Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Kerygma and Myth

Ooh, crunchy outside, chewy inside...

Like the title of my blog suggests, my choices in reading material are eclectic, if not largely random.  Many of the books on my To Read list are there for no reason but serendipity. More than a few of my favorites were found not only at my favorite used bookstore, Half Price Books, they were plucked from the haphazard clutter of the closeout shelves and purchased for a only a dollar or two.  So it is with my study of religion and its history.  Other than a philosophical inclination to soft atheism and a deep appreciation for the neurobiological origins of the religious impulse, my theological studies lack any sort of orderliness.

Thus we come to Kerygma and Myth: A Theological Debate, by Rudolph Bultmann and Five Critics.  It was edited by Hans Werner Bartsch and translated by Reginald H. Fuller.  The cover looks like it was done by Maurice Sendak but it wasn't.  Judging by the name imprinted on the fly leaf of my copy it was formerly owned by Rev. Dr. Gene Straatmeyer.  A receipt from the University Dubuque Book Store dated 28 January 1965 suggests it was one of six items purchased that day for a total of $8.60.  I so love used book stores!

A reprinting of Bultmann's 1941 essay, "The New Testament and Mythology," including five responses to it, two responses by Bultmann to his critics' essays, and yet another afterward, "Kerygma and Myth" is a gold mine of challenging ideas and most excellent quotations on the merits and demerits of Biblical Christianity as it was taught in the early 20th century. It's a chewy read, like the sort of sticky caramel that threatens to pull your fillings out of your teeth. Bultmann and his peers were deep into a sophisticated and nuanced theology one does not encounter among our current surplus of evangelical apologists or the dominant wing of Roman Catholicism that seem intent on stealing the Religious Right's conservative credentials. 

Here are a few that I find most striking:

The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. (Page 1)

To this extent the kerygma is incredible to modern man, for he is convinced that the mythical view of the world is obsolete. (3)

Can Christian preaching expect modern man to accept the mythical view of the world as true? To do so would be both senseless and impossible. It would be senseless, because there is nothing specifically Christian in the mythical view of the world as such. It is simply the cosmology of a pre-scientific age. (3)

A blind acceptance of the New Testament mythology would be arbitrary, and to press for its acceptance as an article of faith would be to reduce faith to works. (3)

The miracles of the New Testament have ceased to be miraculous, and to defend their historicity by recourse to nervous disorders or hypnotic effects only serves to underline the fact. (5) 

It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles. (5)

And to attribute human mortality to the fall of Adam is sheer nonsense, for guilt implies personal responsibility, and the idea of original sin as an inherited infection is sub-ethical, irrational, and absurd. (7)

Moreover, if the Christ who died such a death was the pre-existent Son of God, what could death mean for him? Obviously very little, if he knew that he would rise again in three days! (8)

The real purpose of myth is not to present an objective picture of the world as it is, but to express man’s understanding of himself in the world in which he lives. (10)

Mythology is the use of imagery to express the other worldly in terms of this world and the divine in terms of human life, the other side in terms of this side. (10)  

Myth is an expression of man’s conviction that the origin and purpose of the world in which he lives are to be sought not within it but beyond it -- that is, beyond the realm of known and tangible reality... (10) 

The kenosis of the pre-existent Son (Phil. 2: 6ff.) is incompatible with the miracle narratives as proofs of his messianic claims. (11)

The liberal theologians of the last century were working on the wrong lines. They threw away not only the mythology but also the kerygma itself. (12)

The danger both for theological scholarship and for the Church is that this uncritical resuscitation of the New Testament mythology may make the Gospel message unintelligible to the modern world. (12)
[W]hereas the older liberals used criticism to eliminate the mythology of the New Testament, our task to-day is to use criticism to interpret it.(12)
History may be of academic interest, but never of paramount importance for religion. (13)

Christian faith is not the same as religious idealism; the Christian life does not consist in developing the individual personality, in the improvement of society, or in making the world a better place. The Christian life means a turning away from the world, a detachment from it...Hence the supreme manifestation of religion was to be found not in personal ethics or in social idealism but in the cultus regarded as an end in itself.  (14)

Can the kerygma be interpreted apart from mythology? Can we recover the truth of the kerygma for men who do not think in mythological terms without forfeiting its character as kerygma? (15)

Perhaps [Paul, Rom. 5:12] means to say that with Adam death became possible rather than inevitable. (18) 

Everybody tries to hold fast to his own life and property, because he has a secret feeling that it is all slipping away from him. (19) 

This is what is meant by "faith": to open ourselves freely to the future. But at the same time faith involves obedience, for faith means turning our backs on self and abandoning all security. (19)

The new life in faith is not an assured possession or endowment, which could lead only to libertinism. Nor is it a possession to be guarded with care and vigilance, which could lead only to asceticism. (21)
[F]aith, by detaching man from the world, makes him capable of fellowship in community. Now that he is delivered from anxiety and from the frustration which comes from clinging to the tangible realities of the visible world, man is free to enjoy fellowship with others. (22)
[C]an we have a Christian understanding of Being without Christ? (23)

[A]ll history, not only Christian history, involves transference of power. (24)

For him the chief characteristic of man’s Being in history is anxiety. Man exists in a permanent tension between the past and the future. At every moment he is confronted with an alternative. Either be must immerse himself in the concrete world of nature, and thus inevitably lose his individuality, or he must abandon all security and commit himself unreservedly to the future, and thus alone achieve his authentic Being. [24]

For Heidegger man has lost his individuality, and therefore he invites him to recover his true selfhood. [27]

How then, if the fall be total, can man be aware of his plight?  [29]

Now, it is clear from the outset that the event of Christ is of a wholly different order from the cult-myths of Greek or Hellenistic religion. Jesus Christ is certainly presented as the Son of God, a pre-existent divine being, and therefore to that extent a mythical figure. But he is also a concrete figure of history -- Jesus of Nazareth. His life is more than a mythical event; it is a human life which ended in the tragedy of crucifixion. [34]

The New Testament claims that this Jesus of history, whose father and mother were well known to his contemporaries (John 6:42) is at the same time the pre-existent Son of God, and side by side with the historical event of the crucifixion it sets the definitely non-historical event of the resurrection. [34]

The doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence as given by St. Paul and St. John is difficult to reconcile with the legend of the Virgin birth in St. Matthew and St. Luke. [34]

The cross releases men not only from the guilt, but also from the power of sin. [36]

For them the cross was the cross of him with whom they had lived in personal intercourse. The cross was an experience of their own lives. It presented them with a question and it disclosed to them its meaning. But for us this personal connection cannot be reproduced. For us the cross cannot disclose its own meaning: it is an event of the past. We can never recover it as an event in our own lives. All we know of it is derived from historical report. [38]

[B]oth the legend of the empty tomb and the appearances insist on the physical reality of the risen body of the Lord (see especially Luke 24:39-43). But these are most certainly later embellishments of the primitive tradition. St. Paul knows nothing about them. [39]

The eyewitnesses therefore guarantee St. Paul’s preaching, not the fact of the resurrection. An historical fact which involves a resurrection from the dead is utterly inconceivable! Yes indeed: the resurrection of Jesus cannot be a miraculous proof by which the skeptic might be compelled to believe in Christ. [39]

No; the real difficulty is that the resurrection is itself an article of faith, and you cannot establish one article of faith by invoking another. You cannot prove the redemptive efficacy of the cross by invoking the resurrection.  [40]

It is precisely its immunity from proof which secures the Christian proclamation against the charge of being mythological. [44]

Fascinating stuff.

 All that said, I find it striking that these essays were written and presented at meetings in Germany during the Second World War.  It feels strange and somehow incorrect to me that these men of faith applied their prodigious talents and energies to go at each other hammer and tongs while their government was grinding Europe under its brutal boot, building extermination camps, and hurtling toward an ignominious devastation of the German people.  We're told Bultmann and his peers spoke out against some Nazi excesses, but inasmuch as they all seem to have survived the war, they must have chosen their battles more carefully than their coreligionist Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did not.

UPDATE: I wrote to the Reverend Doctor Straatmayer as follows:

Dear Rev. Dr. Straatmeyer,
I hope you'll forgive an intrusion from a stranger, but you and I have a very particular book in common.  I live in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and enjoy browsing the stacks at our local Half Price Books used bookstore.  Recently I purchased a copy of Kerygma and Myth by Rudolph Bultmann and Five Critics there.  When I opened it I found your name stamped on the fly leaf and a receipt from the University of Dubuque bookstore dated 28 JUN 65.  I finished the book this evening and thought I'd reach out to you to mention our small, strange connection.  I wrote a brief review of the book and the nature of serendipity on my blog http://eclecticbreakfast.blogspot.com/2013/08/kerygma-and-myth.html I don't want to trouble you, but if you have time to tell me what you thought of the book, how you used it in your studies or ministry, and how it came to be resold in my local used book store I'd love to hear from you.  In any case, thank you for consigning your Bultmann. Had you not done so there is no telling when I might have gotten around to reading him.  Be well, Reverend.

Best Regards,


PS I enjoyed your recollection of Salem Presbyterian Church, Tea, SD. It reminded me of my mother's small country church in Traill County, ND, which recently closed.  Mother converted to Roman Catholicism in order to marry my father, but in my youth I attended several weddings, too many funerals, and more than a few Sunday services at Norway Lutheran Church.

I am excited at the prospect of a reply... 

I was taking continuing education at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary when I bought the book. I was raised in evangelical/conservative German Presbyterianism and after seminary (I read, read and read some more), Blaise Pascal started me moving toward a more open, inquiring view of my faith. Bultmann was one of the courses I took and he aided and abetted the process. From there I moved on to Bonhoeffer. And after that I just kept reading and reading and reading some more.

I have no idea how that book got into your neck of the woods. I am thinking I did not give it away but rather loaned it to someone who never gave it back and who unloaded it whenever since I had probably by then moved to Alaska and it was too large a distance for most Iowans to comprehend, even by mail.

I am presently writing a history of the German Synod of the West where I grew to faith and the child it produced, the University of Dubuque - College and Seminary. About 100 churches were a part of this group and I will have a history of each of them when I am finished. I am third generation American from Ostfriesland in Northwest Germany. In 2011, we spent six weeks in the village of my grandfather Straatmeyer in Loquard. We hope to go back next year. The Salem Church is just one among the many others where German was the language of communication until 1942 - the war.

Thanks for the contact.
Gene Straatmeyer

Reverend Straatmeyer's long lost copy of Kerygma and Myth - much the worse for wear and highlighted in the extreme - is in the mail on its way back to him.   

I so love used book stores!

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