The Four Gospels have stood the test of Time. They have contributed many a word and phrase to our everyday language. They have influenced, consciously or otherwise, our thoughts and feelings, attitudes and actions, individually and socially. They’ve been the stimulus for some of our greatest paintings, sculptures, poetry and music. They’re here to stay, and we should regularly read them, and share these stories with our children. And by now, if you’re still reading this, and if you occasionally read my writings, you’ll be waiting for the “but”!
The “but” is, that we must be free to read these Gospels in the ways we find most meaningful, impactful, and believable. I’ve added the word ‘believable’, because there are those who insist that we must believe they’re entirely factual and historical – that their every word ‘is gospel’. My concern is that such views can make some people ‘switch off’. They can’t honestly accept that the Gospels are totally factual and historical, that water can be changed into wine, or thousands be fed from a few loaves and fish. They may then conclude that the Gospels are therefore false and fictional, and see no point in reading them.
Let’s consider, however, that these writers didn’t sit down with the intention of writing the kind of history books we have on our shelves. nor were they writing biographies covering the complete story of someone’s life. For the most part, they focussed on two or three years in the life of a man they called “the Son of God”. Their aim was not only to confirm that belief in those already embracing it, but also to persuade others to believe the same. What they wrote was selected and shaped towards that end, and should be read with that in mind.
As writers do, they made use of metaphor. The man they were writing about was the ‘bread’ of life, or the ‘light’ of the world. He himself spoke in parables and told short stories, about a ‘prodigal son’, an ‘unforgiving employee’, or a ‘good Samaritan’, people who existed in his own imagination, even if composites drawn from everyday life. And like him, these writers used their imaginations, with stories about water into wine, self-replenishing food and walking on water. If it’s insisted that these be taken literally, they’re in danger, firstly, of their deeper, inner meanings being relegated in importance or lost sight of and, secondly, of resembling dubious and, arguably unworthy, conjuring tricks. As it happens, Jesus is reported as saying that although the people he is moving amongst “will demand a miraculous sign, no sign will be given to them.” The “bread of life” does not consist of loaves and fishes.
I find Carl Gustav Jung helpful in pointing out that, throughout history, and across all cultures, the world’s great Myths and Religions and works of Art, have used the same basic ideas, images, pictures and stories, though each has clothed these differently to suit their own time, location, worldview and purposes. He called these fundamental elements, archetypes, and saw them as inhabiting what he called the “collective unconscious”, that part of the human mind shared by all of us, and to which some, like the world’s great teachers, writers and artists, have readier access than others. If you and I step outside of our ‘usual channels’, we’ll discover innumerable creation and flood stories, miraculous births, dying and resurrected gods, heroes accomplishing wondrous deeds, walkings on water, never emptying food vessels – the list is very long.
So I’m all in favour of a ‘park and ride’ approach. They have their place, but let’s ‘park’ questions about factuality and history, as we do when we read a poem, novel or play. Let’s ‘ride’ into the deeper, inner meanings of what we read. Let’s value stories which can have an emotional and spiritual impact on us, which make sense and can be identified with, and which have the capacity to make our individual lives more understandable and valuable, and the world a more meaningful and hopeful place. In that light, I’m happy to recommend the Gospels.
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