Questions from the wrong side of Easter

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.

Easter “facts”?

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?

27 thoughts on “Questions from the wrong side of Easter

  1. I have really appreciated your recent posts, Ted. The way that, as I interpret you, “belief,” an insistence on “factuality,” can become a way of controlling. Not only controlling who is in and who is out but also of controlling one’s own fears. Rather than be “creative and compassionate in face of” our own as well as others’ “fragility.”

  2. I remember, too, being astonished at the literalism in Updike’s poem. And it would seem that perhaps the Apostle Paul might take issue with it, too, when he writes in I Corinthians 15:


    35 But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body will they come?” 36 How foolish! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37 When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body. 39 Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. 40 There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another. 41 The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendor.

    42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.


    While we must be careful not to read our own post-Cartesian mind-body dualism back onto Paul’s take, it is nevertheless clear that he dismisses the notion that the physical body that came out of the tomb was the same physical body that went in.

    1. Thanks, Gene. Good point regarding Paul. I don’t think we can truly know what a “spiritual body” is, but it seems something different than a “natural body” with “reknit molecules” and “rekindled amino acids.” I would read “spiritual body” as a metaphor.

    2. Christ’s physical personal resurrection body is definitely presented as the same body, wounds included as evidence that his body was risen, not transformed.

      Paul is talking about our resurrection body, quite a different concept and application. Paul speaks of this spiritual body as a single body in which ‘they’ plural are coming. The language is of a single body then presently in the process of rising.

      This single rising body is the body that is different from the body that had been sown. The dead in this text are the not all dead individuals, Paul’s argument form requires that the deniers of the resurrection of the dead do believe in their own resurrection and the resurrection of those in Christ who had fallen asleep. Apparently they denied the resurrection of some other group, dead Israel. They thought they could and would inherit the resurrection promise without Israel. Paul argues that this is not the case, that the natural body of Israel, the body sown and to be dispatched by the vultures would rise in a new form, as a spiritual body, one body with those in Christ.

      The resurrection is consummated when Christ’s enemies and their kingdom and power are destroyed, and when the power of sin is removed. Paul identified that power as ‘The Law’. This is the same as what Daniel 12 predicted: when the power of the holy people has been completely shattered all these things will be fulfilled. In this context all these things included the abomination of desolation, the salvation of Israel and the resurrection.

      Paul also said it was to happen in his generation, before all in his original audience had died. And indeed the power if the law of Moses and the holy people was completely shattered and his enemies and their kingdom totally destroyed in 70 A.D.

  3. My favorite stories, post Jesus’ resurrection, include eating. He made breakfast for his disciples (John 21:12-14). In Luke 24, He breaks bread with the Emmaus folks and later Jesus asks for something to eat and he is given fish by his surprised disciples. He lets them know that he isn’t a ghost, since a ghost wouldn’t want a little nosh. There are other reports of resurrected people in the Bible, but Jesus’ seems to be extraordinary and his visible body exceptional.

    1. I guess my favorite post-resurrection story is when the risen Jesus says, “go and make disciples of all the nations, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

  4. Are you sure that those who believe in the factuality of the Easter story “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”?

    What if we are just celebrating that this story is one of the best attested apparent-facts of pre-modern history and that it (as you point out) suggests “a sense of hope that the universe bends toward justice” and “that God vindicates Jesus’s life”? In Sunday’s sermon I mentioned some reasons to believe the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Are you really sure that that part of my sermon arose from a desire to be controlling and draw lines?

    1. Well, I think, Harold, the only thing I am sure of about the Easter story is that I am not sure of anything! I certainly don’t imagine that every person who believes in “the factuality” wants a story “they can control.” I am sure there are some “just celebrating this story”—and I am happy to imagine that you are one of those.

      I’m speaking in general terms about my impressions of the Christian tradition as I know it (acknowledging that there are exceptions). One problem I have is that belief in a factual resurrection of Jesus does not seem to have protected a large majority of Christians from affirming warism, slavery (before the mid-19th century), and the destruction of nature—which is to say that resurrection-believing Christians have not tended to take Jesus’s life and teaching very seriously.

      A big question I have for you Harold (and I mean this as a genuine curiosity not as a way to make a debate point) is what do you think is the value of having “one of the best attested facts of premodern history” supporting the affirmation that God raised Jesus from the dead? How has and does having this “fact” enhance the embodiment of the way of Jesus?

      1. I too am saddened by the large number of “resurrection-believing Christians” who affirm warism, slavery, etc. I hear you suggesting it will help them take Jesus’s life and teaching more seriously if they would start viewing the resurrection of Jesus more as story and metaphor. Can you say more? That surprises me. You open new windows for me! (Though I’ll keep the screens closed for a bit.)

        You ask what “value” I see in believing it’s a fact that God raised Jesus from the dead, how do I think it would help people “take Jesus’s life and teaching very seriously,” help them embody the way of Jesus. Perhaps there is some way it helps (I’ll be interested in you saying how a non-factual understanding helps). But I’m not taking that belief because I see “value” in it, but because (I think) I’m just following truth wherever it leads. For instance, here’s a way the story does not seem to be something that got changed during its many retellings in the church’s evangelistic earnestness to persuade people to join the movement (as you suggest). Why would the retellings change the story into one where the men were denying and fleeing and hiding, while the women braved being at the cross and tomb and were the first witnesses? Those sound like inconvenient facts that were faithfully preserved, not legends that gradually built up. I could give more simple-but-powerful indications of eyewitness elements in the Gospels.

  5. Jaroslav Pelikan, renowned scholar of Christian history, is reported to have said not long before his death in 2006, “If Christ is risen, nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen—nothing else matters.” I had Pelikan as a teacher long ago when I studied in the University of Chicago Divinity School. And I wonder how he would explain what he meant by “risen.” And how what he said fits into this current discussion. Perhaps, that the most important thing is that Christ be “risen” in our lives.

  6. The first window to open is the pages of the book “Arigo: Surgeon of the Rusty Knife” by John Fuller. It is a book of facts that are hard to believe and it begins and ends with them. (abbreviated)Just the facts: Arigo could cut through the flesh and viscera with an unclean knife and there would be no pain, no homeostasis, and no need for stitches. Fact: Arigo could stop the flow of blood with a sharp command. Fact: There would be no infection even though no antisepsis was used. The list goes on. Arigo treated over three hundred patients a day for nearly two decades and never charged for his services. Fact: His patients included leading executives, statesmen, lawyers, doctors, aristocrats from many countries…. It is a fact that Arigo was in a trance while he worked and most often did not remember doing surgery.

    Arigo attributed his work to the spirit of Jesus operating under the moniker of Dr. Fritz.

    It is a fact that I do not know what to make of any of this.

    I have had my own visions. I have observed my own miracles. I have been where I was needed. Now as for Jesus. It is a fact that wife Joy and I put up a cross in the church yard the night before Easter over 40 years ago upon which we queried in blood red paint… When are You going to take him down? Jesus said, “Yea, when You do it to one of the least of these my brethren You do it unto me.” Just think of the history of the US. Here, We the People, keep Christ upon the Cross. Not factually perhaps, but truthfully. The question lives, “When are We going to take him down?” The facts of the life of Arigo open my heart and mind to just how important the arrangement of our facts are. We go about creating facts and those facts will create the story of facts that compose the meaning and the motion of our lives.

  7. Had any of us known Jesus before the Romans killed him I doubt we would have recognized him after the resurrection, as the Emmaus pair didn’t. “The resurrection is not … the resuscitation of a corpse, but rather the final eschatological act by God through which the kingdom stamp is put on this man Jesus as the decisive life for the inauguration of a new age. Resurrection is the reconfiguration of all we know, have known, and will know. Is that which forces a re-description of all history as well as the movement of the planets.” Stanley Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scriptures, p.52.
    Thank you, Ted,
    Wayne Yoder

  8. What, please tell, do you think should be the boundary markers? And who should exercise disciplinary powers to formalise membership, correct and an excommunicate those who enter, stray and exit? And how?

    The history and tradition and biblical witness seems to include both beliefs, doctrines, commitment, and conduct as criteria for membership and discipline and excommunication. The who and the how we seem to have scant biblical testimony other than baptism as the entry ritual commitment.

  9. If we cannot recognize him, what is the point? He paid me a visit once. He said, Steve, stop trying to be me and start making the most out of being You. A waking dream? Whatever. At the time it was just what I needed. It changed my life. A hallucination? What ever that means. Hold to a vision long enough and it becomes an image and then a work. Longer… a way to be. So take a story and if it is indeed beautiful, make it your story and if it is indeed your story… then make it true. So, when You die, then what? I’ll tell You what. It is then… even as it is now… it is up to you. We all navigate eternity by the set of our hearts, day by day We are on our way to where we are going. Bon voyage.

  10. I appreciate your insights, Ted. I suspect many folks struggle with a factual, physical Resurrection, and worry that such doubts put them at variance with the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. Your thinking appears consistent with my belief that “God is Love”, 1 John 4:8.
    Thanks for sharing.

  11. Ted, I’m a little late to the conversation here, but this thought occurred to me upon reading your blog:

    If Christians may separate faith from fact regarding Jesus’ resurrection, such that we need only believe it as hopeful story and not as factual reality, then I wonder: Why only regarding Jesus’ resurrection? We could just as well say the same regarding the whole Jesus story–Jesus’ birth, healing the sick, teaching peace, denouncing injustice, dying on the cross, etc. Perhaps, we might say, the whole Jesus story is “mere story” meant to persuade us–gently, lovingly–to trust in God and hope for justice. If so, then it is not necessary to Christian faith to believe that, in fact, Jesus healed the sick, taught peace, denounced injustice, and died unjustly, or even believe that Jesus actually existed as a real person–it is sufficient that the Jesus story exists, sufficient that we believe that story as story, to give us hope in a God of peace, hope in a universe that bends toward justice.

    Or, if not, why not?

    1. Good to hear from you, Darrin. I am interested in your comments and will offer some thoughts in response. I hope you respond back because I would enjoy more conversation on these topics. I have three general areas I want to address.

      1. My main concern, to challenge making factuality a point of central emphasis, is because of the kind of story I see the story Jesus’s resurrection being—a call to follow his way of life, not a statement about historical facts. But that stems from a desire to hold together faith and fact, not separate them. I think making facts come first can only happen when such a separation occurs. That is, any affirmation of the factuality of Jesus’s resurrection that does not understand that to be a call to follow Jesus’s way is actually separating fact and faith (which is how I interpret Updike’s poem, for example).

      2. I do think that we don’t have anything more than a “mere story”—by the nature of the case it could not (nor should not) be otherwise. Even if it would turn out that that story is based on events that actually happened (and I am not denying that they did), that would not change the nature of the story. What matters about the story is that it persuades us to follow Jesus (something that cannot be coercive). Obviously many people have and do believe the facts but don’t follow the life.

      So, I would say that if the story does indeed persuade people to follow Jesus it doesn’t matter if “Jesus actually existed as a real person.” So, indeed, I think “it is sufficient that the Jesus story exists, sufficient that we believe that story as story, to give us hope in a God of peace, hope in a universe that bends toward justice”—if that is what does persuade someone to follow Jesus.

      Conversely, affirming the factuality of the resurrection, et al, has no value if that does not lead a person to follow Jesus. If we have more than a “mere story” in relation to the resurrection, I am not aware of that leading more people to follow Jesus given the horrific history of Christianity in affirming war, slavery, economic injustice, and the destruction of nature (for example). And, as the book Hanging in Judgment shows in relation to support of the death penalty, it was the more “orthodox” Christians who held out the longest in blocking the abolition of the death penalty in Great Britain.

      3. Which leads to one of my big concerns. How does a conservative Christian who believes in the facticity of Jesus’s resurrection (and, let’s say, the creedal affirmation of Jesus’s divinity and the Trinity) who is also a pacifist, explain the reality that the vast majority of Christians who have believed those “essentials” have supported going to war (for example, according to my research, I would estimate that something like 99% of American Christians who believed in these essentials willingly accepted being drafted to fight in World War II)?

      1. Ted,

        I must admit that your response took me by surprise. Not the latter part where you try to pin Christendom’s worst sins on orthodox doctrine (Trinity, Incarnation, and all that stuff). No surprise there—you’ve tried that trick before. (Not that I was expecting you to try it again here—but, hey, why not, a non sequitur can be easily added anywhere you need it.)

        What surprised me was your direct response to my actual question. Honestly, I wasn’t expecting you to go the full Monty.

        I expected you would say, “Of course it matters whether, in fact, Jesus preached peace. How could we have a peace ethic centered on Jesus if Jesus never actually preached peace?” (Or something like that.) And then I expected we might have a back-and-forth to figure out what in particular of what the Gospels say of Jesus you think needs to trace to a real person existing in real time in order for us to have a credible, robust peace ethic.

        As it turns out, it doesn’t matter to a peace ethic whether Jesus preached peace. It doesn’t even matter to Christian faith whether Jesus actually existed. All we need for Christian faith, all we need for a peace ethic (and for you, it seems, Christian faith = peace ethic), is a story about Jesus preaching peace. A powerful, compelling story, to be sure. Nonetheless, the right sort of story suffices. And, happily, the Gospels tell such a story.

        Now if all we need for a peace ethic is the right sort of story, then it seems that it isn’t even necessary to a peace ethic that this story be the Jesus story of the Gospels, or even an alternative Jesus story (pick your favorite version of the “historical Jesus”)—as long as it is a peace story. All we need for a peace ethic, it seems, is a powerful, compelling story that preaches peace and gives hope in a universe that bends toward justice.

        Les Miserables is a powerful, compelling story of the triumph of forgiveness and love over condemnation and violence. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are powerful, compelling stories of good defeating evil. Maybe some such stories would do just as well as the Gospel story of Jesus to motivate us to walk the way of peace and resist evil with good. Maybe, then, we don’t need the Gospel story—maybe we don’t even need Jesus.

        I knew that we did not travel in the same theological orbit. But I had assumed that, at least, we orbited the same Sun. (Which of us would be Venus and which Mars in that scenario, you can decide.) I now wonder whether we travel in different solar systems, maybe even different galaxies.

        Perhaps I am too simple a Christian. But I can make no sense of a conviction and commitment that would compel me, like Stephen and all the martyrs since, to willingly endure persecution and suffer death—for the sake of a mere story, in the name of a Jesus who need not have actually existed.

        To paraphrase Paul: If it is only a Jesus story in which we put our faith and hope, if we die for a Jesus who need not have actually existed, then we are of all people most to be pitied.

      2. I appreciate your continuing the conversation, Darrin.

        As I have thought about what you wrote, I decided to share an image I have found helpful.

        We could compare two types of good writing—a newspaper report and a sermon. A good newspaper article would be based on what I am calling factuality. We need to trust that is reported pretty much directly corresponds to what actually happened.

        On the other hand, a good sermon’s power depends on, we could say, the elegance of its presentation. The truth that makes a sermon good is not factual truth but the effectiveness of its call to follow Jesus.

        I see the gospels and Paul’s letters being of the sermon type—not placing factuality at the center but the call to follow Jesus. The point is what is at the center. The facts are inert or irrelevant except insofar as they serve the call to follow. This is not to deny that the facts might be accurate; rather, it is to decenter them and argue for the engaged character of Christian truth—that all doctrine should be seen as serving the call to follow Jesus and is not an end in itself.

        It does seem to me to be a kind of modernist move to place factuality at the center. This seems like the kind of thing done in apologetics to respond to the argument that what disproves the truthfulness of Christianity is to “prove” that Jesus wasn’t physically raised from the dead. This allows the modernist skeptic who bases everything on factuality to set the terms of the discussion—and to ignore, for example, the nature of the story of Jesus’s resurrection which is a story that aims to persuade us to follow Jesus more than to believe in certain facts.

        The reason that I don’t think the question about the history of “orthodox” beliefs in relation to actual practice is a non sequitur is that I think the big truth test for convictions is the fruitfulness test (not the factuality test). It seems to argue against the essential or necessary nature of a belief if it doesn’t protect the believer from the terrible heresy of warism.

        I am genuinely interested in how you answer that question. I find it discouraging that I have yet to encounter a pacifist who believes in the essential nature of the “orthodox” doctrines who has been willing to address my question. I don’t ask it to disprove the creeds. I can see how they could be helpful. But I have been deeply troubled for most of my adult life by realizing that most of Christians I know and know of are comfortable with war and other forms of violence while believing in “orthodox” doctrines.

  12. Thank you for this, Ted, especially your noting “the horrific history of Christianity in affirming war, slavery, economic injustice, and destruction of nature.” It has prompted me to put together thoughts I have recently had, which I hope are at least tangentially related to this discussion

    A very close friend is a biologist who asks me, in face of this history which she is very much aware of: “Of what benefit is religion to our species?” I have a two-fold answer.

    First, it provides social cohesion. I read recently that when a group exceeds about 150 people, it needs some kind of group concept to provide cohesion. So far as we can tell, such group concepts have often come in the form of stories. And the stories we recognize as “religious” often compete with/interact with/join in with other group stories. Such as political or nationalistic stories, which may in important respects contradict the religious stories, cause us to act in ways that contradict the religious stories.

    I see this often as I work my way through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “Christianity, The First Three Thousand Years” (2009). How often the Christian story and its theologizing has provided justification for violence which may have a variety of other social causes. Perhaps especially when the group perceives some serious internal or external threat. Some current iterations of Christianity, for example, seem to me a thin veneer on top of American exceptionalism and nationalism, which is often expressed in a sense of some perceived threat.

    I guess part of my purpose in giving the above explanation to my friend is to suggest to her (and myself) that not all of the barbarity in human history, despite some of its justifying rhetoric, can be blamed on religion and certainly not on any particular religious story.

    The second function of religion I point out to my friend is that so far as we know, we are the only “species” conscious of our own inevitable death and related suffering. Religion can provide consolation that is very psychologically satisfying.

    For example, religious stories often include assurance of some kind of life after death. It may be in the form of one’s group continuing after one’s own individual death. I think of this a lot when I read the Hebrew Bible accounts of the formation and continuation of the Israelite people. As well as the anxieties and calling down destruction on Israel’s enemies expressed in the Psalms.

    The promised life after death may also be for the individual. And it seems not surprising that as societies become more individualistic (increasingly the case in contemporary America it seems to me) some Christians may focus far more on assurance of the salvation of their own souls than on compassion for “the other,” however defined, as demonstrated in Jesus’ life and teachings.

    Finally, when it comes to stories and the interpretation of stories, the fact that stories admit a variety of interpretations is one of their chief strengths. Doubtless partly for this reason, Jesus often used parables. And perhaps stories that survive over the centuries do so in large part because they are especially multivalent.

    Which also, of course, makes them problematic. Having spent years discussing stories in a classroom as well as reading and writing literary criticism, I know how much stories mirror back aspects of ourselves. Selves which are formed as much by what’s outside as what’s inside the story.

    I hope the above does not seem hopelessly deterministic. The fact is that as I near my 80th birthday, I become more and more aware that despite much that changes, there is much that remains the same. Which does not mean that I have given up on our “species.” But rather more joyful when I read/hear of stories that break the hopeless pattern. Of which there are many.

    But that is a story for another day.

    1. I mostly agree with you here, Phyllis. Your affirmation of the positive potential of religion (and Christianity) helps explain all the work I’ve tried to do to lift a life-affirming message from the Bible and the Christian tradition.

  13. After reading comments and replies, I wonder why one would expect that Christians who believe in the historical resurrection and creeds would follow Jesus’s teachings on peacemaking very well. In my own experience growing up in the Reformed Church in America, we were taught many things from scripture and catechism, but none referenced the teachings of Jesus that might lead one to pacifism or non-resistance. In reading the Sermon on the Mount on my own as a teen, I was rather shocked at these radical teachings of Jesus. When I brought these up in the context of the Reformed tradition they were spiritualized and I was told the Sermon on the Mount shows us how we can’t do these things and that leads us to depend upon the gift of redemption through Jesus. Having spent time in mainline and Anabaptist churches, much depends upon what people have been taught, what they are willing to believe as important and how they experience that in the context of a community. The influence of peers and community is important. Not all of us have been convinced by people like John Howard Yoder or been raised in the context of rejecting militarism as a norm. Even many Anabaptist related churches are quite reluctant to swim against the mainstream currents. That being said, even Christians who have participated in supporting war or just go along with it, have been active in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, visiting the prisoners and encouraging more justice in the world. While I don’t appreciate some of my own church heritage, I do appreciate that God’s love calls me, even as I sin, to receive forgiveness (over and over) and that the risen Jesus can still be found with the moving of Holy Spirit. I don’t believe this based upon Christian disobedience to the call of God in Jesus, but because of faith and experience of what I believe is true and good. That encourages me to follow Jesus, even as I fail at times in the effort, like so many others.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I agree with you if you are saying that the rituals and doctrines can indeed be factors that do help empower people to “encourage more justice in the world”—even as, all too often, they lead to a “spiritualized” faith the actually encourages passivity in relation to injustice. Partly, I think it is getting the order correct, that the doctrines and rituals must serve the call to love neighbor, not be separate from it or even undermine it.

  14. “… a good sermon’s power depends on, we could say, the elegance of its presentation. The truth that makes a sermon good is not factual truth but the effectiveness of its call to follow Jesus.” As a preacher who prepares and delivers sermons nearly every week, alarm bells went off for me when I read that sentence, and others in this thread which question whether or not factuality and historicity even matter, or if they matter as much as the power I might have to affect the audience. Yes, I hope and pray and labor so that this ministry which God has lent me is effective in “its call to follow Jesus.” But I also hope that I never stop approaching the task with holy fear, lest I misrepresent the One whom I call people to follow. One can do that for the best of intentions. Therefore, facts matter. Truth, to be truth, must have a foot outside of and above myself and my persuasiveness, for myself, as well as for those who hear the message. For I know all too well the temptation and the tendency to remake the One whom I call us (myself included) to follow into my own image, or into a golden calf that will please a crowd. To even hint that persuasion and effect are more truthful than facts, and that a story’s historicity doesn’t really finally matter as much as its effect on us, is to saw off the branches of any reasons, values, logic, or truths on which the story’s meaning and authority sit.
    You reference the concern for fact and historicity as something “Modern.” If so, the Apostle Paul was a modernist when he said, “If Christ has not risen, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins.” If that was a modernist error, then modernism is more ancient than we knew.
    The modernist era is now waning, giving way to post-modernism, which tells us that truth and facts don’t matter as much as a story’s effect, and the identity group from which it comes. I miss the modern era when we could really sink our intellectual teeth into solid ideas and arguments from such basic first principles like, “Can it be convincingly verified, or at least more probable than not?” and “Can things like resurrections happen, if this is a universe closed to anything outside of scientifically verifiable rules?” If probability pointed toward Yes, then that alone carried a weight of persuasion better than anything I could invent. To argue, “Does facticity or historicity even matter?” is worse than conversing with the Cheshire Cat. At least, after everything else of substance vanishes, there’s a smile left over. Not so with post-modernity. I’m reminded of G.K. Chesterton’s maxim: “There are thoughts that put an end to thinking.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s