Articles about news not directly connected with Christianity spark ideas in me. On 19 May 2019 the Observer published an article by Louisa Lim, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne and Ilaria Maria Sala, a writer and journalist based in Hong Kong. They describe how China is enforcing a collective amnesia about not only recent political events but those that happened thousands of years ago. For these two women, remembering the deaths of 4 June 1989, the day the Communist party sent tanks to clear protesters from Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing, killing hundreds of people, is no neutral task. It is for them a civic duty and an act of resistance in countering a state-level lie. In the intervening years, China has systematically erased the evidence and memory of this violent suppression using its increasingly hi-tech apparatus of censorship and control. They only realised the extent to which they had internalised Chinese censorship when they began to discuss the sense of transgression they felt in broaching so taboo a topic, experiencing this separately over more than two decades.
They describe how in recent years China has retrofitted its history into a vision that starts in the Stone Age and ends with the Communist party, a single continuum that serves to legitimise the current leadership and its narrative of the past, the present and the future. Beijing is attempting to write a whole civilisation into the linear history of a single nation. The state is using archaeological finds dating back as far as 2.12m years to stake a greater claim over the history of early human development, foregrounding research that suggests that human ancestors left Africa for China earlier than previously assumed.
Scholars working inside China have been funded by the state to prove the existence of a mythological dynasty called the Xia with presumed dates from 2070 to 1600BC. The Xia-Shang-Zhou chronology project was launched in 1996 and involves 200 scholars with the aim of underpinning the state’s narrative of 5,000 years of uninterrupted civilisation. The project that has been widely criticised as unscientific and politically driven. People like Louisa Lim and Ilaria Maria Sala are engaged in a dangerous occupation as they probe the truth about the past and current attempts to construct new myths in the People’s Republic of China as China’s new ideological historiography and imposed silences turns foreign historians into activists.
The attempt to create a new mythic history of China and to suppress evidence of more recent events may seem remote from our concerns in the Christian West, but in this evolving age of a seamless reality in which we are discovering that every country and culture and human being is in some way intrinsically interconnected by events on our fragile planet should alert us to the dangers of any attempt to rewrite history.
So back home in the UK Jacob Rees-Mogg has published a book about twelve Victorian titans “Who Forged Britain.” It has been derided as a cliché-filled, mirthless morality tale filled with nostalgic jingoism. Rees-Mogg is constructing a new mythical history for political purposes in pursuit of a no-deal Brexit Britain. The Brexit debate on all sides is being conducted on mythical terms. We are assailed with myths about Europe, myths about a future outside Europe, myths about immigration, the NHS budget, and our multi-cultural society. In the USA Donald Trump is deliberately creating new, false myths about the American dream. The success of alt-right scenario depends on selling people mythic versions of reality – fake news – accusing reputable media outlets of publishing fake news.
The challenge to Christianity
This global attempt to rewrite history and to write new, mythic versions of reality presents Christianity with a huge challenge, a challenge of which the churches remain naively unaware. Christianity is based to a great extent on mythic narratives, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke and the description of the resurrection appearances are mythic creations based on deep truth and the visions of the followers of Jesus. The Gospel narratives are versions of Jesus’ life and teaching based on what really happened but given a form and structure by the authors, inspired by their experience and human faith. Paul effectively created his own version of Jesus the Christ. All of them write about Jesus as the Son of God and the ultimate reality of love and truth in the most profound, inspirational way, a way that has inspired millions.
But human society is now living into a new and fragile period of evolution marked by a profound and radical change in the dynamics of human comprehension and of human society and culture. It is a time of great risk. Human beings, Homo sapiens, are vulnerable to false truth and deliberate reinventions of history and mythic versions of reality.
Christians who rely on the re-telling of myths as if the are accurate, factual, historical accounts of events in the life of Jesus as they actually happened are vulnerable. They are vulnerable to Christian myths being represented as fact rather than deep truth, accurate accounts rather than myths communicating the most profound, subtle mysteries about God, the sacred dimension of creation, and our human potential for transformation as people called to love unconditionally.
Instead of engaging with this challenging reality churches put their time and energy into mission, evangelism and church growth, the defence of the reputation of the church against accusations of abuse, and the roll out of programmes to protect income and buildings and membership figures.
I see no sign of Christian institutions responding consciously to the ways in which Christianity is being affected by global changes that threaten life on our planet. Christian thinking and practice is marked by complacency and prejudice. The church tinkers with small issues it thinks are important and fails to see the how it needs to develop the biggest picture possible in response to the dangerous new myths that are being deliberately constructed. To use anthropomorphic language, God is active in creation, as always, but not in the places where the church assumes God is active. The church continues to preach and teach an anthropomorphic construct of God, and this is a major problem for the church. It is no longer believable. It has not been believable for several centuries. The church uses false myths about God to describe the mystery of divine love and false myths become indistinguishable for the masses from the false myths pedalled by the Chinese and Donald Trump and the advocates of an easy Brexit.