Old Testament Reading:
New Testament Reading: Mark
Over the years in my
Heretics Anonymous groups, one of my favorite discussion starters has
been a juxtaposition of two passages on the same subject by two writers
of very different persuasions, two writers, in fact, who were probably
blissfully unaware of each other's existence. They are Rudolf Bultmann
and Oral Roberts. Here they are, a;ong with a third passage, one from
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. I want to set up a dilemma posed
between Bultmann and Roberts and then show a way out marked by the
sociologists Berger and Luckmann. First, from Bultmann's essay, "New
Testament and Mythology":
acceptance of New Testament mythology would be simply arbitrariness; to
make such acceptance a demand of faith would be to reduce faith to a
work... Any satisfaction of the demand would be a forced sacrificium
intellectus, and any of us who would make it would be peculiarly split
and untruthful. For we would affirm for our faith or religion a world
picture that our life otherwise denied... We cannot use electric lights
and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern
medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit
and wonder world of the New Testament.1
Next from Oral Roberts's
biography The Call:
was a young struggling pastor in the mid 1940's, I kept wrestling with a
deep sense of discontent. I felt frustrated and dissatisfied in my work.
It seemed to me that my ministry and the outreach of my church was
making no real difference in the lives of the people of our community...
Though I was only in my late twenties I felt I was dying on the vine.
Each week began to be more and more of a struggle. How could I get up
and preach about Jesus making the lame to walk, the dumb to talk, the
deaf to hear, the blind to see, the leper to be cleansed, and the dead
raised to life and then let it all be treated as something in the past,
some thing irrelevant to our life and time? How could I talk about the
Bible being in the NOW? I began to be consumed with a passion either to
have a ministry like Jesus or to get out of the ministry. What good did
it do to tell about events that weren't happening in this world,
in the now?2
Finally, from Berger and
Luckmann's classic treatment of the sociology of knowledge, The
Social Construction of Reality:
Compared to the reality of everyday life, other realities appear as
finite provinces of meaning, enclaves within the paramount reality
marked by circumscribed meanings and modes of experience. The paramount
reality envelops them on all sides, as it were, and consciousness always
returns to the paramount reality as from an excursion. This is evident
in [the case]... of the reality of dreams or that of theoretical thought
[when one remains oblivious to the passage of time and to exterior
events until one "snaps out of it" or "comes back to planet earth"].
Similar "commutations" take place between the world of everyday life and
the world of play, both the playing of children and, even more sharply,
The theatre provides an
excellent illustration of such playing on the part of adults. The
transition between realities is marked by the rising and falling of the
curtain. As the curtain rises, the spectator is "transported to another
world," with its own meanings and an order that may or may not have much
to do with the order of everyday life. As the curtain falls, the
spectator "returns to reality," that is, to the paramount reality of
everyday life by comparison with which the reality presented on the
stage now appears tenuous and ephemeral, however vivid the presentation
may have been a few moments previously. Aesthetic and religious
experience is rich in producing transitions of this kind, inasmuch as
art and religion are endemic producers of finite provinces of meaning.3
What was the nature of the
crisis of faith faced by young Oral Roberts? He had come to experience
in a personal way the inconsistency pointed out by Bultmann: he saw too
clearly the stark disjunction between the world he talked about on
Sunday mornings and the world he and his parishioners seemed to have no
choice but to live in the rest of the week.
In the 1960s a group
called the Vogues did a song called "Five O’clock World." In it the
singer says how bored and aggravated he is in his job every day, day in
and day out. But he can stand it, he can get through it without losing
his mind, because he looks forward to a different world awaiting him
when the whistle blows: a five o'clock world. A finite province of
meaning where he can do and say what he wants to, a mini-zone in which
for a few precious hours he can find regeneration and respite. He cannot
cause his two worlds to interpenetrate. He merely endures the one till
he can escape into the other.
Oral Roberts felt he could
no longer live for most of the week in the mundane world waiting for his
"eleven o'clock Sunday morning world." He decided that by hook or by
crook he had to somehow extend the boundaries of sacred time, church
time, what Bultmann calls "the spirit and wonder world of the New
Testament," to cover the rest of the week. So he began a ministry of
tent revivals and healings, to drag the New Testament myth-world kicking
and screaming into the secular 20th century.
Did it work? It is plain
that it did not, that he chose the wrong option. Years later, as you
know, this man was claiming to have seen a Jesus as big as Godzilla
appearing to him, telling him to build a hospital which, after he built
it, proved impossible to fill, a superfluous white elephant. And then he
woke up in the middle of the night, feeling himself throttled by the
devil. And then of course he heard God's ultimatum to have him rubbed
out if he didn't raise a certain amount of cash by a designated date. He
had confused God the Father with the Godfather.
Bishop Pike, Oral Roberts found himself wandering in a desert of
delusion. I want to explore why that happened, and what he could have
done instead. And the reason I want to do this is that I think it will
suggest something quite important about the nature of faith itself as
well as the life of faith.
You and I may not care a
fig for miracles. We may prefer that they stay at a comfortable
distance, in fact. Granted, sometimes we would like to believe in them
because we would like to cheat death or even just make things easy for
ourselves, like Samantha on Bewitched. Miracles are at best a
philosophical problem to us. Yet we face the same problem Oral Roberts
did in another form.
Have you ever had a
"mountaintop experience" at a particularly poignant church service or at
a spiritual retreat? You feel you have been present with Jesus atop the
Mount of Transfiguration, and you are hesitant about leaving. And yet
you must leave. You must return, if not to the depth of the valley, if
not to Valley of the Shadow of Death, then at least to the flat, dull,
dusty roads of Palestine. There, you may walk with Jesus himself, but
the heat of the midday sun and the choking dust and the plaguing flies
and the length of the road till the next inn make you forget that you
walk with Jesus. You just want to make it to the end of the day and to
rest your weary feet. You have left the zone where, like Moses, you had
to put off your shoes from your feet for you stood on holy ground. You
have fallen, like Paul, from the acme of the Third Heaven where you
heard revelations that words may not utter, and you have returned to
terra firma with its duller hues.
You cherish the fading
embers of that spiritual experience, but you find yourself able at most
to tend them only so that they do not go out entirely. You cannot fan
them into a flame. Every worldly event and encounter that necessarily
takes your mind off spiritual realities threatens again and again to
extinguish the flame. You begin to question the validity, the utility,
the very reality of a spiritual "high" that cannot be carried away with
you back down the mountain. Perhaps that is why Moses could not take his
shoes with him into the holy zone: he would never be able to walk away
with what he found there!
I recall reading an
article about the T-groups at Esalen, those totally, bluntly honest
encounter groups in which you laid it on the line with others and opened
yourself up to hear the unvarnished truth from them. Participants
testified that their lives had been changed by these weekend encounters,
but they soon found themselves dissatisfied, since as soon as they
returned to their families and their jobs, they discovered the hard way
that others were not prepared to play the game. They found their total
honesty unwelcome and unappreciated. How could they translate their new
experience into the real world without losing their jobs, alienating
their loved ones?
I conclude that these
Esalen grads and Oral Roberts made a fundamental error. They should
never have tried to take their "finite province of meaning" out the door
with them, like a towel lifted from the hotel. It should have told them
something when Elijah and Moses vanished from the Mount of
Transfiguration and Jesus stopped glowing. Then there was nothing to do
but go. They had to leave the zone of spiritual ecstasy where it was. It
was like in Shangri-La: you can leave the sacred Himalayan kingdom, but
don't try to take a piece of it with you: it will decay and die as soon
as it crosses the enchanted threshold.
I say it was a mistake to
try to take it with them, and further I say that the inability to take
it with you, to cover the workaday world with the bright sheen of the
Transfiguration, does nothing to invalidate the experience you had while
you were there. Let's see if we can understand the experience you have
in church or on a retreat.
As Berger and Luckmann
observe, the worship service is a finite province of meaning, much like
a play; it is a special "eleven o'clock Sunday morning world." We
conjure it into being when the organist begins playing the prelude, when
the lay reader speaks the Call to Worship. It ends with the benediction
and the postlude. And between that rising and falling of the curtain you
and I do and say things we would never do the rest of the week. When
else do you sing out loud with other people, for example?
Of course some churches
don't sing as much or as loudly and enthusiastically as other churches.
Some even employ a full orchestra, others a rock band. Why the
difference? They are "really getting into it," because some have farther
to get into it than others do! Such churches tend to be a Pentecostal or
Charismatic churches, believing in the supernatural, and that the
supernatural may manifest itself directly in their midst. They are busy
at the business of, as I regard it, believing unbelievable things. They
must do a lot of singing to reach escape velocity and to use emotions to
fuel the great leap from the world of radios, electricity, and
computers, to the first-century world of angels, demons, and miracles.4
And they expect to be able to take it with them when they leave for home
again. Rather like Oral Roberts, they will go out and some of them will
at least make the occasional attempt to gain divine healing, to speak in
tongues of angels and obtain signs and portents from dreams or from some
We do not have to work
ourselves up so much. We are not intending to leap to another world. We
know that our eleven o'clock world is more like a stage play. In fact
that is precisely what it is. All drama began as miracle play, mystery
play. While the curtain is up, while the Bible is read from, the sermon
is preached, the bread and the cup are served, we too imagine ourselves
contemporaries of Jesus Christ, of Moses and Elijah.5
But the nature of our
faith is different. As Bultmann implied, and as Bishop Robinson used to
literalists have made faith into a cognitive work, a matter of managing
to believe things that you know and can see are not true in the
"paramount reality," the reality out there. And one cannot do that
without cheating, suppressing the truth, denying your better judgment
with the excuse of "faith." It is a sacrifice of the intellect, of
common sense, or at least of consistency, since unless you are David
Koresh, Oral Roberts, or one of those guys wearing a sandwich board in
the bus terminal, you won't really keep believing it, living as if it
were all literally true, once the eleven o'clock world is over. Many of
us are unwilling to make that sacrifice of the intellect, to undertake
that intellectual schizophrenia.
And yet we, too, even we,
have a kind of faith. Of what kind is it? It is precisely the kind we
have when the lights go down and the curtains open, or when we become
engrossed in a compelling play, novel, poem or film. It is what
Coleridge called "that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment,
which constitutes poetic faith."7
It is the recognition that you have entered a finite province, a
temporary zone of special meaning. We have agreed to be strung along for
a while, to believe as if, to let a part of ourselves believe. We
give ourselves to become characters in the play we are witnessing, the
novel we are reading. We must if we are to take the plot as seriously as
the characters are taking it.
religion, it seems to me, are essentially dramatic and literary in
nature. Religious life is a matter of reading the great fictions and
attending and joining in the great dramas of the Biblical tradition. And
when the lights come up and you go home, you have learned something, you
have been changed. You have consented to be "taken in" by that which you
know quite well to be fiction and artifice. You have become clay in the
hands of the author, the director, to let them shape you, to manipulate
your emotions and thus to galvanize your conscience or open your eyes to
some new realization. Aristotle called it catharsis: the
cleansing of the soul of pity and terror by means of induced pity and
terror. Psychodrama has rediscovered this, and I am saying that religion
should rediscover it, too, or, actually, just wake up to what has really
been going on all the time. Role-playing is therapeutic, the entrance to
another realm, a world of regeneration and respite, of catharsis and
inspiration. The best commentary on the doctrine of the atonement is the
Communion service, or better yet, the Passion Play.
Are you an unbeliever? In
my book you are not an unbeliever merely because you do not take
literally the script of the Passion Play. If it engages you and inspires
you as you watch it and become caught up in it, then you have the only
relevant kind of belief.
Did you know that
Shakespeare called his plays "The True History of Henry the Fifth" (or
whatever) because people in his day weren't too clear about the
difference between fiction and everyday reality, between the finite
province of meaning and the larger public reality? They imagined that
they had to believe the events of the play were literally true, or they
couldn't allow themselves to be drawn into them. Otherwise they would
have scorned them as lies.8
We smile at such naive confusion today. But how long will it be before
we recognize and repudiate the very same confusion in the case of
When the service starts
and the Bible is read, are you willing to suspend disbelief in just the
same way you do when you watch a great film or play or read a great
book? No more and no less. If you are willing to do that, and to be
changed by the experience as you might be by great art or fiction, then
that is all the faith you need.
1. Rudolf Bultmann, “New
Testament and Mythology.” In Schubert M. Ogden, trans. and ed., New
Testament and Theology and other Basic Writings (Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 3-4.
2. Oral Roberts, The
Call (NY: Avon Books, 1973), pp. 37-38.
3. Peter L. Berger and
Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in
the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967), p.
4. Felicitas D. Goodman,
Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality (Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1992), pp. 31-47.
5. This is what I take to
be the pith of Hans Frei’s recommendations to the believing community in
his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and
Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press,
6. John A.T. Robinson,
But That I Can’t Believe! (London: Collins Fontana, 1967), p. 4.
Bultmann, ibid. See also Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. xiv-xv.
7. Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Biographia Literaria (1817), chapter XIV, paragraph 2.
8. William Nelson, Fact
or Fiction: The Dilemma of the Renaissance Storyteller (Cambridge
University Press, 1973.
Berger, Peter L., and
Thomas Luckmann. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in
the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1967.
Bultmann, Rudolf. “New
Testament and Mythology.” In Schubert M. Ogden, trans. and ed., New
Testament and Theology and other Basic Writings. Philadelphia:
Fortress Press, 1989.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor.
Biographia Literaria. 1817.
Frei, Hans. The Eclipse
of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century
Hermeneutics. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.
Goodman, Felicitas D.
Ecstasy, Ritual, and Alternate Reality. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1992.
Nelson, William. Fact or
Fiction: The Dilemma of the Renaissance Storyteller. Cambridge
University Press, 1973.
Roberts, Oral. The Call.
NY: Avon Books, 1973.
Robinson, John A.T. But
That I Can’t Believe! London: Collins Fontana, 1967.
Tillich, Paul. The
Protestant Era. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.
By Robert M.