“But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb…suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them…’Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen’” (Luke 24: 1,4,5; NRSV).
That the resurrection is a beleaguered doctrine in North America and in Europe is hardly a new revelation. For all its technological wonders, modernity is uncomfortable with old-fashioned miracles. Pre-modern ways of talking about Jesus’ resurrection don’t translate easily for an audience that demands scientific corroboration and empirical evidence. As a result, Christianity has chastened and tamed this story in a number of ways.
For those who embrace the story, but are sensitive to its anti-scientific basis, it is tempting to relegate it to the distant past. “We can’t explain it, but we don’t need to because it was sooo long ago. It’s a mystery!” we might say with a reverent tone. Other interpreters make sense of it by reducing it to sentimental affirmations like this one, “Jesus lives on in our hearts and minds.” Or perhaps, “Resurrection means that God makes a Way out of No Way.” It’s not that these aren’t right in some way, it’s just that these are minimal affirmations that make resurrection little more than a subjective and individual experience.
For some, however, the bodily resurrection of Jesus makes an excellent litmus test. In this instance, resurrection becomes a dogma to affirm or deny. “Declare which side of orthodoxy you are on—say yes or no so that we know if you are one of us or one of them.” I witnessed that at my own beloved seminary among faculty members, though most of the doctrinal warfare was kept hidden from students.
Of course, there are those who distrust dogma and prefer to embrace Christ’s resurrection dramatically and experientially. As an extreme example of this, I have read of Easter morning re-enactments with twinkling lights and smoke and a bearded member of the congregation emerging from a darkened cave that had been built in the sanctuary. Be sure to get to church early for a front row seat!
Resurrection as ancient mystery confined to the past. Resurrection as ongoing memory of Jesus. Resurrection as litmus test. Resurrection as spectacle. These are the lackluster choices.
Paul’s affirmation of the general resurrection of the dead has fared even worse in modernity, where a weak version of the soul’s immortality has won out over the resurrection of the body. But this has not always been the case. Christian reflection on 1 Cor 15 became especially robust when Christians were facing death in the gladiatorial arenas in Rome. In response, the early church fathers wrote that, though the martyrs might end up in bits and pieces in the stomach of lions, they would not be excluded from the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, God would put the pieces of those righteous martyrs back together at the sound of the trumpet. Caroline Walker Bynum argues that for the early church, resurrection became an important way to reflect on the tragedies of the embodied life. “Death,” she writes, “was horrible…it was part of an oozing, disgusting , uncontrollable biological process…that threatened identity itself.” (113) Tertullian wrote that one didn’t have to be eaten by a beast to experience the horror of death and the loss of self. All death was violent, even the gentlest death. But resurrection helped the community face this violence and overcome the fear of decay and fragmentation.
In contrast to the women seeking out the dead and decaying body of the lord, commentators have noted how we have nearly banished the dead from our daily lives and churches. We replace “died” with “passed away,” when we announce a death in church. We relegate the care of the dead and the dying to others, often where we cannot see them. And not coincidentally, our death-denying culture seems to have little use for resurrection hope.
What is interesting to me is that, outside of our stained-glass, lily-filled sanctuaries, death and resurrection stories continue to haunt us—in surprising and sometimes gruesome ways. Take, for instance, Ron Rash’s ecologically themed novel, Saints at the River. (Warning—spoilers ahead!) The conflict in the book revolves around the body of a young girl stuck in an Appalachian river and what should be done to retrieve her. As a true heir to Flannery O’Connor’s southern gothic style, Rash ends his book with a shocking image of the faithful kneeling and praying beside the river as bodies are literally raised into the air.
And what about all those horror stories of the undead? Vampires and zombies distort the idea of embodied life after death, but also explore the nature of our fleshly humanity. Envisioning bodily and spiritual decomposition, stories such as The Walking Dead graphically play on our worst fears about becoming inhuman and inhumane, and perhaps beyond redemption. But many of them also imagine a kind of grace and restoration. Zombies become humanized when they experience love- that is the premise of the recent hit movie and book Warm Bodies. In I Am Legend, a medical cure (i.e. modern technology) works on a young woman zombie who also bears a tattoo of a butterfly, a Christian symbol of the resurrection. In the Twilight series, supernatural transformation restores Bella Swan to life and re-integrates into her surprisingly virtuous vampire “family.” The family is an alternative and diverse community, as one would expect of vampires living in western Washington State. It protects vulnerable humans and eats only a “vegetarian diet.”
After hearing Mary Magdalene’s story about angels, empty tombs, and a dead man arisen, the disciples dismissed her story as “an idle tale” (Luke 24:11). Fittingly, stories of resurrection and life after the grave have often found a home in the idle tales of our culture. Fantasy literature has offered many different versions of the Christ narrative. C.S. Lewis pondered it in the figure of Aslan—the Christ figure of Narnia. Tolkien conjured for us Gandalf the Grey who battled the demonic Balrog, fell to his death, and returned as Gandalf the White. And J.K. Rowling has given us Harry Potter, a different kind of Christ figure than the earlier models. Though never labeling herself a Christian, nor a Christian writer, she nevertheless puts 1 Corinthians 15:26 on the tomb of Harry’s parents, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (KJV). When Harry meets Voldemort, at the break of day (Luke 24:1), one can see that Rowling has read her Bible carefully—for Voldemort is none other than the supra-mundane tyrant that Paul speaks of when he describes death and sin.
These re-workings of the biblical narrative are not without their flaws, theologically and literarily. I do not wish to read them as simple substitutes for the biblical accounts. Nor do I advocate a return to pre-modern way of reading the biblical accounts. But I am cautiously optimistic that we might be able to reclaim the biblical narrative of death and resurrection in new ways. I am encouraged by the robust thoughtfulness of many of these stories as they struggle with the tragedies of embodied life, with salvation, and transformation. I only understand resurrection in bits and pieces myself, but I remain enthralled by the idle tale.
[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]