In his book “They Like Jesus But Not the Church”, Dan Kimball attempts to challenge leaders of churches to engage with the “emerging generation” (folks in their late teens to early 30’s with a heavy emphasis it seems on the twenty-something crowd). Kimball repeatedly tells the reader that this demographic is open to dialogue about Jesus but is not interested in the church. He draws primarily on his personal conversations with members of the emerging generation to explain why they like Jesus and why they dislike, distrust or are simply disinterested in the church. One conversation that Kimball refers to is with a young man named Dustan. This young man is apparently educated and open to talking with Kimball, a pastor, about Jesus. In their conversation, it becomes apparent that Dustan has identified aspects of the Jesus story which look and sound exactly like elements from the myths of the pagan gods Osiris and Mithras, which he points out, predate the Christian story by thousands of years. With this in mind, Dustan wants to know why Kimball accepts the Jesus story as something other than a myth like the ones Christianity has so obviously co-opted. Kimball includes this conversation to make the point that the emerging generation wants intelligent answers to these kinds of questions, not the traditional “The Bible says it, I believe it. Case closed.” sort of response that comes too easily from many Christians. He also says that he’s going to have to do some studying on his own to be able to articulate a response since he, like most of us I’m sure, isn’t all that familiar with the similarities between Christian doctrines and the myths of ancient Egyptian and Persian deities.
I decided that I would take a look into the so-called similarities myself and see what kind of semi-intelligent response I would make if I were put in that position. So, I started with trying to learn something about the Egyptian god Osiris who, according to the story, was killed and raised from the dead. In the search results that I got from Google for the terms “god Osiris”, I came across a link to a paper written by Martin Luther King which is housed on a server at Stanford University. The title of the paper is “The Influence of the Mystery Religions on Christianity” and it set me back a bit. I wasn’t unsettled by the assertions that Christianity had borrowed heavily from pagan religions (which contributed to its triumph over them) but rather I was surprised that Martin Luther King Jr. had made those assertions. Perhaps, because I’m not a trained theologian or a scholar of human religions, I don’t know how to read a text like this one, but there were times in my reading when I thought, “Did MLK see Christianity as just another human religion? As a Baptist preacher, did he not really believe in the Truth of the story of Jesus? Was he simply invoking the religion and its metaphors in the service of his pursuit of justice in Americafor black people?” I finished reading the paper without formulating a theoretical answer for those questions. It’s not particularly important to me if MLK was a “true believer” or not, although it is a terribly interesting distraction. And a distraction is precisely what it is. The question that I want to answer is, “How would I address Dustan if I were having Dan Kimball’s conversation with him?”
After about a day of thinking about this off and on, I realize now that the heart of Dustan’s question is simply “Why do you believe the story of Jesus is true?” Taken at this level, the answer is fairly easy to summarize but, for me, very difficult to expound upon. The short answer is that I believe the Jesus story is true because I trust in the credibility of the witnesses. Then I would probably need to explain who (and what) those witnesses are and why I believe that they are trustworthy. Somewhere in there I would need to say something about the historical aspect of the story: that elements of the story of Jesus are rooted in time and space in such a way that can be, has been and continues to be investigated and often verified. These bits would be the parts that would give me great trouble since, although I’ve read plenty, I don’t get to have such discussions so frequently that I can effortlessly recall what I’ve read. Harder still would be offering some kind of intelligent explanation for accepting that Jesus is “The Son of God” when the same title was applied to Mithras thousands of years before.
Of course, it’s possible that no answer that either I or Kimball could give to Dustan would move him from the category of Jesus-fan to Jesus-follower. And that’s fine. Just being willing and able to engage in the conversation in an intelligent, respectful and humble manner could go a long way in overcoming some of the (well-deserved) negative stereotypes that Dustan has of Christians, thus setting the stage for more conversations and deeper relationship which could ultimately bring him to choose the Jesus story over the Osiris story on his own. I think Dan Kimball would agree.