I recently played my first church gig. That first gig later led to singing at a memorial service, after which I was invited to attend a meeting, a screening and interactive discussion of the Living the Questions DVD series. I knew of this series from my previous exposure to AzFCT. It features some renowned scholars and theologians espousing a very inclusive, pluralistic, positive gospel message. It includes the ubiquitous Dom Crossan in his flowy Irish cadence, Marcus Borg in his sleepy blue-eyed myst, Bishop Spong, all casual in a baseball cap speaking his trans-Christian message of love. What's not to like? So I attended two of these meeting/screenings. The second one was devoted to the topic of the pre/post-Easter Jesus dichotomy. The historical Jesus contrasted with the Christ of faith.
What I didn't realize is that this was to be the introduction to this kind of post-Bultman mythologized historical Jesus for many of the congregants in attendance. In a way I feel privileged to have witnessed their very first baby steps into a higher-critical analysis of the New Testament. As one who has been exploring Christian origins for over a decade from a historiographic areligious angle, watching average folk dipping their toe into unfathomed water, not knowing how cold or deep it goes, I found the whole experience amusing and simultaneously frustrating in that I could not really participate in the discussion. For fear of really blowing people's minds, I bit my lip throughout.
Still, I wish I could describe the look on the faces on some of the people gathered as they listened to Marcus Borg explain that his Christian faith does not depend on any physical resurrection, that insisting on such a literal interpretation is not a necessary component of faith for him. This concept is a very challenging one for a laity raised on imperative literalisms and biblicisms to wrap their head around when they first hear it. It was worth the price of admission just to be able to watch people wrestle with their sacred cows in such an open and vulnerable way.
During one of the breaks, one woman asked about the role of God's spirit in the conception of Jesus. It was as though she somehow needed Jesus to be conceived of the Holy Spirit in a virgin womb. She looked a bit sad when the pastor —who I must give a lot of credit to for being so honest in his answers to her awkward question— rightly explained to her that birth narratives appear in only two gospels and that the earliest gospel we have, that according to Mark, actually pinpoints the moment of Jesus' acquiring his spirit-divinity as the moment of his baptism, not his conception. He went on to show that the gospels that Matthew and Luke pinpoint the moment as his conception/birth as the crucial moment, and John later pushes Jesus' divine status even further back in time, ascribing eternal coexistence with G-sh to this Jesus guy. The pastor is conversant with the main trends in mainstream historical Jesus studies. It is clear that Christianity for him is not so much about historical veracity as it is about a mundane call to "live the questions" that this DVD series tries to focus on. The stunned woman exuded a certain mournful vibe when faced with the prospect that the birth narratives are essentially mythical language after all. It was a poignant moment. I felt the pastor's pain.
The DVD itself is a visually dynamic stream of bite-sized morsels of insight, strung one after another. Key phrases are stressed and highlighted. Grunge fonts abound. The layout and design tends toward the cut and paste post-MTV variety of semi-chaotic direction and editing. Seeking impact through digital manipulation of forms, through bold use of color, through subtle echoed repetitions, it is a fine, visually.striking production. Unfortunately, the flashy, piecemeal style of the presentation, perfect for the short attention span of the modern North American lifestyle, does no justice to the profundity of the subject matter. Instead, at times it feels more like a teen ministry show than a useful learning tool. It is somewhat systematic, though. I'll give it that. It's sequenced and paced. Programmed. At distinct points in the show, one is prompted to pause the DVD, and folks are asked to reflect on what they've just seen and heard. Printouts contain questions to use as springboards for discussion. Given the reactions I witnessed, even though I think it is overly minimalistic in scope and content, it is probably all that some of the laity can take anyway. As dreadfully cursory as the series is, if it was any deeper, I'm sure some would be too horrified by it. I mean, if they have a hard time doubting the virgin birth, wait 'til they hear what Strauss and Bauer and Loisy have to say about all the nooks and crannies in the puzzle that is the New Testament.
Anyway, I felt like documenting this episode.