Scripture Readings: Luke 10:25-37, 1 Corinthians 15:1-8
I ask the question — "Is the Christian Story True?” — not because I have the answer, but because I cannot avoid the question. It is the question of my children, and it is my question. Because I think this may also be your question, I am raising it for our consideration. In what sense, if any, is the Christian Bible true? And how might we explain that to our children?
The Christian story has the form of an historical narrative, but there is no way to show that its history is true. The Bible contains facts that are historical, but its narrative is not primarily factual – at least, in a way that can be verified. The books of the Old Testament were edited and compiled by Jews to relate the saving story of their ancestors. The books of the New Testament were written and edited by Christians to show that Jesus fulfils the promises of Jewish scripture. The Bible was not written from the point of view of a journalist reporting current events. It asserts the faith of its authors and editors.
The story of Jesus Christ tells the story of Israel in a new way. The God who led the Israelites through the Red Sea and the wilderness across the Jordan River into the promised land is the God who is the Word made flesh through the blood of Mary, the baptism of John in the Jordan, and temptation in the wilderness by Satan. The God who gave the law to Moses and spoke through the prophets of ancient Israel is the God who fulfils the law and speaks to the world through Jesus. The God who promises to save the chosen people from their enemies for the sake of the world is the God who saves humanity from the devil through the death and resurrection of God himself as Jesus Christ. The Christian story of the New Testament rewrites the Jewish story of God.
Jews see this more clearly than Christians, because they know their scriptures better than we do. For Jews, however, the Christian story is not true to their story. Jews retold the Hebrew story of God through the writings of their rabbis in the centuries following the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. For Jews, the Messiah has yet to come, because the promises of God in the Hebrew scriptures have yet to be fulfilled. Moreover, Jews reject the Christian story because it replaces their covenant with a new covenant (our New Testament). In the Christian story Jews "disappear" by becoming Christians or by being rejected, and so for Jews this story cannot be true because they, as Jews, cannot live it. (As Christians, we have yet to face this terrible consequence of the Christian story or to consider how we might reinterpret our Christian faith in order to include Jews as Jews.)
Because we can "live the Christian story," it might be true for us. But how would we know? The test of the truth of a story is what it means to "live it." Consider the story of the Good Samaritan. For centuries thousands of Christians have lived this story by helping their neighbors. The parable is probably a literary creation — fiction rather than fact. Yet, has not the moral and spiritual truth of this story been verified by all those who have lived it?
Of course, you don’t have to be a Christian to live such a story. So, although being a Christian would seem to mean being a Good Samaritan, it must also mean more. What would it mean to live the Christian story? How would we verify that we are living the Christian story? And how might we know, by living the Christian story, if it is true?
Let’s consider each of these questions. First, what would it mean to live the Christian story? We live the Christian story as Christians by studying the Bible, joining with other Christians in opening ourselves to the meaning of the story, and sharing our faith with others through what we say and do. Verifying the truth of the Christian story is an empirical process. We test the truth of the Christian story in our lives. The meaning we find, in being Christians, is evidence that the Christian story is true, at least for us.
Second, how would we verify that we are living the Christian story? By checking to be sure that our way of living, as Christians, doesn’t contradict the story. Engaging in Satan worship clearly is in conflict with Christian faith. Indifference to the suffering of others is commonplace among Christians as well as non-Christians, but contrary to the Christian story. Similarly, Christians who have persecuted non-Christians or other Christians are a living denial of the truth of the Christian story. There are many ways to live the Christian story, perhaps as many ways as there are Christians, but not all ways of living are Christian. Our lives, as Christians, must be guided by the spirit rather than the letter of the biblical witness.
Third, how might we know, by living the Christian story, if it is true? We would know by the moral and spiritual truth that we find in our lives. We would know, at least, that the Bible story was true for us. However, we cannot know if the Bible is true in a more ultimate sense, or true for others as well. We only know that the Christian story has been true for many women and men, and that the Bible is full of some of the most compelling stories ever told. This might be reason enough for us not only to try to live the Bible story ourselves, as Christians, but to share our faith with others.
Of course, living the Christian story means reworking the story through our lives. Our story will reshape the Christian story as well as relate it, will change the story as well as convey it, will be our personal story as well as part of the Christian story. The church has always done this, which is why the New Testament revises the Jewish story of God. Bringing the Christian story to life through our lives is crucial. How true the Christian story is, for us and for others, is largely up to those of us who embrace it.
Yet, you may ask, why believe in the God of the Bible, or in any God, in a world where so many suffer and all of us die? The Christian story offers a possible answer, which can only be proven by faithful living. In the Christian story the God of the Bible, in Christ, suffers and dies with all of us, and then lives again with us. The story implies that we are not solely responsible for our suffering and death, and that God is not able to overcome the suffering and death of life but chooses to share the human experience with us. Faith in the God of the Christian story means we do not have to face suffering and death alone.
Is there truth in the claim that faith in the God of the Christian Bible leads to eternal life? Only our experience after death, or perhaps during death, will enable us to answer this question. Most of us have had experiences that seem to reach beyond our everyday awareness of physical reality. Some of us say that these experiences allow us to infer that our human experience is within a larger reality of consciousness and purpose. We speak of God to refer to this sense of a larger living truth, that is also present at times to us in this life. If this embracing reality does not exist, we will live on after death only as long as our story is told on earth. If, however, the promise of scripture is true, we will enter into another aspect of a life that is eternal.
October 11, 2009