son came to this planet to offer his life as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, and that God could not forgive us without this having happened, and that we are saved by believing this story is simply incredible. Taken metaphorically, this story can be very powerful. But taken literally, it is a profound obstacle to accepting the Christian message. To many people, it simply makes no sense, and I think we need to be straightforward about that.

(I almost didn't include that passage, as I can envision what my family and friends would say to that ... "the wisdom of God is foolishness to man". Yes, but the good news should be something that even a child can comprehend - and if it's truly good news for ALL mankind, as the angels stated, then why have we made it into conditionally good news for a very few, and horrible news for the vast majority?!? Sorry - I'm going with the angels on this one.)

- Finally there is one more problem with the priestly story: some people do not feel much guilt. Perhaps some people should feel guilt who do not. But some honestly do not, guilt is not the central issue in their lives. Yet they may have strong feelings of bondage, or strong feelings of alienation or estrangement. For these people, the priestly story has nothing to say.

(Borg then shares an interesting what-if: what if Moses had gone to Egypt and said to the Hebrew slaves, "My children, your sins are forgiven." They would've said, "What? What does that have to do with us? Our problem isn't that we're sinners, you idiot, our problem is that we're slaves!" For folks who are in bondage in one way or another in their lives, the sin/forgiveness message isn't what they need to hear -- they need to hear that God does not desire that they be in bondage to anything - including a false perspective. And for those feeling alienation and estrangement, the message they need to hear is, "it's not God's will that you remain in exile here.")

- Yet when the priestly story is understood as one of the three ways of imaging the Christian life, rather than the primary way, the problems with it largely disappear. We can see this by identifying four elements that the macro-stories of Scripture share. First, all of them are stories of suffering and of being at an experiential distance from God. Second, all of them make powerful affirmations, not just about the human condition, but also about God. They are stories about God, not just about us, and they portray God as intimately involved with human life. There is a power that wills our liberation, a light shining in the darkness that invites us home from exile, a compassionate presence that accepts us just as we are, though we may not yet know that.

(YES! That's the God I know and experience! It's real and true and just *is* -- whether we YET know it or not...!)

- Third, all of them are stories of hope. All of them speak about new beginings brought about by God. Fourth and finally, all are stories of a journey. Each images the spiritual life not as a static cycle of sin, guilt and forgiveness, but as a journey. It is a journeying toward God that is also with God. In the context of a journey story, the priestly story means that God accepts us just as we are, wherever we are on our journey. Moreover, the internalization of the new identity conferred by the priestly story - that I am accepted by God, beloved by God - is a process that can take years. That process is itself a journey.

(What a beautiful way of stating this! With God and toward God ... and I affirm, at least for myself, that this journey did indeed take years ... that it's still unfolding ... that I expect it to take all of my life, if not way into eternity, or whatEVER comes next!)

- For some, the need is liberation; for others, the need is home-coming; and for still others, the need is acceptance. But beneath their differences the stories all image the spiritual life as a journey whose central quality is a deepening and transforming relationship with God.

(Yes! For me, I had to shed the former stories, the former doctrines ... in order for that which is experientially true to be free to BE free within me. and through me. I like that - feel free to feel free!

- The conventional wisdom that Jesus subverted had characteristics of both bondage and exile. Conventional wisdom is life under the lordship of culture, which is both oppressive and alienating, and his message is filled with the theme of liberation and return - HE came to "set the captives free."

(And what enslaves us MORE than false thoughts and beliefs about God, about ourselves..? How and why would God leave us in damagine delusions, and then punish us for believing those lies...? Is His hand too short for Him to deliver us from ALL that ensalves us...? Is there anything that can separate us from the love of God? Do we not *believe* what we read and experience...? Why do we listen and heed the voices of the traditions of man, which indeed do nullify the words of God...?)

- Jesus even subverts the priestly story itself -- his subversion of the purity system undercuts the priestly story's image of the human condition as "stained" or impure. He forgives sins apart from the institution of temple, priest, and sacrifice, thereby negating their necessity. The subversion of the priestly story continues in Hebrews, wherein the system of priesthood and sacrifice has now been abolished ... strikingly, within the traditions of the early Christian movement, the priestly story was used to negate the priestly story!

(And YET, we highlight and hyper-focus on the priestly story ...!)

- As those who journey with Jesus, we are on the road with him ... undertaking the journey from the life of conventional wisdom, from the life in our Egypt, and life in our Babylon, to the alternative wisdom of life in the Spirit. It means listening to his teachings - sometimes understanding it, sometimes not quite getting it. It can involve denying him, even betraying him ... that journey is in his company, in his presence. It means eating at his table, and experiencing his banquet - an inclusive banquet. Being nourished by him, and fed by him. Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community, to become part of the alternative community of Jesus [as opposed to the conventional community of tradition]. It is the road less traveled ... becoming compassionate. A journey of transformation ... leading from the life under the lordship of culture [whether secular or religious] into the life of companionship with God. It is an image of not primarily believing or being good, but as a relationship with God.

(As an interesting aside ... the word "believe" did not originally mean believing a set of doctrines or teachings - in both Greek and Latin its roots mean "to give one's heart to". Further, "believe" comes from the German "belieben" ... which means "be love.")

- Believing in Jesus in the sense of giving one's heart to him is the movement from second hand relation to firsthand relationship; from having heard about Jesus with the hearing of the ear to being in relationship with [and hearing the Voice of] the Spirit of Christ. Ultimately, Jesus is not simply a figure of the past, but a figure of the present. Meting that Jesus - the living Jesus who comes to us even now - will be like meeting Jesus again for the first time.

(Can I hear an amen, LOL! I have been, and continue to be, experiencing this meeting-Jesus-again for the first time ... even though it often feels like more of a "remembering" that which I'd lost, when I was caught in the swamp of conventional wisdom and tradition).

Thank You, God..!

Shalom, Dena


MysticBrit said...

Thanks again, Dena:) I love the derivation of the word 'believe'. In its present sense, it's almost passive, but in its root meaning it's dynamic!

And the sense of 'sin' arises from the system, not from any Reality. True!

dena said...

Ain't that coolness?

Yes, the root is indeed dynamic! That would be the basic deliniation of ALL that I'm learning ... the old-think is an odd hybrid of passivity/striving that ends up in futility and a numbed-out mind (not to mention strained and artificial relationships with God and other humans).

The new-think is invoratingly, dynamically FRESH...! Free! Invitational! Co-creative! BEAUTIFUL!!!

Loving taking this trip with you, Harry!

Shalom, Dena