Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 30th, 2018

The Long Good Friday

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Every week, my five-year-old daughter brings home a handout from the children’s class at our local church, which we’ve attended now for several years. I’m agnostic, but my wife and I like the community there, and I make a point of finding out what they’ve been telling Beatrix. Usually, we just talk about it for a minute and then move on, but earlier this month, she showed me a worksheet with the five pictures that I’ve reproduced above, which were scrambled up at random. The instructions said: “The Bible story puzzle pieces are all mixed up! Use your stickers to put them in the correct order.” And if they had simply told the story of, say, Noah’s Ark, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Instead, they presented a series of episodes from the death and resurrection of Jesus—the crucifixion, the sealed tomb, Mary Magdalene in mourning, the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary, and his meal with his disciples. And it occurred to me that if you weren’t familiar with the source material and were asked to put these scenes back together, you’d probably end up with something very different. Reconstructing the sequence wouldn’t take any special knowledge or narrative sophistication. It would be more like a rudimentary logic problem. In the absence of any other information, a reasonable person would presumably come up with an order much like the one that I’ve reproduced below, which goes from the encounters with Mary and the disciples through crucifixion, mourning, and burial. The final image is one of the tomb. It’s pretty depressing, like a Chris Ware comic, but that’s clearly the last picture. How could it be anything else?

This may not seem like much of an insight, but it stuck in my head, and it took me a while to figure out why. The account presented in the canonical gospels hinges on taking the natural sequence of events and then forcibly rearranging them. You might say that Christians, by one definition, are those people who are given these five pictures as a kind of psychological test—but instead of placing them in the “correct” order, they put them in a totally illogical sequence and insist that this is how it was. (It probably isn’t a coincidence that this occurred to me after I saw the passion narrative depicted in what was essentially a comic strip, or what Will Eisner liked to call “sequential art.” When the panels are out of order, you notice it at once.) It’s a narrative inversion, as much as a religious or philosophical one, and you could push it even further and say that this reversal of expectations is analogous to what little we know about what Jesus actually taught. He told us to love our enemies; that the poor are blessed because of their poverty, not in spite of it; that the first will be last and the last will be first; and that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or the leaven that a woman hid in fifty pounds of flour. Many of the miracle stories play on similar violations of an expected sequence. People who are on the verge of death generally don’t just get better, and the dead don’t come back to life. And if experience is any indication, many of us evidently find it easier to believe in the raising of Lazarus than in the idea that we’re supposed to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor.

But I’m also haunted by the sequence that simply ends with the tomb. Many scholars of the historical Jesus have struggled with it, as well as with the possibility that even this version amounts to wishful thinking. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan arrives at an unforgiving conclusion:

What we often forget about crucifixion is the carrion crow and scavenger dog who respectively croak above and growl below the dead or dying body…What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts…In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that, too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.

Crossan is speaking here of the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who conveniently appears at just the right time to provide a proper burial. But you could easily extend the process of revision to the resurrection itself, which denies the most difficult truth imaginable—that the life of Jesus concluded in unbelievable pain, despair, and death, and that this was the only ending to his ministry that he ever knew.

This is unbearably painful to contemplate, and it might actually be psychologically easier just to rearrange the pieces, in defiance of everything that we think we know about how the world works. But part of me also wants to come to terms with the other version. In the book The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar is very clear on this point: “The resurrection was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been recorded by a video camera.” But it adds: “Since the earlier strata of the New Testament contain no appearance stories, it does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives.” Many Christians would be unlikely to agree with this. But it’s still worth asking what it would mean to have faith in that message even if the gospels ended there. As Crossan says: “It is a terrible trivialization to imagine that all of Jesus’ followers lost their faith on Good Friday and had it restored by apparitions on Easter Sunday. It is another trivialization to presume that even those who lost their nerve, fled, and hid also lost their faith, love, and hope.” It seems clear that there were early Christians who thought that this story ended with the tomb, and they still believed—which might be the most remarkable fact of all. And I agree with Crossan when he writes:

What happened historically is that those who believed in Jesus before his execution continued to do so afterward. Easter is not about the start of a new faith but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2018 at 9:22 am

Quote of the Day

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If you walk along the street you will encounter a number of scientific problems. Of these, about eighty percent are insoluble, while nineteen and a half percent are trivial. There is then perhaps half a percent where skill, persistence, courage, creativity and originality can make a difference. It is always the task of the academic to swim in that half a percent, asking the questions through which some progress can be made.

Hermann Bondi, “The Making of a Scientist”

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2018 at 7:30 am

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