“A reading from the sacred myth of the Gospel of Matthew (or Mark, Luke, or John)….”
I’ve been introducing scripture passages this way from the pulpit for decades. At first I was a bit nervous about speaking my mind in such an unambiguous fashion. But when I discovered that hardly any parishioners blinked, I lost my trepidation. (More about fearlessness from the pulpit here…) People in churches are generally relieved to hear straight talk from the pulpit about the non-factual nature of much if not most of the Bible. They value the Bible and the Christian tradition, and so do I, and that is what matters most to them. They want to hear the stories and they want to explore their meaning and significance. It turns out that hardly any of the meaning found in the Bible is dependent on whether or not its stories actually happened.
If something in the Bible or the wider Christian tradition looks mythical, we do well to assume that this is the case. The myth test is pretty simple. If the details of the story fly in the face of common sense and what we know about science, then it is best not to take it literally. But just because something didn’t really happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true. There is factual truth, and then there is the truth about life that can be embedded in a fanciful story.
To be sure, not all myths are equal. Some are meaningless. And some are even harmful, like the false narratives that motivate people to refuse to vaccinate their children. But the mythology in Christianity is pregnant with transformative spiritual power. Very little in the Gospels in the Christian Bible has any historical validity. But the myths of his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection reach into the depths of our souls and energize us with love and hope. They are made sacred by the ways they evoke the divine realm in our hearts.
Embracing the mythical nature of the Gospel, seeking the deeper truths within its non-factual narratives, letting them resonate in the inner sanctum of our consciousness: this practice of Christianity wipes away a huge swath of frustration. We’re no longer looking to the Bible for facts. There is no more conflict between science and faith. There is no more fear of eternal hellfire as a punishment for our inability to reconcile what we read in the Bible with our God-given good sense. Faith becomes a fearless way of living, rather than being a lot where we park our brains while trying to believe the unbelievable.
The Gospels are myths to live by. We preachers will do our church members a great service by being clear and explicit about the mythical nature of the Christian Bible and tradition. We don’t need to mince words. It just frustrates people when we dance around the topic like it is too hot to handle. On the contrary, we need to lift up the precious value and power of our Christian myths. It does not make any difference that Jesus did not literally walk on water. But it makes all the difference to share the story, because it teaches us how to cross over the troubled waters of our lives.
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