A young woman who had been visiting in the United Methodist congregation my husband serves came to him to inquire about membership. He was, of course, happy to answer her questions, but wondered about the “problems” she said that she had with her previous congregation.
Well, she replied, some of the things taught there struck her as a little creepy and almost cultish. Pressed for a specific example she replied that she was told that our bodies would someday be raised from their graves. By the way, she recited the Apostles Creed by heart along with the rest of the congregation each Sunday.
I recalled this incident upon reading an interview in a recent Newsweek with the Anglican bishop and New Testament scholar, N.T. Wright. The occasion for the interview was the publication of Wright’s most recent book, Surprised By Hope. But the essence of the bishop’s remarks was this: Today, talking about the Resurrection of Jesus means talking about something that few persons have actually heard of. Sort of.
Wright means that insisting on the historicity of the Resurrection is the new part. People are used to hearing of the event spoken of as myth, metaphor, or symbol. People, presumably Christian people, are used to hearing about the “spiritual” meaning of the “Easter event.” It’s just that these same people aren’t really able to say what it has to do with anything.
The fact that these assumptions were featured in a publication as clearly mainstream and middlebrow as Newsweek made me wonder how far gone we really are. That the promise of the resurrection of our own bodies seemed to our church’s guest more like a scene from a zombie movie than the consummation of God’s redemptive activity is disturbing in more ways that one.
My alarm is not that there are large parts of the church that don’t think as I do. While that disturbs me, it doesn’t alarm me. The problem, rather, is that the keystone of the Christian story is now missing from the lives and the minds of so many believers. Whether this is from laziness on the part of our preachers and teachers (which I doubt) or from an admirable desire to communicate with its surrounding culture (which is probably the case), we seem to have lost the thread of the only story we have to tell.
My observations have been raised by others as have the typical responses: that the real business of the church is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, defend the oppressed. That is certainly true. But as our friend Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, it is the height of arrogance to imagine that one must be religious in order to be just, compassionate, or caring. To speak of the Resurrection is certainly not the only way to underwrite a particular way of life. But it is our way.
If I wished to be cynical, I might point out that after 2,000 years of being about the “real business” of the church, the amount of misery in the world seems to have remained constant. As I write these words, thousands have died in Myanmar and thousands more will die. The Christian reason to keep trying in the face of all this misery is not that our striving will end this, but that each individual body is precious to God. The resurrection is the proof of that.
Further, the church’s apparent late-to-the-party attitude toward an issue like climate change derives from not doctrinal navel-gazing or self-absorption, but from our failure fully to imagine all the implications of a bodily resurrection. As Bishop Wright observes, the resurrection of Jesus “gives you a sense of what God wants to do for the whole world….” The resurrection is ultimately about God’s desire for all of creation; through Christ, God is remaking humanity and the cosmos.
As the bearers of the gospel, let’s be sure we understand that.