Monday, June 29, 2009

This is Not the Funk You're Looking For

John Shuck over at Shuck and Jive posted part 1 of a series he's calling A New Reformation. In that first post, he laid out Robert W. Funk's 21 theses. Now, I've intimated that I'm not big fan of the Jesus Seminar, and I think that these 21 theses give me a good chance to lay out some preliminary reasons why. It's just easier, with early thoughts, to have something to push against, and I thank John for the post which prompted my thinking.

Here are Funk's 21 Theses:


1. The God of the metaphysical age is dead. There is not a personal god out there external to human beings and the material world. We must reckon with a deep crisis in god talk and replace it with talk about whether the universe has meaning and whether human life has purpose.

I'm surprised that Funk would mis-use a world like 'metaphysical'. I think it would make a lot more sense if he fought his modernist tendency to use objective language and say something like "there can be no understanding of God outside of human experience and God's effect on the material world", something like that, because what he's saying here is, to me, not really a big deal. It is really ironic, though, that what Funk is doing here is entirely about metaphysics :)

2. The doctrine of special creation of the species died with the advent of Darwinism and the new understanding of the age of the earth and magnitude of the physical universe. Special creation goes together with the notion that the earth and human beings are at the center of the galaxy (the galaxy is anthropocentric). The demise of a geocentric universe took the doctrine of special creation with it.

This is oversimplification. I suppose the ancient doctrine of special creation went out the window a long time ago, but there's no reason whatsoever that we can't have a better doctrine of special creation. It could look something like the anthropic principle from a theological viewpoint. The anthropic principle isn't superb science or anything, but its a very simple idea that looks a hell of a lot like special creation, and doesn't even have to do with theism at all.

3. The deliteralization of the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis brought an end to the dogma of original sin as something inherited from the first human being. Death is not punishment for sin, but is entirely natural. And sin is not transmitted from generation to generation by means of male sperm, as suggested by Augustine.

Let's assume that this argument follows on itself for now, because I want to keep these pity if possible. I don't think anyone still thinks sin is carried in human sperm - Funk is arguing with people who aren't around anymore by my measure. In the Genesis story, toil, injustice, snake-fighting and death are all the result of sin, by my reading, so there is more here that Funk needs to deal with before this thesis is sufficient.

4. The notion that God interferes with the order of nature from time to time in order to aid or punish is no longer credible, in spite of the fact that most people still believe it. Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood. Miracles are conceivable only as the inexplicable; otherwise they contradict the regularity of the order of the physical universe.

"Miracles are an affront to the justice and integrity of God, however understood." That just makes no sense to me on its face. "Miracles are conceivable only as the inexplicable", on the other hand, seems astoundingly obvious to me. That's like one half of a tautology. I also don't necessarily buy the need for a dichotomy between "God never intervenes whatsoever in any way" and "God violates nature in order to intervene". This is a sort of blunt-instrument view of God that just isn't very convincing.

5. Prayer is meaningless when understood as requests addressed to an external God for favor or forgiveness and meaningless if God does not interfere with the laws of nature. Prayer as praise is a remnant of the age of kingship in the ancient Near East and is beneath the dignity of deity. Prayer should be understood principally as meditation—as listening rather than talking—and as attention to the needs of neighbor.

Again, this makes no sense. If there's no God 'out there', then who or what are you listening to? Also, meditation can mean a thousand things, only two of which are listening or attention to the needs of a neighbor. This is an amazingly impoverished view of both prayer and meditation that an intro to comparative religions class would cure, I would think. It did for me anyway.


6. We should give Jesus a demotion. It is no longer credible to think of Jesus as divine. Jesus' divinity goes together with the old theistic way of thinking about God.

Maybe, if this keeps coming up, I should call it the "baby-and-bathwater fallacy". I can think of a few ways to think of Jesus as divine in ways that would almost be a promotion. So, because we aren't in the Bronze Age anymore, we have to throw out the concept of the divine entirely? Oh no, wait, we can also just rethink it based on our new context like people have done throughout history.

7. The plot early Christians invented for a divine redeemer figure is as archaic as the mythology in which it is framed. A Jesus who drops down out of heaven, performs some magical act that frees human beings from the power of sin, rises from the dead, and returns to heaven is simply no longer credible. The notion that he will return at the end of time and sit in cosmic judgment is equally incredible. We must find a new plot for a more credible Jesus.

I am bored to tears by a fully credible Jesus. I cannot imagine someone so credible moving anyone in any way. I'm yawning before I even hear about this credible person. And yes, I can think of a number of ways, even ancient ones almost as old as the faith itself, of looking at Jesus' act as something other than "magical".

8. The virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern intelligence and should be abandoned. In addition, it is a pernicious doctrine that denigrates women.

This is harsh and high-horsey (par for the course here I'm afraid) but I pretty much agree. I've never felt that the virgin birth was 1) necessitated by reading of Scripture or 2) essential in any way to my faith.

9. The doctrine of the atonement—the claim that God killed his own son in order to satisfy his thirst for satisfaction—is subrational and subethical. This monstrous doctrine is the stepchild of a primitive sacrificial system in which the gods had to be appeased by offering them some special gift, such as a child or an animal.

I can't imagine that Funk is unaware that there are many doctrines of atonement since I learned about them in my intro to theology class, so I'm not sure what he means here. He's talking about penal substitutionary atonement, which is just one class of atonement theology among many. And where he says "stepchild" I would say "emphatic judgement and end", and I don't even have to step outside of penal sub atonement to get there.

10. The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense. The meaning of the resurrection is that a few of his followers—probably no more than two or three—finally came to understand what he was all about. When the significance of his words and deeds dawned on them, they knew of no other terms in which to express their amazement than to claim that they had seen him alive.

The resurrected Jesus teleports around and passes through crowds, appears and disappears. Clearly the resurrected Jesus, even in a very literalistic reading of the Gospels, was not just Jesus' same body walking around with the same properties other bodies have. I also just find this claim: "When the significance of his words and deeds dawned on them, they knew of no other terms in which to express their amazement than to claim that they had seen him alive" to be stupid. I mean, that's just ridiculous. It strikes me as a modernist trying to understand a premodern mindset and failing utterly. But, when you totally throw out everything valueable about myth, this is the kind of thing you're left with.

11. The expectation that Jesus will return and sit in cosmic judgment is part and parcel of the mythological worldview that is now defunct. Furthermore, it undergirds human lust for the punishment of enemies and evildoers and the corresponding hope for rewards for the pious and righteous. All apocalyptic elements should be expunged from the Christian agenda.

Grr. "Mythological". But I've gone there before. Apocalyptic elements have not been part of the main "Christian agenda" for a while now. Well, I guess there's "Jesus is coming, look busy" type evangelism, or fear-of-Hell evangelism, but a lot of even conservative evangelical types look down on this as simply leveraging self-preservation to get people into the pews. I'm fine with tossing that part out. To lose all of the apocalyptic, though, would mean we also have to lose, say, the thoughts and words of Martin Luther King Jr. I am not willing to "expunge" that.

God's Domain according to Jesus

12. Jesus advocates and practices a trust ethic. The kingdom of God, for Jesus, is characterized by trust in the order of creation and the essential goodness of neighbor.

Ok, this is staggeringly untrue. The Gospels are chock-full of Jesus suspicion of the essential character of neighbors. It is not about trusting your neighbor, it is about loving your neighbor even when s/he is a certified asshole to you all day long. Even given the guarantee that you will be hurt by others, you are never to hurt in return. That is not a trust ethic, that is a nonviolent ethic. Trust in the order of creation? No, I think that the kingdom of God is probably trust in God. Though its likely that for Funk, God is approximately equal to the order of creation, so maybe close enough?

13. Jesus urges his followers to celebrate life as though they had just discovered a cache of coins in a field or been invited to a state banquet.

Whew, I was afraid I was going to disagree the whole way through. Right on!

14. For Jesus, God's domain is a realm without social boundaries. In that realm there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, homosexual nor heterosexual, friend nor enemy.

Woo! I can sign on to this. Where do I get me some of that no-boundaries community!?

15. For Jesus, God's domain has no brokers, no mediators between human beings and divinity. The church has insisted on the necessity of mediators in order to protect its brokerage system.

Sort of. That's not why I do it, but I can see that Funk is having an argument with the distant past, so this fits.

16. For Jesus, the kingdom does not require cultic rituals to mark the rites of passage from outsider to insider, from sinner to righteous, from child to adult, from client to broker.

Damn, you had me there for a few of them. No, Jesus's idea of the kingdom clearly includes rites of passage, and the early Church clearly practiced rites of passage. The client to broker part I'd say not...this just isn't a very deep or interesting understanding of rites of passage. Again, a failure of the modernist mindset.

17. In the kingdom, forgiveness is reciprocal: individuals can have it only if they sponsor it.

Woo! Back to good stuff! Though, of course, the onus is on the Christian to forgive first and most.

18. The kingdom is a journey without end: one arrives only by departing. It is therefore a perpetual odyssey. Exile and exodus are the true conditions of authentic existence.

This of course ignores the powerful theme of paradox between exodus and home being the same place or condition, but again, Funk clearly does not have any interest in thinking about paradoxes. Which makes me wonder what interests him about the Bible or theology at all...

The canon

19. The New Testament is a highly uneven and biased record of orthodox attempts to invent Christianity. The canon of scripture adopted by traditional Christianity should be contracted and expanded simultaneously to reflect respect for the old tradition and openness to the new. Only the works of strong poets—those who startle us, amaze us with a glimpse of what lies beyond the rim of present sight—should be considered for inclusion. The canon should be a collection of scriptures without a fixed text and without either inside or outside limits, like the myth of King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable or the myth of the American West.

This is total nonsense. "...a colllection of scriptures without a fixed text and without either inside or outside limits" not only contradicts the previous sentence in this thesis, but doesn't make any sense. What Funk is describing is a random pile of writings without any identity at all. Also, for the love of God, can Funk possibly reference some actual, meaning-generating, world-spanning myths? He finally touches on it, and all he comes up with are King Arthur and the American West? What the hell?

20. The Bible does not contain fixed, objective standards of behavior that should govern human behavior for all time. This includes the ten commandments as well as the admonitions of Jesus.

The Bible is definitely internally contradictory, and we contradict it in many ways just to function in modern society. This is inevitable, since we are not in the Bronze Age. However, I think that there are standards in the Bible which transcend its historical limitations and which I think we should take seriously if the Bible is to be at all important. What those are is of course always a subject for debate, and has been for two thousand years of Christian history.

The language of faith

21. In rearticulating the vision of Jesus, we should take care to express ourselves in the same register as he employed in his parables and aphorisms—paradox, hyperbole, exaggeration, and metaphor. Further, our reconstructions of his vision should be provisional, always subject to modification and correction.

Myth! Myth! Myth! At least he gets parable, hyperbole, exaggeration and metaphor right. But Simile? Allegory? What about the 'register' employed by the Gospel writers? Folktale? Martyr cycle? Poem? Healing story? Liturgical structure? The list goes on and on.

If nothing else, Robert W. Funk needs a thesaurus.


Aric Clark said...

You more or less said everything I was thinking as I read through it. My basic response is kind of 'meh'. The religion Funk has described here is pretty dull and uninteresting, I can't see why anyone would want to choose it.

John Shuck said...

Thanks Doug for your analysis.

@ Aric,

**The religion Funk has described here is pretty dull and uninteresting, I can't see why anyone would want to choose it.**

To each his own, I suppose. I happen to appreciate his insights a great deal. I don't insist.

I have been pondering that the quest for the "historical Jesus" is really a search for a myth of the human in which Jesus is (for Christians) the central figure.

I think Funk is a bit brighter than credit is given. I believe he did own a thesaurus. : )

As far as I can see, the Historical Jesus is a fiction. Funk's HJ is a fiction. Mine is a fiction.

However, so is the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark, Luke, John, Matthew, Thomas, Mary, Infancy Thomas, etc.

A "credible" fiction is a fiction that resonates with someone, it is real in a sense. I think what Funk was saying (or at least this is how I see it now) is that a premodern fiction is not credible for us who have a very different understanding of the universe than the understanding of those who lived when the gospels and creeds were formed.

I don't know about you, but when I read a story that includes a supernatural miracle (no matter what the miracle and no matter what the story) I immediately think, legend, myth, lie, fantasy, fairy tale, fiction. I may use either a more flattering or pejorative word depending upon whether I happen to like the story or not. Fiction with meaning? Fine. But fiction. These things are the stories of the gods and of the magical men and women of long ago.

Many people then as today believed and believe them as events that happened.

It is a story. I love stories. I read them all the time. Where would we be without our wonderful tales? We would be boring.

The Bible including its individual tales about Jesus are mostly a bunch of fictional tales. They have meaning, certainly.

I find that the Bible and the stories about Jesus are great stories because they provide a critique of empire, "the normalcy of civilization" (Borg, Crossan) as well as a number of other things. The miracle stories I find rather droll, but part of the ancient package.

Do they still contain enough meaning to continue our religion about them? This question is up in the air. For some yes, for others, no.

For those who say yes, there is no reason to go a-questing for an historical Jesus which is a modern fiction anyway. The reconstructed Jesus appears flat.

For those who say no, the historical Jesus fiction is a helpful myth of the human.

Doug Hagler said...

I appreciate your comments John. The only part I really take issue with is this:

"I don't know about you, but when I read a story that includes a supernatural miracle (no matter what the miracle and no matter what the story) I immediately think, legend, myth, lie, fantasy, fairy tale, fiction."

This is part of what drives me crazy about the modernist viewpoint - treating the terms 'legend, myth, lie, fantasy, fairy tale and fiction' as if they were the same thing (and is if they were archaic and dismissable by definition). To me, they are not. There are incredibly important differences between those terms, and placing them together drains them of any possible meaning as far as I am concerned.

It is part of the inherent myth of the rational that undergirds the whole failed (IMO) modernist experiment in meaning-making - that there is "truth" on the one side and "fiction" or what-have-you on the other side. Rubbish, I say!

And that is one thing I see of supreme value in what I've called the premodern worldview - an echo of a past where "myth" wasn't falsely taken to be equivalent to "lie". That's where I think the historical Jesus doesn't hold any water - its a hollowed-out myth produced by people who, deep down, don't see the revelance in myths anyway. So of what value is that?

So, I don't challenge Funk on a lack of brightness. I challenge Funk, and all of modernism, on a fatal lack of imagination, and on the unqualified acceptance of the myth of the rational.

John Shuck said...

Hey Doug,

**This is part of what drives me crazy about the modernist viewpoint - treating the terms 'legend, myth, lie, fantasy, fairy tale and fiction' as if they were the same thing (and is if they were archaic and dismissable by definition).**

I am not saying they are dismissable. I am saying they are fiction. What else can they possibly be?

That is my frustration with those who want to tell me what a myth is or a legend is and that just because I give the genre of a piece of literature that I am dismissing it.

You tell me: what kind of literature is the empty tomb story in the Gospel of John?

And, what kind of literature is the account of Jesus' resurrection in the Gospel of Peter?

You don't like the genre possibilities I offer, so you provide one, define it, and then we can at least talk about the same thing.

Aric Clark said...


Thanks for jumping in. You're right that in large part it is a matter of taste and - to each his own. I certainly don't have a problem with anyone agreeing with or liking Funk's presentation of the faith. I agree with Doug here that it is severely lacking, but that is just an opinion - and you know what opinion's are like... that thing everyone has.

As for your question:

"I am not saying they are dismissable. I am saying they are fiction. What else can they possibly be? "

Doug has given good definitions of these terms here.

The importance for Doug, and myself, of preserving a distinction between fiction and Myth is that a myth is a story we inhabit from which we create meaning. Fiction is just a story that doesn't conform to reality. Both fiction and myths may have truth to them, in the way that art can be "true" - but a Myth actually is a way we construct reality and therefore is also true in the sense that it conforms to reality as we perceive it (and may even be true in the usual modernist sense of "factual").

For example: The American Dream is a myth. It is a story our culture continually tells and enacts that people can take opportunities provided by our democracy to better their life circumstances. It is a myth which we have thoroughly absorbed and around which we construct our understanding of life. It is also a good example of why the term "myth" is neutral because myths can be destructive as well as constructive.

Redemptive violence is a myth.

Security through power is a myth.

Love overcoming differences is a myth.

In no case do I mean that these are lies or untrue. They are, rather, profoundly true, because they shape people's lives for better or for worse. And often they are factually true as well - that is real historical events testify to these myths functionality.

The problem with the modernist mindset is that it has only one very narrow definition of truth - that is factually accurate according to empirical standards of evidence that the viewer deems credible. The Historical Jesus project misses the point because the evangelists weren't writing "history" - but neither were they writing "fiction". They were presenting the truth as they knew it - a truth which they knew others could use to derive meaning for their lives, to literally conform their reality to.

Pam said...

Hi John!

"legend, myth, lie, fantasy, fairy tale and fiction"

I have to point out that here you are not presenting a genre, you are presenting five genres, with some overlap between them, and one value judgment :)

Also, well, Aric pointed out where I've put my definitions out there, and you can of course take them or leave them. When I use words like "myth", I am working from my definition that I've put forward (and which isn't mine at all, but is adopted).

To further complicate things, I would say that depending on how I answer your question, the results will be different. I think the best word for the gospel stories for me is myth, but I know that using that term I'll evoke negative associations with that word that most carry around (say those who, like me, are fans of "Mythbusters") and I might provoke those who think that myth and truth are mutually exclusive categories.

What I want to do is resuscitate a middle ground between "the objective truth" and "a quaint lie someone made up" or even "a pernicious lie someone made up". See, I think we experience this category all the time (in films, fiction, editorials, artwork, music, etc.), but I think that modernism has robbed us of the means to address it and understand it.

I think that postmodernism has made some inroads into other ways of looking at this experience of truth in our lives, but I think that it is still the red-headed stepchild of modernism.

So I'm left with this mammoth undertaking, and some are on the trail with me, but it takes a lot of work to put all these ideas together and make sense of them. There's no clean category I can Google, you know?

I just experience the Jesus Seminar vs. Fundamentalism as a false dichotomy that has little to do with my use of, and experience of, the truth of the Good News. That's my starting point, so to speak.

Doug Hagler said...


Pam was logged - that above comment was, of course, mine...

John Shuck said...

I think we are making far too much of a very simple question that everyone who asks it knows what they mean: "Is it true?"

When someone tells any kind of a story and another asks, "Is that true?" we all know what they are asking.

They are asking did that happen? Is that accurate? They are not asking if there is some kind of truthful, mythical, oh so hip, postmodern meaning.

That is what people are asking when they ask whether or not Jesus changed water to wine or rose from the dead. Is it true? Did it happen?

Now I know you friars are above those mundane questions, but you don't live in my neighborhood where the answer to that question from the vast, vast majority of all Christians is yes it is true. They mean it happened.

Even fundamentalists know what the word "true" means and they know when people are using doubletalk and redefining "truth."

This has nothing to do with modernism. Even the ancients knew the difference between truth and b.s.

Once theologians and clergy will finally admit (and this is what Funk was about) that their sacred texts are (here we go, find a word for me, but it needs to be a word for a story about events that never happened) fiction(?) then they can actually talk about the kind of fiction it is (myth, legend, lie, exaggeration, midrash, whatever). 'Lie' by the way is a genre found in storytelling common around my mountain. can talk about meaning and then, see if the mythos is grand enough to live by--make a religion out of--or continue to do so.

That is what Funk was doing. Because the vast, vast majority of American Christians are literalists and because clergy and religious scholars have been instructed to dissemble, he was asking the basic questions that normal people ask, and they know what they are asking, and they know the answer they want.

Did it happen? Is it true? At the most basic level, those two questions are synonymous.

When we finally give the obvious answer honestly, "No, Jesus probably did not turn water into win or rise from the dead or do most any of the other things attributed to him" then we can ask what value the stories have.

I for one think they have great value.

Doug Hagler said...

@ John

We agree about the great value we find, and I recognize we're doing the usual theological thing and arguing over split hairs. I just derive a lot of meaning out of how I split hairs, and wanted to point out where, FOR ME, Funk's proposals fall flat and do not satisfy.

I think you're making a huge assumption that I do not share, nor do I wish to share. I think that our lives are full of things that are true, but which don't satisfy the qualifications you've laid out, and I think that this is so hard to deal with because we have such a paucity of means to think about these issues.

Also, please don't start the passive-condescending "we're just folks on my mountain" talk. I don't think I've been very high-falootin' or dissembling - if you think so, say it outright please, and show me where I am doing it, because I don't want to dissemble. It sometimes comes off as a back-handed way of trumping what I'm trying to say, as if you weren't just as over-educated as I am, or as if you didn't read and quote books and theories and theologies far moreso than I do.

I have also met plenty of "just plain folks" who share my problems with modernism, though they may not use that term, as well as some of my problems with postmodernism though they wouldn't use that term either.

I agree with you that some of the Bible stories are something like fiction, that they belong in a genre that is not "factually-accurate historical reporting", (which as a genre is a "fiction" in my opinion - that is, I have yet to see unbiased reporting of anything), and I agree with you that literalism does not cut any kind of substantial mustard for me. So we agree there, and I can call that a wash at this point. We will continue to disagree on the things we continually disagree on, I think.

A good example:

"This has nothing to do with modernism. Even the ancients knew the difference between truth and b.s."

I disagree in many ways and on many levels, but none of those will be news to you.

John Shuck said...

OK Doug,

***Also, please don't start the passive-condescending "we're just folks on my mountain" talk. I don't think I've been very high-falootin' or dissembling - if you think so, say it outright please, and show me where I am doing it, because I don't want to dissemble.***

I didn't even start with your tone regarding your point by point criticisms of Funk. 'He needs a thesaurus' was pretty indicative. As if he (nor I) have ever read a book.

But hey no problem.

Sorry if I offended. I was really trying to talk about common sense ways in which people evaluate what they think is true.

It isn't complex. The making of it a huge complex thing (discussions of modernism and what not) is part of obscuring the issue.

Few of the stories in the Bible are true (especially the key ones) in the normal, common sense definition of truth (something that happened).

Granted some have truth on a psychological level and what not. But they are not true even in the way they have been presented as true (that they happened).

Jesus did not rise from the dead. Mohammad did not fly to heaven on a horse. Jesus didn't change clay birds into real ones. Jesus didn't ascend to heaven.

These are stories from the human imagination. As such that is great. Imagination can be true as it is the expression of our unconscious.

But Christianity is not true in the way common sense regards truth. It has not presented itself as such.

Here are the ways:

1) It presents itself as True (the Truth) over against other religious stories that it dismisses as fictions, myths, and lies. Special pleading. All those other stories are myths but this really happened to our guy.

(I am not saying you do this. In fact I know you do not. This is how it has been presented. This is part of the point of Funk's critique.)

2) It presents itself as True in the sense that its stories recount events that happened (Jesus bodily rose from the dead).

I am going to assume that you agree with me that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Beyond the metaphorical truth of the story and so forth, just the bare facts, the empty tomb accounts are not stories about events that happened.

(Now obviously if you think Jesus did rise from the dead, that these stories do recount events, then I won't argue with you. I would understand that Funk would not be interesting at all).

However, this is where I think the church, its clergy and its scholars dissemble. Rather than simply admit that obvious truth, they redefine truth.

In your case, you have blamed "modernism" as a bad thing for what I see as asking an obvious question (is this true or is it not, did it happen or did it not?)

That is an obvious question people have asked throughout history. Did it happen or did it not? Even before modernism people were concerned about this.

We can go on and on about the metaphorical truths of religious legends. I am amazed how often the symbols are shared with one religion and another and how they are helpful guides to our unconscious.

The basic point is that humans created them. Religion is a human product.

If our ancestors could make up stories about the gods including Jesus, (which was the way they told stories regarding meaning) so can we.

This is where Funk is coming from. Because we live in a different world from the one in which these particular stories were created, (gods no longer inhabit the skies for instance), they don't make as much sense and we are forced to battle over whether or not they happened and fight over whether or not heaven is really up then to write the Jesus story in a way that makes sense in our time.

That's all.

Again sorry to offend. These are sensitive topics.

John Shuck said...


The "my mountain" phrase was a reference to the literalism in my area of the country. I didn't mean to place myself as a populist over against you as an academic (yes we are in the same camp there!)

Again, sorry to offend.

Doug Hagler said...

Hey John, I'm sorry too. I'm in a bad mood, and it has nothing to do with this conversation, now that I think about it.

We are in the same camp. I should remember that :)

Aric Clark said...


I think you, and Funk, play right into the hands of the fundamentalists by insisting on talking about the "did it happen" version of truth. They obsess over it being a literal recounting of historical events and Funk hammers back about it being fiction and no one gets anywhere.

I really don't think the "did it happen" question is very interesting or important. I realize that I don't live where you do, but reacting against something you perceive as wrong in the opposite direction isn't usually the best answer.

Also, I think you're incorrect about the "common sense" meaning of "truth" through the ages. It DOES have to do with modernism. It is an enlightenment conceit that the primary or only important meaning of the word "truth" is "factually accurate". That definition of "truth" is actually one of the grandest and most thoroughly accepted myths (love that word) of modernism. Which facts? Whose definition of accurate? What level of evidence is required to persuade?

It isn't simple as you insist.

The earliest Christian interpretations of scripture were all allegorical. They insisted the scripture was "true" - but the truth was to be found by an elaborate interpretation of all the symbolism involved. It's a very different picture than the "did it happen" line fundamentalists (and Jesus Seminar followers) continually push.

Herodotus (and Luke) swore up and down to be reporting everything truthfully, but Herodotus (like all writers of his time) had no trouble inventing speeches for his characters whole cloth. Was he a pathological liar? I think it is a misunderstanding of his mindset, a mindset common to the time that was very different from the modernist mindset on matters of truth. It was more important, and more truthful, in Herdotus opinion to try to present a character like Pericles in a sympathetic, full-bodied way. He got to the "truth" of Pericles by writing speeches for him that were defining of his personality.

Pseudepigraphical writing was not considered a dishonest practice - it was honorable, indeed it was a way of honoring your teacher or mentor. Is it lying for someone to write as Paul or Plato? Does that mean everything they say is suspect and should be regarded as false?

It is another myth of modernism that humans all think alike, that reason is universal, and that we all have access therefore to the same meanings of words. That ideas like "truth" are constant and widespread. It just isn't the case. The way we think and believe and act is substantially different from people of other times and places (and even from other people of this time and this place). We can't take for granted that we understand their meaning, and questions that seem relevant to us may have no analogue in another culture.

I'm not dissembling or obscuring anything. If people ask me a specific "did it happen" question I answer directly with my own opinion. I am more agnostic than you on many points, because as a fan of modernist historiography I don't think we have much evidence to go on. But I flat out tell people there was no world-wide flood or whatever. Over and over again though, I find that it is sort of beside the point. In almost every case the "did it happen" question is really a cover for a more important question like "how do God's love and wrath play out in a world full of suffering and hate?" They want to know what the story means.

I've gone on too long here. Please forgive me in advance if I've said anything offensive.

John Shuck said...


I agree that the question isn't that interesting or important (except that the foundation of Christianity has been upon it). So why not answer it? It is an easy question. Did Jesus rise from the dead? Yes or no?

The church has consistently answered this easy question (did Jesus rise from the dead?) by saying, "Yes this was an event. And you must affirm it."

I believe this is why those who wish to retain the Christian faith refuse to answer this question. Notice how you and Doug have refused to do so. So you change the subject.

As far as facts and modernism are concerned it is in Luke's gospel that the women are believed to be telling "idle tales" regarding the empty tomb. Ironically, Luke is telling the idle tale. Obviously the folks knew the difference between tale and truth.

As far as pseudepigrapha is concerned, I don't think everyone was fine with it. People stole other people's words and wrote bad things in another's name. The end of Revelation is curse on the forgers.

I can't imagine Paul being one bit happy with the disaster of the Pastorals.

Yes, I think a more interesting question is what the story means. Unfortunately, we are not able to get there because we are hung up on the "Yes it happened" dogma of the church.

Because the church imposes its literalism on everyone we will need the Robert Funks to free people from it.

Aric Clark said...


This is an easy medium for things to sound harsher than intended so I'm going to assume you this is amicable and trust you'll do the same for me.

No one is avoiding anything or trying to change the subject. The subject was Robert Funk's theses and Doug's critique of them, which mostly hinged on dissatisfaction with the tired modernist/fundamentalist divide. No one has until this last comment asked either of us to answer whether Jesus rose from the dead.

My answer is: yes.

Now what have we learned? Did I answer that way because I'm a coward who wants to keep his job? Was I indoctrinated by the church? Am I of subpar intelligence? Maybe it was because I have examined all the evidence available and come to that conclusion rationally. Maybe I just "feel it". Maybe the Holy Spirit entered me the moment I typed those words and made me do it.

What does my "yes" even mean? Am I saying Jesus physically got up off the plank zombie-like and walked out of the tomb? Am I saying he made ghost-like appearances to his disciples? Have I even analyzed it or am I comforting myself with a nice obtuse "mystery"?

My "yes" certainly doesn't change reality. I could be wrong or right. Obviously I don't think I'm wrong, but then no one does. I'm no expert. I am not an eye witness. I haven't claimed any special revelation you're aware of so is there any reason my "yes" is particularly credible or even relevant?

In my opinion we haven't really gained anything. It was a temporary distraction from a pretty good conversation about "truth" and "meaning-making" and why fundamentalism and modernism are really just 2 sides of the same coin.

Jodie said...


I think I agreed with your post every step of the way!

A couple of observations. I think that when the full magnitude of the science of life is finally understood, these things we call miracles will be easy to accept. This being we call God, and the kingdom of God will be insights we will be astonished we had with so little knowledge.

We are alive. We are self aware. We are aware of the Universe. We are that part of the Universe that looks itself in the mirror and marvels at what it sees. We are to Universe what individual brain cells are to the mind.

The sheer wonder that carbon atoms can come together to form a rational living being should allow for a whole host of possibilities, which I for one am not willing to discount until I understand how it is that Hydrogen and Carbon and Oxygen can come together and compose these words on this blog.

Until someone can explain how that can be, they have no right to suggest that anything about the mystical is non-factual.

As far as the resurrection of Jesus, I am with Paul. For the same reason he was where he was. I live in his question upon meeting the risen Jesus: "Who are you, Lord?"

Present tense.

Doug Hagler said...

Ok John. I've answered this question a number of times in public venues, spoken and written and so on, so why not again? Contrary to what you seem to be seeing, I'm not making this a big secret. Did Jesus rise from the dead?


Now, no matter what I mean by that, I do not and cannot imagine meaning that Jesus rose from the dead to be alive the way that you and I are alive right now. The Gospels don't say that (he vanishes and appears and teleports and is assumed into heaven, etc.), the epistles don't say that (clearly they say that Jesus is alive and present in a non-physiological way), and the Church historically has not said that (look at any Easter liturgy...ever). Recent fundamentalists have consistently felt the need to make this odd and (to me) pointless claim, and only those reacting against fundamentalism have felt the need to disagree.

Jesus physical resuscitation from the grave makes even deeper nonsense of the New Testament and also of 2000 years of Church liturgy and theology. Because if Jesus is risen physiologically, then Jesus is most definitely not present with us today (we'd, you know, see him walking around).

So I want to reframe the answer as an answer to a preferable question for me as a Christian:

Is Jesus alive now?


As for the rest, Aric said it better.

John Shuck said...

Hey Guys,

Thanks for the conversation. Yup the medium may make the conversation more difficult.

I agree we may not be getting anywhere!

I guess I am forever modernist, but I don't mind.


Heather W. Reichgott said...

Hi guys,

Well, this is interesting!

Doug, I really enjoyed your comments. I admit to never paying very much attention to the "God is dead" people--it was a small movement in theology during the period of secularization in the U.S. between 1960 and 1980, got a lot of frightened-sounding press at the time, and is now itself a bit dated--since 1980 and especially since 2001 no one disputes the fact that religion is an important factor in U.S. society as well as in global society.

No one has weighed in about the "virgin birth" comment so I will. I assume that Funk (and you, Doug?) believe the virgin birth story degrades women because it gets around women's sexuality somehow. I think, on the contrary, that the virgin birth story lifts up women and ought perhaps to be frightening to men. As Sojourner Truth said: "Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with him." It is neither the Gospel story nor the doctrine of the virgin birth, but many centuries of fables and practices of marianismo (sorry, forgot the English word, it isn't "marianism" is it?) that make Mary out to be a figure of sweetness, silence and submission.

Further, pregnancy and birth are intensely physical activities and are at least as much a part of women's sexuality as intercourse with men. The gospel story doesn't get around those aspects of Mary's sexuality--it's about them.

Finally, John, and those engaged in the "fiction" discussion:
Creating a story about something does not affect its truth-value, even in a post-modern world. John, let's say you write down your experience of some event on your blog, and Doug wasn't at the event but he reads your blog post. John's way of writing is of course going to condition Doug's understanding of the event, and it may even be true that Doug learns more about John's character than about the event. However, the event probably still happened. Doug might also decide he'd like to read four different versions of the same event, if he really cares about it, meaning that he'll be exposed to differences between the four versions, which will complicate his understanding of the event, but deepen it as well.

Just because it's a story about an event that Doug cares about, doesn't mean it's fiction. Really, if the event didn't happen, then Doug has to deal with the question of whether or not John is a big liar.

What always infuriates me about the overly modernist/Unitarian way of reading Scripture is that there seems to be this idea that Scripture is all a big lie, but it's a pretty lie that gives meaning to people, so we should appear to respect it while subtly looking down on people who actually believe it.

John Shuck said...

"What always infuriates me about the overly modernist/Unitarian way of reading Scripture is that there seems to be this idea that Scripture is all a big lie, but it's a pretty lie that gives meaning to people, so we should appear to respect it while subtly looking down on people who actually believe it."

This is probably why I should back away from discussion here. I am offending and insulting and that isn't what I want to do.

I like you all very much and appreciate you.

Jodie said...

Heather, and all,

"What always infuriates me about the overly modernist/Unitarian way of reading Scripture is that there seems to be this idea that Scripture is all a big lie, but it's a pretty lie that gives meaning to people, so we should appear to respect it while subtly looking down on people who actually believe it."

Yes, it is annoying. And as a critique of Fundamentalism, it fails to break free of the Fundamentalist paradigm.

I don't think the Gospels were ever really written to describe the historical Jesus as much to describe the living One. The issue was, and still is, who Jesus IS, not WAS.

So to challenge them on the basis of historicity, or to use them to derive historical details, both questions, is like fitting a square peg into a round hole.

The authors used a number of tools to tell their listeners who Jesus is. Historical data factored in, but so did literary tools, sacred and secular, theological tools, scriptural tools, architectural tools, and others. Even within them Jesus tells a parable but rarely (ever?) does he say "here is a parable". No, he just says the Kingdom of God is like ... and tells a story. A careless sower, a wayward son, a loving Samaritan.

If you get bogged down in the fact or fiction of the details, you completely miss the point.

I go with this: The Lord lives, and by his own claim - his own claim - he is Jesus the Nazarene.

If you don't start there, then sooner or later it all falls apart. If you do start there, then everything else is negotiable.

Aric Clark said...


I don't think there's been any offense given. I hope there is none taken. I personally have fun sparring with you. I think our disagreements come out of that particularly thorny narrow little patch of ground that often divides people who are essentially in the same camp. We have so little to fight over that we fight over the little things even harder.

I look forward to our next round. :P

Aric Clark said...

@ Heather,

I like your reading of the Virgin Birth, alot.

@ Jodie,

Yup. Insisting on the present tense is what I like to call the "Isness of Christ"

John Shuck said...

Thanks for that, Aric. I appreciate it. I enjoy the sparring as well! I do know that my religious views upset people, just by having them, let alone how I present them.

Thanks also, Aric and Doug, for the responding to my question, "Did Jesus rise from the dead?"

As I look over your responses I wonder how different it really is in substance from Funk's #10:

"10. The resurrection of Jesus did not involve the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus did not rise from the dead, except perhaps in some metaphorical sense."

I am trying to come up with ways in which I can say yes to that question.

1) As a literary character he rises from the dead in the context of the story. That is pretty obvious. I can say yes to that.

2) I can say he is alive in my imagination as a symbol for something in my unconscious (and perhaps by extension a symbol within our collective unconscious).

3) Continuing with #2, I have borrowed a concept from Hinduism (ishtadevata) or chosen deity. Jesus, particularly my reconstruction of the "historical Jesus" lives on in that sense as a vehicle for meditation and focusing my life.

4) As a symbol for rebirth, a new start, the conquest of peace, non-violence, and justice over the forces of domination, he lives on. That is why I really dig the fiction of the Historical Jesus.

5) His legacy lives on. As Bultmann said he was resurrected in the preaching of the apostles. In the life of the community that seeks to incorporate his values, he lives on.

6) He lives on for me as a focal point for a myth for the human being. This is related to #3.

All that said, the guy who lived in Palestine is as dead as Abraham Lincoln.

As far as modernism vs. fundamentalism. I understand what you are saying. Fundamentalism was a reaction to higher criticism.

I think we are all modernists. We can't get out of that. We use reason. That is a good thing in my view. It is better than superstition for example.

As far as the wisdom of our premodern ancestors, they were giants in insight. But even a pygmy sees farther when seated upon a giant's shoulders.

Heather, you wrote:

"What always infuriates me about the overly modernist/Unitarian way of reading Scripture is that there seems to be this idea that Scripture is all a big lie, but it's a pretty lie that gives meaning to people, so we should appear to respect it while subtly looking down on people who actually believe it."

Could not this criticism be applied to anyone in regards to how they see others' Scriptures, say the Book of Mormon or the Qur'an?

I don't think Scripture is all a big lie. I think Scripture is mostly fiction (as opposed to history). Fiction is a good word for me. It encompasses all for me: myth, metaphor, parable, hyperbole, legend, and yes, lie.

I value and actually seek to follow the message I find within it, including but not limited to: non-violence, integrity, sacrifice, hope, joy, and so forth. But it is still fiction.

I don't know if you could tell its story outside of making it up. There is such a thing as love more powerful than indifference. That is a crazy idea. That is a possibility too good to be true so to speak. I embrace it. Thus I am religious.

I don't intend to sell you on the Funkster. I had the honor of knowing (for a little while) personally and I greatly admire what he did. One of his scholarly works of note before the Jesus Seminar was Parables and Presence. Another good one is The Poetics of Biblical Narrative.

You folks are a lot of fun; thanks for putting up with me!

Jodie said...


You pose an interesting dichotomy. You embrace religion. I really don't care much for it. Yet you want to reject the basis of religion as fiction.

If I could do that, I would reject religion in half a heart beat.

I don't know why anybody would stay in Christianity if they didn't somehow believe that Jesus died and rose, walked out of his tomb and went on to whatever comes next.

The only reason I still go to church is because Jesus woke me up one morning and asked me to. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but there it is.

Why do YOU go to church?

John Shuck said...

Hey Jodie,

Good question. I will try to answer it as honestly as I can. Even as I offer my reasons, they probably will not sound very compelling.

I also feel that sense of "draw" that you mention. I think it is a place to be in community, to be in a place larger than myself, to challenge me to be a better person, to tap into aspects of myself of which I am unconscious.

I like Jesus, too. Jesus is my chosen deity, although it is probably the other way round, but I choose back.

I don't think your reason sounds crazy; it is yours and that's good. To tell the truth, I understand what you mean.

Even as I think the basis of religion is fiction I don't reject it.

In fact, I am probably more radical. I think that all our theories of life itself are fiction in that we create meaning (this goes for science too) rather than discover it. Although it feels like we discover it.

Religion is a creation of the human imagination. Science is a creation of our intellect. We are so clever at both that we think we are describing real things.

This is probably where I am at:

**"SoF is most closely associated with the non-realist approach to religion. This refers to the belief that God has no ‘real’, objective or empirical existence, independent of human language and culture; God is ‘real’ in the sense that he is a potent symbol, metaphor or projection, but He has no objective existence outside and beyond the practice of religion. Non-realism therefore entails a rejection of all supernaturalism - miracles, afterlife and the agency of spirits.

‘God is the sum of our values, representing to us their ideal unity, their claims upon us and their creative power’. (Taking Leave of God, Don Cupitt, SCM, 1980)

Cupitt calls this 'a voluntarist interpretation of faith': 'a fully demythologized version of Christianity'. It entails the claim that even after we have given up the idea that religious beliefs can be grounded in anything beyond the human realm, religion can still be believed and practiced in new ways."**

Here are Cupitt's thoughts on non-realism.

I really shouldn't take up Doug's post with my heresies. I should make a post on this on my own.