Meditation for Easter Sunday 2010
(yes, a few days late, but I've been busy)
For Christians, the answer to Pilate’s question about truth is the death and Resurrection of Jesus and what those events came to represent for believers. “Came to” is a key point, for the truth as Peter and the apostles saw it on that dark Friday was not the truth as 21st-century Christians see it. The work of discerning — or, depending on your point of view, assigning — meaning to the Passion and the story of the empty tomb was a historical as well as a theological process, as was the construction of the faith.ProfW has set me thinking again, with a link to this review of Diarmid McCullough's "Christianity: The First 3000 Years. First, let met say it's as if Rudolf Bultmann never wrote a word, and German Biblical scholars in the 19th century never found the folklore links between the tales being collected by scholars, and the stories of the Gospels or even the Torah. Pastors and priests and scholars all know the Torah was written by at least 4 hands (probably schools, in each case), that Isaiah is the work of 3 prophets (not one), that Baruch probably wrote the Lamentations attributed to Jeremiah, etc., etc., etc. Maybe some portion of the reading public still remembers Harold Bloom's shocking (and baseless) conjecture that "J" (of JEDP, the four "authors" of the Torah*), was clearly a woman, but it's as if Dom Crossan never wrote about the life of Jesus, or the first years of the church, or the Jesus Seminar never published its skeptical edition of the Gospels. I say that not to complain, but to put the following in context, to explain what pastors and priests are up against:
Magic, however, has powerful charms. Not long ago I was with a group of ministers on the East Coast. The conversation turned to critical interpretations of the New Testament. I remarked that I did not see how people could make sense of the Bible if they were taught to think of it as a collection of ancient Associated Press reports. (Cana, Galilee — In a surprise development yesterday at a local wedding, Jesus of Nazareth transformed water into wine. . . .) “That’s your critical reading of the Gospels,” one minister replied, “but in the pulpit I can’t do that.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” he said, “you can’t mess with Jesus.”"Magical thinking" deserves a bit of elucidation here, at least as I use the term. It means (or should) the expectation that powers can be harnessed to do work we'd rather not do ourselves (or, as Joan Didion wrote about it, that our will alone can change the course of the universe, or the nature of, well, nature). When Harry Potter uses magic, he mostly is exerting will in ways we wish we could, but can't; and sometimes in ways we do, but through the intermediary of what we call, in an umbrella term, "technology."
Well. If the power of Jesus — “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” as Peter called him — cannot survive a bit of biblical criticism, then the whole enterprise is rather more rickety than one might have supposed. Still, the objecting cleric’s remark illuminates one of the issues facing not only Christians but the broader world: To what extent should holy books be read and interpreted critically and with a sense of the context in which they were written, rather than taken literally? To later generations of the faithful, what was written in fluctuating circumstances has assumed the status of immutable truth. Otherwise perfectly rational people think of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven on the 40th day after Easter to be as historical an event as the sounding of the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. To suggest that such supernatural stories are allegorical can be considered a radical position in even the most liberal precincts of the Christian world. But the Bible was not FedExed from heaven, nor did the Lord God of Hosts send a PDF or a link to Scripture. Properly understood — and MacCulloch’s book is a landmark contribution to that understanding — Christianity cannot be seen as a force beyond history, for it was conceived and is practiced according to historical bounds and within human limitations. Yes, faith requires, in Coleridge’s formulation, a willing suspension of disbelief; I do it myself, all the time. But that is a different thing from the suspension of reason and critical intelligence — faculties that tell us that something is not necessarily the case simply because it is written down somewhere or repeated over and over.
That said, one would think that, after 200+ years, word would have filtered down to the laity that the Resurrection of Jesus is not the historical event that the opening bell of the NYSE will be tomorrow, or was Friday. But we have faced in that time the rebuttal, the response, the opposition, of the fundamentalists, as American a school of thought as any this country has inspired. And interestingly, we've spread that school of thought to the world, and now it has made our newest enemies.
So it goes. So it always goes.
What is rickety, of course, is not the "power" of Jesus, nor even the "power" of faith (no, those aren't "scare quotes"). What is rickety is the concept of confession, one that truly no longer holds in this post-modern world without a new context to put it in. The Church Fathers (starting with Paul, but Peter did as much himself) put the essential Hebraism of the teachings of the Jesus of Nazareth and (more importantly to Paul) the meaning of his life and death, in a Greek context, the better to spread it among the Gentiles. Augustine re-contextualized it again, and Aquinas put it in terms of The Philosopher (Aristotle) when those works returned to Europe from the Islamic world long after the bonfire in Alexandria. Luther reshaped it again in the 15th century, and Calvin shortly after him, and it changed again as people like Tyndale made the scriptures available to ordinary people in their own language. 19th century German scholars reshaped it yet again, with insights gleaned from the Romantics determination to preserve and respect folklore and treasures like the prayers of the Carmina Gadelica. We are always changing our understanding of Christianity, in other words, just as science is always going through new paradigms which may shatter the old understandings, but manage to preserve some essential truth across time, anyway. What is "rickety" now is that we are on the cusp (finally!) of another such change, but without the binding authority of a central church (Augustine wrote as the Church was beginning to assert authority, Aquinas when that authority was in full flower) it is harder than ever to realign the confession to the world we now understand and live in. I've long noted the irony that the most conservative Christians are also the ones most willing to embrace the technology of a modern world. I still don't know what this means, so much as it indicates a strange ability, or willingness, to compartmentalize "faith matters" apart from worldly matters, and probably serves Mammon far better than it serves God. It's no accident a far from Fundamentalist Jesuit priest first posited the "Big Bang" theory, just as it surprises no one that fundamentalists are the ones most opposed to the theory of Darwin.
Interestingly, that picture above shows the compartments of life being blown apart. Luke's story is that Jesus joins some disciples on the road to Emmaus, but they don't recognize him:
And he said to them, "What are you talking about?"Reviewing that story, I wonder that it isn't repeated at every Eucharist, as it clearly recalls the "Last Supper:" Jesus is known to his followers, after his death, in the breaking and offering of the bread. There's also a hospitality element that isn't insignificant here. But the point of the story is Caravaggio's version of it: they know Jesus in the gesture.
And they said to him, "About Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet powerful in word and deed in the eyes of God and all the people, and about how our ranking priests and rulers turned him in to be sentenced to death, and crucified him. We were hoping that he would be the one who was going to ransom Israel. And as if this weren't enough, it's been three days now since all this happened. Meanwhile, some women from our group gave us quite a shock. They were at the tomb early this morning and didn't find his body. They came back claiming even to have seen a vision of heavenly messengers, who said that he was alive. Some of those with us went to the tomb and found it exactly as the women had described; but nobody saw him."
And he said to them, "You people are so slow-witted, so reluctant to trust everything the prophets have said! Wasn't the Anointed One destined to undergo these things and enter into his glory?" Then, starting with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted for them every passage of scripture that referred to himself.
They had gotten close to the village to which they were going, and he acted as if he were going on. But they entreated him, saying, "Stay with us; it's almost evening, the day is practically over." So he went in to stay with them.
And so, as soon as he took his place at table with them, he took a loaf, and gave a blessing, broke it, and started passing it out to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.--Luke 24:17-31, SV
That's what the painting captures: that moment when Jesus breaks the bread, and in the gesture, in the action, they see. Perhaps it was a familiar gesture, something characteristic of Jesus that makes them realize "It's him!" Perhaps it's simply a metaphor, the breaking and offering of the bread a symbol for how believers afterward will know their Lord and Savior. Who knows? But notice how they have compartmentalized their world; Jesus even scolds them about it, and still they don't seem to understand. He takes them through the entire story of the prophets, starting with Moses, and still they don't seem to get it. And there's the point, there's where the magic can be stripped away and the story remain. What kind of body does this Jesus have? What kind of person is he, that he can disappear like this, and later ascend into heaven in full sight of all those watching? As Carl Sagan liked to point out, if that latter story were literally true, then Jesus would still be ascending, all these centuries later, and would be at best 2000 light years away from earth, and still moving. But we don't interpret it that way, any more than we interpret the story that Jesus was literally there in body, and literally vanished like a soap bubble. Between that disappearance and his ascension Luke says he appears again, right in the middle of the crowd of disciples, even as they discuss this event. Is this Jesus real? A figment of fevered imaginations? A fiction? Luke doesn't even try to answer the question, doesn't even attempt to explain the resurrection. Who, then, are we to insist it can be known, or must be known? Atheists and non-believers insist on materiality, but what is that to believers? Yet we insist on that same materiality, or tremble when it isn't presented to us in church as a solid conclusion of empiricism. Or worse, we don't insist on an empirical reality to buttress such a story, but we also tacitly accept it as a nice tale, and implicitly less real, and therefore less important, than the reality of our possessions, our technology, our scientifically derived world.
Perhaps it is not that we accept and prefer magic in our Christian stories, but rather that we can't accept a world so contradictory that God can work miracles in it, so we reduce God to something that makes us more comfortable, and keeps God manageable. Maybe our fear is not that we would lose God if we couldn't retain the "magic" Meacham writes about; maybe our fear is that Jesus could appear to us as he did at Emmaus, and then we would know him, and then he would vanish. And could all the king's horses and all the king's men put our Humpty-Dumpty back together again?
*(for "Jehovist, "Eloist," "Deuteronomist," and "Priestly")
Concluding minor scholarly postscript:
Or, in a wonderfully revealing insight of MacCulloch’s, that the “daily bread” for which countless Christians ask in the Lord’s Prayer is not what most people think it is, a humble plea for sustenance. “Daily” is the common translation of the Greek word epiousios, which in fact means “of extra substance” or “for the morrow.” As MacCulloch explains, epiousios “may point to the new time of the coming kingdom: there must be a new provision when God’s people are hungry in this new time — yet the provision for the morrow must come now, because the kingdom is about to arrive.” We are a long way from bedtime prayers here.Well, maybe. Per a note in the Scholars Version of Luke:
The meaning of the Greek word epiousios is disputed. Possible translations are "daily," "for sustenance," and "for the future." Its only certain occurrence in the Greek language is in the Lord's prayer.Bauer's Greek-English lexiconconfirms this, and tells me that Origen claimed the term was coined by the evangelists. This is why I like, and dislike, serious works written for non-scholars.