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The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy

by Burton Mack
237 pages,
ISBN: 0826413552


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Deconstructing Christianity's Origins
by Daniel A. Smith

In this book, Burton Mack (former Professor of Early Christianity at Claremont School of Theology) sets out to apply what he calls a "social theory of religions" to the beginnings of the Christian movement and to the development of Christianity over the last two millennia. This is by no means a small undertaking. In some ways the size of the project is at odds with the size of the book, so that in many places the author must be content to be suggestive rather than exhaustive in his argumentation. The success of the project thus lies ultimately in the reader's ability to grant assent to the various points in his argument which are not treated in detail here, but in other works by Mack and the scholars whose work he uses. Ironically, this requires a fair bit of faith on the part of the reader, but in some ways, the power of a book like this rests in its ability to provoke. The interested layperson may be discouraged by the theoretical density of The Christian Myth; but Mack writes clearly and well, and there is an interesting pay-off in the social and cultural observations he makes in the latter part of the book.
The title, The Christian Myth, probably would suggest for many readers ideas such as the divinity or resurrection of Christ, or Christian notions of afterlife, and so on. Mack certainly has these types of things in mind, but his concern is also with how what might be called "Christian myths" have come together in an overarching mythic structure¨one which takes in such ideas as "God", "Church", "Bible", etc. This is the "Christian myth", and Mack's concern is not only to trace its origin and development (as can be discerned from the earliest Christian writings), but also its influence in the history of western civilization (in general) and in the United States (in particular).
Mack's conclusion is that "The Christian myth is simply not adequate as a mythic imagination for the social formations that need to be constructed in order to assure human well-being in a multiethnic, multicultural world" (p192). He arrives at this conclusion by showing, first, how dominant theories of Christian origins (and of religion in general) have been lacking; second, by supplying a "social theory" of religion that accounts for human involvement in the construction of the social realia that make up "religion"; third, by redescribing Christian origins on the basis of such a theory; fourth, by showing the dominance of the Christian myth in the development of western culture and politics; and finally, by demonstrating the persistence and pervasiveness of the Christian myth in American culture and politics in particular. It's a lot of ground to cover, but Mack's command of the material is impressive.
Mack begins where a scholar of Christian origins would begin¨with historical questions about Jesus of Nazareth. He offers a few brief surveys of those scholars whose recent work on "the historical Jesus" has drawn attention from the media (and takes, at times, a somewhat belittling tone). Mainly, however, he is not critical of individual incarnations of the Life-of-Jesus project, but of the project as a whole. When scholars of religion cannot agree on fundamental issues such as which texts or methods are central to the project, there is a serious problem, Mack suggests.
What is of more interest to Mack is the fact that the earliest Christian communities often differed quite strikingly in how they imagined Jesus (that is, interpreted his significance). The widely varying ways in which Jesus is depicted in the earliest documents (sage, apocalyptic prophet, dying and rising messiah figure, etc.) not only are incompatible with one another, but "cannot be accounted for as the embellishments of the memories of a single historical person no matter how influential" (p36). Mack argues that these differing imaginations should point the discerning scholar of Christian origins not back to "the historical Jesus," but to the ways the early Christians constructed their stories as they formed social groups. The historical Jesus project has only persisted because the biblical academy, in service to contemporary Christianity, continues to strive to isolate the moment of "origin"¨that is, the Jesus before the Gospels¨ as the pure and undiluted (and legitimating!) essence of the religion.
This line of argument leaves the reader somewhat unprepared for what follows. In Chapter Two, "The Case for a Cynic-Like Jesus", Mack tries to show, first of all, that the earliest stratum of pre-Gospel literary material has Jesus offering crisp rejoinders and social critique much like contemporary Cynic itinerant philosophers did. Next, he looks at the development of Q (a collection of Jesus' sayings that had a literary life of its own before its incorporation into the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) and the earliest forms of material that finally came to be used in the Gospel of Mark. Mack finds in these sources a tendency to ascribe sayings and activities to Jesus in such a way that rejoinders and critiques became maxims and ethical teachings necessary for the foundation and maintenance of "schools" that had Jesus as their founder figure. Mack's interest in "a Cynic-like Jesus" is not, he insists, in finding the "authentic" voice of Jesus as the originating and pristine form of (what turned out to be) Christianity. His interest is in what the earliest Jesus movements did with Jesus and his teachings. Yet one cannot help but feel that having Jesus as a social critic in some way legitimates the project that Mack's book becomes in its final chapters.
A good deal of the theoretical impetus for the redescription of Christian origins Mack undertakes in The Christian Myth comes from the work of Jonathan Z. Smith. In his 1990 book, Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity (University of Chicago Press), Smith offered an important critique to theories of religion that dress up in various guises the presupposition that Christianity is essentially unique and incomparable. Smith's method entails description (of a religious text, ritual, phenomenon, whatever), comparison (cross-cultural phenomena allow for the best comparison, particularly since presumptions of genealogical relationship can't get in the way), redescription, and rectification of categories. Mack's interest here is in the fact that theories of religion based on such an enterprise "need not pretend universal validity, because the factors of difference and variation are built into the equation" (p 74).
For in Mack's view the main problem is that scholarly work in the field of Christian origins has tended to be somewhat self-reaffirming: "The historian of religion would say that New Testament scholars work with a theory of religion that is thoroughly and distinctly Christian in its derivation and definition" (p65). The corrective is the social theory of religion Mack espouses and applies to early Christianity. From this standpoint, early Christian activity in creating/adopting myths and rituals can be seen not so much (actually, not at all) as responses to personal experiences of the divine, but as responses to social needs and pressures driving group formation, definition, and maintenance.
Mack rightly notes that the world of the first century C.E., with its plurality of ethnic, cultural, and religious experiences, was perfect for the kind of social experimentation that many groups, including the early Christian groups, were involved in. Mack sees social interests as the main driving forces behind the adoption of patterns of interaction and group definition, the development of ways of thinking and talking about Jesus, God, Israel, and so on. In other words, the early Christians "must have been normal human beings responding to their times just as others were. ThisÓ takes away the aura of the exceptional and unique that the grand narrative of the gospel has always evoked, and makes it possible to imagine other ways to account for Christian beginnings" (p106). Mack delineates what he calls the "social logic" of various aspects of early Christian language and practice: calling Jesus the christos (Messiah?); defining the limits, activities, and self-perceptions of the "christos congregations"; thinking of "apostles" as guarantors of the early Christian faith and message; and so on.
Mack's social theory works, it seems, when it comes to describing and defining the social interests and results of the early Christians' "mythmaking" (as he calls it). But there may be a difficulty when it comes to the question of agency in mythmaking. "Myths and rituals are not only generated by social interests, they are the ways in which social interests continue to be shaped, criticized, thought about, and argued in the ongoing maintenance of a society," Mack says (p95). And Mack's view of religion is based on social interests, not any kind of experience of transcendence. From this perspective, we can see what the early Christians were doing¨or at least what the social interests and ramifications were. But what did they think they were doing? Did they (or pick any other contemporary religious group or association, it doesn't matter) think they were involved in social experimentation, group definition and maintenance, and so on? Or did they think they were coming to grips with their religious experience, their confrontation with the divine? It would be easy to misunderstand social description as the attribution of purely social motivations to the individuals involved.
Mack's discussion of "Innocence, Power and Purity" (Chapter Six) is fundamental for the cultural critique in which he engages in the final chapters of the book. At this point, the reader doesn't have to be a specialist in religion to find The Christian Myth of interest. The discussion begins with Jewish and Greek ideas of purity and power and how they came together in the Gospel of Mark, the first narrative "gospel". Here Mack reprises the main thesis of his book on Mark, A Myth of Innocence (Fortress, 1988). In Mark, he argues, the idea of Jesus' power as a miracle worker becomes oriented to purity in the depiction of him as exorcist. In addition, Mark's description of Jesus' trial and execution (the first such narrative) emphasizes Jesus' innocence to the detriment of his opponents'. Since Mark was written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 C.E.), the implicit logic is that the destruction of the Jewish Temple signals the divine vindication of both Jesus and Rome.
The idea of "power" as a central factor in "the Christian Myth" is crucial for Mack's description of the social (and, particularly after Constantine, political) motivations which shaped doctrines of God, Christ, Church, and Bible. Mack shows that in spite of the essential dualities in these concepts (immanence vs. transcendence, divinity vs. humanity, etc.), Christian thought has always been monadic rather than truly dualistic. Moreover, resolutions of these dualities "require the imagination of dramatic events held to be unique and thought capable of resolving the opposition by destroying or transforming the negative term" (p169). This, argues Mack, is the essence of "Christian culture" in its various manifestations over the last two thousand years. Through history, this Christianity has served as the legitimation of Western power, "the religion of a priesthood in charge of the purity of the people and their loyalty to the state" (p172). And in the hands of the kings, the result is "conformity under the canopy of a monocratic rule" (p173) from the era of the first Roman missions to the era of colonization, to the present era of globalization. The final chapter is a fascinating outline of the logic and effects of seeing the United States as a "Christian nation", with particular emphasis on the African-American experience. At the end of it all, is any alternative social vision offered? Not really, but Mack holds up jazz¨ultimately an expression of oppression experienced and subverted¨as an "example of the human resources among us that we have not tapped for social solutions" (p193).
While there are many points at which one could find opportunity to disagree with Mack's construals (whether of a social theory of religion, or of Christian origins, or of Christian history, or of the relationship between Christian thought and American culture), The Christian Myth offers a vigorous and stimulating challenge to how the beginnings, development, and enduring influence of Christianity are typically imagined.
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