Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Easter, a little late

In the process of trying to re-imagine my Christian heritage, Easter has become a tough holiday. It wasn't always that way. When I was considerably younger, I leaped straight out of conservative Christianity into a liberal Episcopal church where it would have been considered a bit naive to actually believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And that suited me just fine. I find the resurrection, as a symbol of the triumph of good over evil, love over hatred, and life over death, to be an inspiring and worthwhile story with endless layers of meaning that have little to do with whether or not it actually happened. You have the underdog, itinerant preacher with no political power who manages to outlast by many centuries the power structures that destroyed him. You have the man who simply, with great love and little fanfare, lays down his life for his friends, and is met (during the hours before his death) with hatred, cruelty, and torture-- and yet the love is stronger than the hate and consumes it. You have the symbolism of spring, the rebirth of life after the long winter, that resonates with the rolling away of the stone and the empty tomb--the endless cycle of life after death. It's an archetypal story with endless interpretations that really don’t depend on whether or not Jesus's three-days-dead body actually got up out of the tomb and walked away.

But as I've delved back into my past and tried to understand my background better, I've realized I missed some steps in there, some steps in the process of moving from a literal interpretation of Jesus' resurrection to the more symbolic. Because if you read the accounts of the resurrection carefully, you can't escape it. It is abundantly clear that the writers of the New Testament believed that Jesus reappeared to his disciples after his death.

Of course there are whole books on this topic. There are all kinds of ways to explain it away. Jesus wasn't really dead and he revived in the tomb. Jesus' body was stolen, and when the disciples found his empty tomb, they erroneously concluded that he had risen, and subsequent stories of Jesus sightings are just like Elvis sightings today. And then there are books by people who tried to explain it away and couldn't and ended up being converted (such as, famously, Josh McDowell in Evidence that Demands a Verdict).

But even if you accept that Jesus did die and was resurrected, the story is not nearly as clear cut as I believed when I was growing up. In the New Testament accounts, no one actually witnessed the resurrection. In the Gospel of Mark, the earliest account, a few of Jesus' disciples arrive at the tomb to find a man in a white robe sitting there, who tells them that Jesus has risen and gone ahead of them into Galilee. The resurrection has already happened. And that's where the earliest manuscripts end (check this out in Mark 16-- every modern translation includes a footnote that says the most reliable manuscripts end at verse 8). The sightings of Jesus after his resurrection and the interactions of the resurrected Jesus with his followers were added later, possibly decades later, and are therefore considered by some to be less reliable.

If you read it from this perspective, it makes a kind of sense. The kinds of interactions that are described are exactly the kinds of things that you would say if you were trying to convince someone that the resurrection happened—lots of people saw him; he was seen eating food; people touched him; my friend Thomas who is a terrible skeptic was even convinced. It’s the way rumors get started, and it still happens today. It's not hard to imagine that someone who passionately believed that Jesus had been resurrected might years afterward add a series of events that would prove the point, with no deception intended. They are just verifying what they are sure is true.

And, anyway, what exactly would it mean if Jesus was resurrected? Did the body in the tomb re-animate and get up and walk out? (Growing up, that’s what I always assumed.) Or did he rise again with a "resurrection body," a body that was physical, but different in some way from the body he had before he died? Or did he rise again in spirit only, without a literal physical body? If you choose your verses carefully, you can argue each of those interpretations of the resurrection fairly convincingly. But whichever interpretation you choose, if you're going to take the New Testament accounts seriously, you can't deny that the authors themselves believed most sincerely that Jesus came back to life after he died, however it was accomplished. And furthermore, they felt the resurrection-- not the teachings of Christ, not the symbolism of what he did-- was what made their new religion possible. Paul says in the first letter to the Corinthians, "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." Hard to get much clearer than that.

In a way, it's my whole dilemma in a nutshell. I want to move on to a different kind of faith (and honestly, I already have-- there's no going back at this point), but the parameters of my former religion as spelled out in its founding documents don't allow for a this. I haven't been able to reason my way from literalism to a more nuanced understanding, because the writings themselves want to be taken literally. What I've done is decide that it was important for them, in their time and their situation, to be literal, but literalism is not possible for me (as I've explained ad nauseum in other posts). The way I read the Bible now involves some give and take with the text, some flexibility, some interpretation. and of course that is sacrilege to anyone who still believes it, not to mention the sacrilege of questioning the resurrection.

p.s. just for the record, I would like to point out that the point of this post is not whether or not the resurrection occurred—I think I managed to avoid stating an opinion on that. It's just the most in-your-face obvious example of the difficulties involved in moving away from the fundamentalist mindset.

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