I recently found myself, at the recommendation of my pastor, reading a collection of short stories by Robert Shearman entitled Remember Why You Fear Me. It was a collection of all things weird and macabre, sort of like what you might expect from a contemporary British Poe, albeit with a bit of a mildly blasphemous streak.
Toward the end of the ebook version (not the print version) is a short story entitled Tiny Deaths, which opens with Jesus’ death on the cross. In this interpretation, he hears the Father’s voice from heaven while he’s hanging there, asking him if he’s sure he wants to go through with the plan. He assents one last time, and breathes his final breath. This is followed by a resurrection…of sorts:
Jesus didn’t know why he was so surprised. It was what he’d been preaching all these years, after all. He supposed he’d expected it to be a lot less restricting. His hands couldn’t move properly, and for a terrifying moment he wondered if this were a consequence of his crucifixion — but no, surely no, what sort of paradise would it be in which you carried the marks of your own death? And besides, the hands were moving, they just couldn’t do very much, they were so puny. He looked around him, everything seemed so big, and there were people above him, far far above him, he couldn’t reach them with those puny hands. And he noted, with calm astonishment, he seemed to be attached to some strange woman by an umbilical cord.
Instead of being resurrected, he’s reincarnated — and in a strange twist of fate, he finds he’s been reincarnated as one of the prisoners who was crucified beside him.
I confess that at this moment in time my inner fundie (whom I usually ignore) was telling me to scream “Blasphemy!” and throw the book across the room. How DARE he deny the resurrection! How DARE he introduce Eastern mysticism into the story of Jesus!
I’m glad, though, that I told my inner fundie to shut up and finished reading the story. The gist (SPOILER ALERT, I guess) is that Jesus continues living and dying “Uncountable” deaths, each time reincarnated as a different person — every person involved in the Gospel story, and eventually every person who ever lived. The reader is privy to his progression through the stages of grief, as he realizes his ministry was a sham, sees that the Father has abandoned them, and realizes he’s trapped in an endless cycle of death and rebirth. He experiences the pain of billions of lives, commits every possible sin, and dies every possible death. He sees the depths of depravity from the inside.
And then, when he’s seen every life there has been, he finds himself reincarnated as Jesus, yet again. He goes through the motions one more time, performs the same miracles, tells the same parables, and then finds himself nailed to the same cross. And then the heavens open again. And the Father asks him one more time, if he really wants to go through with it:
“Given any more thought to that offer I made? We can stop this right now, you know. You just need to say the word.”
He’s waited a lifetime. He’s waited everybody’s lifetime. Just say yes. You know all the people you’re sacrificing yourself for. Each and every bloody one of them. You know what they’re worth. Just say yes.
“No,” he says again. Because, really, what else can he do? Because, really, who else is going to save them?
“Okay,” says the voice.
And then, after a three-sentence summary of the resurrection, the story ends.
And as strange as it sounds, I felt like falling to my knees. I felt like worshipping then and there.
I read the story on a Saturday night, and its words haunted me throughout the Divine Service the following morning — as I kneeled to repent, as I listened to the word proclaimed, and as I tasted Christ on my lips. The image of the God who suffered to eternity for all of human evil was one I couldn’t purge from my mind. For me, it was the clearest moment of how Art can convey the Truth clearer than Facts can.
Let me be clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that everyone who reads this story will, or should, have the same reaction to it that I did. And I’m of course not saying I think the story was literally true — certainly not in the sense that its claims are representative of the narrative presented in Scripture. And yet, it conveys truth — even if it uses a “lie” to do so. Though Christ almost certainly didn’t experience things as the story presents them, he certainly carried the whole of the human experience with him when he died, and the story portrayed that, to me, in a striking and haunting way.
In other words, the story was not literally true, but it was deeply, profoundly, metaphorically true.
And again, I’m not saying that everyone would have the same reaction to the story that I did. I’m certainly not prescribing it as required reading. If you read it and succumb to my inner fundie’s initial reaction, throwing the book across the room, condemning it as heresy, and staging a public burning, I can’t really dismiss the validity of your reaction. After all, as I’ve said, the story is literally untrue, and some people are simply more literal-minded than others. Some of us are artists, and some of us are scientists.
This is a good thing.
In fact, the diverse array of genres and styles represented in Scripture affirms the goodness of the diversity of the way we’re wired. Contained within the same leather cover, you can find the technical, exacting theology of St. Paul, the twisted imagery of Ezekiel and Revelation, the erotic poetry of Song of Songs, and the essentially postmodern discourse of Job, which somehow twists a litany of falsehoods into something that nevertheless rings true. And if you prefer the exactness of Paul to the mystery of Job, that’s not a bad thing. We might have less to talk about over a beer, but it doesn’t mean you’re wrong and I’m right. It just means we’re wired differently.
And those books are both in Scripture for a reason.
I’m reminded of the whirlwind of controversy that sprung up around Aronofsky’s film Noah earlier this year, in which many Christians saw and loved the film for the way it portrayed the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy, while many others loathed the film for taking liberties with the text and inserting ROCK PEOPLE. ROCK PEOPLE. ROCK PEOPLE.
Who was right? Well, nobody, obviously. How you respond to a work of art is an intensely personal thing, informed by your personal experiences and the way you’re wired. If you preferred the unintentionally silly God’s Not Dead to the self-serious Noah, I might think you have terrible taste, but you’re not wrong. You just prefer movies that wear their theological hearts on their sleeve over movies that dig through mountains of earth to find theological diamonds. I might find you obnoxiously literally-minded, but that’s not a bad thing, it just means you grate on my personal sensibilities a little — and I, probably, on yours.
But the reality is — and this is what the Shearman story conveyed to me (though perhaps not to you) — Jesus came for everyone. The overly literally minded. The obnoxiously postmodern. The grandma buying way too many of those ugly Precious Moments figurines, and the kid hanging the Metallica poster in his dorm room. There’s room in the kingdom for more than one type of person, and there’s room for more than one type of art.
And that’s a good thing.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Other stuff I wrote: