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The biblical narrative is the product of humans trying to find meaning for life, and to understand the world in which they lived. In the early stages of human history there were many unknowns and the only way early humans could cope with these unknowns was to attribute them to spirits active in their surroundings, and to a spirit god who was in charge of them.

With this understanding of self and the world, we have some insight into how the stories they told to describe existence became the basis for what became our Bible. Since fathers controlled their families, the controlling God was called Almighty Father.

Then a system developed. The Father God was in charge, he made the rules and if anyone disobeyed there would be punishment. This punishment could be anything that humans could not explain: lightening, thunder, storms, pain, illness, death, etc. To alleviate the punishment, people developed rituals to express sorrow for their offenses, and to pray God would be merciful.

These rituals and principles formed the basis of Christianity many centuries later. Sin, the term for displeasing God, remained the problem and rituals of repentance and cries for mercy remained the cure. In this setting, Christianity codified the process by declaring Jesus’ death as a payment for our sins and invited followers to do some ‘good works’ in appreciation. And then the ‘carrot’ was added, because of Jesus’ resurrection, believers in him would also be raised to eternal life. Sin and death were subdued, anxiety was under control.

A system begs for control and the church became the controller of this gift of grace. Religious systems have not changed much for centuries, but human awareness of self and the universe around us has changed dramatically. Consequently, the images used by primitive people to cope with their anxieties and to explain the unknown no longer speak to people in the 21st century. Many who grew up in the church have dropped out and the archaic images for spiritual experiences repel many new spiritual seekers.

Twenty-first century humans no longer envision an external God in ‘the heavens’ to micro manage the earth. So the traditional theological system, the images used to express spiritual experiences and our understanding of the significance of the life of Jesus must also change. I know the immediate reaction to such statements: “You are destroying Christianity!” It will take some time, study and thinking, but I am convinced your faith in following Jesus will find new energy and purpose for your effort.

Biblical scholars have combed the Scriptures, especially the four Gospels, analyzing the developing interpretation for meaning in Jesus’ life and death. One can follow the changes in the time gaps between the writing of the individual gospels, Mark 40, Matthew and Luke 50, and John 70 or more years after the death of Jesus.

Jesus’ mission was to live in a new way on this earth, the announcement of which Mark’s Gospel links to the Jesus’ baptism by John, and it is expressed as “Father, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus’ motivation was love and his message was to love one another. Jesus lived this love by expressing love for those whom the religious and political leaders cast out. Jesus’ lifestyle and growing number of followers, challenged both the religious and political rulers and they cooperated in condemning and killing him.

Jesus’ followers were devastated by his death and fearful of the authorities. In the years which followed Jesus’ death, the search for meaning led to various ideas. The life of love which Jesus lived and to which he called people to follow was neglected. We need to reclaim Jesus’ life of love and his concern for the natural world and his call for justice for all. This message will resonate in our day

The change in images and focus in Christianity is just beginning and will continue for generations. What will develop remains to be seen. Will religion [church] be part of this change? History will provide the answer.

The Rev. Edgar Zelle is a retired ELCA pastor living in Waverly.


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