I've made the mistake of thinking too much about Bultmann, which I promised myself I wouldn't do. So, to get back on track, let's start with the first words of Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958. All quotes below are from this version.) and rather than place them in the context of Kerygma and Mythos or The Gospel of John, treat them as a good formalist critic (or post-modernist critic, or even a New Criticism critic) and restrict ourselves to the text as a ding an sich. Or something.
Bultmann begins with "The Message of Jesus and the Problem of Mythology." The "message" is not to be confused with (or maybe it is to be confused with) the kerygma. But let's get to the message first:
The heart of the preaching of Jesus Christ is the Kingdom of God. During the nineteenth century exegesis and theology understood the Kingdom of God as a spiritual community consisting in men [sic] joined together by obedience to the will of God which ruled in their wills. By such obedience they sought to enlarge the sphere of His rule in the world. They were building, it was said, the Kingdom of God as a realm which is spiritual but within the world, active and effective in this world, unfolding in the history of the world. p. 11
I can't help but not the emphasis (slight but clear) on "will" in that passage; it's almost a hallmark of 19th century thinking, as in Kierkegaard's assessment: ""Purity of heart is to will one thing." By the time Bultmann wrote these words, will was already (thanks to two world wars and a worldwide economic depression) a rather suspect category, at best. Still, we start from what we learn first, and don't easily deviate from those lessons. So we are safe to see Bultmann, for all his genius and influence, as a 19th century thinker in a 20th century world (Heidegger isn't really that far removed from the concerns of Kierkegaard, either, and Kierkegaard is firmly rooted in 19th century Romanticism, un-Romantic though he seems).
Bultmann goes on to particularize his assessment, noting the impact of Johannes Weiss' The Preaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God, a book probably as relevant to Biblical scholarship and theology today as William Barclay's work. Sic transit gloria. Nonetheless, Bultmann describes the profound impact of that work in the late 19th century:
This epoch-making book refuted the interpretation which was hitherto generally accepted. Weiss showed that the Kingdom of God is not immanent in the world and does not grow as part of the world's history, but is rather eschatological; i.e., the Kingdom of God transcends the historical order. It will come into being not through the moral endeavour of man, but solely through the supernatural action of God. God will suddenly put an end to the world and to history, and He will bring in a new world of eternal blessedness. p. 12
How epoch making was this? "I remember that Julius Kaftan, my teacher in dogmatics in Berlin, said: 'If Johannes Weiss is right and the conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one, then it is impossible to make use of this conception in dogmatics.' " But:
So there we are, but where does this lead us? Well, essentially, to modern theology and Biblical studies. The core of modern Christian critical thinking is here: from Fr. Brown on one end, to Dom Crossan on the other (and probably others; I'm covering my knowledge, not an exhaustive examination of the field). Bultmann is laying out some fairly simple basic concepts here, with their attendant background. But for Bultmann, this is where the problem of "mythology" (as he uses the term) arises: with the fact that, clearly, the eschaton Jesus and his followers expected didn't happen (this was one of the first lessons we started with in New Testament studies in seminary), and that truth alone presents an almost insurmountable barrier to the modern listener, the modern audience for the kergyma (proclamation, to keep it simple for now; not quite message, but close enough) of the church. Why is this such a problem, other than a matter of timing?
Today nobody doubts that Jesus' conception of the Kingdom of God is an eschatological one--at least in European theology and, as far as I can see, also among American New Testament scholars. Indeed, it has become more and more clear that the eschatological expectation is at the core of the New Testament preaching throughout. p. 13
...the modern study of history...does not take into account any intervention of God or of the devil or of demons in the course of history. Instead, the course of history is considered to be an unbroken whole, complete in itself, though differing from the course of nature because there are in history spiritual powers which influence the will of persons. Granted that not all historical events are determined by physical necessity and that persons are responsible for their actions, nevertheless nothing happens without rational motivation. pp. 15-16
"Rational," after two world wars, and a "Cold War" that followed, being a rather dubious term, perhaps, but I take Bultmann to mean "explainable in non-metaphysical terms", or at least motivations that could be justified by reasoning, however wrong. So here's the problem for Christians:
What does Bultmann mean by "mythology"? The definition comes a bit later, but for now, let consider the one offered here. There were several answers to the question "Who do you say that I am?" in "the very beginnings of earliest Christianity." Paul and Peter alone sparred over whether Jesus was for the Jews only, who would then, according to one interpretation of Isaiah, be a light to the nations, and draw all people to Jerusalem (either spiritually or physically, it depends on how you read the prophets). Peter wanted the Gentiles drawn to the redeemed nation; Paul wanted the message to go directly to the Gentiles, because in Christ there was no longer Jew nor Gentile. History came down on Paul's side, but gave great credit (the shoes of the fisherman, and all) to Peter. That resolution is much neater and simpler 2000 years on than it was in reality, but I use the example just to point out the complexity of the issue. Was Jesus the redeemer? And what redemption did he mean to bring, or think he brought (if he thought of himself as a redeemer?) A redemption for the poor? That's Luke's vision. A redemption for believers exclusively? That's John's vision (at least in most interpretations). Did he see himself as the Son of Man who would come down in human physical form on clouds of heaven? Curiously, this is one of Bultmann's clearest anachronisms, as current Biblical scholarship understands "Son of Man" as an idiomatic Aramaic phrase, not a title claimed by Jesus for himself. It is now understood to be better translated from Aramaic (just as the sayings of Jesus come from Aramaic through the koine Greek of the Gospels into English and other modern languages today) as "the Human One." The best explanation/comparison of that I've ever come up with is the Irish English idiom "himself" as a third person singular pronoun, as in "And how is himself?" "Son of Man," or "The Human One," is a way, in other words, of not saying "me," while still referring to "me." But that understanding is the result of modern scholarship, not of Bultmann's ignorance or willful failure to understand. There is a constant problem of translation, especially where several language, cultures, and centuries are involved.
...is it possible that Jesus' preaching of the Kingdom of God still has any importance for modern men [sic] and the preaching of the New Testament as a whole is still important for modern men [sic]? The preaching of the New Testament proclaiming Jesus Christ, not only his preaching of the Kingdom of God but first of all his person, which was mythologized from the very beginnings of earliest Christianity. New Testament scholars are at variance as to whether Jesus himself claimed to be the Messiah, the King of the time of blessedness, whether he believed himself to be the Son of Man who would come on the clouds of heaven. If so, Jesus understood himself in the light of mythology. p. 16
Did Jesus understand himself in the light of mythology? It's an impossible question to answer completely. No doubt the weltanschaaung of first-century Palestine would, to the modern mind, be "mythological." We need to be careful not to consider that reality grounds for our own superiority, since many things we overlook today would make a medieval peasant wonder about our ignorance and foolishness. That isn't quite what Bultmann means, however. What he means is: can we recast the kergyma of Jesus of Nazareth without using mythological terms; without, in other words, creating unnecessary stumbling blocks (there is a vital stumbling block which Bultmann will get to later). And at the idea of the "true" kergyma we are back to Jesus' question of identity: what do we say the kergyma of the New Testament is? Because even if it is the Kingdom of God, is that kingdom immanent, eschatological, or, in the terms of the Gospel of Thomas, among us now? Your answer determines what the kergyma is; but then again, your kerygma determines what the answer is. Just as the answer to "Who do you say that I am?" is determined by what doctrine of the Christ you accept as valid.
Notice, for example, that Bultmann speaks of the "Messiah" as "the King of the time of blessedness." That's not a definition many Christians today would recognize, but their definition would be as anachronistic in first century Palestine as this definition is in the present day. And yet which definition is correct, and why? And does either involve mythology? Is the "time of blessedness" mythological, simply because it hasn't happened yet? Or is it mythological because it is based on metaphysics? And yet any discussion of God must presume metaphysics, or it is a bootless discussion.
Which brings us to Bultmann's definition of mythology:
It is often said that mythology is a primitive science, the intention of which is to explain phenomena and incidents which are strange, curious, surprising, or frightening, by attributing them to supernatural causes, to gods or to demons....One can pick that apart; it is clearly a definition limited almost solely to Greek mythology, and such tales from other cultures as are congruent with that definition of Greek mythology. But that's nit-picking, and besides, in Western culture Greek myths are the touchstone for understanding "mythology." Bultmann goes on to apply this to the weltanschaaung which formed the books of the Bible:
Mythology expresses a certain understanding of human existence. It believes that the world and human life have their ground and their limits in a power which is beyond all that we can calculate or control. Mythology speaks about this power inadequately and insufficiently because it speaks about is as if it were a worldly power. It speaks of gods who represent the power beyond the visible, comprehensible world. It speaks of gods as if they were men and of their actions as human actions, although it conceives of the gods as endowed with superhuman power and of their actions as incalculable, as capable of breaking the normal, ordinary order of events. It may be said that myths give to the transcendent reality an immanent, this-worldly objectivity. pp. 18-19.
According to mythological thinking, God has his domicile in heaven. What is the meaning of this statement? The meaning is quite clear. In a crude manner it expresses the idea that God is beyond the world, that He is transcendent. The thinking which is not yet capable of forming the abstract idea of transcendence expresses its intention in the category of space; the transcendent God is imagined as being at an immense spatial distance, far above the world: for above this world is the world of the stars, of the light which enlightens and makes glad the life of men. p. 20.
Bultmann goes on to distinguish this thinking from modern thinking, to distinguish mythological thinking from metaphorical thinking. If I have a point of disagreement with Bultmann here, it's a minor one. My problem with this kind of distinction is that it leads too easily to a sense of superiority of present thought over older, "primitive" thought. I would point out, for example, that it isn't at all clear Socrates clung tightly to the notion that the gods lived in mortal form but with supernatural powers and immortal life spans clustered on the peak of Olympus. It is not that Socrates was "demythologizing" the Greek gods, but that the abstract concept of transcendence is not a cultural attribute, but an individual one. Just as Bultmann insists we distinguish between metaphorical and mythological thinking today, even as Pat Robertson insists used clothing can be infested with demons (a question brought to him by another person, not an opinion he offered sui generis). I don't hesitate to call Mr. Robertson's thinking mythological, but we are 55 years past the publication of Bultmann's little book, which prompts me to wonder who this "we" is that he's talking about. I'm a little more comfortable understanding that people have different world views, and that even "educated" people in the 20th century (the era of my anecdotal evidence) can insist that "symbols" have "demonic powers," as one mother of a high school acquaintance declared over some sandals I once wore with leather "peace sign" emblems attached to them. Of course, that symbol is not quite as old as I am, and was invented from a British anti-nukes group; it isn't not an ancient Satanic emblem, but she had heard it was, and feared for her daughter's immortal soul (and mine, a little) if such symbols were in her daughter's presence too long. Yes, it's mythological thinking; but then, "transcendence" is itself a concept that invites the rebuke that it is simply more sophisticated mythology to remove the idea of "heaven" from the concept.
We swim, in other words, in rather unfathomed waters; and Bultmann ends this chapter asking "What is the meaning of eschatology in general?," which itself could be a mythological construct. But that's chapter 2.....