If you study religion rather than or in addition to studying the Bible you discover that there are a number of stories similar to those found in the Bible. You find even more if you study mythology. By myth I do not mean a widely held but false belief such as ”œurban legend.” I mean universal stories that help us understand who we are, where we came from, and what that means. For a long time I avoided knowing about myths for fear that a myth might have the same plot as the Gospel of Mark. If Horus was crucified, buried, and resurrected on the third day, wouldn’t that lessen the story of Jesus? Like others I eventually faced that fear and found faith in the story.
There are some universal myths or stories that people need to know or create in order to answer universal questions, understand their own existence and give meaning to it. I believe those stories are similar to Carl Jung’s ”œcollective unconscious.” Every tribe, every nation, every family has a creation story to explain how it began, where it came from and what that means. Many family stories are sagas of the ”œold country,” the ones left behind, the heroes who braved the unknown and began a new life.
Those stories are similar to the universal story of destruction and new creation. For the Babylonians (Sumerians) God (Cronus) appeared to the king and told him that the world would be destroyed and that he was to write the story of the world from the beginning and save it by burying it. He was also to build a boat and, after writing and saving the story of the world, with friends, kinfolks and animals he was to set sail. After many days the king loosed birds and they returned to the boat. Again the king released birds and they returned with mud on their feet. The third time he released birds they did not return. He grounded the boat, made a sacrifice and disappeared with his wife and daughter to live with the gods. When the other survivors sought the king and his family, God told the remnant that they were in Armenia and were to go to Babylon, recover the story and share it with all mankind.
In the Jewish Bible it is the more familiar story of Noah, the ark, the flood, a new creation evidenced by a green twig and a new covenant. In the Christian Bible it is the Easter story of crucifixion, death and resurrection. The same thread is found in Revelation: the destruction of the world followed by a new creation of a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, (Rev. 21:1-4) with a new temple (Mark 14:58), a perfect tabernacle (Hebrews 9:1l), an eternal house not made by hands (2 Cor. 5:1). This is the formula we use in baptism. Buried in Jesus death and raised to walk in a new life with him.
Historians use the same plot to tell of the birth of America. Washington’s defeat in Pennsylvania, the agony and despair of Valley Forge, the resurrection in the defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown, the new creation in the US Constitution. It’s the story of Texas. Defeat at the Alamo and Goliad, triumphant resurrection at San Jacinto, and the birth of a new republic. It’s the rationale of Marine Corps boot camp. Break down the boot’s culture of me first, easy victory, easy defeat, easy life, self-protection, self-pampering, and create a new ethos: the Marine Corps comes first. And a new mission: run to the guns.
It’s the appeal of Cinderella and a thousand variations of Cinderella. Zoroaster is treated with ill will in his mother’s house until the Holy Spirit gives Buddha an invitation to the place where he belongs and Jesus enters the palace. Those present recognize who he is. They shout hosannas and throw palm branches at the feet of Krishna, son of a carpenter. But the clock strikes midnight in the garden, Dionysus is killed and his body eaten by believers to purify themselves. Deliverance comes with the dawn bringing a crown fit for only one head. Boy loves girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.
The similarity doesn’t reduce the story, it verifies the story and the universal need for such a story of redemption and rebirth.
The problem the Gospel writers faced was to tell of an event unique in history with words that were not singular but ordinary. Think of the birth of your own child. Didn’t you think he/she was unique? And it was. Had there ever been born anyone like your child? No. How did you explain that to others? You couldn’t without the template of a noble child born in ordinary circumstances, welcomed with gifts from people who recognized the child’s worth, raised among those who did not acknowledge the child’s magnificence. Nevertheless, your child would ride into town with flags waving, people cheering, and bands trying to be heard over the hosannas. Like Mary you harbored those thoughts in your heart.
There had never been anyone like Jesus. How could they tell of his birth in a unique way? They couldn’t. The universal longing to touch the eternal had already created the story, a story that required transfiguration. Jesus was of royal blood, like Cinderella or Siddhartha, but born into low estate like Muhammad. He stood apart from others, like Saul or Samson or David. Rather than going mad like Saul because his own disowned him, finding redemption in self-destruction like Samson, or planting the seed that would undermine all that he had created like David, Jesus triumphed over death and created a new foundation for a new life.
The similarity of stories shouldn’t be surprising. The yearning for a relationship to something greater, more lasting than oneself is universal. That yearning produces the stories. The closer we get to the original stories, the more primitive they are. The refinement of the stories is progressive revelation. The Greek word ”œlogos” means ”œword” as the expression of thought. It is translated as ”œsayings” (Mat. 7:24) , ”œcommunications” (Luke 24:17), ”œtreatise, book, narrative, story” (Acts. 1:1). ”œIn the beginning was the Story, and the Story was with God, and the Story was God.” (John 1:1) The story became flesh (John 1:14) and walked among us.
As the presence of the story ”œthat dwelled among us” faded, followers of the way neglected telling the story and seeking to enlarge the relationship in order to collect Jesus’ words and codify his stories. To keep the story from growing beyond them they sought to enshrine it, embalming it instead. The story made flesh became institutionalized, embedded in tradition and dogma so that it would not change and grow even as the relationship changed and understanding grew. Those in power held the story privately from those who wanted to make it their story, reserved to a few, first the Jews, then the Greeks and the Romans, then a war between the Eastern story and the Western story. Debating the details of Jonah, they forgot the message of Jonah. They withheld the story from those who wanted to make it their story, the Buddhist story, the Hindu story, the Muslim story.
Rather than allowing the story made flesh to be reincarnated in other stories and creating a commonality that could make us a brotherhood the Eastern story and the Western story chose exclusivity warring over whose story would prevail, creating a new story of exclusivity with attendant wars and strife. Christianity became less a relationship with the story made flesh and more an approved way of thinking and acting. ”œEvery thing begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” wrote the French poet Charles Peguy.
The story made flesh cannot be entombed in one place or one time or one religion. The story that was from the beginning is resurrected by those who seek the eternal and find the story made flesh.
We are not at the end of revelation. Living in the story of the one who walked among us will move us from devotion to commandments of stone, the Christmas tree, baby Dionysus in the manager to faith in our common parentage and our unique part in the story until the story made flesh dwells with all of us.