The worst, most painful aspect to the gospels is not that Jesus claims to be Christ, but that Jesus casts out demons, heals the sick, raises the dead, and all the rest of the supernatural miracles we are challenged to consider. These are next to impossible to take seriously as actual historical events, which I think often drives them into a special cupboard in our minds reserved for irrational stuff that we want to hold on to for emotional reasons. As someone who marvels at the depth and complexity of great literature, however, the value of the gospel narrative is far more than an unconvincing argument that Jesus was Christ because he performed miracles. The Bible is a text, after all, and the multiple authors that contributed to it are free to use every literary tool available to form a medium of communication between God and man, if that was their genuine intention.
I am focusing on the New Testament for the time being. The accounts from the Old Testament are also of great symbolic value, but the likelihood that Moses himself never even existed presents a much higher wall for my interpretational powers to climb. Jesus of Nazareth, in contrast, is widely believed to have existed and to have truly, with the help of John the Baptist, founded Christianity.
I recently wrote about a few of the gospel miracles and how to access their symbolic value. Getting the symbolism correct is important, but the first step is naturally recognizing that there is indeed symbolism there rather than just a descriptive, historical record. The impossibility of the miracles should force us to look for symbolic value. They should force us to ask ourselves, why the hell is this in here?
The gospel authors took on many risks in writing with literary, rather than simply journalistic, tools. If you, the audience, believe that any of the miracles didn’t actually happen, then it seems fair to assume that probably none of the miracles did. For many people, this possibility (and extreme likelihood) is going to be a deal-breaker and discussion ender. The text lies, and cannot be trusted — why read it?
I can’t answer that question for anyone, at least not adequately at the moment. I have read it, though, and I have some thoughts on how to interpret the more off-putting miracles that have to do with casting out demons.
Often, the people supposedly possessed by demons are out of their minds. They are tortured, they convulse, they scream, they ache. Jesus is able to cast out the person’s demons when that person has faith.
The first move we need to take here is to abstract away from the details, and ask what is the structure of what’s going on here? Someone has pain, and the person’s faith in Jesus takes the pain away. The pain is a result of something inside that has a mind of its own (the demon), something that is self-destructive. The demon talks, it recognizes who Jesus is, it begs for mercy.
The second move we need to take is to ask what does this structural pattern correspond to in our own personal experiences? Have I ever had a “demon?” Has my faith ever expelled this “demon?” Well, if one is to recall ever acting possessed, the first place to look is at close personal relationships that have soured. The pain brought about by love that has been mismanaged, misunderstood, mistreated is terrible. Some call it emotional pain, I think it is emotional, but goes quite a bit deeper than that. The pain is spiritual. Does it have a mind of its own? It does. It drives us to think, to feel, and to behave in ways that are against our better judgment. It compels us to inflict pain on those that hurt us, and to punish ourselves in cases where we view ourselves as responsible for the ruining of the relationship. Voices inside constantly suggest this or that. They disagree with each other, they fear, they worry, they hope, they desire.
Is this what the gospel writers have in mind? Why not? The ambition of the gospels is clearly aiming at laying out a moral teaching that will improve the lives of those who accept it. They are clearly worried about the harm that people cause to themselves and to each other. And they clearly believe that the only way to fix all of this is to flip the whole table over and persuade people to believe in a better way of life.
This probably was the message of Jesus that the gospel writers are packaging and presenting more or less on his behalf (he apparently didn’t write anything down himself). The change has to be ambitious, it has to be radical, or the demons inside of us are going to stay active in us, and we’re going to continue to suffer. The argument is that faith in Jesus and his teaching will cast the demons out, it will heal the sick, it will raise the dead. It will inspire us to love each other, to support each other in such a way that is so different than our current practices that our entire world can change permanently for the better. People will have less sickness, less poverty, less premature death.
Does it work? That’s another key question that I can’t adequately answer right now. What I think is worth noting is that, if you want to truly change the world for the better, and purify the motives and hearts of human beings, getting them to love each other better, then the miracles told of in the gospel might be necessary, and the language of demons might be highly appropriate. Maybe we need to think about what our own “demons” might be to better understand the nature of human imperfection. Maybe it helps to view others’ imperfections as alien to their true nature underneath it all, and that any hatred we have should be directed away from the person and towards those specific imperfections that we might consider inhuman. Is there a better way?