Lenten Listen #2: Okkervil River – I Am Very Far February 23, 2012Posted by Matt in Lent.
Tags: Derrida, I Am Very Far, Lent, myth, Okkervil River, stories, We Need a Myth
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I first became a fan of the hyper-literate Austin indie band Okkervil River about five years ago with the release of The Stage Names and I’ve followed them ever since. This release from last year was very good in its probing of the dark, subterranean places of the mind, and I listened to it a great deal after it was released. For me, the centerpiece of the album was the song “We Need a Myth,” an ode to the stories upon which humanity rests.
A true, wholly objective knowledge of reality is not possible in the human mind. Everything we see, every bit of sensory data we probe through every moment of our lives sets off countless connections in our brains, spitting out descriptive metaphors and stories to guide us to some level of personal understanding. Thus, our lives are built on stories, whether they are scientific, religious, artful, or monetary. Jacque Derrida is most famous for saying, “There is nothing outside the text,” meaning context is everything. We adopt and adapt the stories we hold most dear. As the song goes,
We need a myth
We need an amethyst bridge
We need a high hanging cliff
Jump, fall, and lift
We can make it
We need a myth
We need a path through the mist
Like in our beds, we were just kids
Like what was said by our parents
On Unknown Writers and Myths October 3, 2011Posted by Matt in EfM.
Tags: Documentary Hypothesis, EFM, god, inspiration, Marcus Borg, myth, Pentateuch, textual problems, truth
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After only two weeks of readings and meetings, the EfM (Education for Ministry) program I am involved with at our church has proved to be quite revelatory. Last week’s reading continued the introduction to the Pentateuch, as we this time looked at two major concepts of interest: the writers of the books and the concept of myth.
I had read about the Documentary Hypothesis in the past and had found it to be an intriguing alternative to the verbal, plenary inspiration that had long dominated my church experiences, but, despite i’s merits, this was the first time I had ever heard it spoken of in a church situation that wasn’t either mocking it or drawing an “us vs. them” line in the sand. In case you are not familiar with the idea, the Documentary Hypothesis makes the case that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses in the centuries before Hebrew was a written language, but that it was actually composed by four sources known as J, E, D, and P. This line of thought began a few centuries ago (CE 1685) when a French priest took note of the seeming contradictions and repetitions found in the text. Upon investigation, he also noticed a “regular variation in the name for God,” that some sections referred to God as Elohim (“the gods”) and some referred to an actual name, YHWH. Later scholars took this idea and partitioned the writings into sections along these lines, calling those parts referring to Elohim the “E” document and those referring to YHWH the “J” document (In German it is transliterated JHVH). As time went on and more biblical scholars investigated the matter, it became clear that two sources were not enough. They found that there were sections of E that were much different than the rest of the document. These sections dealt with temple worship, the priesthood, and the lengthy genealogies found in the text. Because of its concern with the priesthood, scholars called this the P document. Then another source, the D document, was also singled out. It included the “new Law” purportedly discovered in the Temple under King Josiah (621 BCE). These were then combined by redactors, or people who take already existing documents and weave them together to make a common document.
J is the earliest of the documents and dates to 950 BCE. E follows that around 850 BCE, D is from roughly 650 BCE, and P originated in the post-exilic period, 538-450 BCE. There were several other points of interest to me in the comparison of the four sources. For example, though J and E are both anthropomorphic (using human characteristics to describe God), J is more direct, with God coming down to speak to humans face-to-face, while E uses intermediaries like angels. Another difference that caught my attention was regarding miracles and natural happenings. According to the lesson, J and E describe “God’s use of natural phenomena,” that he sent plagues to Egypt and used an east wind to blow back the Red Sea, while P is more likely to use miracles, saying that it was the “supernatural rod of Moses which divided the water.”
Perhaps the most important thing in this section for me was the ease with which the Documentary Hypothesis can deal with textual problems, those things which are usually either glossed over or put through theological acrobatics to squeeze them into a predetermined perspective.
The second piece of subject matter revolves around the nature of the stories told in the text, most importantly, the concept of myth. Those of you who are longtime readers of this blog know that I have had a fascination with myth in scripture for some time. Back in December 2009 I wrote a lengthy series entitled, The Birth Myth, regarding the story of the birth of Jesus. Later on I touched on the Creation myth and then spoke of it again when I told of seeing renowned scholar Marcus Borg speak at the Lenten series held by Calvary Episcopal Church.
Myths are usually misunderstood in our post-Enlightenment culture, in which we tend to disregard stories for being unfactual, and therefore not important. Yet myths, as the lesson reads, are “the deepest expressions of truth that a culture or a people can speak.” The aformentioned Borg defines a myth as, “stories about the way things never were, but always are.” Myths are the stories that help us to understand our place in this world, in this universe, that aid us in finding meaning in life, in coming to grips with the human condition and how we relate to the Divine. According to the reading:
Myths are more than just bits of literature. They speak of the important things that lie at the heart of a religion. They are not just stories about things long ago, even very mysterious things long ago. They describe the deepest matters of life at any time. The point is not that long ago something happened that caused the world to be here; the point is that the world and all that is created (and is being created) stand in a particular relationship to the god or gods, and that relationship is described in the myth. Thus, the myth says something that is true about the world now, or at least something that the myth claims is true.
The myth that describes the point of view out of which you live your life, make your decisions, and hold your values, will express the most important depths of your life.
As we continue on with our study of Genesis, we will “study the myths of creation, sin and judgment in order to see how the people of Israel saw the terms of human life under God.”
It should be interesting.
On Abraham and Sacrifice June 27, 2011Posted by Matt in religion.
Tags: Abraham, faith, hyperbole, infinite resignation, Isaac, Kierkegaard, myth, sacrifice
Yesterday’s reading in church was a story that has long been a conundrum for thinking Christians and others who study the Bible. It has been debated and discussed, dissected and digested over and over again, yet still the tale remains a sticking point for many with no end in sight.
The passage in question is Genesis 22:1-18, the testing of Abraham, when God told him to sacrifice his son, Isaac.
It’s an interesting passage in that it opens up varied avenues of discussion. There are those who say that the story, in its most literal sense, is truly God testing Abraham. Then there are those who argue that this interpretation makes God seem petty and manipulative, a far cry from the idea of God as the personification of love. I’ve heard it said that perhaps Abraham was sacrificing his son to pagan gods, like those worshipped by the surrounding people, and that he had a sort of “Damascus moment,” and this story was then interpreted by writers centuries later. I have another friend, a former minister, who says that we shouldn’t discount the idea that Abraham was insane.
In class, I brought up for discussion the concept of “infinite resignation” as stated by Soren Kierkegaard in Fear and Trembling. In his harrowing retelling of this story, Kierkegaard describes the final mindset of Abraham as one of infinite resignation, “the last stage before faith, so anyone who has not made this movement does not have faith, for only in infinite resignation does an individual become conscious of his eternal validity, and only then can one speak of grasping existence by virtue of faith.”
In my own view I see this story, when taken literally, as one contrary to the character of God that we see in much of the Bible, but that does not mean that the story itself is without merit. I see where it has value as a hyperbolic myth, one that takes the idea of faith and its value and blows it up to unfathomable proportions to make a point.
What do you think?
We Need a Myth May 12, 2011Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, music.
Tags: Christianity, Jesus, Marcus Borg, myth, Okkervil River, We Need a Myth
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Each week I have the habit of perusing the newly released albums on Amazon and downloading one, or occasionally more, of them that interest me. This week’s choice was the latest from Austin indie rock band Okkervil River, a hyper-literate outfit with poetic lyrics and interesting instrumentation that I’ve been a fan of for several years. On this latest download, I was particularly taken with one song that I think fits within the context of my own theological views quite well. It is entitled “We Need a Myth” and the lyrics are as follows:
We need a myth
We need an amethyst bridge
We need a high hanging cliff
Jump, fall and lift
We can make it
We need a myth
We need a path
Through the mist
Like in our beds
We were just kids
Like what was said by our parents
What we’re after is just this
We need a myth
I feel my heart’s like a fist
I want words spilling out
From the blessed lips
Of any prophet or goddess
I need a myth
Brought back to life by a kiss
Scrape away grey cement
Show me the world as it was again
In a myth
A red ribbon to reconnect
The lady’s head to her neck
And to forget that her throat
Was ever slit
What we’re after is just this
And I’m sick
Of all these picture books that try
To steal some reflections for their light
But desperate measures point to desperate times
Which is why
We need a myth
We’re cut adrift
We need a mass uplift
The world is trembling and weeping
And at the point of believing
In a myth
The sun that shines on my head
The moon that lights me to bed
Were two identical twins
In a myth
I heard the voice of a friend
On Lethe’s banks
“Before I forget
We need a myth
As we lean in to kiss
To get two nails
Through the wrist
To get covered in blood
And to get covered in spit
And to forgive.”
And if all we’re taught is a trick
Why would this feeling persist?
And with the truth closing in
I must insist
We need a myth.
Like the band so succinctly puts it, we do need myths. Myths are the stories that power our lives, that give us meaning, that push our thoughts and actions into certain directions. I love the way that Jesus Seminar scholar Marcus Borg put it when I saw him speak several weeks ago:
A myth is a story about the way things never were but always are.
A myth then is something that is profoundly true, but not necessarily factually true. It is a story that carries great weight and meaning without the constraints of historical accuracy. The important thing for us to understand is that there is nothing at all wrong with the term myth, even when used in relation to our religious beliefs. Perhaps we would discover even more meaning in stories like Creation or in Jesus’s miraculous birth if we looked at them in terms of their stories and their meaning, rather than as real, historical events. Our scientific, post-Enlightenment world has a tendency to dismiss the idea as nonfactual and thus meaningless in today’s world, but perhaps it is time we do as the song says and try to “scrape away grey cement / And show the world as it was again.”
We need the mysteries. We need the myths.
Lunchtime With Marcus Borg March 16, 2011Posted by Matt in Lent.
Tags: Adam and Eve, Calvary Episcopal Church, Lenten Lunch Series, Marcus Borg, Memphis, myth, reconnecting with God
Over the years on this blog, you’ve heard me talk about a variety of books, particularly those of a theological/philosophical bend, and there have been a number of authors whom I would count as influential to my heretical thinking. Today I had the opportunity to hear one of these writers, Marcus Borg, speak as part of the Lenten Noonday Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Memphis. Dr. Borg is a fellow of the Jesus Seminar, a group of biblical scholars who seek to understand the historical Jesus, and has written some 20 books, including two of my personal favorites: Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. L
I entered the large, ornate nave about 15 minutes before Borg as set to speak and the place was nearly full to capacity. I found a nearly empty row near the back and took a seat until a group from our church, St. Timothy’s, arrived.
Soon after that Borg stood and began to speak in a way that seemed more scholarly and professor-like than the normal preaching inflections. His sermon was taken from the Old Testament portion of the previous Sunday’s lectionary reading, the story of Adam and Eve.
The talk began with the statement that, yes, the story of Adam and Eve is a myth. He then proceeded to talk for a short time about the nature of myth and what that word means in a theological context. Quoting another scholar (I don’t remember who), he said, “a myth is a story about the way things never were but always are.” Thus, myths, while not being factually true, are profoundly true in their meanings. He described them as being more akin to the parables of Jesus than to a science textbook.
The story of Adam and Even then is one of the birth of self-consciousness or self-awareness, which then of course leads to the next step, self concern, or as he said it, hubris. The life of every human being follows in this same model, from the completely egotistic baby, for whom the entire world is merely an extension of themselves, to the adult who has a greater understanding of the self. So, as he said, “the story of Adam and Eve is the story of all of us. Human life is lived east of Eden.”
But, the question must then be asked, what does this have to do with Lent, the season of penitence building up to Easter?
Borg describes Lent as the season for reconnecting with God. Once upon a time, perhaps in the prenatal world of utmost dependency, each of us had a deep connection with God, but over time something changes within us, or as he puts it, “the process of growing up is our progressive forgetting of that connection.” Lenten repentance then is not to beat yourself up over the things you’ve done in the past, it is to return from exile, to reestablish that connection, to be transformed into a person “intentionally centered in God.”
It was quite a lesson and one which took some time for me to fully process. Tomorrow he speaks again, this time over the New Testament reading of the week – Jesus’ temptation narrative. I really hope I can make it.
The Birth Myth: A Conclusion of Sorts December 17, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: Christmas, Jesus, myth, nativity
I have a feeling that many of those who read this blog are probably firmly convinced that I have chosen the path of the heathen, eschewing the nativity story in its entirety as unbelievable and untrue. If so, then they are wrong.
The purpose of this series was not to persuade anyone to the “dark side” of naturalism or to degrade the beloved stories of the Bible, rather it was an attempt to take a more critical approach to a beloved story and to answer the question raised in the series introduction:
Does it matter if the birth stories of Jesus found in the first few chapters of Matthew and Luke actually happened?
My answer to that controversial query is a simple no. It is possible that, assuming the existence of an all-powerful God who occasionally and arbitrarily inserts themselves into the world, that Jesus’ birth was the miraculous event described in the Gospel accounts. On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that this may also be a product of the writers trying to signify the importance of Jesus, a mythical account that holds a profound truth rather than a literal one. From my viewpoint, it does not matter.
To push things a bit farther, I find it troubling that such a large number of Christians see fit to make this a “battle point,” to push this as literal truth and create controversies (i.e. The War on Christmas) where none ought be. Perhaps this serves as a mere sideshow, a distraction that keeps Christians on the frontlines of a supposed battle rather than serving their fellow man. Maybe if we spent less time worrying about Jesus’ birth and more time trying to live like him, the whole of Christianity and the world would be better off.
The Birth Myth – Part 4: Conflicting Stories (cont.) December 16, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: Luke, magi, Marcus Borg, Matthew, myth, nativity, shepherds, visitors
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Everyone who knows the Nativity story can tell you about the visitors – shepherds and wise men. So, let us take a few moments to look at their roles in the narrative.
The magi first visit King Herod, asking “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews,” thus alerting the King to someone he reportedly believes will usurp his authority. As the story goes on to say:
And having heard the king, they went their way; and lo, the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them, until it came and stood over where the Child was. And when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And they came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell down and worshipped Him; and opening their treasures they presented to Him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.
Luke makes no mention of the magi and instead spends a few verses on another visitor to the baby Jesus, shepherds.
And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields,a nd keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying
“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among
Men with whom He is pleased.”
And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.
Of course, the obvious difference between these accounts come in the fact that Matthew talked about magi (aka wise men) coming to visit Jesus while Luke talked of lowly shepherds. Why does each author only tell of one set of visitors and not the other?
Borg explains it in this way, saying that the accounts
reflect themes important to each evangelist. For example, with Matthew’s tracing of Jesus’ genealogy through the kings of Israel and with his story of the wise men seeking the one who is born “king of the Jews, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ kingship. Luke, with Jesus’ genealogy traced back through the prophets, and with the shepherds (who were marginalized people) as the ones to whom the news of the birth comes, emphasizes Jesus as a radical social prophet.
Thus there may be more than meets the eye in this story told over and over again in Sunday schools across the land. Perhaps, as Borg asserts, the writers were using the visitors as rich symbols to show different aspects of the Savior that was still to come and they are not necessarily meant to be seen as actual historic figures.
The Birth Myth – Part 4: Conflicting Stories December 16, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: birth narratives, conflicting stories, Gabriel, gospel, Jesus, Joseph, Luke, Mary, Matthew, myth, nativity
What comes to mind when you think of the story of the birth of Jesus? A manger in Bethlehem? Shepherds and wise men? Angelic announcements and special stars?
The truth of the matter is that we know far less than one might think about the supposed event. The birth is covered in only two of the four gospels and those stories have more differences than they do similarities, making our popular version of the birth narrative a conglomeration of these two works.
Before delving into the comparison of the gospel accounts, let us consider the absence of birth stories from earlier writings. The first books of the New Testament canon to be written were the works of Paul, none of which contain reference to the miraculous birth. The earliest gospel is that of Mark, whose account begins with the baptism of Jesus and has no mention of the birth. It is not until the books of Matthew and Luke, written decades after the crucifixion, that the birth stories are put on paper.
Luke’s account includes the miracle birth story of John the Baptist, a tale that goes untold in the other four works. John’s father, Zechariah, is a priest and his wife, Elizabeth, is barren and past the age of childbearing. One day while in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him and announces that he will have a son, thus setting up the first miraculous birth story.
Both Luke and Matthew record angelic announcements of Jesus’ coming, though the actual stories themselves differ greatly. According to Luke, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that she will bear a child by the Holy Spirit and that they will name him Jesus. Matthew tells of an unnamed angel who appears to Joseph when he considers divorcing his pregnant fiancée, telling him that the child is from the Holy Spirit and he will be named Jesus. Thus begets the first conundrum in the birth stories – which of the angelic encounters happened, or perhaps did both of them happen? If both of them did occur as written, why did the angels see fit to repeat the same things to each of the future parents? Could the account in Matthew, in which the angel appears to Joseph, have been added to placate a patriarchal society?
The gospel of Luke tells the manger story, in which the couple goes to the town of Bethlehem for the census and the baby Jesus is born in a manger because there was no room at the inn.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.
Matthew tells us a different story, one that takes place directly after the angel appears to Joseph.
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…
A few things jump out on a careful reading. First of all, Luke seems to say that Joseph and Mary are still unmarried when Jesus is born, while Matthew tells of the couple getting married immediately after the angel spoke, with Jesus being born later. Secondly, Luke says that the couple are from Nazareth, but they travel to Bethlehem for the census and are forced to have the baby in a manger. Matthew makes no mention of a manger, but instead says that Joseph takes his bride home and that she later has a baby in Bethlehem. This short account and the one of the magi which we will talk about next, seem to assert that Joseph and Mary lived in Bethlehem, while Luke states that their home was in Nazareth. The common practice has been to shove the two stories together into one and gloss over any pesky details that get in the way, but I wonder if that is actually the best way to go about things.
Next: The Visitors
The Birth Myth – Part 2 December 15, 2009Posted by Matt in Christmas.
Tags: Isaac, Jesus, miraculous birth stories, myth, nativity, Samson, Samuel, virgin birth
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Miraculous birth stories have long been a part of the traditions involving religious leaders, particularly in the Bible where these extraordinary occurrences seem to happen over and over again. While it is certainly true in the Biblical tradition that the virgin birth of Jesus is unique among the others, it is hardly the only one of significance.
In the Hebrew Bible one can read of God opening and closing wombs a good deal. The most famous example is probably that of Sarah, the 90 year old wife of Abraham, who gave birth to their son Isaac long after it was physically possible. This same sort of miraculous event is repeated in Luke, where one can find the story of John the Baptist’s birth to his aged mother, Elizabeth. One can find stories throughout the Hebrew Bible of God opening and closing the wombs of Jacob’s wives, of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, and of Samson’s mother.
So, by the time Jesus came along, the Jewish people had a long history of using miraculous birth stories to signify important people. It should also come as no surprise that the Jesus’ birth first comes into play in the gospel of Matthew, the work written specifically to the Jewish people.
But, I’ll get more into the actual birth story later.
The Birth Myth – Part 1 December 14, 2009Posted by Matt in Christian Beliefs, Christmas.
Tags: Bible, Jesus, Marcus Borg, myth, nativity, truth
Over the years, the word “myth” has been inappropriately maligned, being drug through the ideological mud and kicked to the side as unimportant, while other more “accurate” and “truthful” ideas have been pushed to the forefront. This misdirected animosity has its roots in the Enlightenment, a time of great scientific progress that began in the 17th century and, while this push for a more “absolute” sort of knowledge has certainly had its benefits, particularly in the field of science, it also carried with it some rather dire consequences for the religious world. This newfound standard of truth had a different arbiter, the scientific method, the principle by which everything must be gauged. So, in order to bridge the gaps between its obvious shortcomings, the world of religion scrambled about and, using the tool of apologetics, they strived to close off any loose ends with logic and natural principles, for the modern worldview held myth and stories in low regard, as little more than children’s tales when compared to the monolith of science.
But, the stories are important, even though many of them cannot be proved with any degree of certainty to have actually happened. As Marcus Borg defines them in his excellent book Reading the Bible again for the First Time,
While myths are not literally true, they can nevertheless be profoundly true, rich in powerfully persuasive meaning.
So, a different form of truth emerges, one that is profoundly true, rather than literally true, one that focuses on concept rather than on dates and facts. Myths, then, are as important, or perhaps even more important in this context than their verifiable, historically accurate counterparts. Maybe it is better to embrace mystery rather than eradicate it.
Next: Miraculous Birth Narratives