Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Story of Christianity as the Story of a Failed Art Project

Grappling with the origins of Christianity has been the struggle of my life.  Unlike most people in the field (and with publication of a couple of peer reviewed papers I am part of the field) I don't start with the usual starting point.  I am not a Christian.  I didn't begin life as 'part of the fold' only to start 'thinking about' my faith later in life.  I began as a failed artist and the question that always dogged me was - how did art become history, how did interpretation become literal fact?

That shouldn't be taken to mean that I am a 'mythicist' - that I deny that there was any fact or history behind the story of Jesus.  It's just that any facts or historical details were really of secondary detail - if there were any.  Christianity seems to emerge 'out of the box' as a spiritual phenomenon.  What's more, it wasn't as if just one myth 'won out' quite early.

The more I look at early Christianity you see dozens if not hundreds of myths competing with one another from the second century onward.  What won out was a 'factual religion' defined by the early creeds where the baptized were interrogated about their 'right belief.'  Do you believe that Jesus was crucified under Pilate?  Fact. Do you believe he was born to the virgin Mary?  Fact.

If art was forced to become 'realistic,' if a story about demons and superheroes gave way to ordinary concerns and ultimately 'right belief' - what were 'powers of the world' so frightened of?  Why did it matter if there were dozens and hundreds and hundreds of dozens of kooky sects putting forward stories of a heavenly hall of justice, a 'secret plan' hatched before the creation of the world to avenge the work of demons who brought down the world's Creator?  Why did the worldly powers take on artists, forcing them to abandon doing what they do best - making up stories?

It's easy to see things in terms of 'spiritual truths' - i.e. seeing the world rulers controlled by demons and the innocent 'creative minds' channeling the holy spirit from its source in the heavens.  This is how these artists framed their own situation and it is natural for even modern artists to tell the story this way.  But as I said at the beginning, I started life being a failed artist.  I 'failed' because I could never summon the conviction to 'believe in myself' or believe in my art.

Even as I worked the clay into something 'real' I could never ignore that my creations were little more than mere clay.  Soon I stopped enjoying listening to the music I from each previous stage of my life.  I actually find myself envious of old people who wax with nostalgia from 'the sounds of their lives.'  I never did a slow dance to Stairway to Heaven at my school prom.  I never even attended a single dance at school - although I must admit my wife and I met at club with a massive video screen playing Careless Whisper.   It doesn't get much cheesier than that.

But my point is I believe in art even though I don't read, consume, partake in any real art.  The closest I get nowadays is football (soccer) and training my son to be a 'creative midfielder.'  If it makes any sense to anyone, I worship the process of creativity even though - or perhaps especially because - I know that whatever ends up getting produced is really at bottom, indistinguishable from garbage.

I never wanted to be a father because I thought I my mental attitude was quite unsuitable for being a father.  I grew up in an age where fathers were still towering figures of certainty.  While I spend more time with my son in a month than my father ever did in his entire life with me, I always confess to my beloved companion that I don't have a clue whether I am right or wrong about anything.  I happened to have stored an endless number of half-truths from my voracious reading of ancient books into my memory banks which I readily bring up if I feel it is relevant to the flow of the discussion.

Why exactly my son needs to know that the ancients conceived of heaven as an iron dome I don't know.  I think it's merely because I enjoy having someone to share all these silly facts and bits of information with.  When I come to think of it I think my approach to early Christianity and religion developed from my inability to get rid of garbage.  I am the worst kind of hoarder - a hoarder of facts and ideas.  I love seeing the history of humanity as the story of failed ideas because I think it's the truest thing you can say about us - at bottom we are all failed artists.  It's what binds us and makes us human even if we don't recognize that about ourselves individually or collectively.

To that end, I start with the assumption that Christianity - and even Judaism for that matter - is nothing but a never ending string of failed art projects.  We're all just making up shit.  But the main question for me - and it's the one I can never quite solve - is how did this entire creative enterprise get its start?  What was the original 'germ' of an idea that gave rise to later 'failed experiments' like Marcion and Valentinus?

In my head of course I have sketches of what I think was at the beginning of Christianity.  I can't get over the fact that as an 'art project' it couldn't have gotten off the ground with some powerful patron who financed the whole enterprise.  With everyone scribbling in every corner of the Empire, what was it that put the scribble that was the first germ of Christianity 'over the top'?  My guess is that the first Christian must have been a powerful dude.  It's just a hunch.  It's not like uncovered some document somewhere which gives me an edge over everyone else.

I don't believe in Acts.  I think 'Luke' was a late second century writer who had some connection with Irenaeus and might well have been Irenaeus himself.  Irenaeus, the late second century Church Father helped shape my view of what came before him.  Irenaeus can be summed up as someone who had some association with libraries in antiquity and helped define the Christianity which came after him by nailing down the names of the first disciples, apostles, 'apostolics,' bishops and 'fathers' of the Church down to the end of the second century.  In short Irenaeus was a master forger.

Of course there were dozens of other individuals who worked in the same manner as Irenaeus.  Julius Africanus was a near contemporary.  But my point in bringing this up is to reinforce that a forger is really another kind of artist.  It takes a great deal of creativity to pull off the publication of a terrible literary work like 'the Acts of Paul,' 'the Dialogue of Jason and Pascipus,' 'the Pastoral Epistles' and the like.  No one thinks of any of these books as 'art' because we have been trained to think of religion as the domain of God and truth and everything holy.

But as I said, I see early Christianity through the eyes of a failed artist ...

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