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1A NEW JESUS FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM a presentation by Bernard Zaleha !in Falls Unitarian Uni"ersalist Fello!

ship September 28, 2003 In my late teens, I had a formative encounter with the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. And this encounter came close in time with my first encounter with siris, the savior !od"man of ancient #$ypt. %he time was &'((. I found myself alone, in a new city, enrolled in a one year practical nursin$ pro$ram run by the Seventh"day Adventists, the reli$ion of my upbrin$in$. )hile I had intellectually re*ected +hristianity back in ei$hth $rade, I was aware that at an emotional level, the fundamentalist terror was still lurkin$ down deep in my psyche. Intellectually, I did not want or believe +hristianity to be true. ,ut emotionally, the fear was there. )hat if it isI.m embarrassed to admit that throu$h my adolescence, I had for far too lon$ bou$ht into the fundamentalist line that rock music was evil. %hus, thou$h I was aware of the musical /esus +hrist Superstar, and my church.s disapproval of it 0especially because its storyline ends with the crucifi1ion2, I had never listened to it. 3owever, my nursin$ school roommate was a fan of Superstar, and I finally heard it. I was most fascinated with the /udas character and his lines in the opera such as 4your followers are blind. %oo much heaven on their minds.5 ,oy was that a description of my faith of ori$in. r this one6 4I remember when this whole thin$ be$an. 7o talk of !od then, we called you a man.5 %his was probably my first e1posure to the idea that /esus may have first been re$arded as a teacher, not a savior"8essiah"!od. It was stimulatin$ stuff. At nearly the same time, a classmate shared a book she had *ust read entitled 49eli$ion in Ancient 3istory5 by a biblical scholar named S.!.:. ,randon. In it, he describes humanity.s oldest written documents, the hiero$lyphic te1ts inside the ;yramids, and their tale of siris, an incarnatin$ !od turned human, who suffers un*ust death, but by divine intervention is resurrected, ascends to the heavenly realm, and their rei$ns, *ud$es, and provides a blessed after"life to the faithful. In ,randon.s words, 4 siris emer$ed as the classic prototype of the saviour"$od, who by his own death and resurrection can assure to his devotees a new life after death.5 & %here it was. %he proof I had sou$ht. %he +hrist story was *ust a rip"off of an old #$yptian myth, a myth predatin$ it by over 2,000 years, and predatin$ any comparable /ewish writin$s by over a &,000 years. )ith this powerful revelation, I completed my liberation from the tradition of my upbrin$in$, deconstructin$ it, and rippin$ it out by the roots. %he old emotional fear was $one, never to haunt me a$ain. And within months, I had found my way to ;ortland :irst <nitarian church, where I found similarly liberated folks, there to wander in the wilderness of scientific materialism and e1istentialism for about &= years, before be$innin$ a ten year re"e1ploration of +hristianity. As part of this re"e1ploration, about two years a$o, I stumbled onto a recent book, 4%he /esus 8ysteries6 )as the > ri$inal /esus. a ;a$an !od-5, by %imothy :reke and ;eter !andy. #specially intri$uin$ was that subtitle. And then on the back, these teasin$ 4)hat If5 ?uestions.

,randon, S.!.:., Religion in Ancient History, 0&'@'2, at pa$e &2=.

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)hat if for thousands of years ;a$ans have also followed a Son of !od)hat if this ;a$an savior was also born of a vir$in on the 2= th day Becember before 3 shepherds, turned water into wine at a weddin$, died and was resurrected, and offered his body and blood as a 3oly +ommunion)hat if these ;a$an myths had been rewritten as the $ospel of /esus +hrist)hat if the earliest !nostic +hristians knew that the /esus story was a myth)hat if +hristianity turned out to be a continuation of ;a$anism by another name-

I was intri$ued. So I put it on my +hristmas wish list, and my mother"in"law, bless her, played Santa and provided me my copy. nce I started readin$ it, I could not put it down. <nsurprisin$ly, the authors answer each of the 4)hat if5 teasers in the affirmative and further assert the startlin$ premise that the man /esus never e1isted, that the reli$ion purportin$ to be uni?ue to him was merely a new variation on the old 8editerranean mystery reli$ions, complete with a /ewish outer shell, created by ;aul. %hrou$h this new variation on an old theme datin$ back to siris, the limitations of mortal flesh could be overcome. I myself don.t $o so far as :reke C !andy. I find the work of other well"known and widely"published scholars such as /ohn Bominic +rossan and 8arcus ,or$ that /esus of 7aDareth was a real person of history more persuasive. 3owever, in a manner I.ve have not encountered elsewhere, :reke C !andy clearly lay out the way that the mythical dimensions of traditional +hristianity parallel and flow directly out of the 8editerranean 8ystery 9eli$ions, which myths somehow $ot overlaid on the life of /esus. 0;arenthetically, for a fascinatin$ account of how the ancient 8editerranean 8ystery 9eli$ions $ot woven around the life of the historical /esus, let me recommend 3yam 8accoby.s The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention o Christianity 2. It is a fair ?uestion at this point to ask, So what- )ell, as a starter, understandin$ the +hrist story as re"tellin$ of this ancient mythic motif allows one to e1perience the +hrist story as at least some of the earliest +hristians 0especially the +hristian !nostics2 e1perienced it. :or them, it was not seen as a historical account of /esus of 7aDareth, but as a spiritual parable about the death of the e$o, throu$h which one can then be resurrected into union with the sacred or mystical dimension. %hose comfortable with the insi$hts of ,uddhism should find this approach acceptable, even inspirin$. As the The Jesus Mysteries authors put it, 4)e hope that by understandin$ its true ori$ins in the on$oin$ evolution of a universal human spirituality, +hristianity may be able to free itself from EitsF self"imposed isolation Efrom other faithsF.5 2 %hat would be $ood news. )e here in Idaho are assailed daily by an ultra"conservative kind of +hristianity that asserts its corner on %ruth, and declares its way to be the only way. %his instills many of us <<s with a knee"*erk ne$ativity about the reli$ion of andGor about /esus.

:reke C !andy, The Jesus Mysteries 020002, p. &3.

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3owever, as one who spends a fair amount of time han$in$ out with #piscopalians and +on$re$ationalists, I can assure you that this approach to +hristianity isn.t limited to some 7ew A$e, neo"+hristian $roups in the bay area 0thou$h it is undoubtedly there2, but it actively informs the faith of pew"sittin$ +hristians ri$ht here in Idaho. %here is a new spirit to be found in liberal +hristian communities today that <nitarian <niversalists would be comfortable with. %he hun$er for social *ustice, which characteriDes our faith, is the cornerstone of much of this new spirit. As already noted, biblical scholars like ,or$ and +rossan make a stron$ case that /esus was a real person of history. 3owever, this /esus revealed by modern scholarship is not the mythical +hrist that many <nitarians find offensive. ,or$, when asked in an interview on the Today show to summariDe the historical /esus revealed by modern scholarship, did it as follows6 /esus was a peasant, which tells us about his social class. +learly, he was brilliant. 3is use of lan$ua$e was remarkable and poetic, filled with ima$es and stories. 3e had a metaphoric mind. 3e was not an asceticH he was world affirmin$, with a Dest for life. %here was a sociopolitical passion to him""like a !andhi or a 8artin Iuther Jin$, he challen$ed the domination system of his day. 3e was a reli$ious ecstatic, a /ewish mystic, if you will, for whom !od was an e1periential reality. As such, /esus was also a healer. And there seems to have been a spiritual presence around him, like that reported of Saint :rancis or the present Balai Iama. And I su$$est that as a fi$ure of history, /esus was an ambi$uous fi$ure""you could e1perience him and conclude that he was insane, as his family did, or that he was simply eccentric or that he was a dan$erous threat""or you could conclude that he was filled with the Spirit of !od. %hrou$h the work of scholars such as ,or$, we are strippin$ 4away the myth from the man.53 And what.s left, for me at least, is one of the most inspirin$ spiritual teachers of all time, one who also tau$ht a path to union with the sacred. )hen the /udas of /esus +hrist Superstar declares, 4KouLve started to believe, %he thin$s they say of you. Kou really do believe, %his talk of !od is true,5 he $ets it wron$. /esus never believed he was in some way uni?uely !od, or savior, or messiah. ,ut he did know about our need to love our nei$hbors, to love even our enemies, to stru$$le for *ustice a$ainst those who oppress the weak and a$ainst reli$ious do$mas that e1clude rather than include. )e <<s emer$ed from this tradition. )e can and should proudly embrace it as part of our ri$htful herita$e. )ho better to rescue /esus from those strains of the +hristian tradition that have twisted and perverted his true teachin$s. 8ay it be so.

/udas, in 43eaven on their 8inds5, Jesus Christ Superstar.

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