In an era increasingly hostile to Christian faith, our greatest challenge is to proclaim and to live out the most basic and essential affirmation of that faith: that Jesus rose from death to bestow life on the world.
Best-selling, easy-to-read novels can provide welcome distraction when we’re feeling too tired or cooped-up to concentrate on serious literature. Those potboilers, the kind we find in airport bookstores or on the “For Sale” cart of the local library, serve a useful purpose – at least until they begin to play havoc with basic truths of Christian faith.
A case in point, beside the notorious Da Vinci Code, is Steve Berry’s lightweight “historical novel” called The Templar Legacy (NY: Bantam Books, 2006). The Writer’s Note at the end gives Berry’s sources, which include an invented “Gospel of Simon.”
This purports to be an account, written by Simon Peter, that lauds the virtues of the man Jesus (he was tender and loving toward the poor, fearless before his enemies, “women and children were precious to him,” he “offered the sick the courage to become well…”). Condemned by his own people, Jesus was crucified by a reluctant Pilate. Then, the account goes on, Jesus died and was left on the cross for six days before “he was finally taken from the cross and dropped into a hole dug from the ground.” Subsequent appearances of Jesus are described as “visions.” No resurrection, no empty tomb; just a body dumped in a makeshift grave. Nevertheless, “Simon” continues, the impact of Jesus’ life brought to mind his words about God’s love and finally offered the disciple a certain enlightenment concerning the ultimate meaning of the Christian message. “The man Jesus was not dead. He was alive. Resurrected within me was the risen Lord.” A main character in the book heaves a sigh of relief over this “Gospel” witness: “No supernatural events or miraculous apparitions. No actions contrary to history or logic.” It all totaled up to “the first ancient account [of Jesus’ death] he’d ever read that made sense.”
In the Writer’s Note, Berry declares: “the alternate concept of how Christ may have been ‘resurrected’ came from an excellent book, Resurrection, Myth or Reality by John Shelby Spong.” Yes indeed, that too makes sense. On reading that reference, I had a flashback to the time many years ago when I recommended to a class in ethics that students read another book by the good Episcopal bishop, titled Living in Sin?, with stress on the question mark. It’s an excellent example, I noted, of just how perverted a great deal of contemporary (“post-modern”) ethical reflection has become.
There may be no great harm in relaxing with a potboiler, even one that denigrates traditional witness to the central element of Christian faith, namely the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ. After all, the Berrys and Spongs of this world are not the only ones who have trouble believing that someone who had actually died could just as actually be brought back to life, and particularly life of a very different order: with a body that can pass through closed doors, yet consume bread and fish, and finally “ascend into heaven.”
The question is not how they understand the Christian message, but rather how we ourselves understand it, and what we do with that particular understanding, which, as Berry points out, defies both historical investigation and human logic.
We live in an era increasingly marked by persecution of Christian believers. Despite what the New York Times bestseller lists might suggest, our most formidable adversaries are not atheists. They are people who hold to some other form of faith, some other spiritual worldview, which is incompatible with Jesus’ gospel of love. We can, of course, become our own worst enemies in this respect, by refusing to live out Jesus’ gospel in any meaningful way. The point is, though, that today, just as during the Soviet era or the first three centuries A.D., Christians are being persecuted and martyred. Rather than convert to Islam or buckle under to restrictions on worship imposed by some totalitarian regime, these people are risking their lives by holding fast to the “faith of their fathers,” that faith “which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
The heart of that faith, and the only message powerful enough to furnish the strength and courage to endure such persecution, is the New Testament witness to the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. The apostle Paul states it in the clearest terms:
“If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead….” (1 Cor 15:12-20).
Ancient heresies that deny Christ’s resurrection are widespread today, and growing. They take an especially dangerous form in militant Islam. But the influence of popular books such as those of Brown and Berry, or of pernicious distortions of the New Testament by those entrusted with the spiritual and theological direction of the Church, is perhaps just as dangerous, just as destructive.
We need to remember Feuerbach’s ironic aphorism, “Man ist was man ißt,” we are (or we become) what we eat. If we consume heretical notions, without discernment, then those notions will gradually shape our very way of thinking and being. “Heresy,” like “sin” or “chastity,” is a politically incorrect term today. And that’s a good reason to take it all the more seriously.
Our greatest challenge as Christian people, however, is to take seriously the faith we ourselves claim, and most essentially, the truth of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. That truth is inaccessible to historical research or scientific inquiry, and it flies in the face of human logic. Yet it has been the cornerstone of belief and life for countless millions of people throughout the ages, including untold numbers of martyrs and confessors. If they could find within themselves the determination and courage to preserve and defend their faith while facing torture and death, it is because they had immediate and powerful experience of the Risen Lord in their worship, in their interactions with others, and in their personal and collective suffering.
It is easy to proclaim “Christ is risen!” at a Paschal celebration, surrounded by other believers and living in a society of affluence, tolerance and relative security. It’s quite another matter to make that proclamation when it may lead to public humiliation, physical torture or execution. We need to remember, though, that this is precisely what the apostles themselves faced and endured, as large numbers of Christian faithful today still do. With them we can turn Berry’s pseudo-gospel into the ultimate Good News: “The man Jesus is not dead. He is alive. Resurrected within me is the risen Lord, just as I shall be resurrected in him.”