ERIC HODGENS. Reading the Christian Story Properly.

Christianity is now 2,000 years old with a pre-history of a further 1,000 years Its stories are amongst its most prized possessions. Christians love their stories. Stories take pride of place in its liturgies. But for some they are a credibility stumbling block. How can the story be told and heard so that it engenders faith as it was originally intended to do?

The main character in the grand Christian narrative is Jesus of Nazareth. He is a Jewish prophet with a message for the poor and oppressed of Israel. The message is that when the God of Israel fully establishes his kingdom, suffering, oppression and poverty will be relieved; life will become good. So, keep your hopes up and stick together to be ready when the new order arrives.

Jesus preached the coming Kingdom; but his followers preached Jesus as their message. His message was one of solidarity, forgiveness, mercy and mutual care.  His whole life modelled his message. His first followers formed a community, intent on following his way. Jesus’s death disrupted the movement but did not stop it. They came to believe that the crucified Jesus now lived in a transcendent way and was still with them in spirit. In fact, this was the culmination of God’s reign – overcoming the power of death. Life, not death, was the ultimate reality.

The disciples saw it as their duty to spread this good news.

As the community of followers grew, so did the story. Jesus and all his first followers were Jews who grew up imbued with their Jewish culture. For them, Jesus was a climactic moment in their ongoing Jewish story. They came to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah of Judaism – the promised Christ.

We get a good insight into the beliefs and practices of this early Christian group from the letters of St. Paul, and later from Luke in his Acts of the Apostles. What kept them regularly together was the weekly gathering of members to remember and celebrate Jesus as the Christ. As the decades went by they believed that God had made a unique incursion into history in Jesus. Jesus was so in tune with God that they came to believe that he was the unique Son of God.

 By about 70 CE. they wrote their story down in a new form of literature which came to be called a gospel. Mark wrote the first of the four gospels using the word “gospel” in his opening sentence: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus, Christ, the Son of God.”

The first Christian written stories focussed on Jesus. They were all written by authors familiar with the scriptures of Israel. So, the Jesus story is told as an ongoing part of the story of Israel. The interaction went both ways. They saw the Jewish scriptures as predicting Jesus. But they massaged their stories of Jesus to fit those scriptures. Matthew’s infancy narrative is a classic example of this. Was the flight into Egypt a fulfilment of the scriptures or did the scriptures give Matthew the idea for the story? Whichever way, Jesus’s status of chosen by God is enhanced.

We all need to become amateur literary critics. Our post-enlightenment education biases us to prioritises ideas over feelings – intellect over imagination. We tend to confuse story with reportage and first ask: “Did it happen?” Such a first question misses the point because a story calls for an affective response. The first question should be “What is this story getting at? What does it mean?” This would put us on the right track with stories such as Jesus walking on the water, changing water into wine, feeding the multitude etc.

When citing a past story, is the old a prediction? Or is the present being moulded to look like the past and amplify the theme? The past can be re-shaped to fit the present, or the present can be tweaked to look like a fulfilment of the past. You see this process at work in Matthew’s infancy narrative.

What came first – the Last Supper or the early Christian practice of the Lord’s Supper? To what extent was the Last Supper story told in the light of the later Christian practice?

Story telling is no place for the fundamentalist or the literalist. The facts can ruin a good story if the listener is not tuned in to understanding the meaning.

The same question holds for loads of gospel events such as Jesus’s baptism, the Transfiguration, the Temptations in the desert, the Passover and the language and events in John’s gospel.

The primary purpose, therefore, of the original Christian story was to recruit and support believers, not to write a history. That purpose is the same today.

The biggest, phase of the Christian story is the story of the Church – 2000 years of it beginning with the New Testament scriptures. Despite originating in the Middle East, the cultural setting of Christian history has mainly been Europe – West and East. In that setting the Church has been a dominant power player for most of its existence. Its centuries of power have produced a Church which has canonised its statements of belief, promoted its procedures to laws and claimed its structures as divinely ordained. This produces a well-oiled machine but can undercut the primary purpose that the machine was designed to serve.

The Church’s power base is largely eroded in today’s secular and pluralist culture. The urgent challenge is to adjust to this new culture. We must sharpen our ability to spot the meaning of a story. But also, the story must be revised to make sense in its new context. This has happened often enough in the past, so it is possible.

Resistance to change and re-assertion of old and tired dogmas will no longer cut the mustard. The astute observer knows that the challenge is on. The choice is clear. Either move on to oblivion, or recontextualize the story so that it is credible and cogent when and if a changing culture becomes ready to listen again.

This article was first published in La Croix International on the 1st of May, 2018. 

Eric Hodgens is a Melbourne Catholic priest who is living in retirement.

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4 Responses to ERIC HODGENS. Reading the Christian Story Properly.

  1. Kien Choong says:

    I understand it is said that “theology” is unique to Christianity, and foreign to Judaism. Whereas Jewish identity seems to be based on a shared collection of stories, Christian identity is based on a shared creed. But perhaps this is an oversimplification.

    Again at the risk of oversimplifying, stories have the potential to be open-ended and inclusive, whereas creeds tend to be closed and exclusive. The original Christian story was simply the resurrection of Jesus, and it was left open to his disciples to speculate about Jesus’ identity and his relationship with God.

    Today, many Christians insist on atonement and even eternal punishment in hell as central doctrines to the Christian creed. Simply believing that Jesus came back to life from death is no longer a sufficient basis for a shared Christian identity.

    Anyway, thank you for retelling the original Christian story. I do love that story.

  2. Well said Fr Eric. Daniel Mannix succeeded in producing a well educated Catholic community then Cardinal Knox opened the doors for a huge number of people to be theological and biblical studies opportunities that reflect your article so well, However the corporate leaders and many local leaders did not take this change into account so people walked away with their ”faith seeking understanding” elsewhere as many of my friends have. The recent Susan Ryan piece reflects her ignorance of what discussion has taken place because without the advocacy of women many of our social justice initiatives would not have been undertaken . However like her own field of politics they have shunned roles they see as useless talkfests and gone into the leadership jobs where real change can be take place and be advocated for without the mindless bureaucracy of party philosophy. Eric’s personal action of changing Confirmation form Year 7 to a year long process in Year 10 , saw many young people restored to faith and active leadership. Whereas other parishes continue to confer this step from year 4 onwards to slavishly follow what has always been done without understanding the pedagogy of young people’s faith journey or the opportunity this step offers. It is a symbol of how our church needs to re- organize to regain its relevance and role that leaders like Kevin Rudd has pointed to. He said parliament at best is a sausage factory that turns out imperfect sausages while the Church is the body that should be constantly pointing to the ideal goalposts of what should be done. In our society where politicians are driven by polls , electoral cycles and a few pressure groups while the media has largely forgotten its role as the fourth estate in an effective democracy , this leaves to an intelligent , relevant church to play the role of leading us to ideals we have laid down.

  3. Trish Martin says:

    How refreshing to read this article, and knowing that it is the work of a Catholic priest gives more scope for hope. Hope that ecclesial change is possible since God is bigger than any bible narrative or dogma. Because these biblical stories are the work of people who felt God in their life to the point of ‘knowing’ God as a transcendent being, they are bigger than a shared set of oral or cultured stories. Now Evolution has taken over from Genesis as the context for God’s life at work in our communities, but the life of Jesus of Nazareth is the key to understanding how to make sense of God’s activity. If we do what Jesus taught and look to the example of a child as the paradigm for entry into the Kingdom then it’s easy to see that both subjectivity and imagination are important and complimentary in ‘knowing’ how God is our source for life. What we discovered from Jesus is the fact that life – not death is what the Kingdom is all about, but to understand this one must be tuned-in to rationality coupled with subjectivity in order to find meaning.

  4. Mary Tehan says:

    Thank you Fr Eric for this faith-filled piece into the Christian grand narrative and the need to “recontextualise the story so that it is credible and cogent when and if a changing culture becomes ready to listen again”. A New wine in old skin – Halleluia! It’s the “when and if” that is critical though in cultural change. An “if” has the potential to become a “when” only at a/many tipping point/s in cultural change … until then it’s keeping the faith without hope that’s the challenge for us all. Leaning in to help it manifest takes courage, persistence and perseverance that only the God of all life can provide. Let’s pray for this tipping point … the corner-stone in a garden of delight and surprise!

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