Dying and Rising

April 14, 2007

by HP

When anthropology first got going, in the late nineteenth century, various researchers went out into all the known world, recording the beliefs of “primitives.” Primitives are, of course, nineteenth century non-Europeans. As a result, we got a large mass of information on the beliefs of these primitive societies, all dutifully written by a group of anthropologists who, generally speaking, wanted to get home as soon as possible for a nice cuppa.

Perhaps the most famous result of this project to collect ethnic/racial data is The Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. The book is a collection of all the creation myths and religious information that Frazer could get his hands on, spanning what was then the known world. Frazer poured over the information brought back by the various explorers and scholars who left for the far reaches of the British empire, looking for patterns of belief and worship that, he believed, would induce understanding of all religious experience and, in particular, demonstrate the superiority of the religious experience of the Victorian West.

The particular pattern that Frazer (and others) saw was that of “the Dying and the Rising God.” According to this pattern, a powerful God, usually one associated with the fertility of the land, would rule the world for half the year (summer) and, having suddenly died, would spend the other half of the year (winter) in the underworld (or whatever the afterlife equivalent was for that culture). Further, this God would be reborn at the beginning of the new year, usually by means of divine intervention. Thus the new year’s festival, which Frazer almost universally found, was a celebration of this dying and rising God whose presence meant the return of the growing season.

Now, as with many things from the nineteenth century, this theory has been shot through with lots of holes (click on the above links in order to see more about that). However, Frazer’s book is still studied as possibly the largest collection of mythical and religious tales ever published. It is an amazing work and a testimony to Frazer’s fascination with other cultures and, in reality, with Christianity.

Considering the era of social and cultural Darwinism in which the Golden Bough was produced, it is no surprise that the conclusion of the study is that Christianity provides the best realized, most intellectually and philosophically stimulating, and overall most advanced iterations of the dying and the rising God. Like his colleagues (and like ourselves), Frazer could not help seeing a mirror when he looked out into the world.

I am well aware that I do the same thing. For me, the resurrection, though about Christ, is in reality about myself. This is the fundamental metaphor in baptism: the creation of the new being after the death of the old. I am not interesting in the resurrection because of what it teaches about Christ, bur rather because of what it promises about me. I can change. I can become. I will live.

There simply aren’t greater promises than that and the role of Christ’s resurrection is to offer the proof of the possibility. In fact, if you are so minded, you can see symbols of this promise everywhere you look. The dark of night, followed by the light of day. The spring after the long winter. Easter and Passover. The truth is that we all want the possibility of a new life, whether or not we will ever take advantage of it. This would be, to my mind, a universal religious principle.


  1. I love what you’ve written, “I can change. I can become. I will live.” On the surface these points seem simple, yet when faced with the opportunity, it isn’t actually so easy. Nevertheless, nothing has ever brought me as much peace as knowing that I’ve been able to struggle through the process of change and becoming, and nothing is as attractive as seeing this strength in others.

  2. Thanks, Alice. I believe one of the great promises of the Gospel is the promise of real change for the better, something that we don’t encounter frequently enough in life.

  3. I love this angle. As a teenager and young adult trying to find my wat around the world I was struck (and continue to be) by the “truth at large” among cultures and thought. I believe that knowledge about God has come to many people through many ages and by the time it reaches me it may have taken a “Telephone Game” sort of distortion but it’s fascinating to see the result none the less.

  4. HP,

    Nice thoughts, and similar to some ideas I’ve had. Many of the topics we discuss at church — restoration, resurrection — seem to apply so well to personal life and spiritual journey, and at least in my experience, that’s often where they matter most.

    And of course, Alice is right that some of the best growth comes from changing and becoming, and trying new things. For example, HP, you may want to try branching out a little some time, and not just blogging all in the same place all the time . . .

  5. 🙂

    What can I say…I like to keep busy.

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