Monday, April 20, 2009

What sort of stories are the Gospels?

"Much in current Western scientific mentality has been tempted to deny the status of 'fact' (and so of truth) to everything not demonstrable in test-tubes or provable by 'verification'. This instinctive reductionism of many contemporary philosophers sadly prevents them from reckoning with the historical meaning of faith and the deep inter-relation of both event, and mystery.

Let us take help from a parable. November 22 (Texas). 1963. Suppose I say: "A man with a rifle from a warehouse window shot and killed another man in a passing car." Every word here is true (assuming we accept the Warren Commission). But how bleak and meager the facts are - so sparse as to be almost no fact at all. But suppose I go further and say: "The President of the United States was assassinated." This is more deeply factual because it is more fully related. the victim is identified, the killing is told as political, and the perspective is truer. But we are still a long way from the meaning of the tragedy. Let us attempt a further statement: "Men everywhere felt that they had looked into the abyss of evil and people wept in the streets."

The third statement tugs at the heart. It is true with a different sort of truth. It presupposes what the others state, but goes beyond into dimensions that begin to satisfy the nature of the fearful things that happened. Without something like that third story the event would remain concealed in part-told obscurity so remote as to be, in measure, false.

Now let us set the Gospels, and the whole New Testament in the light of this parable. Clearly they are the third kind of statement, deeply involving heart and mind in a confession of experienced meaning - meaning tied ultimately to history and event. That is the way it is with Jesus - not neutrality, bare record, empty chronology, but living participation and heart involvement. For Jesus' story, like all significant history, cannot be told without belonging with the telling in mind and soul.

Christian faith is fact, but it is not bare fact; it is poetry. but not imagination. Like the arch which grows stronger precisely by dint of the weight you place upon it, so the story of the Gospels bears, with reassuring strength, the devotion of the centuries to Jesus as the Christ. What is music, asked Walt Whitman, but what awakens within you when you listen to the instrument? And Jesus is the music of the reality of God, and faith is what awakens when we harken."

[Kenneth Cragg, "Who is Jesus Christ?" An unpublished sermon preached by Bishop Cragg at All saints Episcopal Cathedral, Cairo, Egypt on Sunday, Jan 16, 1977 - Source Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, IVP 2008, p19-20]

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