Thoughts on Bultmann

A word of caution to my friends who are most interested in reading about my artistic endeavors, this post might not be for you. Then again, if you are interested in Christian theology read on.

This week for EfM I was reading about the theology of Rudolph Bultmann (see this Encyclopedia Britannica page for a nice summary). This wasn’t my first exposure to Bultmann, whose work comes up frequently in the EfM New Testament class. However, the deeper discussion in this year’s course on contemporary theology really struck a cord. Bultmann was a proponent of demythologizing the Bible, particularly the gospel stories—reducing them to their essential meaning, rather than dwelling on the detailed events of Jesus' life. The idea here is an existential one. Bultmann’s point (as I understand it) is that the gospel stories are mythical in nature. They're stories told and arranged in such a way as to speak to the people of the time in which they were written about their place in creation and about their relationship to the divine. They were written and read within that cultural setting, just has they are read within the cultural settings of today. As such they might mean different things to different people. What I find meaningful in Bultmann’s ideas is that to understand the text we need to understand the reality of the time in which it was written. Who wrote it, why, and for whom? What did they believe and how did they envision the cosmos? That's the existential part. In addition to what the stories might have meant to the people of the time in which they were written, my experience gives meaning to these stories for me. This makes a great deal of sense to me. It’s liberating. I don’t have to obsess about whether or why Jesus cursed a fig tree and made it wither. I’m not saying that none of the stories about Jesus’ life are true; far from it. I think there is great "truth," in them. But I'm also comfortable with the idea that some of the "facts" might be left over from a different time and make less sense today. They might even get in the way of some of the truth.

In the class discussion a couple of folks noted that myths are grand tales of the gods, and that the Bible stories don’t fit that mold because they are too “folksy”, therefore they must be more than myth. Someone suggested that we use the term “folk tale” instead, which almost touched off a riot.

For me, “myth” is the correct word and I do not believe that it trivializes the essential truth of the gospel stories or devalues them. The problem here is that modernism relegated myth to the realm of fiction and fantasy because it was not based on scientific observation and measurement. And I guess that’s the bottom line: I’m a post-modernist. To demythologize is not to whittle the gospel stories down to the verifiable, observable, repeatable facts of Jesus’ life. There aren't many left when you do that. For me, to demythologize is to look beyond the literal for the essential. It is the essential truths that exist outside of human time—things like loving others, caring for and defending the disenfranchised and oppressed, welcoming into your life those who are different, and valuing our relationships with God and with other human beings more than with objects. While the “factual” elements of the gospel stories are most meaningful in their original 2,000 year old cultural context, the essential truth of the stories endures.

After 3 1/2 years of EfM, the great Ah Ha moments are coming less frequently than they used to. This was a good one and I wanted to share it.