Tuesday 16 October 2018

Was Jesus really English?

Jesus in the forests of Somerset?

No, of course not! - although he may have visited the South West before his ministry; as Blake describes in his great poem song 'Jerusalem'.

But I have, certainly since age five when I began school and was first told stories from The Bible and showed naturalistic illustrations, felt an inner dissatisfaction and discomfort with the historical context of Jesus in Palestine. I found the Middle Eastern setting to be alien, and unappealing - and have never felt any serious desire to go and visit the Holy Land sites.

By contrast I spontaneously liked the settings for Northern, especially forest, stories of gods and the supernatural - and enjoyed such illustrations, and the general feel of (say) Wagner's Rhinegold opera. This even extends to equivalent places in North America - such as the Hiawatha environment (which is indeed a Christian poem).

CS Lewis felt much the same - and in both our cases this feeling was strong enough to repel us from Christianity for considerable periods. This is interesting, because it may well be such irrational cultural prejudices that prevent some people getting interested in Christianity - they shouldn't make such a difference (if we were serious people), but apparently they sometimes actually do; so it is worth thinking about them.

It would, at least, be reasonable to have accounts of Jesus that did not so heavily emphasise the Middle Eastern angle - or had other backgrounds. This kind of thing was, after all, normal in the past, in ages of greater faith - Shakespeare's plays are an obvious example: for instance one of his most English plays is Midsummer Night's Dream, which is supposed to be in Greece. Medieval religious art usually depict their subjects in the costume and setting of the artist's time and place. 

This is yet another way in which the historical emphasis which overwhelmed Christianity from the New Testament 'scholarship' of the early 19th century (originating in the German universities) has been so very damaging to faith. 

Yet Christianity is an historical religion - it is (or should be) the establishment of the reality of time as sequential and linear. Jesus was born in a particular time and place; and Christianity depends on there being a before and after the birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

(This is one reason why mainstream Christian metaphysics - which emphasises strongly that God and ultimate reality is outside-of-time; and that time is merely a kind of temporary illusion of mortal earthly life - is so deeply and seriously mistaken.) 

On the other hand, there could be ways of talking about Jesus that simply accept the historical context as true and necessary; and then emphasise the current situation - e.g. in which Jesus is now the on-going ruler of this world, and engages directly with each person via the Holy Ghost. We could jump straight into the everyday life of Christian engagement with these spiritual realities - and these could be discussed in any setting, whether contemporary or ideal or fantasy...

This is, of course, what CS Lewis did so successfully with the Narnia Chronicles; to some extent, he wrote about Jesus and Christianity in an environment which had a powerful spontaneous appeal to him, personally - and it turned-out plenty of other people found this effective too.

Here is a really important role for the Fantasy genre (and another reason why Christian hostility to Fantasy is counter-productive); a way in which the imagination can interact with the Christian essence - in multiple ways, preferably - to make Christianity something that is more spontaneously attractive to more people. 

Jesus with his enchanted sword...


Adil said...

This is why it was hard for me to relate to Jesus at first. Reading the bible with its Middle Eastern metaphors just seemed alien. I had to go back to childhood memories to realize I had always loved the stories of Jesus and the church, especially during winter and christmas. But then again, it makes sense Jesus appeared in the setting he did, because of historical circumstances. Indeed the Middle east/levant is the center of the world and also the cradle of civilization. If Jesus was black or say Swedish, I'm not sure everyone could relate to him. I think what makes Christianity stand out is that it's a mobile and assimilative religion whereas Hinduism, Judaism and Islam are static in the sense of being located to specific regions and peoples.

Unknown said...

But I wonder if it is only temporary and can be amended by exposure and education.

I grew up imaginatively feeding only o European myth - dungeons and dragons and Tolkien and the like, and found everything else unsympathetic and unromantic.

As I became an adult and read more widely and traveled, my sense of what is romantic expanded considerably - I now thrill with mystical delight yo Indian and Chinese themes and impressions. As a kid I would have had zero sympathy for them.

So one can expand ones sense of mystical delight, if one wishes.

But I agree English people need an English Jesus - the Indian idea of an avatar, the divine manifesting for each people in a form sympathetic to their imaginations.

While a common Indian idea, I am not sure this fits with the Christian idea of 'uniqueness' and time being real, so may not be possible for you guys.

Good luck.

August said...

I don't know if this is relevant, but for some reason I thought of Jacob and Esau a few days ago. And I realized it is unlikely that any Christian would really buy the implications- that God can be tricked. I mean sure, an old man might be tricked into giving a blessing to the wrong child, but God would see that. Even the earlier story- supposedly giving up one's birthright for a meal- can one even do that? Is is actually something transferable?
And, whether inadvertent or not, the outcomes of Christianity would suggest that this was rectified- if one assumes Esau's descendants eventually ended up in Europe.

Chiu ChunLing said...

I'm in rather the opposite boat, although I naturally prefer deep woods, babbling creeks, still ponds, and the meadows they form, I find the austere and harsh environment of the Middle East (keeping in mind that it was in ages before Islam been a much greener place) to be deeply affecting to the human quality of the Biblical stories.

A desolate place in a verdant land is a tale of ancient misfortune and present opportunity for rebirth. But the wilderness of the Holy Land is an entirely different kind of wildness, not the wildness of undomesticated plants and animals, but of elemental nature essentially hostile to all living things.

I do think that more can be done to tell the Biblical stories in ways that relate to a modern audience, especially in dealing with what some term the Ahrimanaic form of evil. But the story of life gains extra emphasis from being set in a land where a mere persistent wind from the east is a terrifying force of destruction.

Of course, now we can readily envision something more like Mordor to the east, rather than simply a large desert. There is much that could be done with such imagery. But it still has limitations in that the imagination construes such things to be an expression of evil motives rather than the basic nature of the world.

I do think that there is a common failure to appreciate that Christianity really is about living vs dying, not about living 'right' vs 'wrong' in some arbitrarily defined sense. People in lands blessed with abundant natural life need to be reminded that it is a blessing, which can come only from God. We now know that Darwin was simply wrong, random mutation is not sufficiently 'neutral' to serve as raw material for natural selection...random mutation is extremely bad and kills you, it doesn't bestow novel fitness advantages.

Pollution of various kinds in the modern world isn't malice, it is simply the natural outcome of not making a special effort to ensure that something is beneficial to living things. Of course, there is malice too. But the Bible isn't a story about some living things vs other living things...it's really a story about life against death. Some living things (including some people) are, for some particular reason or other, on the side of death. So there are stories about 'bad guys'. But in a Biblical perspective, what makes them bad is that they are against life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@August - The way I read the Old testament is that they often misinterpreted God's behaviours - and attributed to him (by 'projection') the kind of motivations they associated with their own rulers. Jesus's teachings should have set us right on this matter.

August said...

Yes. I think this is true as well.

Adil said...

@ Unknown

I don't know what you mean by English Jesus? Personally I distinguish between the historical Jesus and the risen Christ. Jesus was Jewish but the risen Christ is the light that pervades the world.

I agree that appreciation for Jesus grows with spiritual maturity. The pagans are able to feed only on local myths, but then again they are pagans. That is, spiritual teenagers.. Christ transcends all tribes and I find it beautiful that he is able to grow into different cultures. That's why I often say Christianity is an adult religion.

Adil said...

Adult meaning it has grown out of itself and into the world, among other things.

TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

I guess Mormons in America get to cheat, having literal historical accounts of Jesus visiting America.
- Carter Craft

Bruce Charlton said...

@Carter - Yes, and I do regard the BoM as true/ valid in the same way as the Old Testament. I think this simple fact - of Christ having been present in America - is indeed helpful to US Mormons. Probably it 'shouldn't be' (in the sense that such factors 'shouldn't matter') but I'm pretty sure it is!

Unknown said...


My working theory is that any idea of God is purely symbolic and metaphoric of an unknowable reality. To take the idea for the reality is idolatry. I realize this is a very different assumption from that of this blog.

Since our ideas of God are imagination aids, each culture and each individual needs symbol that speaks to them, that can affect them.

Personally I love desert landscapes and Med type scrub hills and cedar trees and pine forests, but Bruce has once said that he finds the American West - which I call the Land of Awe - alien and unsympathetic. So it is clear his heart is in greene lush landscape of England, and his imagination does not range far and wide (nothing wrong with this)

Such a person clearly needs a symbol of the divine that speaks to him personally.

As for the metaphor of the adult, most religions use the metaphor of the child as our ideal state, and I agree with that.

I see the modern situation - which one might metaphorically call adult - as one we must leave behind and return to childhood. Only this time, we will have a memory of the horrors of separating ourselves from nature and the divine and trying to dominate the world, so we will be less likely to make the attempt again, and will enjoy our childlike state more.

But I think modernity - separating ourselves from nature and the divine and trying to conquer it - was probably something humanity had to attempt it it would have always been in the back of our minds, nagging at us. Now we know the futility of it.

Adil said...

I am myself very concerned with making the God-idea into something more living, as conventional religion tends to create a Wall between man and God. I believe the spiritually mature viewpoint is that God depends on man as much as man depends on God - so we are More than his children or servants. I don't want a metaphysical God as opposed to a physical world; I want a metaphysical world, so to speak. Whether reality by itself is unknowable or not is rather uninteresting to me as I think meaning is Found and in some sense created. For me a Personal, familiar Godhead seems to reflect our own predicament. But it is up to us to make that real. I don't believe there is a God who infringes upon us. In a sense we are meant to be here alone, and God must be found. Since we are the most advanced "thing" there is, it surely seems we can know things - We can know God through us. But only from the POV of consciousness not our limited mind content. The reason I think we can know things is because I think human Beings are magnificient.. really. But our big brains are a liability as much as an asset. Yet I believe the depths of our consciousness merges in a transpersonal God - not as idea but as reality. Carl Jung has already demonstrated the reality of the transpersonal Self and the objective psyche (God in creation), but I believe it is also true metaphysically.

Universal monotheism is the advanced state of religion but even that must now be transcended into realizing Self through Christ. We should be like children in our heart but surely not in our heads which is currently the case spiritually speaking. It is the fact that we are Not grown up that we are destroying the world and can't come to know Christ. As a species we are stuck in a limbo. The End Times is the Great test and the only thing we can do is to prepare our souls as God prepar to separate the wheat from the chaff. As the Bible says the World will crash as God gets rid of his excess weight. But He needs us to transform himself!

Chiu ChunLing said...

Certainly a father needs children to be a father, just as children need a father to be children.

But a father only requires one child.

And God already has such a child.

God desires that each one of us should also become a child, and this desire is deeper and more profound than any desire that any human can feel. In this sense, God needs us far more than we can need anything.

But this is the exact same sense in which God needs Lucifer and the other demons to repent and return to Him. Yes, it is a thing desired, but not in any sense required.