Monday, July 20, 2009

Bultmann and Me

I just finished reading Rudolf Bultmann's "New Testament and Mythology," and it has helped me articulate what I'm trying to do with this project (or at least write incoherently for a while) .

The premise of Lutheranism is that people cannot love unless they are loved. The story of Christ is the means by which we as the church communicate to people that God loves them unconditionally. But for most people I know, the story doesn't work.

Bultmann thinks this is because ever since the rise of modern science people realize that the material reality presented in the story doesn't match with the material reality they encounter everyday. There are no demons in this world; there is no place in the sky where angles fly or place underground where Satan dwells. Most people don't change when they are baptized or receive communion. No one has yet risen from the dead. The reality of the Gospels is not the reality of people today, and so they reject the story of Christ as irrelevant.

But Bultmann contends that these "mythical" elements (virgin birth, miracles, resurrection) are misunderstood if taken to be historic. For Bultmann, the Gospels are not histories, they are instead stories which invite the hearer to participate in their existential (not material or metaphysical) reality in this life. Miracles and mythical metaphysics are attempts to communicate intangible experiences of human existence in a tangible and comprehensible (for the audience at the time) form; the goal of the preacher is to extract the message about human life. For Bultmann, the central message that the New Testament is attempting to communicate is an existential freedom to be who we are and to love others based on an openness to the suffering in this world and the assurance of God's unconditional love (keep in mind he's writing from and for the context of well-off white folk, which, to be fair, so am I). Bultmann thinks that if this de-mythologized message of the gospel is preached, people will be able to once again connect to the divine story, experience God's love, and love one another.

This is where I have a problem. Understanding the New Testament as inviting us to participate in an existential reality communicated through non-historical story (though Bultmann acknowledges the crucifixion as fact), is great. However, I don't think talking at people from behind a pulpit is an effective invitation into any story. Most people are keenly aware that the story of Jesus has been forced on to listeners as a means of control. Hierarchies have used the gospel to ensure the conformity of those who heed it, and to exclude those who do not. When one authority figure stands before a mute crowd and does all the talking, it doesn't come across as an invitation to participate in a story, it comes across as a narrative of coercion. Even with the best-intentioned clergy, the very format of speaker and audience trains the congregation to be passive, to leave the existential reality of grace in the walls of the church and in the hands of the pastor instead of taking up the story for themselves and actively telling and shaping it in their daily lives.

This then is my goal with collaborative art: First, to reclaim the existential value of story, particularly the story of Christ. Second, to embody the gospel notion of unconditional love by inviting all people to actively speak their own story in a non-hierarchical setting. Third, to invite people to participate in the existential reality of the gospel by connecting their story to Christ's story. Fourth, to facilitate community and the love of neighbor by connecting the personal story and Christ's story to the neighbor's story. Fifth, to imagine a world that better reflects God's love for all people through the use of art.

I believe artistic mediums to be particularly useful for these tasks for three reasons. First our culture tends to accept what an individual expresses through art as both subjectively unique and not requiring external validation. Second, art allows for differing expressions to be combined into a coherent and meaningful whole without compromising the integrity of the individual expressions. I view this as different from how conversations around theology are often approached. When two people with differing views want to come together and proclaim a common faith, or even have a friendly conversation, there is often the notion that one person has to convert the other, cause the other person to give up his or her view. With art, different views can be join in harmony (or aesthetic dissonance) without winners or losers; without one experience being right and the other being wrong. Art has the power to move conversations beyond a zero-sum game.

Finally, what makes tools of art so important is that they require us to make our dreams tangible. Just as God entered into human flesh to communicate with and transform the world, so too, bringing imagination into the stone of a sculpture, or the actors on a stage makes something comprehensible, something that cannot simply be ignored or forgotten. Imagination in physical form inherently changes the world because it is a part of the world that has been changed.


Aaron said...

Ben: Bultmann's view rings true with me. I can read and enjoy the Bible if I see it as art, or someone trying to express the intangible. But the minute I am "required" to read the Bible, it loses any sort of magic.

When I was in a worship leader, I asked for people to share their favorite Bible verse and why. This was in place of the sermon. We had a roving mic, and we took the entire sermon time to do this. I had thought it might turn into one of those sometimes long and tedious "testimony" times. But the choice to ask people to share their favorite Bible verse seemed to limit the talking by each person. After the sharing of Bible verses, I saw people walking to the other side of the church and talking to each other instead of exiting the sanctuary right away. It seemed to bring people together.

Ben Colahan said...

The sharing of favorite verses is a good idea (though most people I know wouldn't be able to cite chapter and verse). I think people generally want to learn more about those around them, but I find that social expectations of politeness often require people to only converse on a superficial level. Using the sermon as a tool for people to share something meaningful about themselves seems like it can provide an impetus for more substantial conversation at coffee hour. Limiting the comments to a favorite bible verse also seems like it prevents people from gushing about something so intimate that people feel awkward bringing it up later, as can happen with "testimonies."

Anonymous said...

Not knowing Bultmann, nor being an ardent Bible reader, nor a frequent church attendee, I venture to add that when I view a piece of art, I wish to connect with the inner spirit of the artist, I translate my feelings into what it means to me, how it impacts me and thus I feel a great sense of connection with a higher self, a higher spirit, in me, in the artist and then I believe God truly exists. Since we are made by Him we try to “create”, but of course He is a greater creator than we are.

MFConnection said...

In the Episcopal church in Boulder there were evenings for people to tell each other stories drawn from their own lives, but organized around specific topics. The first evening, for example, was to focus on some experience relevant to the current church season, lent, as it happened.
As you point out, it is often hard to find an excuse for what we need in the way of sharing less superficial memories, emotions and unresolved questions associated with them, and conclusions tentatively reached. But some intellectual structure is needed so that everyone is engaged in building something in common, not just emoting about something that only touches the speaker. Random evocation of bible verses might fail to bring people together unless there were some overarching topic that each personal burst of energy contributed to.