by Bil Aulenbach

Literal versus Metaphorical

I recently read Jim Wallis’s Christ in Crisis?: Why We Need to Reclaim Jesus and found it most provocative.

Near the end of the book, Jim was shared a story about meeting with a group of Jesus Seminar scholars (progressive theologians from the Westar Institute). They were discussing resurrection stories, and the Westar scholars suggested that these tales are metaphors. Jim reminded them that he accepted those stories as literal truth. He then asked if they thought a merely metaphorical Resurrection would be adequate for Desmond Tutu (alluding to apartheid in South Africa) He claimed that no one responded.

I’m sorry I wasn’t there. I would have reacted immediately and asked a series of questions, but that’s because I still haven’t mastered this necessary lesson: Never try to argue with a fundamentalist. They don’t, won’t, and can’t have an open-minded discussion. I strongly suspect that’s why no Westar scholar responded to Jim’s literalism.

I, however, would have asked Jim if he was aware of these facts:

  • The centurion who presided over the Crucifixion would have been executed the next day if he had allowed Jesus to come off his cross in any other condition than stone-cold dead.
  • A body starts to decay four minutes after death.
  • The original version of the Gospel of Mark, written around 70 CE, did not include any postcrucifixion appearances by Jesus.
  • The modern version of Mark does feature postresurrection appearances (16:9–21), but these are redactions added sometime during the second century CE.
  • A more elaborate Resurrection story first appeared in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written fifty to sixty years after Jesus died.
  • The writers of the New Testament were primarily Jewish. They were not recounting an actual event (Jesus rising from the dead is impossible) but weaving a tale of religious history, which requires looking deeper into a story to find its true meaning.

I suspect Jim would not be able to “hear” a thing I said because he takes the Gospel literally, but I would still like to hear his reaction.

Then I would say, “Jim, I think a metaphorical resurrection would be much more helpful to Desmond than a literal one. To me, the Resurrection stories are about transforming our Good (or Bad) Fridays into Easters through agape.”

My wife, Annie, and I once visited South Africa after apartheid ended. Agape was hard at work through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Whites asked for and received forgiveness for their racism—without violence ensuing. The nation wanted to move forward. Justice (Jesus’s kind) prevailed, and South Africa avoided a bloodbath. A Bad Friday transformed into an Easter for that country.

I have no idea how a dead man walking around could eradicate racism, hatred, and violence. However, unconditional love, forgiveness, and caring are some of the greatest tools I know for moving forward in life.

I hope Jim will see the power of Easter as a metaphor someday.

What think ye?


Image courtesy of Kodi Tanner (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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