Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Surprising Irrelevance of the Bodily Resurrection

Quick Update first: It's official; as of yesterday I have signed with Adam Chromy of Artists & Artisans. We had a terrific conversation and I'm really happy. Today's work involves calling people half a continent away, and putting all my This American Life appearances on a single sampler CD. (Which sounds easy, but it's going to involve moving all my appearances, one at a time, from the computer that can get online to the computer that can burn CDs. And then finding some way to edit only my sections out. We'll see how it goes.)

But in the meantime, since I have a little time to kill, I thought I'd share some Easter-related thoughts on the Resurrection of Christ.

This was inspired, in part, by this Easter's posting of a famous poem by John Updike ("Seven Stanzas at Easter"), which talks dismissively of attempts to explain away the shocking reality implied by the Christian doctrine of Christ's rebirth. "Let us not mock God with metaphor,/analogy, sidestepping transcendence..." he says, culminating in what was my favorite stanza as a young evangelical hoping to create literary art:

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom
.

Of course, this overstates things by a bit--even as a Christian, the idea of angels working a loom would have been unspeakably silly. But I liked the sentiment beneath it: resurrection is real, not a metaphor. It should be rendered palpably. I not only wanted to believe it, but I was sure I needed to believe it, because, as Updike says about Christ's crucified body,

if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

As Christians know, Updike here is simply parroting St. Paul, who says "If Christ is not raised, then our faith is in vain; we are still in our sins, and we are of all men most to be pitied." [I'm approximating; this stuff no longer leaps to mind perfectly.]

I was about 20 years old when I first encountered a liberal religious scholar (the first of several) who described Jesus's Resurrection as "The Christ Event." This was a way to avoid the embarrassing magic-show accoutrements of the traditional Resurrection doctrine--the empty garment, the vanishing corpse, the dead man who can teleport through walls--and focus on the religious and existential essence: hope, joy, and life eternally renewing. "Faugh!" I said at the time. "What a silly liberal thing to do! They just can't handle miracles and they want to worship some sort of shell of resurrection so they don't have to believe the Bible! They take a world-shattering miracle and turn it into 'Don't Worry, Be Happy!'"

It was a stupid idea, I thought, but a little more reading showed that smart people of deep faith seemed to believe it, so I let it stick around to figure out what was up. But only a few years later, after that idea had wormed its way into my awareness, I read that very same passage of St. Paul's--if Christ is not raised, we live in vain--and it suddenly struck me that there was a logical error in the passage. Sort of. In that passage, Paul is essentially saying (if the fundy resurrection apologists are to be believed), "If I'm mistaken, and Jesus isn't currently living in a superperfect spiritual body with a heartbeat and a stomach and the rest, then the concept of salvation is pointless." And when you put it that way, the disconnect becomes quite obvious.

Because honestly, all we really want is life after death. Whether it takes place in what we'd think of as a body or not is pretty small potatoes compared to the possibility of living on at all. And that, I eventually realized, is what the liberal theologians were after: trying to focus on the answer to our human longing (eternal life) rather than the distracting side issues (which include questions like, "Is there spiritual skin? Is it made up spiritual cells? What about blood vessels?") I see now that it would be entirely consistent of a Christian to believe in the resurrection as a sign or a metaphoric proof that there is life after death. Whether Jesus was eating fish and leaving DNA fingerprints all over the place is sort of trivial in comparison.

If St. Paul had said, "If hell is not made of literal flames, then we are completely without morality!" I don't think anyone would take it seriously, any more than if a political commentator said, "Because Presidential candidate x made a factual error in a debate, we can never trust anything they say ever again!" That's another symptom of the all-or-nothing, catastrophizing tendency I've talked about in conservative Christianity before: the believer is impelled to believe things, not because they logically follow, but because someone TOLD them they logically follow. It's like pretending you've read Shakespeare when all you've read is one scholar's footnotes.

Which made me realize another odd point. When St. Paul says, "Jesus had some kind of magical physical-and-spiritual resurrection body, and if I'm wrong, everything else just collapses!" he's not talking about logical proof: he's essentially saying that if scripture is wrong in one area, then the entire thing is completely worthless and might as well be shitcanned. So what he's doing, in essence, is not demanding faith in Jesus Christ (his works, his preaching, his example), but faith in the point-by-point perfection of what the Bible says about Jesus Christ (the theological interpretations of his death and resurrection). And that's a terrible thing to do! Because the Bible has a whole host of inconsistencies and problems (just try piecing together the four gospels some time; the Easter story alone is almost impossible to make sense of), and a whole range of different answers to extremely basic questions like "what must I do to be saved?" So trusting in the Bible's perfection would tend to strangle faith in its crib. Not to mention that you're essentially worshipping the Bible. Idolatry! That's one of the big no-no's!

I'm obviously not a Christian anymore, but if I were, I think I'd be happy to realize that St. Paul is actually wrong in I Corinthians 15:17 (found the reference!). Or--to put it more charitably--perhaps his statement in I Corinthians was a specific address in a specific context, and he was using a bit of his usual hyperbole rather than trying to lay out a general statement that should be taken as gospel the way it historically has. In any event, when I surf the web on Easter, I see tons of people posting things like, "If Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain," and I hope they mean what they should mean: Christ's example teaches us (well, it teaches Christians, anyway) that there is eternal life available in heaven after we die. How much meat (spiritual or otherwise) is on our bones (if we have them) is not only beside the point, but it's exactly the wrong thing to worry about. And if you can't tell the difference, you don't even know the value of what you're selling.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Jas P. said...

Right on, Brother Dave. People who demand a literal, historical resurrection are missing the point.

And meanwhile, what we really want is life BEFORE death. Real live life, with hair (well, we'll have to make do) and definite looms 'n shit.

I remember reading that in the oldest known version of the New Testament, the gospel of Mark (which many scholars agree forms the basis for the other gospels--unless I misremember that) contains no resurrection. They roll away the stone, they look, and are afraid. And that's it, baby.

Congrats on "getting" an agent, too! I'm presumptively woo-hooing in your direction...

3/25/2008 5:00 PM  
Blogger Daniel said...

jas:

Here's what I read in Mark 16:

...but when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "


...I think that is what one would call "having a resurrection story." Jesus is not pictured bodily, but it uses the very Easter-ish words "He has risen!"

So I think it counts.

3/25/2008 10:24 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

I would add that the phrase "he is going ahead of you" suggests that Jesus is supposed to be pictured as actually traveling--on foot, presumably--rather than winking in and out of the space-time continuum.

But my friend Jas P. is right, too, in a sense. Because Mark--the earliest gospel--also has what you might call the "lowest" Christology of any of the gospels. There's no virgin birth, no genealogy...Jesus's ministry starts with him being baptized, and Mark doesn't seem to think it problematic that Jesus might have to be forgiven of his sins! (Matthew, who came later, fixed the scene with a dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist, which answers the obvious question "Why should a sinless person be baptized?" with the unhelpful response, "Just do it.")

The real issue with Mark is that the earliest manuscripts end on a very strange note (with, as Daniel notes, a promise that "Jesus will meet you up ahead"...and then a suddenly cut-off scene with troubled women telling no one, which is weirdly anticlimactic). The usual stance I've seen is that early on in Mark, a final page must have gotten lost, and someone decided to fix the ending, which is why verses 9-19 get added in the later texts.

I can't resist adding here that Paul's early Christology--that Jesus was anunassuming man who lived a normal life, and was only recognized as Christ because of his death and subsequent post-crucifixion adoption by God--is easier to see in Mark than in the later Gospel, which put Jesus's divinity as early as possible. (Especially John, the latest one. So as you go from Mark to John you can almost watch the Christology expand before your eyes.)

3/26/2008 2:59 AM  
Blogger Daniel said...

David,

I will have you know that I just wrote a brilliant and articulate rant about your mistreatment of that passage in 1 Corinthians. It was glorious and long, and it took me four hours to write, and then I mis-clicked in the browser window, and all was instantly lost.

I'm too tired and disheartened to pick it up right now. I might try to re-create the magic tomorrow.

Here is the only part that survived the event (on my clipboard during the tragic click):

To the particulars, Paul is not having the irrelevant conversation about the Holy Anatomy of The Risen Person you keep mentioning (though I am sure it would have been most engaging). Rather, he is arguing the importance of a historical event: that this thing happened, and the impact it has on our theology. He says if it didn't happen, in the end, we are to be pitied, because we conduct our lives on the basis of a lie.

If there is no resurrection, then when we die, we rot. Furthermore, then Christ was never raised from the dead. If Christ was never raised, then he was not the Son of God, with proof that he has authority to forgive sins. If he cannot forgive us our sins, then we are still doomed, and we grossly misunderstand our relationship with God. And while we may believe something that gives us hope for the short time we have on earth, when we die, we rot. And we are to be pitied.

He has also called out this one truth as very important; not that all things ever written into the canon are weighed equally. I think this is where your entire criticism is going astray. Besides the fact that you want to read into it the goofiness you found in some poem, and use that to indite the entire canon of scripture. Regardless, it is a gross overreach to come to your conclusions from what Paul has written here.


So I guess I'm just saying you should prepare yourself -- maybe I'll post again tomorrow. But since I don't have the time or energy for a more articulate or involved reply right now, suffice it to say:

Die, heretic! Die!

3/26/2008 4:46 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Ouch! I feel for your loss. Stuff like that never used to happen with typewriters.

I think I can spare you SOME of the rewriting, however, since I like to think I deliberately avoided the worst of the poem's goofiness (the loom, angels made of quanta, etc.) and I would never suggest that Christians actually think this way.

The point I was trying to make--but I published before I was sure I was clear, which also never used to happen with typewriters--is that Christians generally DON'T think this way, but at the very same time, and sometimes in a parallel thought, they DO act as if the bodily resurrection were the point of the resurrection...despite the fact that they DON'T try to think through the implications of it. It is somehow both literally and factually true, and yet scientifically incoherent. (And I don't mean in the standard way that all miracles stymie science; I mean you can literally barely picture it at all. The Dead Sea would have looked like water under a microscope even when it was allegedly forming a fall around the Israelites. But what ever happened to that fish the resurrected Jesus ate at the end of John? Holy shit!)

You have to believe it and then stop thinking just before you get to the DNA question, and my point is that this is weird, exhausting, and unnecessary, and that's why liberal Christians made the move. Because just as Jesus scraped accretions off the law of Moses to get to the actual point of it underneath, "Christ Event" theologians are doing the same thing to the stories of the resurrection--which, it should be pointed out again, can't be reconciled with each other anyway. (And again, this isn't "miraculous" unscientificness, which you could at least make a case for; it's the simple incoherence of being unable to tell who saw what at the tomb when.)

Faced with a Bible that a.) seemed to be demanding belief in a physical resurrection, b.) seemed to be very unclear about the details of the resurrection or of Easter in general, and c.) seemed to be saying, like Paul, that bodily resurrection is essential when it clearly isn't, the liberal theologians eventually, I think, made the right call: focusing on how Jesus gives life, and that more abundantly, is a better use of everyone's time than making flow charts of who saw which angel when, and asking modern-minded people to accept a story that leaves open implicit weird questions like what, at the Ascension, was Jesus's escape velocity. Yes, it's a silly question. That's why the liberals decided God couldn't have wanted it to matter.

3/26/2008 9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Cowboy Dave,

I appreciate your honesty & that you make efforts to engage your mind when you talk about Christ. I agree we all would benefit from doing that more often.

My first thought, as I was reading your blog was "Dave, what do you have to gain by not believing in a bodily resurrection?"

As I kept reading, I guess I'd summarize your response to that question as follows: "It's impossible for us to figure out what a resurrected body would really by like (ie, how did he eat the fish & walk through walls)." and "The Gospel accounts are confusing & don't seem to jive with one another, so believing the resurrection didn't happen will relieve us from having to explain those discrepancies."

Did I summarize accurately? I don't want to misrepresent you - rather trying to understand your point of view.

Ironically, I just started reading a book called "Heaven" by Randy Alcorn today. He makes a pretty strong case for not only a bodily resurrection, but also a physical, redeemed new earth where we'll spend eternity. All that to say, when your blog showed up on my google alerts, i was intrigued & appreciated the challenge of thinking through what I believe & why.

Thank you for the thought provoking comments~
Traci in Kansas City

3/28/2008 5:59 PM  

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