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.