Archive for June, 2010

Moderating An Easter Blog

I prefer being correct especially when it comes to books, poetry and film. I think that’s because much of the fun, much of the satisfaction, in reading a book, or a poem, or in viewing a well made movie, is in being able to pay enough attention to get the subtleties right – in discovering how, as well as what, a piece means through its use of evocative language – the images, feelings, and trans-conceptual thoughts it stirs. So, I was somewhat chagrined to discover that in my “Easter Blog,” which was a response to Brian Doyle’s poem, “Some Thorny Questions About the Resurrection,” that I had misunderstood both “the how” and “the what” of Brian’s poetic musing.

I write this rather occasional blog as mood and circumstances move me, and I guess I must write it mainly for myself, as a way of thinking, because, even though from time to time someone will tell me they have read it, I have no real on-going sense or idea that anyone else ever reads it – Jack, our Queensland/Catahoula mix, of course hears me talking as I type. And although Jack sometimes looks up at me curiously from his den under my desk, I am not sure, although I could also be wrong about this, that Jack is really paying close attention to either the sense or nonsense of what I am saying. Consequently, when Brian Doyle sent me a pleasant electronic note saying I had misunderstood him, and asking that I moderate “An Easter Blog” I was surprised that he had actually read it. However, while my misunderstanding of his poem leaves me a little disappointed in myself, I am more than willing to set matters straight as best I can in the spirit of Brian’s gracious request – and to send the offending blog to computer oblivion. I have written enough about debunking in other places so that it doesn’t seem necessary to write about its perils where it has not even occurred, and I certainly don’t want to be guilty of constructing and then knocking down a house of straw – besides I think it better to try to be honest than to make a point. But so that you can get a feel for what I am talking about, here again is Brian Doyle’s poem:

Some Thorny Questions About the Resurrection

And I don’t mean theological or ontological or scriptural or
hermeneutical questions,
I mean real questions, like did he have to pee like a racehorse
after three long days?
And what’s the first thing He said when He woke up, did He say
where’s my wallet?
Or did He say sweet mother of the Lord, that is absolutely the
last time I drink wine?
Or where is my posse? Or who are these two men in white at my
head and at my feet,
Are they hospital orderlies or nurses from the nuthouse or navy midshipmen or what?
And when Mary of Magdala didn’t recognize Him, and thought He
was the gardener,
Did He want to say, my God, Mary, the gardener, do I look like
a shaggy botanist?
And did He think boy, I would give my left arm for some fresh
grilled fish and bread,
Or man, when a guy gets wrapped for the tomb do they use enough
linen and spices.

And between you and me I am sure that there are also many other
things Jesus thought
The which if they should be written every one I suppose that
even the wild world itself
Could not contain the books that should be written. Like where
did he get a decent cup
Of coffee that morning? And who paid for it? And why was He
razzing Peter so much?
And when he saith unto Mary, woman, touch me not, was that a
personal space issue?
Or was she one of those people who when they touch you it
tickles even if they do not
Try to tickle you? You know what I mean? And when He appeared
along the lakeshore
And on the road to Emmaus, had He, you know, borrowed a shirt
and a pair of pants?
of all the hints and suggestions in the Gospels that Jesus may
have had a few brothers,
That’s the tiny hint that seems revealing to me, don’t you
think He might’ve swung by
His brothers’ apartment and nicked a shirt and left a note:
dude, I’ll make it up to you . . .

I had understood Brian Doyle’s poem to be an attempt to debunk the bodily resurrection of Jesus – not necessarily the resurrection, but the bodily resurrection. Debunking I said, seems to me to be a tricky business. Any theory of the resurrection is, of course, open to criticism, but it is helpful to keep in mind that no theory is the event itself. The legitimate debate and honest discussion of the various theories can be helpful but debunking, it seems to me, is counter productive in that it is distracting, misleading, tends toward superficiality, and magnifies our own personal emotional issues. This was, then, the trajectory followed by “An Easter Blog.” After the blog appeared Alliee DeArmond at the Word Shop sent me one of those rare reader responses saying that she didn’t think Doyle’s poem was an attempt to debunk the resurrection at all. She said that I should read Brian’s poem “Leap” which is full of faith – is all about faith. Alliee’s point, as I understood it, was that anyone capable of writing “Leap” had to be a Christian believer. However, Alliee was not able to explain to me what exactly she thought it was that Doyle was attempting in “Some Thorny Questions About the Resurrection,” and to even the casual observer of modern Christianity it ought to be obvious that many priests, pastors, theologians and lay people identify themselves as Christians, and are people of spiritual depth, without believing in the resurrection – bodily or otherwise. I know a Presbyterian pastor, whom I consider a friend, that crosses her fingers behind her back whenever the Apostles’ Creed is said. My family and I attended an Episcopal parish for about a year where the priest and lay leadership believe Jesus now lives only in the sense that as we remember him we are inspired and encouraged to live in a beautiful way. My son-in-law, who is Jewish, suggested they might prefer membership in a synagogue – there it is possible to participate in and to experience wonderful liturgy, and to believe pretty much what one wants about God without all this messy stuff about Jesus. The Christian Century even introduced Doyle’s poem as one he had penned, “while musing on the resurrection.” Consequently, I thought the poem had to do with the resurrection, and did not automatically prove either the presence or absence of any particular religious, or spiritual, faith. Then Brian wrote me a pleasant electronic note saying:

Larry, I happened across your note here, and I write with a smile to say that I am not in the least debunking the resurrection. God forbid (so to speak). I was trying the verse, actually – to make Him real, a man, a guy, us rather than the icon, the cold lifeless name used as a bullet, an excuse for blood and greed. The more we try to remember He was us, the better, seems to me. The holier, actually.

I appreciate Doyle helping me to understand his poem as a musing on the incarnation rather than the resurrection, and I think he is entirely correct. Jesus is often seen in such an “unnatural way,” as so ethereal, that he has no connection with the reality of human existence; indeed, is even distorted in such a way as to diminish authentic human existence. Conservative Christians frequently find it difficult, as J.B. Philips put it, to distinguish between “God become human,” and “God pretending to be human.” They sometimes embrace the ancient heresy of Docetism while thinking they are defending a high Christology. Furthermore, as I write these words I am nearly finished reading Brian’s Leap: Revelations and Epiphanies which does a wonderful job of showing faith in God, faith in Christ, in all its naturalness – it is a wise, creative, and lively book that is profoundly orthodox in a thoroughly modern way.

Still, I wondered why I had so misunderstood Brian’s intention. Because I thought it might be a generational thing I asked several people who are young and bright and educated and with it what they thought was the intent of the poem. All of them appreciated the humor. Some of them said, “Well, it’s about the humanity of Jesus. It’s about how Jesus had to think about the same ordinary things we do – Jesus was one of us.” Others said, “He is obviously attempting to discredit the resurrection.” As I have continued to reflect and to ask for the opinion of others I have come, not so much to any conclusions as I have to a couple of tentative observations.

A Humanities professor I asked about Doyle’s poem noted that the resurrection accounts are all about appearances to the disciples, and not about any physical object so that this becomes an odd space in which to focus on bodily details. By focusing on bodily details the poem almost inevitably, so it seems to him, tends to subvert any sort of belief in a bodily resurrection and therefore may reasonably end up being interpreted as an exercise in debunking – even though that is not what the author has in mind.

From a slightly different angle I would suggest that picturing the humanity of Jesus by focusing on the resurrection appearances is problematic in that it is in those very appearances of Jesus as the “glorified Lord” (as one who has transcended death whatever that means) that we are the least able to feel a connection with his humanity. Furthermore, by attempting to emphasize the humanity of Jesus in that space Doyle is forced to view the Easter event more as resuscitation than as resurrection. It is as if Doyle is thinking of what someone who had been in a coma for three days might have thought upon regaining consciousness. My schoolmate, Michael Queen was in a terrible automobile accident right after high school. He was in a coma for days. His mother sat with him the whole time, and when he finally came out of the coma the first thing he said was, “What are you doing here?” He could, I suppose, just as easily have asked: “Mom, can you get me a cup of coffee?” Or, “I know you’re upset and disappointed, but I promise! That’s the last time I will drink hard liquor.” We can relate to all that – to a resuscitation experience, but resurrection is of a fundamentally different order. Resuscitation means that one’s previous life as a finite person is resumed; resurrection means that another kind and level of existence has been entered. I personally believe the resurrection real but don’t think this necessarily demands materiality. The New Testament makes a clear distinction between Jesus’ pre-resurrection body and post-resurrection body. Jesus’ pre-resurrection body was ordinary, fully human, and mortal. His post-resurrection body was transformed, immortal – “glorified” if you will. In order to really work Doyle’s poem has to rely on an understanding of the Easter event as a resuscitation, something I doubt Doyle actually thinks, because that, humanly speaking, is what we can most identify with. And once the shift to a resuscitation perspective has taken place the poem is susceptible, in spite of Doyle’s higher intention, to being understood as debunking. What Brian Doyle was attempting to do is just difficult to artistically and intellectually pull off in the space in which he chose to work. I suppose how successful he was will depend on how readers as a whole interpret the poem, and by Brian as he assesses how well he communicated what he wanted to communicate.

I have also been thinking about the film “Blade Runner” in connection with Doyle’s poem. This is a 1982 film with a dystopian Los Angeles in November 2019 as its setting. Genetically engineered beings called “replicants” – smarter and stronger than human beings but indistinguishable except by a highly sophisticated test of emotional responses that even humans might fail – are manufactured for work, pleasure and war by the Tyrell Corporation. But slowly the film obliterates even this distinction until the viewer recognizes the full and sacred humanity of the replicants — who bleed when cut, who cry in sadness and sorrow, who feel affection and anger, who hunger for more life even as they suffer from “premature decrepitude,” and who are ultimately capable of experiencing that universal love and ineffable gratitude for life which is, I believe, an experience of God; and, therefore, the greatest and highest experience of being human. In the “Blade Runner” world I might ask whether asparagus makes a replicant’s pee smell funny – like it does mine. But that would be a question about chemistry, about physicality, about animality, not about our common humanity. I have been accused of being a priest who has lost his faith, a leftist and a communist, and a devil. It is not in wondering where I might find a good cup of coffee that I feel a profound sense of human solidarity with Jesus, but in hearing him called a bastard, a drunkard, a demon. I would think that the temptations of Jesus, or the cleansing of the temple, or his weeping by the grave of Lazarus would provide good material for a poem on the humanity of the Christ.

Well Brian, as I look at how much time I have spent thinking on “Some Thorny Questions About the Resurrection” I guess, even though I got it all wrong, I did find a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction in it. From the beginning I thought it clever and genuinely funny, your friends must delight in your company, and I am sorry that it didn’t help me to a deeper and more appreciative sense of Christ’s humanity, and of my humanity, and our humanity all bound up together. I sincerely hope others do – fully realize your stated intention. And, although I am something of a Hobbit, I hope that sometime we meet face to face – whether on this or the far shore.

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