THE BLOG
01/23/2015 11:00 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Teaching the Bible As Literature in Public High School (Part 13)

The Demythologization of Scripture

The universe struck terror into primitive man. Hostile forces lurked everywhere, leaving him in fear and uncertainty. So he created myths - stories that brought him meaning and comfort. Sickness, disaster, and death now had a reason. These had lost their irrational nature and were explained by the myths. When his fields remained barren, when his animals fell sick, when his child was taken in the first bloom of life, he "knew" these things happened for a reason and purpose.

Perhaps he had broken a taboo, entered a sacred precinct, or somehow offended a god. Whatever the reason, he "knew" he had done something wrong, even unknowingly, but done all the same and was now being punished. Or perhaps it was simply "the will of the gods," to whose inscrutable ways he must humbly submit.

This mythological framework explained not only the events in his life, but also those of the universe. The creation of the world, the change in the seasons, and natural disasters were all explained by the myths. He need never search for an answer - his myths told him why and granted him peace.

His myths enabled him to face the Unknown. By fitting everything into his mythical scheme of things, he could assign meaning to whatever occurred and move forward. No matter what befell him, they gave him courage and the strength to endure. Life was not random and senseless, but in the hands of the gods. But most of all, the myths silenced the whispers that came in the night that, perhaps, there might be no purpose at all.

He also "knew" that the earth was flat; that the sun moved around the earth; that there existed a three-storied world, with the gods above, man on earth, and demons below; that angels carried messages to him from the gods; that demons lurked in the darkness to lead him astray or possess his soul; that miracles could happen; that prophets and soothsayers could foretell the future; and that bliss or torment awaited in the world to come.

Such was the view of the ancient world according to Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976), one of Germany's pre-eminent theologians and New Testament scholars. Since antiquity had this prescientific view of the world with its mythical understanding of human existence, it was only natural, argued Bultmann, that the New Testament authors shared this outlook as well.

The problem is that modern man does not, with the unfortunate result that he cannot properly understand what the Scriptures are saying because its obsolete view of the world gets in the way. It has become an obstacle for grasping the message the Gospels at one time conveyed, but no longer can because, since the advent of science, its readers inhabit a different world.

They cannot identify with New Testament people, whose lives were encompassed by malignant spirits plotting their downfall; who were helpless to save themselves except through the intervention of a divine redeemer who had come down from beyond this fallen world as the Son of God, pre-existent from all eternity, a savior born of a virgin, but who expected that the world would end during his lifetime; who died on the cross to atone for the breach between man and God, descended into hell, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven to expiate some primordial wrong incurred by the first parent, Adam; whose descendants were also guilty of an Original Sin by being born, and living in expectation of the cosmic woes of the End Times and the Final Judgment by one coming upon the clouds of heaven, who would decide the fates of both the living and dead, of whom those who had proved loyal to their savior would join him forever in the Kingdom of God, while the rest were consigned to the fire which would never be quenched.

Bultmann claims that this is a story familiar to New Testament times when such apocalyptic and Gnostic redemption myths were all too real, but a story and the manner of its telling many today cannot understand, and about which they can only shake their head in dismay. A time of angels and demons and demonic possessions; a time of prophecies and miracles when the laws of nature were routinely suspended - yet this is not the world of today when many cannot believe such things, which seem bizarre, dreamlike, and strange.

Men and women today live in cityscapes of disenchantment and crime, where the laws of cause and effect are never suspended, and where they are far removed from the world and outlook of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Many cannot relate to the bucolic, idyllic Gospel landscapes because their scientific worldview makes it hard to take seriously. The unfortunate result, laments Bultmann, is that they lose patience and fail to attend, to their irreparable loss, to what the Gospels are saying.

To win these people back to discover the treasures of the New Testament, Bultmann suggested that we must draw a distinction between the underlying message ("kerygma") of what the Gospels are saying and the prescientific language in which their message is couched. Scripture must be "demythologized," or shorn of its mythical worldview, in order to become intelligible to a modern audience who will profit from that message now obscured by its obsolete way of seeing the world.

Every age must discover the Gospels anew by finding a way of making their meaning intelligible and relevant to a new generation with its view of the world. Bultmann found that language in Martin Heidegger's philosophy of Existentialism, which dealt with the here-and-now world as experienced by contemporary men and women, who have a right to understand what the Gospel is saying in a way that makes sense to them.

Bultmann's Marburg Sermons: This World and the Beyond contains clear examples of how the Gospels can be preached in a way that helped his congregation cope with Hitler, World War II, defeat, and the destruction of Germany. Later readers have also found in Leo Tolstoy's novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a moving portrayal of a man who realizes too late that his entire life has been devoid of meaning and purpose for the things in life that really matter.

Many living today cope with an uncertain world where social and political forces threaten them from all sides, and the only certainty is the bitter struggle of survival against conditions that seem beyond changing. Many confront death after a meaningless life, which they try to forget by diversions that make their existence even more hopeless. They are plagued by questions about how to remain true to themselves, how even to know who they are or how to keep themselves whole in a world that tears them apart; where they are hard-pressed to find even a rudimentary code of values, and so they heroically struggle to cobble one together from the wreckage of their lives in cities or suburbs, amidst poverty, wealth, unemployment, sickness, broken marriages, and alcohol; where loneliness is pandemic, and their desperate attempts to reach out in real conversation soon become a ritualized keeping-at-bay, and heartfelt words turn to chatter that masks who they are.

These are but a few of today's demons and furies never addressed by the New Testament's outdated language and view of the world, which Bultmann wanted to strip away from what, to many, remains a sealed book. He wanted pastors to talk about the personal crosses that people daily carried by applying the healing balm of the Gospels to the wounds of today.

Making the Gospels relevant to the personal needs of one's life was a basic pastoral problem faced by the clergy in the modern world, and demythologizing the New Testament was simply his attempt at solving it. He encouraged pastors to relate their preaching more closely to the lives of their people.

However, he felt that some pastors might not even be aware of this problem because, growing up with the Gospels, they naturally assumed that their people did too, but many did not because of the changing times and conditions of the 20th century. And if they were aware, they might lack the confidence to preach in this way trained as they were in a traditional manner when pastors were dealing with different congregations, which knew their Scripture since childhood at home.

Seminaries also needed to address this problem by preparing pastors for these new congregations, many of whom lacked a Gospel background. This called for a new kind of evangelization, a new way of instructing people in reading the Gospels in a way that fostered a more mature spirituality.

He was convinced that there existed an audience only too eager for the Word to be preached in the way they wanted to hear. They were looking for guidance in unlocking the Gospels for their personal needs, rather than what seemed irrelevant intrusions into their lives from a past that had nothing to say to their modern times.

It should be stressed that Bultmann was also very much aware that there were many in Europe, the Americas, and other parts of the world where Christians resided who experienced none of these problems. These men and women were at home with the Gospel and, although they, too, lived in the present, they had no difficulty in understanding its message because they saw in its language a beautiful poetry that imparted strength and comfort by continual reading.

However, these were not the people Bultmann was talking about, but millions of others who, for whatever reason, couldn't identify with the Gospel world or make sense of its message. This was the audience he wanted to reach.

It goes without saying that Bultmann's agenda unleashed a firestorm of controversy from every quarter. Some thought that he had gone too far with his critique of biblical language and doctrine, aspects of which he claimed were no longer meaningful in the modern world, and that in his attempt to save Christianity, he was unwittingly destroying it.

Others lamented that he had not gone far enough by failing to draw the ultimate conclusions that flowed from his theory -- that although he rejected the virgin birth, the atonement, the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, he continued to believe in revelation and the divinity of Jesus.

Others believed that he had, indeed, rescued Christianity for many modern men and women, and that, thanks to him, many read the Gospels and understand that what they are reading is simply a metaphorical expression of a spiritual vision of life, a symbolical expression that, regrettably, is too often literalized when interpreting the Gospel to congregations in search of nourishment, but given only abstract theology that leaves them unmoved.

Still others claimed that he had turned his back on the Gospel message, reducing it to a philosophical fad, whereas the Gospel was an experience that transported them beyond the things of this world to become one with God.

Whatever he accomplished, for good or ill, New Testament scholarship has been transformed forever because of his influence. Such biblical developments are important for college-prep and AP high-school seniors to know about a book that still is alive and evokes such diverse reactions after thousands of years. His theory of demythologization enabled students to understand how the past is an infinitely malleable substance, the lessons of which can be made to relate to the modern world despite the disparity between the past and the present.