Today the philosophy club at Butler University held a lunchtime discussion of Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not A Christian“. One criticism of the essay that I offered in the discussion is that it offers a no more sophisticated or academic a treatment of stories in the New Testament than fundamentalists would.
The story of Jesus sending demons into pigs is criticized. This story seems to me to very obviously be an example of political satire. This story from Mark’s Gospel is about the casting out of a ‘host’ of demons who call themselves “Legion”. The story is the equivalent of one that could have been told during occupied France during World War II, in which a French exorcist drives out a host of demons from a French man. The demons identify themselves as called “Panzer division” and beg not to be sent out of the country – the latter is exactly what these “Roman demons” beg Jesus in Mark! To make matters funnier, the demons take the role of (anti-)exorcist, invoking a higher power (God) to adjure (a technical term used in exorcism) Jesus not to cast them out. Then, whereas exorcists usually demanded a sign that the demons have left, the demons themselves ask to show they have departed by being sent into a herd of pigs – unclean animals according to Jewish Law. This is the icing on the cake – in the WWII parallel, the German demons would beg to be allowed to leave this French man and enter instead the opera company down the road that is performing Wagner! I discussed this passage in a treatment of satire as a neglected Biblical genre on my old blog once before.
Similarly, the other story he mentions is Jesus cursing a fig tree for not having any figs, when it wasn’t even the season in which to expect them. Most interpreters would suggest once again that the story is symbolic, with Israel the fig tree having failed to bear fruit and coming under judgment.
So why am I a Christian? A short answer would be that it was within a Christian context that I had a life-changing religious experience. But given that I do not espouse Biblical literalism and inerrancy, some might ask whether I am still a Christian, and my answer would be that taking the whole Bible seriously is certainly no less Christian than quoting it selectively while pretending to believe it all and take it all literally.
I find very helpful an answer to this question that Marcus Borg has also articulated. I am a Christian in much the same way that I am an American. It is not because I condone the actions of everyone who has officially represented America, or that I espouse the viewpoints of its current leaders. It is because I was born into it, and value the positive elements of this heritage enough that I think it is worth fighting over the definition of what it means to be American, rather than giving up on it and moving somewhere else. In the same way, the tradition that gave birth to my faith and nurtured it is one that has great riches (as well as much else beside), and I want to struggle for an understanding of Christianity that emphasizes those things. And just as my having learned much from other cultures is not incompatible with my being an American, my having learned much from other religious traditions doesn’t mean I am not a Christian. Christians have always done so. Luke attributes to Paul (in Acts 17:28) a positive quotation from a poem about Zeus (from the Phainomena by Aratos [sometimes spelled Aratus], about which there was an interesting paper at the conference I attended in Sibiu).
Why am I a Christian? Because I prefer to keep the tradition I have, rather than discarding it with the bathwater and then trying to make something new from scratch. When we pretend that we can simply leave the past behind and start anew we deceive ourselves: just look at the way China worshipped its ‘Communist emperor’ Mao with all the devotion and spectacle they offered to earlier ones. Even an atheist is in dialogue with the past, willingly or unwillingly. That is why (as Mary Doria Russell helpfully notes in one of her novels) atheists differ depending on what sort of faith they have cast aside.