The Gospel of Subverting Myth
The way of Jesus, as told in the gospels, brings a perspective of new possibility to people struggling to make sense of the world. This gospel is good news in that it offers an alternative viewpoint to radically understand the world and, therefore, a platform to resist the dominant ways it promotes life for just the few. It makes room for people to seek life beyond these socially constructed and culturally produced norms and systems. In fact, according to Luke’s gospel, Jesus taught that God blesses those crushed by economic forces that rely on greed and class stratification to generate wealth.
Luke reports Jesus to say, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20). Crossan argues that the word “destitute” would provide a better translation than the word “poor.” So, according to Luke, God sides with the destitute. Those suffering from circumstances that leave them completely dependent on begging are the blessed. There is little doubt this aphorism scandalized Luke’s audience. But it also sounds scandalous when heard beneath the layers of our popular, American myths of upward mobility. Crossan anticipates this reaction and writes,
If, however, we think not just of personal or individual evil but of social, structural, or systemic injustice—that is, of precisely the imperial situation in which Jesus and his fellow peasants found themselves—then the saying becomes literally, terribly, and permanently true. In any situation of oppression, especially in those oblique, indirect, and systemic ones where injustice wears a mask of normalcy or even of necessity, the only ones who are innocent or blessed are those squeezed out deliberately as human junk from the system’s own evil operations.
The gospel of Jesus as told by Luke is an anti-mythical reframing of reality. It rips off the masks hiding alternative ways of experiencing life and broadens the possibility to live in innocence rather than under the condemnation imposed by the dominant myth. A myth that asserts if a person can’t rise above then something must be wrong with that person and it’s probably that person’s fault.
Paul, too, joins in the promulgation of this gospel and champions its revolutionary power to loosen the stranglehold of imperial dominance. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul provides an image of the gospel as a liberating force that empowers people to construct a new world against the prevailing and oppressive imperial culture. In Phil 2:5–11, Paul uses vivid imagery to subvert the prominent myths concerning who and who is not considered winners in the Roman Empire. The latest research identifies this text as a praise speech, or encomium, probably written by the faith community at Philippi and later adapted and used by Paul to encourage them to re-imagine the way they see the world and, consequently, treat one another.
With this encomium Paul undermines the imperial myths and funds a new imagination about the way the world is constructed. He challenges the mythological form or status of god as propagated by the imperial cult. The citizens of Philippi would have been inundated with images and proclamations conferring divine status on the emperor. But the emperor would have violently taken this status and appropriated it through force, a fact the Philippi community probably understood all too well. Instead of this image winning out, Paul portrays Jesus as being in the “form of god” but giving up the opportunity to snatch its corresponding power. Against all expectations Jesus “emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7 NRSV).
So does Paul imagine Jesus as a loser? Those living under Roman rule could have effortlessly assumed so because of the influence of highly visible and prolific images similar to what is engraved on the sardonyx cameo, Gemma Augustea (pictured above). This cameo, according to Crossan and Reed, issued a clear message: “Augustan divinity sits atop Roman victory.” A close observation makes it rather easy to pick out the emperor sitting on his throne above the slaves being dragged by the hair to their death. This visual representation of the imperial myth exalts the divine winner who violently seizes victory. But Paul re-imagines this trope and stands it on its head. As Crossan and Reed point out, Paul’s use of the praise speech “subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the ‘form of God’ should act.”
Paul countered the images of empire with an image of his own. An alternative way of imagining winners and losers emerged against the backdrop of imperial images like ones inscribed on the Gemma Augustea. The highly exalted is not the one enthroned above conquered slaves; the highly exalted are the slaves! This is the gospel put forth by Paul. This gospel realigns a person’s vision of the world and at the same time energizes a deeper consciousness that can peel away the layers of unconscious mental execution that is often enslaved to popular myths.
- John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1994), 61. ↩
- Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, 62. ↩
- I have based much of the direction, words and construction that constitute this reading of Philippians 2:5–11 from a chapel reflection given by Brandon Scott at Phillips Theological Seminary on 9–20–2011. The lecture can be found on the Phillips Theological Seminary’s website in its entirety at http://ptstulsa.edu/ChapelRecordings?pid=101270#. ↩
- John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, In Search of Paul (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 284–288. ↩
- Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 144–146. ↩
- Crossan and Reed, In Search of Paul, 289. ↩