Christian Imagination and the Return to Myth

Column by Rev. Matthew Syrdal on 23 January 2020 0 Comments

As an indigenous Messiah, Jesus was one who listened deeply to the song of Creation, to the living dialogue that is in the beginning, the heartbeat of the universe itself. In this sense, Jesus was the mythteller of the community he was forming around his own ministry of power, healing, and renewal.

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I subscribed to your messages and to expand the understanding of God through Jesus because of the open-hearted, loving messages of John Shelby Spong and several others that I had read. Lately, it seems to have many messages spewing hatred toward white, heterosexual males like me. I agree with the general premise that people who look like me have dominated and abused the world, and I am working for change much to the chagrin of many people who know me. Today’s message insists Jesus was an African, but nobody really knows. By the time he walked the earth, Jews had spread around the Mediterranean, traveled all over, and had mixed with Europeans. Yes, those horrible Europeans! Jews were taking converts from everywhere. It is unnecessary for anybody to throw stones because of anybody’s race or ethnicity. It repulses me and is plain not Jesus-like. It is prideful and hateful.


Dear John,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and concerns. I'd like to start by recognizing that, like you, I am a white, cisgendered male. I'd also like to start from a point of common agreement. As you so aptly put it, “people who look like me have dominated and abused the world.” So, right off the bat, there are a few things in common.

I can't, however, join you in the implied idea that Jesus might have been, like you and me, white (or had some “white” heritage). From a pragmatic point of view, Jesus was a Jew living in the Middle East. A particularly high percentage of the people who fit that description at that time looked like Middle Eastern Jews. That is, they had dark skin, dark hair, and brown eyes. It was so common, if Jesus had not fit that description, it most certainly would have been pointed out in the scriptures, maybe particularly by the Sadducee and Pharisees in their efforts to discredit him. There is not a reference to his possible “whiteness” in the whole of the Bible, nor in the non-canonical writings, or even in writings from outside sources of the time. Not only that, several of the earliest colored deceptions of him show him clearly with brown skin.

So, the idea that he could have been white (or had “white” heritage), while isn't completely unlikely, it is highly improbable.

The good news is that the larger overriding issue here is something that we both can (and already have) agree upon: “people who look like [us] have dominated and abused the world.” Imagine, as much as either of us can, that you aren't white. Imagine what it would feel like to be told that the son of God was much more like those who have “dominated and abused” you and your people than he is like you.

I have to believe that would be difficult, particularly when the reality is that it isn't even close to the likely reality. Consider the fact that the domination and abuse from folks who look like us frequently was backed up with scripture. I can only imagine how oppressive and subjugating it would be to also be told that the people who are doing it to you are the most like Jesus.

Now, if we'd like to stray from the likely historical reality of Jesus' heritage, I can't help but believe it would be decidedly more helpful, decidedly more Jesus-like, to consider the image of Jesus as one of the various images that white men have dominated and abused over the centuries. I'm not saying we should believe that Jesus was anything other than a Middle Eastern Jew, but I am saying it is clear that he identified more with the marginalized than with the powerful. It can be very insightful to imagine Jesus being more like those he identified with.

I actually ran into the issue of the identity of important spiritual figures while raising my kids. I have a girl and a boy. Around the age of seven or so, my daughter received a praying doll as a gift. When you placed its hands together it said the Lord's Prayer. After many nights of hearing her praying “Our FATHER, who art in heaven,” it hit me that I was reinforcing a particular view of God that isn't the only view of God in the Bible. For example, there are plenty of more feminine images in the Bible. (You can read more about all of this in my article “On a Genderqueer God”).

I also realized that in the language we were using, it was being reinforced upon my daughter that God was more like her brother than like her – and that simply isn't true. So, the next few days she and I talked about God and she came to the conclusion that from now on she'd pray the prayer saying, “Our Creator...”.

I guess what I'm saying is that it can do us and the world a lot of good to not have the only or primary image of Jesus and of God, look a whole lot like the people who “have dominated and abused the world.” It's not just helpful and healing for those who have been oppressed and subjugated, but it also can bring to those of us who live in places of comparative privilege (like male and white) spiritual insight that we could have never gained from our places of advantage in the world.

~ Rev. Mark Sandlin




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