The Great Exception
A number of years ago, the reporter Bill Moyers did a series on the mythologist Joseph Campbell. The series is called the Power of Myth and it is readily available for home viewing. Moyers was, frankly, not nearly critical enough of Campbell’s thinking and may have done a disservice to us all by allowing Campbell’s central thesis to stand unopposed.
Campbell taught that all religions were cut from the same cloth, the cloth of mythology, usually involving a hero figure, in which the dominant motif is a cycle of birth and rebirth.
He used this template to fit over all religions as a means of interpretation. Much of his thinking was grounded in the work of previous thinkers like psychologist C. G. Jung and comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade. Many people are familiar with Jung’s work; he is the one who taught that religions are grounded in archetypes, mental images that span culture and time.
The writer and independent scholar Thomas Cahill has shrewdly observed that Campbell was trapped by his own presuppositions into missing what Jews and Christians know about their faith traditions. Despite the fact that both Christianity and Judaism gained legendary additions and mythic overtones over time, we know that their crux is historical. So all religions are based on myth and heroes and cycles; all religions, that is, except Christian and Jewish faith. They are the great exception because they are based on history. Which means, by the way, that they are thus not religions in the standard sense of the term. But that exploration will have to await another column.
Rabbi Michael Goldberg has written about “master stories,” a term which many others who explore the narratives of faith have picked up. A master story is like the armature in an electric motor; it is the rotor around which the other wires are wound to increase the electrical output and power of the engine. Without it no motor can exist. The rotor for Judaism is the Exodus, which is at the heart of Passover. The rotor for Christianity is the resurrection of Christ. Both rotors are grounded in history and without that grounding, no current can flow, no energy can build, nothing can happen. For both Jews and Christians, Divine energy drives the motor.
Christian faith is grounded on the resurrection of Christ. This event did not simply happen in the minds of the disciples. It is not a figment of the imagination nor was it a collective hallucination. It was not an afterthought based on recollections of a heroic figure after his death. It was the ground upon which the early church built its very existence, whether in stone or in song or in words. The church was not a conspiracy based on a lie.
Say what you will about organized religion, and many people just write it off without a thought these days, Christian faith grew intellectually, ritually, and organizationally because of this central event. The organization, feeble and misguided though it may sometimes appear to the outside observer, only exists today because two thousand years ago, God raised Christ – with implications for all of time and history.
The earliest strata of the New Testament are stories of the resurrection. The New Testament exists because of the event. As St Paul says: “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are found to be false witnesses about God…” (I Corinthians 15:14-15).
Forget the chicks and candy and eggs. Those are fun for the children, but this event is what Easter is all about. (published 04 April 08)