Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sabbath Reflections: Mythologizing Easter

Take a second and think about how you would tell the story of the first Thanksgiving in a few sentences. (Yes this is a post about Easter. No you did not enter into a time-warp that took you back to November. Why would you even think such a silly thing?)

I actually did an activity like this at a Thanksgiving party last year, where three different groups performed skits to summarize the event. Here were the main plot points that pretty much everyone included:
  • Pilgrims flee religious persecution of some kind.
  • They travel to the New World on the Mayflower.
  • They land on a rock.
  • Lots of them die in the winter.
  • The kind Indians help them plant corn.
  • They celebrate with a feast.
  • And they all lived happily ever after.

Even some of these details were fuzzy to a few people who will remain unnamed. (I overheard one conversation involving whether the Pilgrims arrived before or after Columbus.) But that was the general flow of the summaries.

Everyone probably knew that the Indians who attended the first Thanksgiving didn’t say, “Me eat corn now.” They probably didn’t think that all of the traditional dishes—sweet potatoes with marshmallows?—were served at that feast. And, if I had asked, they could probably have explained how the Pilgrims would have viewed the modern celebration of the holiday (I’m sure they’d love the parade, especially those Rockettes) given their religious beliefs.

But the picture that comes into our heads is the cartoon version, the coloring book plot that was drilled into our heads since we were young enough to wear paper-bag Indian costumes and newspaper pilgrim hats.

In our culture, Thanksgiving is considered a real, historical event…but that’s not what we think of first. We’ve made Thanksgiving into a myth.

To Christians, Jesus’ resurrection is considered a real, historical event…but that’s often not what we think of first, because we’ve made Easter into a myth.

I’m not even talking here about the random intervention of the Easter bunny, dyed eggs, and colorful plastic grass that somehow tracks itself all over the house. I’m talking about the fact that when I think of the Biblical account of Easter, I don’t think of it as a real historical event.

Sure, I believe it really happened. But I’ve disassociated that fact from the way I view the story. I tend to think of the resurrection as a storybook tale from my childhood, one that happens to be true, but is confined to the simple plot that I learned when I was a child. It goes like this:
  • Jesus died.
  • He was buried.
  • The women went to the tomb, and Jesus was gone!
  • Jesus appeared to Mary and told her to tell the disciples.
  • The disciples didn’t believe her.
  • Then Jesus appeared to them too.
  • And they all lived happily ever after.

All of this is true, and all of it is good. But I’ve realized that there’s so much more that we need, especially when responding to people who don’t believe that the resurrection actually happened.

Example: in one of my classes, we examined the fact that Jews in Jesus’ day didn’t believe in a physical resurrection until the end of time (and some didn’t even believe in that), so it would be the last thing on their mind if they were inventing a lie.

And it hit me: people back then believed stuff! Stuff that isn’t written in the Bible, that we can see in other Jewish literature of that time. There is a background to the story that’s not included in the simplified flannelgraph version.

There was a reason why the disciples might not believe the women, and why an invented account wouldn’t chose them as witnesses—they had little to no influence or credibility in that time. And on and on like that. These were real people and their culture had as much complexity as ours.

This stuff actually happened!

I wonder how many people out there are like me. We’ve heard the stories so many times that they become just that—stories.

And how does that affect the way we teach children? What will they take away if they grow up hearing all of these fantastic stories? Jonah got gulped up by a whale! The sun stood still! A kid with rocks killed a giant! Moses talked to a bush that was on fire!

We try to make these stories simple and easy for kids to understand, and there’s a place for that. But if we strip away the messy cultural conflicts (Jews vs. Samaritans), strange rituals (washing feet or exchanging sandals when making a land sale), or “boring” sections of the Bible (pretty much all prophecy) what are we implicitly telling them?

This isn’t real.

And that’s just really sad to me.

Sometimes, Easter is a coloring book when it should be a documentary, not the boring kind, but the kind that sucks you in, shows you details you would never have noticed, and makes you feel something. And we settle for a line drawing of an empty tomb with a daffodil growing next to it (because they totally had those in Israel).

Easter can be so much more. All of the Bible stories can be. They’re full of cultural values, sarcasm, figures of speech, quirky characters, allusions to other events, puns, biases, and all kinds of crazy stuff that goes along with real people doing real things.

Jesus is risen.

This is not fiction. So let’s not treat it like it is.