Why it’s Risky to Think of Jesus like Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill

We’re adrift in stories.  According to official sources, more than 304,000 new book titles emerged in the U.S. alone in 2014.1  Nearly seven hundred movies were released that made money,2 and probably thousands more that didn’t.

That’s only one year out of the history of human story-telling.  Add up all the previous efforts and the resulting mountain makes it clear that we love our stories.  And make no mistake about it, every tale functions to do something or another.

Take Jurassic World, the flick that made half a billion dollars on opening weekend.  Of course I went to see it because I’m a man, and therefore willing to pay money in order to watch large creatures tearing things up.

What purpose does this story serve?  Not much.  You’re supposed to watch it with a double-wide popcorn and reservoir coke and forget your life for an hour.  That’s one kind of story—the kind that entertains.

Others, as with Greek mythology, are full of gods and miracles.  They do more than entertain; they also shape beliefs. 

Consider the tale of Pygmalion.  He was a sculptor that could never find the perfect female subject.  He ended up envisioning one and sculpted her from his imagination.

Unfortunately, he was too successful.  Pygmalion fell in love with the statue—a one-sided relationship if there ever were one.  The gods felt so sorry for him, they changed the statue into a real woman.   This story and many like it served to shape a body of religious knowledge among the ancient Greeks.

But if you had tracked down any of those ancients and asked, “Do you actually believe the gods changed that sculpture into a real woman?”  the Greek might say, “Yes, I believe it.  So does my father and mother and friends.”

But if you pressed a little further and asked “When did it happen?  Were there any eyewitnesses?  Is there at least any circumstantial evidence that suggests this ever occurred?”  Then the Greek might have shrugged and backed down, saying, “Well, it’s just a tale that helps us respect the gods. That’s all.”  In other words, some stories function to create and sustain folk religions of various sorts.

Then there’s Aesop, a sixth century B.C. slave who created a number of trademark fables.  These were frequently dark little tales, with an attached moral of some sort.  From the body of Aesop’s writing for instance, we get the story of the Tortoise and the Hare.

Remember?  The hare races the tortoise, gets far enough to take a break and play some x-box.  While messing around, he loses the contest to the turtle.  The moral of the story is “Slow and steady wins the race.”

Ask any of the Greeks though, if there had been an actual race between a turtle and a rabbit, and they would have said, “No, that’s not the point, anyway.  The story only functions to teach a principle.”   

Now in in the middle of all these entertaining, shaping, teaching stories, stands the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  How are we to think of this gospel?  Many will confuse it with the embellished tales of ancient heroes, and others with religious indoctrination.

But that’s not how the apostles treated the resurrection.  They weren’t using it to entertain people and get rich off the proceeds.  They weren’t trying to rehabilitate sagging Jewish religion with a new Messiah.  They weren’t trying to score points for improved religious living.

A better way to understand how the apostles treated the resurrection of Jesus is to think of a newspaper headline.  Headline news doesn’t function to entertain or teach principles.  Headlines announce events. 

In fact, the apostolic message was called “gospel,” a word that translates into “Good News.”  Peter wasn’t trying to change Jesus into another John Henry or Paul Bunyan by exaggerating biographical details.   He was aware of the colorful pagan tales swirling around his own day, and disavowed telling those kinds of stories himself.

He wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses” (2 Pet. 1:16).  The mention of “made known” and “eyewitnesses” tell us he was reporting something he and the rest of the apostles had seen—a factual event.

Had the gospel of Jesus been another tall tale in the Pecos Bill style, Paul was clear about what it would have meant.  For one, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain” (1 Cor. 15:14).  He knew if the Jesus event had been fabricated, he was wasting his life, even his breath, talking about it.

Secondly, “And your faith is in vain.”  He knew that even passionate and strong faith is worthless, if what you believe is a lie.  Try it out.  Believe that the Lucky Charms elf will cut your grass for you.  Believe it strongly. Believe it to the death.  Such faith will be a waste of energy.

Christian faith says, “This is true!”  It doesn’t begin with, “This might be true for you!”  The historical certainty of the resurrection is important to us because nobody wants to live a sacrificial life on behalf of a fairy tale.

The gospel headline tells us something unequivocal has occurred in the history of our world.  A man beat death.  Everything says the opposite—that no matter how holy or great a person is, he or she dies and stays that way.  All of the founders of the world’s religions are skeletons in graves right now.

The tomb of Jesus, though, forever stands in our collective memory as an empty hole.  The person who had been interred there, left there.  That’s the headline news.

We have to be careful how we handle this message. 

I’m reminded of the Roman governor Festus.  While trying to encapsulate the core Christian thought, he accidentally got it right.   Festus summed it up as:  “A certain Jesus who was dead…Paul asserted to be alive” (Acts 25:19).  Resurrection actually is the pivotal point. But then the man threw the message aside, not knowing something was tucked inside it.

Nothing illustrates the danger of mishandling this message better than a Dear Abbey column printed decades ago.  The subject was how young people had begun to develop an entitlement complex and become unthankful.  The article went on to describe an upper curst community where parents practiced buying their kids dream cars for high school graduation gifts.  In particular, one young man and his dad spent months visiting car lots.  Adrenaline was high, especially with friends at school abuzz over their own shopping for BMWs and Alpha Romeos.  Graduation day rolled around.  The dad approached his son and said, “It’s time for you to have your gift.  After looking at all those cars, I deeply felt that this would be the best thing I could ever give you.” Then he handed the boy a Bible.

The young man took one look at it and saw red. Of all the low down dirty tricks—cheapness masquerading as religious piety!  He threw the Bible in the floor and stormed out of the house.  During his college years he refused to even speak with his father about that awful day.

Then he received word his dad had died.  The young man returned home to sort through personal items.  While doing so, he found that Bible and opened it.  A check tucked inside of it fell out on the floor.  It was written for the amount of the automobile he’d wanted, and dated to the day his father had given him the Bible years before.

I don’t know whether this account is fact or fiction, but it goes a long way to demonstrate what people do every day with the message of Jesus.

They treat the gospel as though it were a piece of religious propaganda meant to take away their happiness and keep them from ultimate fulfillment.  They discard it as another one of the world’s many stories.  Yet what is tucked inside will change their lives and their eternity. 

Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Inside the message of resurrection is no less than salvation—salvation in every way a person could possibly need to be saved.

Never forget that the headline news of Christ’s resurrection comes packaged with implications.

“Jesus resurrected from the dead!”

“So?”

“So that means the Savior of the world is alive!”

So?

“So that means you can meet Him!” 

 

 

1 Unesco
2 Box Office Mojo, 2014.

Photo credit: Squaio.
Bill Bunyan: Darin Barry

 

 

 

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