Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Parables And Matters of Fact

My wife and I are readers. We have a lot of books around the house, in my offices, in the book store we own: There are books everywhere. Now that all our children are grown and gone making lives of their own, our evenings are once more given to the pleasure of long hours reading.

In the past month, I've been reading books about the historical Jesus. Why? I suppose part of the reason is reckoning with old struggles from young adulthood. I might not have been God-intoxicated, but I wanted to believe. It struck me as possible to know God, at least judging by what I heard from members of the church-going class. The Lord was always telling them one thing or another. I came to envy Jacob's broken hip -- imagine wrestling with the divine and getting something other than sorrow in response.

But a good education got in the way of my faith. We now have walls of books written by folks whose briefcases I am not suited to carry. I am wiser now; I think. But I still wonder about the divine. I wonder how an obscure Jewish preacher came to have such influence.

John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg are two writers I have just met. They have written lots about Jesus. One book in particular was a good and worthy read: The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus' Final Week in Jerusalem (Harper Collins: New York, 2006). This is not historial scholarship, strictly speaking; it is an interpretive reading of Mark's gospel, the earliest of the four gospels, written, scholars believe, about 20 years after the Jesus was crucified.

I am a trial lawyer, so skepticism comes easily. Can an account written 20 years after the events be reliable? Perhaps not as a guide to what actually took place in Jerusalem that week. But the events relayed by a man twenty years removed tells us what early Christians thought.

The biggest surprise in Crossan and Borg's book? Mark is silent on the notion that Jesus' death was some form of substitutionary atonement, a staple of Protestant Christians. The authors assert this doctrine did not take shape until 1097, when St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, created it.

The Bible has long been a suspect work in my home. I am often kept from reading it by recalling Clarence Darrow's cross-examination of William Jennings Bryant. The great commoner was skewered on a cross of nonsense in that case.

But did Darrow and Bryant make a mistake? Do facts matter when interpreting the truth of Jesus's parables? As Crossan and Borg argue: "the truth of a parable -- or a parabolic narrative -- is not dependent on its factuality."

Crossan's book on Jesus parables arrived in the mail tonight. I am looking forward to the morning's small hours: I cheat most nights and read for several hours while the world around me sleeps. I don't expect any longer to hear the voice of God, but I am open to truths larger than what can proven or disproven.