Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Reading a section from Kerygma and Myth, “The Mythological Element in the Message of the New Testament and the Problem of its Re-interpretation,” by Rudolf Bultmann, was an interesting experience for me, as I realized I actually agree with much of what he is doing. His project sounds an awful lot like what I learned to do in ... contextualization. One of my paradigm shifting movements during my last year at Wheaton was taking Old Testament Cultural Environment, where we read many of the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) sources that influenced the Bible. That’s right, the Bible was actually influenced by its cultural environment, which was a revolutionary concept for me that did not at all fit into my previous understanding of the Bible.

I came to realize that the cosmology that undergirds the Old Testament is that of the “cosmic dome”: that the earth is flat, with a solid sky above with holes for rain and tracks for the stars to roll in, held up by pillars. Hades, the land of shadows, is underneath the earth as the abode of the dead (this concept has been reinforced by a number of conversations with Ben Byerly, who is a big fan of the cosmic dome). That is what the Jews believed. However, it has been well debunked by the advances of science and technology, and I am convinced that the earth is not flat and the sky is not solid. This concept is my standard illustration of the cultural nature of the Bible, the necessity of contextualization, and the dangers of an uncritical literalist reading.

Bultmann begins his project of demythologization by explaining this very same concept. He then goes on to include angels, demons, the Devil, all spiritual forces, miracles, the resurrection, second coming, etc. in this rubric of pre-scientific cosmology. Now I believe quite firmly in all those things. The question immediately came to my mind: why does he lump all these things together, and how do I separate them? Some of you reading this doubtless consider my belief in God and demons just as absurd and irrational as I consider anyone who still believes in a three-tiered world. Bultmann makes the statement that “there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age.” I completely agree. I don’t think mental illness is caused by the moon, or that lightning demonstrates the anger of the gods. However, my definition of this cosmology is much narrower.

I find the modernist rejection of anything supernatural ridiculous: it simply does not match the reality of life as we know it. If there is no such thing as the supernatural, it is a very strange category for every culture that has ever existed to invent. The current intellectual environment is much more conducive to a reality beyond what we can touch and see, albeit this becomes a very eclectic world spirit cosmic energy Dan Brownish meaningless religious nonsense. At least that is better than a blanket rejection of anything beyond the strict confines of scientific verification.

Yet, at the same time, I was raised in a strongly empiricist atmosphere, and when my motorbike doesn’t start, I look for mechanical reasons and don’t really consider spiritual causes. I understand the difficult in believing in something you can’t see or hear. That’s why I believe Christianity is fundamentally not provable by apologetics. You can’t assemble arguments that will win over anyone if they are smart or rational enough. At some point you do have to step, or leap, out in faith.

Reading Bultmann reinforces my idea that just about everything comes down to contextualization at some point. The question becomes how well is that contextualization done. I think Bultmann’s goal is rather similar to mine. I’m still thinking through how I would answer my question above—which might have potential for a future taco night topic—, but my initial response is that I believe the earth is flat both on good evidence and personal experience. I have seen a globe and traveled quite a ways across the world, and the explanation for the world being round makes perfect sense to me. I have also had a great deal of experience with the supernatural, both firsthand and from others. I have not spoken to demons personally, but I know a number of people who have, and everything I have heard and read about this is corroborative and fits with my cosmology. Since coming to Africa, I have modified my Western, scientific viewpoint to be even more inclusive of the power of spiritual forces. I think about the presence of demons in doing ministry and when I’m affected negatively in various ways. So I’m not being completely arbitrary as I reject a three-tiered world, an understanding of stars as angels, but keep the basic premise of unseen spiritual forces at work in our world.

There is a lesson somewhere here: learn to contextualize well.

(if you are interested in reading my professor's, Dr. Bill Black, thoughts on the same subject, they are found on his blog:


Anonymous said...

Hey, don't get me in trouble!! ;-)

It's fun to read your post and Bill Black's at the same time:

Anonymous said...

Bravo David!

Andrew in America said...

Very interesting, since I know of Bultmann but had like... totally forgotten what said. Does it sound weird to you that his "famous assertion" (im stealing the quote from ur prof - "It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and demons.") sounds kinda... old fashioned to me?

I guess I resonate with another thing ur prof said, that Bultmann is projecting his modernist perspective back onto a world that he refused to understand. It just sounds so modern and narrowminded, or maybe even ethnocentric (and now I'm projecting my perspective backwards).

Anyway back to what you actually wrote about--I think I agree with your basic assumptions (I didn't take contextualization but i DID take OT cultural environment with you), and I think you're exactly right--the question that quickly comes up is, what makes you and your views different? When you see that he's using an approach you like and think is important, but come to very different conclusions, what exactly is it that lets you distinguish the miracles you believe in (and base your faith on) from other beliefs of ANE people, when Bultmann doesn't see any distinction at all? Sounds like a good taco night topic haha

I like your theological posts!

Teke@negst said...

Hey David, what do you think about James Cone's perspective about racism?