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What exactly is the Christian story?

RNS file photo by Nick Crettier / National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

In England in early June, my wife and I went to a fascinating event at the glorious old York cathedral. The York Mystery Plays are a 700-year-old medieval tradition in which guilds (masons, bakers, tailors, etc.) offered an all-day rendition of the biblical narrative. The mystery plays consisted of around fifty twenty-minute renderings of specific biblical stories. Each guild took responsibility for just one part of the story, but together the whole biblical story, as they understood it, was told.

The Mystery Plays were banned by the Crown in the 16th century after the break with Rome, but revived in 1951. This year, Yorkminster church provided the setting for a 3 1/2 hour version of the mystery plays, starring “Game of Thrones” actor Philip McGinley as a quite compelling Jesus, supported by what seemed like a cast of thousands, in an elaborate, picturesque, and unforgettable performance.

Besides a highly stimulating evening of entertainment, the York Mystery Plays made me think about a question I have raised in this space before. What exactly is the Gospel? Seeing the biblical story staged in York, I refine the question: what exactly is the Christian Story? If you had 3 1/2 hours and lots of resources, how would you tell the big-picture biblical story? What is the narrative?

This is how the medieval York Mystery Plays told it, as updated a bit by writer Mike Poulton for the new presentation:

Once upon a time, before the creation of the world, certain angels of God rebel against God, and are cast out of heaven. These fallen angels become the Devil (Lucifer) and his demons. God then creates the heavens and the earth, populates the creation with an array of creatures, and culminates creation with the first man and first woman, innocent and in relationship with God and each other.

Lucifer, however, deceives Eve into disobeying God. She brings Adam into disobedience, and both face God’s judgment, which includes expulsion from paradise. Things go from bad to worse and God decides to send a titanic flood to wipe out sinful humanity. But God saves Noah, his quarrelsome wife, and the next generation, together with some awfully cute and amazing animals, and life starts over again as the floodwaters recede. Later the godly Abraham very nearly sacrifices his Son Isaac, but God was testing him and tells him at the last moment to spare his son.

Some time later an angel comes to Mary and tells her she is going to have a baby. Her aged fiancée Joseph is not pleased, but an angel tells him to accept this child as a miracle from God. Later come the Nativity scenes we all know and love. Jesus is born into a world ruled by a vicious tyrant named Herod, who orders the slaughter of innocent children in order to snuff him out, a slaughter which the soldiers appear happy to oblige.

Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, tempted by Lucifer in the wilderness, and briefly undertakes a ministry of healing, forgiving, and feeding hungry people. However, after a triumphal entry into Jerusalem he is betrayed by his friend Judas, purely out of greed, into the hands of the Jewish high priests (called bishops here!) who very much want him dead. They persuade a reluctant Roman ruler named Pontius Pilate to crucify him, which Lucifer tries to prevent because he knows that this death will save humanity from sin. However, the tortured Jesus dies on the Cross.

But Jesus rises again, and appears to his incredulous disciples, most memorably to doubting Thomas. After a short while he ascends into heaven. At the very end, he and his angels will come back and judge the world, handing over to Lucifer and his demon spawn those judged negatively and taking up to heaven those judged worthy. This is how the cosmic drama will end.

French postmodernist Jean-Francois Lyotard once famously wrote that we live in a time of “incredulity toward metanarratives.” He meant grand narratives of all types, including  but not limited to the grand Christian narrative.

As I was watching the York Mystery Plays, I was wondering how many people in that audience still believe this grand narrative? Is this story now too fantastical to believe, left behind by sophisticated people?

But I am more interested in a different question: how many might have been there who would still claim to be Christians but who have arrived at a different understanding of what the Christian story actually is?

Maybe they want a Christian story more connected to its Jewish origins, and so they don’t like how the vast majority of the Hebrew Scriptures drops out of this version of the York Mystery Plays. Maybe they think it is dangerous to Jews for Christians to pin the blame for Jesus’ death on Jewish religious leaders. (It is dangerous.). Maybe they don’t think that what happened at the Cross was a blood sacrifice for sin demanded by God. Or maybe they don’t think the story ends with billions of people sent down the chute with Lucifer to eternal torment — for how does that reflect any victory for God the Creator and Jesus the Savior?

But then, how much reworking of the Christian story can be undertaken before it is no longer the Christian story? And who has the authority to do the reworking?

Is there an alternative way of telling the great Christian story that can be biblically justified? I think there is. It’s about a king coming to reclaim a rebellious world and make everything right again. It will be the subject of my next post.

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David Gushee

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  • The Christian story of the first century is very difficult to believe.In looking at that period the overall belief was that the only change to human behavior was God becoming man resulting in a saved humanity. It is more likely that a totally human being became Godlike in his understanding of God. A concept that we all could follow today, but we won’t unless he is God.

  • “Maybe they think it is dangerous to Jews for Christians to pin the blame for Jesus’ death on Jewish religious leaders. (It is dangerous.)”

    “Dangerous” or not, it was still the primary driving force behind the execution. You wouldn’t say that, for example, in the Execution of the Bab in the Baha’i Faith that Muslim religious leaders were not to blame. You shouldn’t erase the religious persecution perpetuated by one group merely because the same group later becomes victims of religious persecution.

  • Good article, though I have a quibble.
    “Lucifer, however, deceives Eve into disobeying God. She brings Adam into disobedience.”

    Lucifer deceived Eve AND Adam. The verse says Adam was with her when the devil urged Eve to eat the apple. I imagine the first man’s hearing was good. There is nothing to indicate she said a word to Adam to deceive him. She merely held out the apple to him, silently offering it. He needed no cajoling to bite a chunk out of the fruit.

  • One other thing:

    Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel? The covenant that passed through them was a pretty big deal.

    Miriam? She saved the baby floating on the crocodile-infested Nile River. What Moses did was a pretty big deal.

    Mary Mother and Mary Mags? In every gospel they are the ones who actually witnessed the empty tomb, Jesus’ resurrection, with their own eyes, then told the rest. That’s a pretty big deal.

  • Well, not exactly, the Romans ultimatly executed Jesus for political reasons. They thought Jesus was a threat to the Romans in Palestina. Jews didn’t just become victims of religious persecution. They became the victim of persecution by Christians, and Christians persecuted Jews because they were supposed to have killed Jesus. Although it it were true, they should really thank us. [I am being sarcastic here] My father grew up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood and Jews could not leave their houses on Easter, because it was too dangerous.

  • There are other in the Bible. The midwives who risked their to help Jewish women give birth and hide their sons. Deborah was a great judge.

  • 1 Timothy 2:14 – New International Version

    And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

  • Nope, look again. The devil was speaking to Eve, but Adam was there and could hear every word. Eve didn’t do anything to encourage Adam to eat. She was simply sharing with her partner.

    In addition, if you read when the warning to leave that tree alone was first given, only one human existed. No where does it say the second human received a similar warning. So if you believe that first human was Adam, he’s the only who knew he should not eat that particular fruit.

  • My modern interpretation of the Adam and Eve story is that we all start out in the womb,heaven, and then we get kicked out into the world by a woman.

  • According to the biblical account, the Roman Governor (Pilate) found no fault with Jesus, and washed his hands (literally) of the matter. He allowed and performed the execution as a sop to the Jewish Religious leaders (I suppose that could be construed as a political reason). That said, the Pharisees were the driving force behind Jesus’ death. However, that provides no sanction for persecuting Jews throughout the ages. Jesus died for all sinners and that includes me at least. Anyone who thought or thinks it’s appropriate to oppress Jews for the death of Jesus doesn’t begin to have a clue about the Gospel.

  • As any good Rabbi knows, the Genesis account has nothing to do with Satan. It is a simple snake that tempts Eve, and Satan is never mentioned anywhere in Genesis. It is a later Christian change to the story – mentioned by Paul in Romans – that changes the snake to “Satan”.

  • “Anyone who thought or thinks it’s appropriate to oppress Jews for the death of Jesus doesn’t begin to have a clue about the Gospel.”

    But it was standard dogma for most Christian sects for almost 2000 years. Whatever you think about such beliefs doesn’t change that fact or it’s terrible legacy.

  • Read what the Bible actually says. It’s sometimes not the same as conventional wisdom. There’s nothing “the truth” in your comment, other than your say so. But the topic is the bible story, not your understanding of it. Read it, then get back to me.

  • “Romans ultimatly executed Jesus for political reasons.”

    Yes, that played a major role. Jesus was a threat to Roman hegemony.

  • I would suggest the same for you. Spouting off half truths and lies is not good for your reputation.

  • Okay Sandridge, line by line, all from Genesis:

    2.15-17. “God took the man, put him in the garden . . . commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree . . . but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat . . . ”

    So, if you accept the patriarchal version that the first human creature was a man, clearly Only The Man was told to avoid that particular tree.

    3.1-3. “The serpent asked the woman, ‘Didn’t god say you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?’ The woman said, ‘God said we should not eat of the tree in the middle of the garden . . .’ ”

    This only works if you’re talking about the first creation story when female and male were created simultaneously. 1.26-27. Otherwise, it’s always been understood by scholars that 3.1-3 is a later addition to make the “blame the woman” part work. There is no previous evidence that indicates the woman was informed of this particular prohibition.

    3.6. “When the woman saw that the tree was good for food . . . she took some of its fruit and ate, and gave some to her husband, who was with her.”

    We read that the man was there while this conversation went on. He’s the one who received the prohibition on eating the fruit directly from god. Eve said nothing to convince him to eat it. Of his own free will, he ate too.

    Sandridge, your favorite Timothy verse is a much later bit that carries little weight. It’s an exceedingly rare scholar who tries to use it for evidence of the Genesis creation story.

    You can apologize at any time. I’m guessing you just didn’t know. I do because I have a PhD in theology and years of study with many of the top scholars in the US and Europe. I consider myself very fortunate to have such opportunities. And thanks for the opportunity to do a little scholarship. I enjoyed it, reminds me of my teaching days and questioning students.

  • Jesus was perceived as a threat to the Roman government because of his unpopularity with the religious officials who were cooperating with the Romans.

    Again, (because I’m Baha’i), I am reminded of the Bab. He was executed by the Shah of Persia because the Shah felt threatened by the Bab because the Bab threatened the Muslim religious organizations of the day.

    The fact that the Shah had the ultimate say of execution does not change the fact that the Shia religious authorities were the one pressuring the government for execution, just as the fact that Pilate carried out the execution does not change the fact that the Jewish religious authorities were the ones pushing for the execution.

    In both cases, both Jesus and the Bab, we know this is the case because the governing authorities in both instances brought the soon-to-be martyr BEFORE the religious authorities and allowed those religious authorities to question the relevant figure.

    With the fact that the government took, in both instances, the accused before religious authorities for questioning before executing the accused, it would be FOOLISH to assert that those religious authorities had no hand in martyring the martyr. In BOTH cases the governmental authorities deferred to the religious leaders for their judgement.

    “They became the victim of persecution by Christians, and Christians persecuted Jews because they were supposed to have killed Jesus. Although it it were true, they should really thank us. [I am being sarcastic here] My father grew up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood and Jews could not leave their houses on Easter, because it was too dangerous.”

    ^ The whole of this point here is just IRRELEVANT to the discussion. Just because a group undergoes religious persecution does not automatically rewrite the religious persecution that they in the past committed.

    The fact that Muslims are now persecuted in the US doesn’t mean that my Prophet, the Bab, was not executed by Muslim religious authorities!! It doesn’t MAGICALLY become a thing that didn’t happen just because Muslims now suffer discrimination!!

    Likewise the religious authorities of Jesus’ time had a role in that particular martyrdom. And their part in that execution isn’t MAGICALLY rewritten out of history either just because they suffered discrimination after the fact.

    What you SHOULD be doing is saying that this persecution that the Christian prophet suffered at the hands of the Jews does not justify persecuting the Jews. What you should NOT be doing is trying to pretend that past discrimination perpetrated by the Jews never happened.

    Pointing out that the sins of one generation does not justify the discrimination of their descendants makes a lot of sense on moral and logical grounds. There is a good case to be made there.

    Trying to pretend like the sins of the past generations NEVER HAPPENED makes you simply look like you’re trying to excuse past discrimination with discrimination suffered in the future, which is never really an okay thing to do. Denying the historical accounts of how things happened does not make sense.

  • True, but just because some Christians were assholes doesn’t suddenly rewrite history via the magick of discrimination to remove the discrimination the founder of Christianity suffered at the hands of the religious authorities of his day.

    If someone carried out a large pogrom against the Russians, Stalin’s Purges would not be purged (forgive the pun) from historical record.

  • Eve was the one deceived. Adam sinned.

    1 Timothy 2:14 – New International Version

    And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

  • You don’t believe the plain language of Genesis? Okay then. You’ve made up your mind, Genesis be damned. I guess this conversation is over if the bible is not our source.

  • The Messiah was also the future King of a Jewish state with no Romans. Some Jews thought that it would happen peacefully and others thought it would happen violently with the Messiah leading the troops. That seems pretty political to me. The Jewish religious leaders you speak of are not Pharisees, they were Sadducees. The Sadducees were not popular with the people. They were richer than the general population. The Jewish population thought of them as collaborators. Jesus, himself, was a Pharisee.

  • It didn’t. At least, not the way you say it did. You can’t even tell the difference between a Pharisee and a Saducee, and you don’t understand who the Pharisees really were.

  • Adam is not a man’s name. It doesn’t even really mean man. It means earth literally. It is only with Eve’s creation that they become man and woman

  • Her Leftness is quoting from Genesis and you are quoting from the much later Timothy, who was a Christian and had his own agenda. Timothy may not even understand the original Hebrew and only read it in a Greek translation.

  • Same thing here as the other post. You’ve decided and no further facts or information is wanted. Well, enjoy your ignorance. Best of luck.

  • 2 Timothy 3 – 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

  • Well, the scripture was written by humans inspired by God. Since it was written by humans it is not perfect. The “New” Testament isn’t part of my Bible, but Christians keep quoting it at me.

  • I won’t dispute the fact that many Christian sects in the past were guilty of the charge, as well as pseudo-Christian cults today. I will quibble over the usage of “most.'” Further, to the degree true, I agree it’s a terrible legacy; one to be abjured and corrected. The dissemination of the Gospel, where it is tolerated, must be free from coercive intent and practice, as well as punitive response for its rejection.

  • The largest Christian sects ascribed to such views well into the latter half of the 20th century. Aside from the minority Anabaptist sects, antisemitism was pretty much a given.

  • Without desiring to be disputatious, both the Pharisees and Sadducees were opponents of Jesus and conspired in His death according to the Gospel Record and the declarations of Stephen in the Book of Acts. Saul/Paul was definitely of the Pharisaical sect who gladly consented at the stoning of Stephen, an extension of connectivity to the death of Christ. There is no specific evidence that Jesus was a Pharisee. He was much more like John the Baptist, who was no Pharisee at all.

  • In my own experience, which ranges from Roman Catholicism in my childhood, to charismatic churches as a young adult, to several evangelical denominations in my mature adulthood, I have never run across the historical anti-Semitism we are discussing, this over a wide ranging Christian life extending beyond thirty years of active practice. Again, anti-Semitism is not consistent with the teachings of Jesus. Anyone who practices or advocates for it has cause to question their understanding of the faith, and yes that still probably includes millions.

  • Your experience doesn’t jive with official dogma and doctrine of most and largest Christian sects. The Catholic didn’t even disavow antisemitism until 1965. The antisemitism of Lutheran sects was from the outset. Martin Luther was virulently antisemitic. Most evangelicals are still fairly (albeit unintentionally) antisemitic.

    From my experience Christian philosemitism is fairly recent. Not more than a generation old. Even then it’s somewhat backhanded. “They want us to keep the lights on for them when their Messiah comes”

  • The “New” Testament completely distorts who the Pharisees were and what they stood for. You can’t use the Gospel Record as a guide to what the Pharisees thought about anything. For example, the Pharisees always permitted Jews to break the Sabbath if their life or health would be endgangered They were not pettyfogging hypocrites. They were scholars, mystics and lawyers all at the same time. They wanted to sanctify everyday life.

  • I have read the “New” Testament. it makes me sick to my stomach. It is so hateful to Jews and Judaism.

  • “What exactly is the Christian story?

    Nearly 2,000 years of persecuting Jewish people in irrational retaliation for the death of Jesus, which culminated in the Holocaust. Then, in the wake of that horror, antisemitism became completely unacceptable, and the Christians felt lost and listless for a few decades . . . until they discovered the homos, and suddenly their lives had meaning again. But now that they lost their war on homos, it seems that some Christians, if not distracted by the bathroom battles against transgender people, may be picking up where they left off against the Jewish people.

    The Christian story is largely all about their love . . . . . of hate.

  • Thank you for confirming that you know nothing about Christianity. Blessings to you Susan

  • Don’t say “Blessings to me” when you don’t mean it. i only told you my reaction to reading the “New Testament. Although, it is not just my personal opinion. I read a book called “The New Testament and Anti-Judaism.

  • ” Spouting off half truths and lies is not good for your reputation. ”

    Strange to cynically call another commenter a liar.

  • I agree with you absolutely on Martin Luther and his legacy. Still, I retain hope that Christians will recognize the vestiges of this attitude and root it out of their churches. There are many parachurch organizations who have active and cooperative outreaches to the Jews. I know of and support several. I’m not clear on your last sentence, but I imagine it’s a reference to evangelicals hedging on some kind of spiritual leverage based on a “backhanded” relationship with the Jews. Personally, I hate to classify people by group, I prefer to assess them one on one as individuals.

  • Paul, however, before he became a partisan of Christ, was “a Pharisee of Pharisees’,” and a member of the tribe of Benjamin. So, in effect, a Jew steeped in the Hebraic scriptures draws a conclusion at odds with Jewish teachers of today, and perhaps the past. Rabbis’ differing from one another is comparable to Christian ministers who do the same.

  • ” The dissemination of the Gospel, where it is tolerated, must be free from coercive intent and practice, as well as punitive response for its rejection. ”

    That’s a mature thing to say, so unlike what is practiced by many.

  • The New Testament was composed entirely by Jewish writers, with the possible exception of Luke. What I find interesting is that these ancient texts (including the Hebraic Scriptures) are continually second guessed and disavowed by people who live thousands of years after the events described, and purport to have greater insight than the individuals who lived and transcribed them. That is the true definition of higher criticism.

  • No, the “New” Testament was not written by Jews. When the Gospels were written, they were Christian. The scholars agree.

  • I appreciate reading your thoughts. I was raised with no religion at all which I personally feel was a blessing. I tried to be Christian as an adult but found it too judgmental and hateful. I like to treat people in my life as authentically as possible, so I had to leave Christianity behind so I could be true to myself. I am way happier. I have always thought that the OT was the Jewish story, though. Their story to wrestle with and understand and it is their interpretation that matters. I would think it would be considered rude to go into someone’s home and proceed to tell them what their family history is and what it means. I’ve always wondered if the Jewish consider Christians rude for telling your story their way.

  • Philosophically and spiritually Christian, ethnically and culturally Jews. “The scholars agree,” that’s a compelling evidentiary remark.

  • the xtian story is a fiction with very dangerous elitist ideas.
    why do you think the SS belt had “gott wit ins” emblazoned on it?
    get real,you can live in your delusion,but be aware your reality isn’t real.
    you do realize If you want arguments from authority …I’ve studied most of the worlds religions
    over a period of 10 years.(even someone with a basic grounding in comparative religions would find your ideas ….at best, rissable.
    and if you really want to become a voice ,I suggest you go back to school and STUDY!
    you seem to think pulling nonsense and linking to self fulfilling prophecy is research .
    one word: LAUGHABLE!
    just to help you along..the “new testament” 4 books about the same events written in 4 different ways …and at the very least , written 100 years after the “fact”….
    now go away and go play “religion expert”

  • I’m not sure what you mean. by “born again”. Christians usually mean that you accept Jesus as your savior in a personal way, and I will never do that. I don’t think I need to be “born again.”

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