The Greatest Story Not Yet Told

Editor’s Note: This was originally written as Chris Highland’s weekly “Highland Views” column for the Religion page of his hometown newspaper, the Asheville Citizen-Times, a USA Today affiliate (columns listed here). He writes as a freethinking humanist who stays in relationship with people of faith—including family. I’ll let Chris tell the rest of the story himself. /Linda LaScola, Editor

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By Chris Highland

As I was writing my column, I realized it might instead be something worth running by my Patheos/TCP colleagues. Though I fully understand many of the formerly faithful are tired of The Story, I simply seek to highlight a fresh way to read the narrative. Think of it as a Lenten lesson for the faithless. Keep in mind I’m used to writing for a “mixed audience” here in a looser loop of the Bible Belt, which, these days, barely holds up the pants of the pious.

 

The history of Christianity is based and built upon a supposedly upbeat story of goodness and godness told throughout this season of Lent. The narrative begins with Jesus up on a donkey riding up into Jerusalem and ends with him up a hill, nailed up on an execution tree.Not exactly an uplifting image.

But wait. The “up-ness” isn’t over. The story continues to a triumphant crescendo— the whole point of the story appears to be about Life rather than Death (what happened to that part? How come a dead and deadly tree became the main symbol of The Story of Life?). After three days down in a borrowed tomb, the crucified criminal Christ gets up, eats some bread and fish and floats up and away into the sky.From his throne on high the King who once visited an obscure patch of this planet long enough to get himself hung up, will look down on his subjects and “judge the quick and the dead.”

For many of us, saturated in this salvation story from an early age, it’s so familiar we could recite it almost word for word, step by step. It’s a violent, bloody and tragic story with a twist worthy of a Netflix original (thumbs up or down). The falling and rising, rising and falling is dizzying, but effective in keeping us off balance.

We will never be able (or allowed) to forget this story. Maybe we shouldn’t forget. No need to worry—many are committed to making sure we never forget the story. It is the “greatest story ever told” because it’s the only story ever told by those who believe the story and believe that it must be believed.

Here’s what I’m thinking. I don’t mean to be disrespectful to ask some difficult questions here, so stay with me.

What if “The Story” we have been told is not really the story—that is, the one that was originally told, or the one that actually happened?

Could it be possible that the “official” storytellers (including Paul) have shaped the story in some way it was not meant to be told, making it all about sin and sacrifice?

What if The Story is true, to a point (the death of a rebel rabbi), but then floats up into imagination?

Might it be possible that the “triumph over death” crescendo was added to make the story more dramatically and emotionally mysterious? Supernatural?

“Wow, it must be true, it’s so fantastic!”

(Did these folks go to school?).

What if The Story ended with the bloodstained execution tree and a battered body laid down in someone’s unmarked grave? What would be the impact of that in our world today? Would masses of believers suddenly disbelieve any part of The Story?

Clearly stated:  If Jesus was dead and gone, would Christianity and faith collapse?

It seems to me that secular people might still appreciate The Story on some level. Many who have no more interest in the Church or Religion won’t be drawn to consider this, but for other nonbelievers there may be something to salvage.

A conscientious freethinker could find this narrative relevant: after three years of storytelling among poor folks and arguing with self-righteous god-defenders, a homeless heretic ends up with a handful of outcast friends before he’s unjustly detained, tried and executed by the State.

Maybe not a unique vignette, but a respectable tale.

There are Christians who firmly believe that “without the resurrection there is no faith.” I remember studying that kind of “apologetics” (defense of the faith). Frankly, all the arguments circle back time and again to one thing:

Just have faith.

For the rest of us, who no longer find faith compelling, The Story may include us more than we thought.

What if non-believers could tell The Story even better than believers?

Shocking? I don’t think so. Large numbers of atheists and agnostics respect bits and pieces of the Jesus story. Gandhi, a Hindu, the Dalai Lama, a Tibetan Buddhist, and Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Jewish rabbi, each revered Jesus and his message. They were greatly influenced by the example of service in the secular world. In other words, anyone concerned for justice and loving kindness can charge their batteries a little from this ancient story. Faith not included, or necessary.

Many modern biblical scholars would agree that The Story has been shaped to conform to ecclesiastical needs and creeds. The Story has been a useful tool to propagate a particular interpretation of the narrative to solidify power and privilege. The Story has been “owned” and “sold” for a high price: a free and reasoning mind.

Secular voices may herald a new kind of salvation.

Speaking without a theological agenda, non-theists can read and tell The Story without supernatural glasses, and with clear vision they could “preach” pragmatic lessons of love, compassion and justice via “secular sermons” (aka, talks, lectures, chats).

Those who think they know (or think they control) the message might do well to dialogue with those of us who have The (traditional) Story burned into our brains, but seek new ways of understanding that make sense for a common world filled with the faithful as well as freethinkers.

I once wrote (in Life After Faith) that “the forests of faith” need to fall. What I meant was that more crosses mean fewer trees, more otherworldly talk means less down-to- earth action. There are real-world consequences to the “official version” of The Story— not the least of which is destruction of the environment (in the fallen world) and making death somehow more attractive than life.

There’s no longer any need to “follow Jesus” up the hill to the execution tree—to commit “sacred suicide,” physically or mentally. Was he leading his followers UP, or was he urging them to live better DOWN—a qualitatively different kind of life, in the deeply valued place where it was evident that Someone “so loved the world”? (the “official version” tends to skip these important lines, such as the first lines of the Sermon on the Mount).

I don’t know, maybe we can resurrect the essentials of The Story and take it back from those who have mishandled it.

Maybe we can’t.

I suppose we could leave it and move on. Yet, might it be possible to say the greatest story is what lies ahead? Could we at least try to re-think the ancient narratives as we shape our own Story for the here and the now, a Story that, like it or not, includes both faithless and faithful?

Jesus is in his grave, long dead and dissolved into the earth. He has no more breath, blood or bones. We do. That’s the best “good news” we have to tell in a world that needs no more gods, up or down, but constantly seems hungry or thirsty for new and better stories.

I find that downright uplifting, don’t you?

***Editor’s Question*** What do you think about the possibility of successfully resurrecting The Story in a secular mode?

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Bio: Chris Highland was a Protestant Minister and Interfaith Chaplain for many years. He renounced his ordination in 2001. He is the author of My Address is a River, Nature is Enough and ten other books. Chris is currently a member of The Clergy Project, the American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, while he blogs at Secular Chaplain. He teaches a class on early American freethinkers at the Reuter Center, UNCA. Chris and his (reverend) wife Carol, live in the mountains of North Carolina. To learn more see www.chighland.com.

>>>Photo Credits: Noël Coypel – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Noel-Coypel/The-Resurrection-Of-Christ,-1700.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8811059 ; El_Greco_(Domenikos_Theotokopoulos,_called)_-_Christ_on_the_Cross_-_Google_Art_Project

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  • TLG

    I remember being so moved by ‘Jesus Of Nazareth” on NBC in the seventies.. Robert Powell’s ethereal performance had me dust off the big old family bible ( mother just quit going to church and did not talk about why when I was a toddler) My reading skills were advanced for a ten year old but to take on reading genesis to revelations I was baffled, not only by some words but metaphors, impossible logic. One of my neighborhood friends convinced me to go with her to her church and I got the standard ‘explanations’ from the youth pastor for questions.. freewill..ect.. some questions evaded and a weird comment about the dress code that girls must wear no slacks but dresses and skirts (the answer was ‘women always wore dresses’.. he said confidently in his three piece suit instead of a robe)

    I love the character of Jesus but like Aragorn from Lord Of The Rings it is not a real historical person. One thing though, I do believe there was a rebel, maybe more than one at the time (who didn’t do all the required miracles to be believed) that probably did call for compassion for others, criticism of hoarding of wealth by the church for a few and was executed with help from the church and its followers. It happened to many before him and many after him (and in his name even) Today I think of not only that person who was tortured and killed but many throughout history who were tortured, imprisoned and killed.

  • As a former evangelical who is now a free thinker and currently an atheist, I am fascinated by how the story of Jesus morphed into a story of death, resurrection, hope, love, and a lot of other things it was probably never intended to be.

    • mason

      If there ever was an actual human Jesus the seminal story was based on (Professor Bart thinks there was, I’m not convinced) once the morphing began and continued over a 40-90 year period, it became clear manipulative activity, fantasy, political manipulation, and accumulation of wealth and power for the Catholic Church https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/48b0bc97f35ecf366ab690bc5c0336cdc9d2a1a6aa271c41ab6bebf2f4283853.jpg .

      • Geoff Benson

        I’m by no means obsessively convinced as to the historicity of Jesus, though it does seem for likely than not, but it’s certainly possible that the character is entirely mythical. What surely can’t be rationally doubted is that the Jesus of the bible is entirely fictional.

      • Brian Curtis

        I.E., folklore. And that’s a very, very common occurrence.

        Example: Historical records show that there really was a lumberjack named Bunyan in the 18th century. Based on this, “Bunyanologists” would no doubt be combing the Dakota forests searching for fossilized giant-blue-ox poop.

  • carolyntclark

    The Church created “The Greatest Story Ever Told” by linking it to the greatest hoax ever told, still perpetuated. Original Sin.
    The dramatic narrative of collection atonement is so much more compelling than just another rebel preaching justice, compassion and kindness.
    No Original Sin… no redeemer…no Christ… no Christianity. Only the Divine could forgive the Original Sin.
    God cannot be dead….He is risen.

    • ctcss

      No Original Sin… no redeemer…no Christ… no Christianity.

      Carolyn

      Assuming that I am understanding your point here, I would have to disagree, My religion does not have Original Sin, nor does it have the concept of hell and eternal punishment. (We also do not view Jesus as God. He certainly never claimed to be.) But despite that, we very much consider the Christ to be important and consider that learning and following Jesus’ example is very much what we want to do, not out of fear of punishment, but because we want to learn about God and to draw closer in thought and action to God, thus to be in harmony with God.

      So yes, Christianity is very much important to us. Thus we believe that Christ redeems us from ignorance about God, both who and what God is, and thus who and what we are as His children.

      My 2 cents.

  • mason

    “Jesus is in his grave, long dead and dissolved into the earth. He has no more breath, blood or bones. We do. That’s the best “good news” we have to tell in a world that needs no more gods, up or down, but constantly seems hungry or thirsty for new and better stories.”

    Chris, what a fantastic Easter Message. We are alive! Thanks to the science of modern anthropology, we have a very good likeness of the seminal “Jesus.” https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8423fa98d686002ca0a87df7072bc95654a7a0d4944a10454ff25134f281a5fc.jpg

  • ctcss

    ***Editor’s Question*** What do you think about the possibility of successfully resurrecting The Story in a secular mode?

    Linda, I think trying to do so would miss the whole point of Jesus’ mission, at least from what I was taught.

    I agree with Chris that the mission of Jesus is often badly misunderstood, but trying to recast it as simply a secular, human story about a preacher of yore tends to take one into what I would term “nice guyism”, i.e. Jesus was a nice guy who cared about others, but that’s about as far as it goes.

    To me, without the concepts that Jesus was trying to teach and demonstrate about God, there wouldn’t be much point. I would much rather learn what he taught about how to be in harmony with God (and thus to realize how doing so can transform one’s life and outlook), than to simply enjoy hearing about yet another nice, selfless guy in history. To me, the reality and presence of God is very much an intrinsic and vital part of what Jesus came to teach, and to leave all of that out of the story is to miss the whole point.

    My 2 cents.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thanks, ctcss, for sharing your perspective. Jesus as a human, without a connection to the supernatural, is not as effective for you. I imagine many other religious believers have a similar perspective.

      Personally, I’m not, and never have been, a big fan of Jesus. However, I know people who are who see Jesus as embodying the best elements of humans and who follow his excellent teachings without associating him with a higher being who is outside nature.

    • carolyntclark

      “the concepts that Jesus was trying to teach and demonstrate about God,”………..and what exactly is that “concept” again ?
      That all this blood and gore sacrifice was the only way to appease God for the unspeakable, horrendous, vile, Original Sin
      of ***vanity, pride, disobedience *** ?????
      That rather trivial sin was so monstrous that it tainted all generations henceforth, and required torment and death ?
      Thankfully, Civilized Society is less vengeful than God and more intelligent, prudent and merciful in doling out punishment to fit the crime.

      • ctcss

        And where, exactly, did I say anything like the concepts you seem so focused on? I already responded to you earlier in this thread regarding some of what I was taught about God, none of which included original sin or vengeful punishment. Also, I assume you realize by now that I am not a Bible literalist. So I can only assume that your issue is with what you were taught about God (your former theology), as well as how you approached studying the the Bible.

        So why not just admit that people have a choice as to how to view this subject area? And if they have a choice, and are free to make it (we don’t live in the Middle Ages, the last time I checked), why are you so quick to assert the dark thoughts you seem so focused on as the only possible option?

    • mason

      ctcss …So you must be using the Jefferson Bible exclusively. You should make this clear when you post.
      Yeah, the mythical Jesus certainly wasn’t just another nice, selfless guy in mythology. He was clearly a schizo S.O.B. of a character. Here are some of my favorite quotes about harmony, peace, love etc. LOL …

      FAMILY VALUES: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. -Jesus, Matthew 10:34

      ENDORSED THE SADISTIC JEWISH LAWS AND KILLING OF GAYS: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5: 17-19

      TAUGHT HELL Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul. Rather be afraid of the one who can kill both body and soul in Hell.”

      Yep, certainly not just another nice guy. 🙂

      • ctcss

        Mason, your issue seems to be with Bible literalism as an approach, not me. And no, I do not use the Jefferson Bible. My main version is the KJV. The difference is that I was not taught to view the Bible (any Bible) in a dogmatic, unthinking, literalist way. I also understand that humans usually don’t communicate with one another in literal ways. We use tend to utilize figures of speech, colloquial expressions, cultural tropes and shared references, hyperbole, irony, metaphors and similes, and all sorts of shorthand expressions to get our points across to those we talk to, along with a rich assortment of body language. I really don’t think that Jesus was droning on in a monotone, using only literal expressions and a stiff physical demeanor to get his points across.

        So when I read the Bible, I get a much different sense of the things mentioned in it than just the literal words which were recorded. Which, as I have pointed out, was not likely a stenographic transcript of what transpired, nor do I expect that the people of that day had no ability to express themselves in a richer way than just the literal.

        So sue me for actually trying to think a bit more deeply as I consider the text that some people worked so hard (and even gave their lives!) to preserve for those of us in future generations who might possibly find the ideas that they were encountering in their lives to be as valuable as they did.

      • Raging Bee

        And once again, you blatantly misrepresent Matt. 5:17-19. Read the preceding verses in Matt. 5, and you’ll see Jesus was NOT referring to the OT or any other specific secular or religious law; he was referring to “the law” of how God’s universe works and how godly behavior is rewarded.

  • Brian Curtis

    Well, it’s not like the sacrificial-death-and-resurrection story was original with Christianity. Countless religions have similar myths, most of them predating Christianity quite a bit. Only the names have been changed to protect the Holy Innocent.

    • carolyntclark

      but is Christ’s death and resurrection unique in that it was our wretched Original sinfulness was the cause of the events ?

      • Uniqueness is a fun (and unique) topic, Carolyn, since every single tradition considers its story special, exceptional, unique.

    • Well put, Brian.

  • Brian Curtis

    I believe Jefferson went through the Bible to extract all the supernatural junk and keep what he thought were the worthwhile teachings. Surely he wasn’t the only one in the age of enlightenment to try to filter out the pixie dust and preserve the sensible philosophical points?

  • ElizabetB.

    Yay Chris !!

    First thoughts are of Paul Knitter, Emeritus Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union in NYC, who speaks of Jesus as the “Way that is open to other Ways.” I like the idea of *adding* perspectives, not thinking I have to exclusively be one thing or the other — not christian, buddhist, atheist, agnostic, hindu, Sagan-ian, Jungian, quantum physicist, etc etc, but instead picking and choosing amongst & within the traditions. — I’m even registered “unaffiliated” as a voter. : ) Maybe I *would*, tho, be pretty thoroughly set as “freethinker.”

    I love the openheartedness of your views
    Thanks

  • See Noevo

    From below…

    @Brain Curtis: “Well, it’s not like the
    sacrificial-death-and-resurrection story was original with Christianity.
    Countless religions have similar myths, most of them predating Christianity
    quite a bit. Only the names have been changed to protect the Holy Innocent.”

    @Chris Highland: “Well put, Brian.”
    ………………….
    Chris and Brian,

    Please tell us more about these countless other sacrificial-death-and-resurrection
    stories and how those religions fared through the centuries until Easter 2018.

    • You’d have to “do a Google” on that. See the Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek stories. Fairly common knowledge among scholars. Nature’s own “death and resurrection” story, dramatized each spring, is actually enough for me.

    • mason

      ooops … our lazy troll has resurfaced … Christianity flourished under the powerful Christian state religion edict of the Roman Empire and was further spread with the force of the British Empire and it’s superior ships, guns and cannons. The Gods with the superior weapons have always done the best. Now, Christianity is in rapid decline and not faring so well around planet Earth. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/phil-zuckerman/religion-declining-secula_b_9889398.html

    • Raging Bee

      Well, at the very least, they had a pretty big influence on Christianity; as described at some length in Martin Luther King’s paper, “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity.” Have you read that paper by any chance? Just something he dashed off in seminary school around 1950, IIRC.

  • ElizabetB.

    Chris, did your column get feedback from the faithful and/or faithless?

    • I chose not to publish this as a column, Elizabeth (though I linked it to my website readers have access to). I’ve been approaching these “touchy” subjects from other angles and the tone of this veers away from the welcoming, but often pointed, tone of the columns.