- The Rise and Fall of the Christian Myth: Restoring Our Democratic Ideals by Burton L. Mack
Burton L. Mack is a renowned scholar of the origins of Christianity in the ancient world, for many years a member of the Jesus Seminar, and a leading scholar in disputing and debunking myths and stories about the Bible and the life of Jesus and replacing them with narratives more grounded in empirical research and high-level theory. Indeed, the phrase "Christian myth" appears in at least three previous titles he has published, including Who Wrote the New Testament: The Making of the Christian Myth (San Francisco, 1995), and The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, Legacy (New York, 2001). He is currently retired after many years at the Claremont School of Theology.
Here, Mack applies his life's work to considering how a new narrative, post-Christian myth, might restore our democratic ideals. "How is it that the Christian myth of sixteen hundred years seems to have faded from our social scene and cultural history," he asks at the beginning, and "[h]as something gone wrong with our social projects to account for the worlds of power, violence, and fear we now have on our hands" (36–37).
Mack spends the first third or so of the book briefly retracing the rise of the Christian myth starting with Constantine, when "the Jesus schools [End Page 647] were transformed into a myth-ritual religion," and when, somewhat astoundingly, leaders of the Jesus groups "assented to Constantine's invitation to accept his largesse and take their place in the Roman Empire as the religious officials of privilege" (66). Over the centuries, Western intellectual traditions were "grounded in the Christian worldview and the social logic of its myth" (81). But other social formations and social interests took hold — humanism, capitalism, colonization, expansion, and the almighty corporation. As a result, Mack suggests, the Christian world-view is "faded and tarnished now," but remains there as a "set of sensibilities that allows a Christian mind-set to flourish in the making of political judgments" (100). It is the one "comprehensive big picture painted by the Western tradition," but it is "worn out as a reasonable view of the cosmos and human society's place within it," and remains attractive disproportionately in the United States to the poorly educated. But this vastly over-simplified assertion is less important than the notion of a "lag" in the "actual changes of practice in a society, and the reimagining of its myth and symbol system" (100).
The bulk of the rest of the work tries to reimagine what comes after the Christian myth, and how what comes after could inform a re-envisioning of our democratic ideals. As Mack puts it, "we are in need of another set of social interests capable of maintaining a multicultural society without the need for power abuse, guns, and violence" (125). The Christian myth is played out, and will not get us there. It "has no social logic for a poly-cultural world," and no chance at helping us "create, or provide a vision for the future of a livable, sustainable society for the common good of a multicultural population" (170).
Christianity continues to provide "an unconscious grammar for thinking about the world and our special place within it," and remains the "narrative logic of that myth" that is "so deeply embedded in the history of Western Christian culture" (194). But in fact capitalism is the driving force of culture. Mack spends the better part of a chapter outlining the work of Raymond Williams and other scholars of culture, who better understand than most the inner logic of a world beyond the Christian myth.
The Christian myth in the United States gave us everything from Manifest Destiny to the Christian Coalition, and its powerful legacies continue to shape American foreign policy. The rise of the "material cultures of science and capitalism without a controlling picture of a common-good society" creates conflicts that bedevil the country...