As something of an illustration of how simplistic and how literal the general level of theological understanding is, amongst people in the parishes, an article appeared in this week’s Mail and Guardian entitled: “Pastor crucified for saying Jesus had Aids” (p.16).
There is a picture of a forlorn looking pastor, the Reverend Xola Skosana of Khayelitsha, Cape Town, who is baffled by the fact that his congregants took offense when he preached a sermon suggesting that Jesus had Aids.
“When we attend to those who are sick, we are attending to him. When we ignore people who are sick, we are ignoring him”, the pastor is quoted as saying.
He went on to quote from the Bible, where Jesus says “I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me”. However, he explained, there had been extremely hostile reaction to his sermon and to he and some members of his congregation publicly taking an HIV test.
“The scathing attacks I have received from Christians are unbelievable. They are saying you can’t reconcile Jesus and Aids. They assume it means Jesus was promiscuous and had many sexual partners.”
That analysis may be true. In part, I am sure it is true. However, I think there is something else which lies in the depths of this response and it is this. It is the complete inability of the majority of Christians to consider anything in the Bible as anything other than literal. So, you have a literal figure in the Old Testament being swallowed by a big fish. He literally lives inside the creature and he is literally vomited up on a shore somewhere. While he was inside the creature, he managed to compose one or two poems.
You literally have a person walking on water, and you literally have him flying into the sky and zooming off to heaven like a rocket. The disciples literally do not recognise Jesus on the Road to Emmaus (What is wrong with them? Did they suddenly turn into complete idiots?). And all of this is not helped when it is clouded in holy and religious language. Faith starts to mean believing what you know to be untrue.
Now the fact is, if this is the case, it is because of a complete failure on the part of the church itself and institutions of higher learning to teach people about meaning and symbol, about poetry, about different kinds of literature and the way in which they function. Consequently, the bible is read in much the same way as is the newspaper and then – surprise surprise! Someone comes along and says “Hang on! That is a load of hogwash!”
On Facebook the other day, there was an article relating to Stephen Hawking’s latest book, which states, triumphantly, that God isn’t a necessary part in the scientific explanation of the origin of the universe. Now, honestly and truly, is this news? Is this a shock? Does this in any way alter the way we think about anything at all? Did I wake up this morning depressed to discover the possibility that God did not create the universe?
I did so, only if I need literal truth and only literal truth. Only if my world is so small, and so confined to one kind of reality, that it will not even venture into the realm of dream, of fantasy, of story and myth. It is a world in which I will dismiss “Alice in Wonderland” as untrue, because it is not literally true. That is the world in which some scientists and many Christians and other religious people dwell – and I pity them. Because it is a world where there is only one note, sounding over and over and over again. It is a good note. It is a true note. But it is a singular note.