Water Into Wine by Tom Harpur

Water Into Wine

In Water Into Wine, Harpur sets out the powerful and transforming message that emerges when the Gospels are finally read as they were originally intended to be and as they were understood by the first Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen. Seen in their true mythological and symbolical meaning, the stories in the drama of Jesus' life come alive in a totally fresh way - not as the account of a single, distant god-man working strange miracles like a magician, but as a description of the evolution of the soul in every one of us.

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Christianism, with its literal reading of Christ myths, got it all wrong the moment it was picked up as an imperial state religion
By Michael Nenonen, The Rupublic of East Vancouver, July 5 to July 18, 2007, No 167

A 120-foot tall cross stands atop a hill in my home town of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario. At night, the cross’s lights are lit up so that its glowing silhouette can be seen even in the deepest blackness. When I was very little I lived at the foot of that hill, beneath the cross’s shadow in the day and its light in the darkness. It’s always comforted me, though I’ve often been hard-pressed to say exactly why. Thanks to Tom Harpur’s Water Into Wine: An Empowering Vision of the Gospels (Thomas Allen, 2007), I think I finally understand.

Water Into Wine expands upon many of the ideas in Harpur’s 2004 book The Pagan Christ. In the Pagan Christ, Harpur urged Christians to free themselves from literal readings of the Christ story. According to Harpur the story of the crucified savior is an archetypal myth that has appeared in numerous religions, most particularly in the ancient myths surrounding the Egyptian god Horus. He believes that these myths formed the template for the Christ-narrative, and that the essence of Christianity lies not in the life of an historical Jesus, about whose existence he has serious doubts, but rather in the archetype and what it reveals about the human condition. Like all myths, the Christ story uses allegory and metaphor to open the mind to layers of reality too subtle for words to grasp. The Pagan Christ focuses on the Horus myth, tracing its philosophical contours and highlighting the deep structure it shares with the Christ story. The book also deconstructs much of the evidence for the historical Jesus, showing just how flimsy that evidence is.

In Water Into Wine, Harpur continues to promote the re-mythologization of the Christ story and the reclamation of the metaphorical and allegorical wisdom that has been hidden by literalistic readings of Christianity’s sacred texts. Harpur is well-qualified to make this argument. Besides spending thirty years covering ethical and spiritual matters for the Toronto Star, he’s also a former Anglican priest, he was once a professor of the New Testament at the University of Toronto, and he’s done post-graduate work at Oxford studying the early fathers of the Church under some of the foremost scholars in the field. More important than all of this, however, is Harpur’s obvious commitment to his own spiritual growth, a commitment that refuses to sacrifice the critical intellect for the sake of stagnant dogmas. The faith that informs his writing expresses a richness of both heart and mind.

This review can’t do justice to the many areas that Water Into Wine explores. Besides exposing the fallacies of Biblical literalism and revealing the mythological subtexts in each of the Gospels, Harpur also addresses such diverse topics as the parallels between Christ and Krishna, the relationship between images of the Black Madonna and Isis, and the Gnostic philosophies found in the Gospels of Thomas and Judas. Of all the subjects he addresses, however, his discussion of the Passion is perhaps the most revolutionary in its implications for Christianity.

For most modern Christians, the Passion was an historical event that Jesus underwent in order to pay off the blood-debt incurred by humanity’s sins. Harpur thinks this is fundamentally absurd: “Supposing even for a moment that the gargantuan load of all sins past and present was somehow forgiven through what is said to have happened at Calvary, is such a transaction truly moral in any case? Is it in any way explicable in acceptable terms of normal ethical reasoning that one person should—supposing it were possible—pay the penalty or price of somebody else’s deliberate misdeeds and crimes? To give it a more cosmic dimension, how does it advance by one iota the moral growth or evolution of the race as a whole if the entire burden of responsibility and opportunity for progress through experience is lifted from the shoulders of all others through the power of one? . . . Added to this is the sheer mind-numbing incomprehensibility of a loving father who would deliberately demand the death of his ‘beloved Son’ in order to achieve satisfaction for his offended sense of righteousness and justice.”

For Harpur, the Passion’s true meaning is found in its mythological reading, a reading that illuminates the nature of incarnation. Sages of the ancient world believed that incarnation was the process by which the eternal and infinite One becomes the temporal and finite many. In this way, the cosmos in its totality achieves expression through its particular components. When human beings developed self-reflective consciousness, it marked a new phase of incarnation, a phase in which the incarnate could perceive, however crudely, the eternal ground of their being. This development is Biblically symbolized by Adam and Eve’s eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge.

The ancients portrayed the emergence of self-reflective consciousness as an act of divine mercy, an “emptying out” of the divine into mortal form. But, as Harpur writes, “this act of divine compassion and self-giving was and is in philosophical or theological terms enormously costly—hence the allegory of mutilation of some kind or of violent death, often by crucifixion. The fate of Prometheus, who brought down fire and paid a price, is a case in point. The Cross, then, is seen in its true luminosity only when it is understood as the sign and symbol of this gift of Incarnation. The vertical of God’s love plunges into and through the horizontal dimension of matter—our bodies.” Incarnation subjects us to all the miseries of mortality, but even in their greatest anguish the incarnate are never separated from the One. This paradox finds symbolic expression in mutilated or crucified saviors like Jesus, Horus, Attis, Orpheus, Adonis, and Tammuz, but its living expression is found in you and me and everyone else: each of us is the One incarnate, each of us is the One crucified.

Harpur clearly hopes that the ideas in Water Into Wine will offer a remedy for the intellectual bankruptcy and ethical travesties that Biblical literalism has been responsible for ever since the Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. That conversion facilitated the faith’s degradation into what Harpur calls “Christianism.” By forcibly suppressing every form of Christianity that didn’t conform to the literalist consensus, and by transforming myths of incarnation into a fairy-tale about a supposedly historical superman, Christianism has created an illusory gulf between the human and the divine, debasing its followers as well as the object of their worship. As an imperial religion, Christianism deploys fear and shame to encourage blind obedience to imperial power. It uses literalism to submerge ethical consciousness beneath the cesspool of authoritarian prejudice, until its worshippers are unable to distinguish religious hatred from divine love, or infantilization from spiritual maturity. This is the religion of Inquisitions and holy wars, of missionaries and residential schools, but if Harpur’s right, it isn’t Christianity.

The alternative that Harpur offers, an alternative that may well be far closer in spirit to the various forms of Christianity that existed in the early centuries of the faith, restores the mythic power of the Christ story. It helps us see the Christ within ourselves and one another and in doing so deepens our appreciation of our own incarnation. It honors our intelligence and creativity without ignoring the terrible suffering that ravages our bodies, our hearts, and our societies. This is a profoundly democratic philosophy, one that undermines the tangled and soul-wearying hierarchies that grow so readily from literalism’s toxic soil. At the very least, after reading his work you won’t be able to look at a cross the same way ever again.

Harpur finishes the job with 'Water Into Wine'
by Frank Dabbs, Owen Sound Sun Times, March 23, 2007. Reprinted with permission.

The backstory of Tom Harpur's new book "Water Into Wine: An Empowering Vision of the Gospels" (Thomas Allen, $34.95), cheekily released ahead of its publication date at an author signing at Owen Sound's Downtown Bookstore on March 9, begins in the winter of 1895 at the University of Toronto.

A circle of undergraduates at University College and the Varsity campus newspaper discovered Matthew Arnold's 1873 book "Literature and Dogma," subtitled "an essay toward a better appreciation of the Bible." In poems like "Dover Beach" and "Stanzas From the Grand Chartreuse," Arnold, a son of the manse, wrestled with the end of doctrinaire Christianity and mourned that he had nothing to replace it.

In "Literature and Dogma" and, two years later in "God and the Bible," Arnold reworked the meaning of the life and gospels of Jesus, dethroning him as the divine Christ, repositioning him as the pre-eminently righteous person. Waving off the crucifixion and resurrection as metaphor, Arnold said that the secret of Jesus, the gospel that brings life and immortality to light, is found in the divine spark that ignited his life and teachings.

What Jesus called us to do, Arnold said, is to live like him.

That circle of undergraduates at the University of Toronto included future prime minister Mackenzie King, his companion Bert Harper, novelist Arthur Stringer, Owen Sound newspaperman and poet James A. Tucker, playwright Evelyn Durand, Toronto newspaper woman Jean Graham and others who went on to shape Canada in the 20th century

For Mackenzie King, the impact of "Literature and Dogma" was so powerful that for the next 40 years he included in his rather clumsy courtship rituals a reading of passages from it to the current object of his affections.

A significant part of Canada's singular religious experience across the 20th century has evolved from that book and that winter in which those undergraduates read to each other and went from church to church and sermon to sermon around the city, getting to the bottom of Arnold's book.

That summer they took the book with them to Muskoka, Georgian Bay, New York, London and the Victorian towns of Ontario to read it again in a spiritual diaspora that became a gracious and indelible part of our culture.

A cascade of Canadian books that drew water from Matthew Arnold's well tumbled through the 20th century: Salem Bland's "The New Christianity," Ernest Harrison's "Church Without God," Pierre Berton's "The Comfortable Pew" and Northrop Frye's "Double Vision." All these authors sought to tear away the veil of traditional biblical interpretation that hides a richer truth.

They all found best-selling audiences especially in the Anglican, United Church and Roman Catholic traditions where people who have found God personally are looking for a language to describe the encounter in a manner that reconciles with contemporary science, culture, history, literature and politics.

There are parallel Christian dissensions in the English-speaking world that have in common a rejection of the literalization of the Bible, skepticism about its historicity and outright rejection of fundamentalism. All seek a new spiritual language for that transcendent realm of light in which we encounter the full presence and power of God.

For what they have in common, however, each national stream has defining differences. Harold Bloom's "The American Religion" shows that the U.S. movement is more certain and concrete, faster moving, more pragmatic than ours. The British, as in Bishop Robinson's "Honest to God," are more fatalistic, more resigned to the Europe's surrender to secularism and Islam that are swallowing up the Church except on an island called the Vatican, which now faces south.

This brings us to Tom Harpur and his now 13-volume oeuvre on the spiritual kernel that, he is convinced, lies within the dried-up husk of traditional Christianity. With "Water Into Wine" he has earned an undisputed pre-eminence among Canadians who are on similar literary journeys to find the truth that lies hidden within the metaphorical, mysterious book that is the New Testament.

Written with an evoking passion that itself reveals his own spark, Harpur is doing what too few dissenting Christians following along similar paths do. He is finishing the job.

It's common to write a popular book that cuts the knees out from under fundamentalist, evangelical or orthodox Christianity. Harpur did that, albeit gently and with a measure of compassion, in "The Pagan Christ."

That was three years ago, a lifetime in Canadian publishing. What sets Harpur apart is that he is persisting in his spiritual exploration-in-print, to go further and deeper, where other authors haven't in the past.

The weakness in "Water Into Wine" is that Harpur continues to hammer away at his claim that Christ was not an historical person. One is reminded of Henry James, who instructed the publisher of his "Varieties of Religious Experience" to have an engraving made of a man flogging a dead horse for the first edition cover.

Was there a historic Plato? By Harpur's measure who can tell, since the totality of evidence for Plato's existence is less convincing than that which attests to a Jesus who lived. It's beside the point when reading the Greek philosophers whether a writer now anonymous to history invented the authors and the central participants in their dialogues.

Revisiting the miracles, parables and resurrection stories of the New Testament, Harpur ignites a life-changing interpretation of the Christ story which can include or exclude a historical Christ, according to the conviction of the reader.

Perhaps not fundamentalists, but certainly many practicing Christians with fair minds - along with agnostics, atheists, non-theists and the spiritually curious - will find a compelling evangelical voice in this book inviting readers into a rich and full inner spiritual experience that has within it the dying fall of the voice I'd call God.

Frank Dabbs, a journalist and poet, is the author of several books including "Preston Manning, The Roots of Reform" and "Ralph Klein, A Maverick Life." He lives in Annan.