Ted Grimsrud—April 24, 2019
Easter weekend was interesting for me this year. To be truthful, it left me feeling a bit uneasy. Usually I like Easter, at least if the weather is nice (as it was this year). But this time, the celebrative notes seemed consistently off key. I wonder if I have reached a tipping point where Easter imagery has the net effect of discouragement more than inspiration.
My negative sensibility crystallized when, prompted by Facebook, I read John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” This is the first stanza:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all
It was as His body;
If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule reknit,
The amino acids rekindle,
The Church will fall.
Maybe I’m misreading, but I understand Updike to be making two key assertions—(1) Jesus’s resurrection, as a certain fact, was physical. His real body, reanimated, returned from the dead. (2) Upon this fact, the life of the Church depends. No factual resurrection, no Church.
Later, Updike doubles down on the factuality of Jesus’s resurrection:
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded
Credulity of earlier ages:
Let us walk through the door.
The stone is rolled back, not paper-maché,
Not a stone in a story,
But the vast rock of materiality that in the slow grinding of
Time will eclipse for each of us
The wide light of day.
For Updike, to think of Jesus’s resurrection as metaphorical is to “mock God.” The stone that was rolled away from the tomb when Jesus arose was “not a stone in a story.” So, it struck me that Updike denies that the story of Jesus’s resurrection is simply a story. It has a level of factuality that removes it from the metaphorical. What then is it? I don’t know.
Stories are powerful
I can’t see Jesus’s resurrection as something other than “simply” a story. To think it is more than a story is to have too weak a view of what stories are (an ironic attitude for a storyteller such as Updike to have, it seems to me). I think to see what the gospels (and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians) tell us about Jesus’s resurrection as something other than simply a story seems to deny the actual reality of how we know about Easter Sunday.
The gospels are collections of stories that were passed down orally for maybe around 40 years after the events they recount (recognizing the likely existence of some kind of document, called “Q” by recent scholars, that provided the core narrative shared in common by Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These stories were gathered by the gospel writers and put together in the form of four more stories, the distinctive versions in each of the gospels. Paul’s version of the Easter story, as he tells us, was also the result of oral tradition (1 Cor 15:3).
So, the written versions we have (and it is important to note that they differ in important ways from one another) have been filtered through many retellings from the original accounts of eyewitnesses. Recognizing that ancient oral cultures passed down their stories with remarkable care, we still must acknowledge the distance between the events themselves and the records we have of them. In addition, we must (perhaps even more importantly) recognize that these stories were passed down, written, and thus shaped for a purpose. The purpose was not Updike’s kind of factuality but evangelistic, to persuade people to trust in and follow Jesus.
That what we know about Jesus’s resurrection came to be recorded for sermonic and not literalistic factual purposes does not mean that the information is false. But it does mean that making its meaning dependent upon factuality as Updike seem to do (echoing the mainstream Christian tradition, for sure—I don’t mean to single out Updike here, but on how he reflects the broader tradition and present-day piety) may end up distorting the core meaning of Jesus’s resurrection—with profoundly destructive effects for the practice of Jesus’s faith.
A weak kind of truth
The resurrection of Jesus, I would suggest, is best seen as a weak kind of truth. It is something we choose to believe, not something that hits us over the head, as it were, with its brute factuality. It is notable that the New Testament stories seem to make a point of reporting that only believers in Jesus saw him after he rose.
Typically, it appears, Christians such as Updike have and continue to want something more powerful and coercive than a “mere story.” In parallel fashion, they want a God who is in control, not a God who is “merely love.” They want certainty that things will end well, not merely a sense of hope that the universe bends toward justice.
They tend to want a story that they can control and that they can overpower others with, that they can turn into an enforceable boundary marker, that can serve as a line in the sand that divides true and false. That is, they want a story that isn’t just a story, a story that has more authority than a mere sermon, a story that provides certainty and security and not just tentative hopefulness.
I’m afraid that what this all comes down to is that Christians have a hard time trusting in the sufficiency of love—love that is not controlling or certain or absolutely secure; love that corresponds to the way life actually is and that empowers those who trust in it to be creative and compassionate in face of their fragility.
What if what matters most in the Easter story are not the details about Jesus’s body, not as Updike writes, that “the molecule reknit” and “the amino acids rekindle”? What if what matters most is simply the proclamation that God vindicates Jesus’s life? Our favorable response is not then due to irrefutable scientific facts (or to fearing that otherwise “the Church will fall”) but to our desire to be part of the same story as Jesus—where enemies are loved, when the rulers of the world are named as tyrants, where sinners are forgiven?