The story of Easter is a fan-fiction that’s been crowd-sourced for over two thousand years. Granted, its fanatical authorship is of a bit higher caliber than, say, the latest provocateur of paranormal teen angst and sex. In truth, they represent some of the greatest minds our planet has ever coincidentally regurgitated throughout human history as male. Men such as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and Karl Barth. But, despite this accumulated brilliance, and maybe because of it, the story just can’t quite seem to coherently come together as a whole.
Today, our literary critique of the story starts at the end. Does Easter’s conclusion with Jesus‘ resurrection make this the greatest story ever written? Unfortunately, its fan-fiction continually undercuts the gravitas of this singular occasion. First of all, it wasn’t singular. Lazarus is resurrected quite a few chapters prior to Jesus. Interestingly, only one gospel mentions the zombie whom Jesus loved. Probably because even David Blaine could tell you that your big finale shouldn’t be the same trick you did earlier in the act. Seriously though, the synoptic gospels don’t mention this story, and it is only found in the much later written gospel of John. In some ways, John is the first attempt at the fan-fiction of Jesus. Here is Boston University professor Paula Fredriksen’s take on the person of Jesus in the gospel of John:
“Jesus in the Gospel of John is difficult to reconstruct as an historical person, because his character in the gospel is in full voice giving very developed theological soliloquies about himself. It’s not the sort of thing that if you try to put in a social context would appeal to a large number of followers. Because it’s so much Christian proclamation and Christian imagery, and it’s very developed. It’s a very developed Christology.”
When Jesus calls himself “the resurrection” in John and then goes about doing some resurrecting, the author is obviously making a statement about the nature of Jesus. And while it could be a good theological point –and maybe it even really happened– it does not make for a compelling story. I mean, there is foreshadowing, and then there’s blowing up the Death Star again.
Another problem for the narrative structure of Easter occurs in the next century or so. This fault rest firmly on Tertullian when he coins the term “Trinity”, and exacerbated later when it is codified in the Nicene Creed of 325. The concept of a monotheistic religion have several gods is a tricky philosophical problem to work out, and many smart folks have tried to tackle it with varying levels of success. My personal favorite quote on this topic is from Thomas Jefferson:
“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
Despite the obvious logical difficulties the trinity presents, most churches consider this doctrine central to their belief system. The logic puzzle here is not the concern. The problem is that if Jesus was God, then the resurrection is simply boring. Writing a story about how someone immortal doesn’t die is like telling the story of a puppy being cute, a fish swimming, or I don’t know, Tom Cruise being gay. It’s just who they are. (Also, they would all make for great Pixar movies.) If Jesus was fully God, dying is not a big deal. It’s not a sacrifice in any way. He dies for like a day and a half tops, and is worshipped for an eternity in everlasting bliss. I’m pretty sure most people would sign up for that gig.
I’ll mention one argument I can think of which could be used to introduce a bit more pathos into the story. Jesus was sinless but died anyway. That’s gotta tug at the old heartstrings. Okay, yeah, but isn’t that basically the plot of Old Yeller? Jesus took on the rabies of our sin and we were forced to put him down. That’s why this is a special story! Maybe this sacrificial lamb/scapegoat concept held more narrative power back in its day when people actually sacrificed animals to feel better about themselves and make it rain, but now it just doesn’t hold up. (And it’s just as manipulative as that freaking Disney version…) Also, sinless people die all the time, that’s nothing new. Because most people don’t hold to the concept of “original sin”, all children would qualify for that distinction. Even if they did have “original sin”, what just god would hold infants and babies accountable for the actions of their ancestors. Also, because of the trinity, his very sinless nature is called into question, because, once again, he’s playing with a rigged deck. He is all powerful. He has access to god that other humans will never be granted. No need for faith, or hope, because he knows for a certainty how this all plays out. He’s the original Superman. A guy who started merely leaping a few tall buildings, and then later became so popular and powerful that he could reverse time by flying real fast. Narratively, Jesus’ enhanced god powers kill the Easter story.
Very much like the sixth season of ABC’s Lost, the introduction of rules, theology, and mythology obfuscate whatever interesting story used to exist. If God is the author of this great narrative thing we call life, then we got the James Patterson of gods. The stories he wrote in the beginning weren’t even that good to begin with, and now he’s farming most of the work out to other authors. Don’t worry though, he’ll still take all the credit.