As a pastor, whenever things at the church became terminally intransigent, I would often find myself telling a (borderline apocryphal) story about the tour following Bob Dylan’s 1965 show at the Newport Music Festival when he went electric for the first time – to a chorus of boos.
Dylan was confident, resolute and completely committed to the idea that his new electric sound was the future, so he played show after show across America where the first half was comprised of old folk standbys (“Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Don’t Think Twice,” “Oxford Town,” etc.), while the second half was his new electric set. The 1966 World Tour was sold out, and town to town to town, the arena would be full for the first half of the show. People would sway and sing and cheer. Then intermission would hit and 25 percent of the crowd would immediately leave, and most of those who remained did so only to boo for the entirety of the second set. Bob and his band, as described by his lead guitarist, would roll into town, rehearse, eat, sleep, play a show, fans would boo, pack up, drive, roll into the next town, rehearse, eat, sleep, play a show, fans would boo, repeat.
[Dylan] didn’t budge, and we stuck with him, and in time it’s been proven that the world was wrong and we were right. That’s quite a feeling.
– Robbie Robertson, lead guitar
“When anxiously triumphant Christianity gets its hands on Easter, it will interrupt your pain, ignore your limp, explain away your questions and strike up the Oscars band before your lament has had time to finish.”
Reading this now, we of course know who won that argument. The original hand-scrawled manuscript for “Like a Rolling Stone” sold for $2 million in 2014. Which is inspiring and all, but after years of being transfixed by Dylan’s resolve amidst the halcyon days of pastoral flameouts and church staff blow-ups during my late 20s and early 30s, I’ve mostly found that hagiographic stories about famous people overcoming obstacles (sometimes of their own making) to “make it” are, in the end, the most depressing of motivational posters.
As our Lenten journey moves through its final days, we seek to walk faithfully with Jesus to the cross and to his death before we discover again the empty tomb and gather to celebrate another Easter Sunday. However, the older I get the more I realize that the resurrection of Jesus has very little to do with an amazing one-time event when God, in a twist ending of cosmic proportions, fooled the universe with a tomb-clearing encore to the crucifixion.
[Jesus] didn’t budge, and we stuck with him, and in time it’s been proven that the world was wrong and we were right. That’s quite a feeling.
– St. Peter, lead guitar
In churches where I have Eastered most frequently, the crucifixion narratives are read through the lens of triumphant history, much like Dylan going electric, where we (the victors) stand on the other side of whatever hell we went through to get here, patting ourselves on the back for seeing what others failed to recognize in real time. Forgetting, of course, that in the minds and hearts of his closest followers, the death of Jesus clearly marked the failure of his teaching, inspiration, leadership and ability to sway the powers that be into bringing God’s kingdom to Earth as it was in heaven.
“Triumphant Christianity always starts at the end of the story . . . where Jesus and his followers are all in on the joke, anxiously anticipating their redemption.”
For clarity’s sake, I should note that the boos weren’t vindicating, the tears weren’t rewarding, the pain was unbearable and the defeat was deafening. Just like when the doctor calls you at home to tell you about your test results. Or when someone you love and share life with informs you through a terse whisper during family dinner that “we need to talk after putting the kids to bed.” When Jesus was arrested and later executed, no one (unless you were a Roman authority figure in Judea or a member of the Jewish priestly class) believed this was somehow good news. Or even that it was some bewildering way for God to cathartically exhaust his anger at humanity for Internet pornography and middle school smoking habits. For most people on the underside of power in the ancient Near East the death of Jesus was bad news – the worst, actually.
So when anxiously triumphant Christianity gets its hands on Easter, it will interrupt your pain, ignore your limp, explain away your questions and strike up the Oscars band before your lament has had time to finish. Triumphant Christianity always starts at the end of the story, during the “making it” montage, where Jesus and his followers are all in on the joke, anxiously anticipating their redemption. Which makes it hard for Triumphant Christianity to know what to do with the responses of almost all of Jesus’ closest followers in the wake of the death of their hopes, dreams and futures as they fearfully locked themselves away in an upper room or headed down to the tomb to say goodbye one final time to the person who gave their lives gravity for the past few years.
If we read forwards rather than backwards, we find that the season of Easter is about how, at the core, Christianity is a way of seeing everything for people who never got what they wanted from God, from life, from their families and friends and even from the very religion founded in the name of Jesus and his resurrection. Christianity isn’t a religion that saves us by finally bringing our dreams to life; it’s one that sustains us by keeping us afloat even when those dreams die again and again.
“Christianity isn’t a religion that saves us by finally bringing our dreams to life; it’s one that sustains us by keeping us afloat even when those dreams die again and again.”
If we’ll free it from the pastel sweater vest we’ve crammed it into, Easter reminds us that Christianity is a miserable failure. Sometimes it leaks. It swears when it drops a flashlight on its foot when the power suddenly goes out. It makes weird faces in family photos and gets uncomfortably honest about its break-ups after too much wine at your cousin’s wedding reception. It sometimes seems like it’s barely hanging on, but it never gives up, even when it has every reason to, even when it stops breathing for three days. And that’s what makes it such good news for so many of us, arguably all of us, if we’re being honest.
A Christianity that only ever gives us what we want, forever, isn’t a religion as much as a pyramid scheme whose validity is found only in the sheer numbers of people we’re able to capture under the spell of unending exotic vacations on golden streets that never reach their end. Our ability to transfix more and more people under the spell of this longed for end to our lives is the way many of us were taught to believe, to find our identity and worth and to locate the source of strength needed to survive the unexpected diagnoses, job losses and early NCAA tournament exits that make up the whole of life on Earth.
However, a Christianity that brings newness to deadness, even if the newness was something we would never have chosen for ourselves, a newness that doesn’t ride off into the sunset, but one that’s coughing and screaming and gurgling and terrifying and scarred and limping and never quite whole, but still standing nonetheless. Well, that sort of thing just might blow the doors off the universe if we’ll let it. At the least, I know this kind of Christianity manages to empty my tomb year after year after year.
May it empty yours, too.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a series of reflections written for Holy Week by some of our opinion contributors.