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The Old New Story

North Americans seem obsessed with new stuff. I used to love International Coffee’s Cafe Vienna, until they "updated" the flavor. So I switched the "French Vanilla." But they did the same thing with that! Somehow we seem to think that "new and improved" is always better. If you don’t believe me, walk down the aisle in your grocery store and count the number of times you see "new!" written in bold on the front of a product.


North Americans seem obsessed with new stuff. I used to love International Coffee’s Cafe Vienna, until they "updated" the flavor. So I switched the "French Vanilla." But they did the same thing with that! Somehow we seem to think that "new and improved" is always better. If you don’t believe me, walk down the aisle in your grocery store and count the number of times you see "new!" written in bold on the front of a product.

Yet much of the world thinks differently. They like ancient. New passes away; old has proved itself. Great literature, for example, draws on existing stories. (Think of what Steinbeck did with the Cain and Abel story in East of Eden. Or Melville with Jonah in Moby-Dick.)

I confronted this "new is better" mentality again recently when I read a story in the news about how a researcher found writing that describes the idea of a Jewish messiah dying and rising. And this writing pre-dates Jesus. So a few scholars have concluded, "This will shake the foundations of Christianity because it proves that the idea of a suffering Savior was not new when Jesus came along."

Huh?

I find this logic particularly interesting in light of C.S. Lewis’s experience. Lewis was a master of Norse mythology. And he confided to his Roman Catholic friend and fellow Inkling, J. R. R. Tolkien, that he had trouble believing Christianity was true because the idea of a savior dying and coming back to life was not a new concept. Christianity, Lewis argued, was not credible because it was not an original idea.

But Tolkien countered by asking "What if…?" What if God planted an ideal in every culture, including the myths of ancient times. Then the Lord of History turned the best myth into reality in a flesh-and-blood person. The myth of a dying/rising savior exists because it’s the best of all possible imaginations. And then–voila!–the best imagination morphs into reality in the person of Jesus Christ.

Lewis would later say that somewhere between leaving the tavern a skeptic and arriving home that night, he believed.

Recently I re-read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. And on the page that follows her dedication she includes this quote: "It ever was, and is, and shall be, ever-living Fire, in measures being kindled and in measures going out." It’s from Heraclitus the Ephesian, who lived 535-475 BC. And it sounds much like words written about five centuries later by a resident of the same Greek city–the apostle John. Three times within four chapters of his final work John describes the Almighty as "the one who was and who is and who is to come." It’s in the Bible. But it wasn’t a new phrase. It had already been around for at least five centuries.

No, the wording was not new. In fact John probably borrowed something even more significant from his city’s well-known philosopher. Heraclitus was famous for teaching that the logos {word} was the fundamental order of all. And John begins his gospel with, "In the beginning was the logos and the logos was with God, and the logos was God…and the logos became flesh and dwelled among us…" His point? The fundamental order of all is fulfilled through the God-man, Jesus Christ.

I don’t think John was trying to be original. He was drawing on what was known. Still, he took it a step further to show what they’d missed. Paul did something similar when he showed up in Athens, saw an altar dedicated "to an unknown God" and told the Athenians, "Let me tell you about this unknown God you worship. He made the entire world!"

So first-century Jews dreamed of a suffering savior–a deliverer who understood their pain yet could rise victorious above it. Is that such a surprise? No, the surprise is that the dream came true in a living, breathing person who could walk on water, raise the dead, turn water to wine.

Skeptics are going to have to come up with something stronger than what they’ve found to shake the foundations of the faith. Something closer to, say, a body wrapped in grave clothes, lying in a tomb.

Sandra Glahn

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.

2 Comments

  • Terri

    Terri

    Thanks, Sandy. Great
    Thanks, Sandy. Great insights!

    The ancient writing you referenced is an interesting one, but it is difficult to narrow down its exact translation as there are holes (literally) in the text where key words are missing and must be extrapolated. If they are interested, readers can see the PrimetimeJesus blog on the bible.org site for a more detailed discussion of the text.

  • Sue

    Sue

    Addicted to the novel
    I keep thinking about your blog entry, Sandi. Good stuff!

    I am reminded of our culture’s continual demand for the new and different (with the underlying presupposition that it automatically means better) every time I read a movie review in the Dallas Morning News. A film can be strongly written, brilliantly acted, gorgeously photographed–but if it’s not blow-your-socks-off novel, it loses points with the the reviewers.

    Thank you for this eloquent reminder that there is great value in “connecting the dots” with ideas that are far from new.

    Probably has something to do with the sweetness of familiarity as heard in a young child’s plaintive request to “Read Goodnight Moon again, Mommy!”

    Blessing you, dear friend,

    Your Tuesdays compadre

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