Keep Astarte in Easter

 

Every week I receive two or three e-mails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these e-mails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

1. My brother and I loved to torture and kill things when we were kids. With a pair scissors we’d snip off the wings of butterflies and moths until only their stubby bodies were left. With the same scissors, we’d bring the “praying mantis” to its knees, its little body flopping forward from the sudden loss of its big head. Someone told us that caterpillars and worms grew back the part you lopped off. We tested one after another until lay scattered on the dirt like cigarette butts. Who would have guessed that with a sprinkle of salt a snail would bubble up and melt like the Wicked-Witch-of-the-West? In the summer, when you could cook an egg on the sidewalk from the heat, we’d take a magnifying glass and steady its pinpoint beam over ants. Smoke would rise as their little bodies shriveled up. Our backyard in Fresno, in old Armenian town, was chock full of fruit trees. Birds found it a good place for putting up their nests. We had Easter egg hunts all Spring long.

2. There is a Polaroid of us standing at the end of a walkway that stretches to the front porch of our house. We look just shy of school age, four and five years old. Shadows stretch from our feet, and on the curb in back of us a black Buick is parked. We wear tidy white shirts buttoned to the neck, roomy shorts, ankle length socks and shiny dress shoes. Our hair glistens as though a wet comb has just been run through it, and we are standing at attention with toy army rifles at our sides. My best guess is that we were on our way to Church, and with a few minute to spare our mother probably thought “how cute” and ran in to get the camera. We in turn fetched the rifles. Go ahead, mom—- you shoot first.

3. I felt sorry for the Jews, enslaved to the Egyptians that way, but I felt pretty bad for their enemies too. First, you had the flood; then the Tower of Babel. The people of Canaan and Bethel were all slaughtered, but worst of all is what happened to the citizens of Sodom: burned alive. When the Jews took a city, they even killed the animals, cows and goats and pigs, as though they had something to do with it. There were so many wars and killings I couldn’t keep track of them. Our Sunday school teacher taught us: “Thou shalt not kill,” and then we sang songs about the people in Jericho getting buried alive.

I was happy when Jesus came around. He didn’t kill anybody. Only himself, sort of.

4. Why were people afraid to die if they were close to God? The bible said they were going to the bosom of God. How many people could fit in one bosom? Maybe they were scared they’d suffocate in there.

5. On Thursday nights, we watched Wild Kingdom. Marlin Perkins was the fearless host of that show. He bravely stalked savage animals, all in order to give us a window onto their world. Sometimes he would show how beautiful the wild was; a field of Flamingos, all on one leg; antelope coursing over the plains like a river; giraffe with necks long as palm trees loping into the horizon where the setting sun was colossal and turned the whole sky blazing pink. Mostly, though, these were backdrops for what we all wanted to see: one animal killing another. I remember the lion waiting in the grass, crouched. How, low to the ground and with stupendous patience it crept and suddenly bolted. It pounced on the gazelle, went for its throat, and within minutes the bucking and kicking stopped, and all on the Serengeti was calm. Then it began feeding, remorselessly. The way it calmly stared at the camera, its muzzle all covered with blood, left no doubt: it had done what it had done, and it had the right.

6. Murder: when someone bad kills someone good.

Capital Punishment: what they do to murderers where the president lives.

Massacre: when a whole bunch of people gets killed at the same time.

Genocide: what they did to the Armenians.

Slaughter: what they do to animals (or people who they think are animals).

Execute: when someone shocks you to death

Suicide: when you kill yourself.

And now what happened to Robert Kennedy—-assassination: killing someone important.

It was in the newspaper, a picture of a man cradling Kennedy’s head in his arms. It reminded me of the way the Virgin cradled Jesus when he was pulled off the cross. A dark cloud descended over the whole school. The Mexican kids were so upset you’d think they were relatives of Kennedy. Some of the girls cried on their desks. Later, I learned that they like Kennedy were Catholic—all of them went to Catechism.

“The Kennedy family is cursed. I feel bad for Jackie,” my mom said.

Dad said the Kennedy family, way back, made their money “bootlegging liquor.” It had to do with how every bad thing you do eventually comes back to get you.  Martin Luther King died the same year on a balcony. King was the one who told us “I have a dream.” His face was child like, but his voice was big as a river. Even my dad said, “He was a good man, King.”

I’d barely heard of Robert Kennedy or King before they were assassinated. Now everybody talked about them. I was amazed at how important people became after they died. I thought it was unfair that they should become famous without being around to appreciate it.  My dad said it always went that way.

“Not only that,” he added, “but the meanest people live the longest.”

He named a few of the meanest people he knew, and said that they had strong “constitutions.”

Just like America, I thought.

Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

As Will Entrekin has pointed out, Easter is a more complicated holiday than it first appears (especially when you consider the existence of Spy Wednesday, the only holiday with a license to kill). Douglas Adams, too, made the wonderful point that one of things we’re celebrating is that a couple of thousand years ago, someone said ‘Hey everyone! Let’s just be nice to each other!’ and humanity’s response was to say, ‘Well, clearly the only thing to do with this asshole is to just nail him to something and see how cheerful he is then.’

Somehow a rabbit that lays chocolate eggs is involved too, or something?

I don’t know. I missed out on that comparative veterinary theology class, I think. Although the one about how Mr. Ed is the Messiah was truly enlightening*

Anyway.

All that aside, Happy Easter. Stay happy, stay safe, and stay away from bad eggs.







*- and anyone who disagrees is getting Wil-burnt at the stake! Aha ha ha ha…

I put off posting until the final day of this month because it coincides with the Christian holy day with the coolest name: Spy Wednesday.  Not in the sense of the Gospel According to Ian Fleming, unfortunately, though that would be fitting considering that when Jesus was called before the Sanhedrin (Jewish high priests) and then sent to Pilate (the governor), it was for political insurrection.

That’s pretty spy-worthy.

Except the spy part refers to Yehuda ex Karioth, now known as Judas Iscariot, who conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  More contemporary accounts hold that Judas was actually acting on the will of Jesus, which makes it the sort of double-cross Ian Fleming loved.

While I’ve always understood why Christians mark Easter Sunday as their most holy day, I’ve always thought today is more important.

Because Spy Wednesday is also the day Jesus became Christ.

***

I was raised Catholic, and remained Catholic until my junior year of high school.  At that time, I transferred to a public school and broke from the faith before, two years later, I enrolled in a Jesuit college.  I didn’t know what that meant at the time and I worried how that education might conflict with one in science (I was already a declared pre-med major); science and religion have always been strange bedfellows.

There were a fair amount of priests on faculty, however, and I made it a point to get to know them so that I understood, better, what being Jesuit meant.  Wikipedia notes that Jesuits are known colloquially as “God’s marines,” but none of the priests I ever met seemed in any way militant.  Seriously, imagine your grandfather.  Or better yet, your grandfather’s brother, and imagine him both drunk and too old to be creepy anymore, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the men I met.  They all had the sorts of smiles that stayed around their eyes long after their mouths were otherwise occupied, and they all seemed to wear cardigans.  They spoke softly, and sometimes called you “Son.”

To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what Jesuit means, as opposed to what Catholic or Christian or Free Presbyterian (or Locked-Up Presbyterian) mean.  So far as I experienced it, it means education, compassion, and service.

Now that I’ve begun to teach classes in colleges, now that students and colleagues call me a professor and I hope one day to actually become one, I find I measure my own classroom performance against my experience in one particular class I attended more than a decade ago.  On the cusp of 32, it amazes me that a class I took as a sophomore in college, when I was 19 friggin’ years old, could be so developmentally important, but every year I realize just how much impact it’s had on my life.

That year, I took six credits of an honors seminar in theology, as required by the college’s curriculum.  I dreaded it; I was going to be a doctor, after all, and medicine isn’t about prayer.  It’s about knowledge and skill and precision, names of veins and arteries and the singular confidence that is picking up a scalpel and using it to cut open another person’s body, knowing you can help them, maybe even save them.

I am not a doctor because I realized I don’t have that confidence.

I didn’t realize it in that class, though.  That class was about other realizations, the kind of realizations so deep and fundamental you’re still making them a decade later.  Or at least I am.  I’ve always been slow like that.

My theology class was taught by a man named Robert Kennedy.  Jesuit priest trained in Zen Buddhism.  Tall and Irish.  Quick, piercing eyes that glasses did nothing to blunt.  When Father Kennedy listened to you, it made you want to say something that could change the world, because for a moment you believed you could.

We read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but we didn’t consider it as a religious document.  We looked at its historical context.  After we finished Revelations, we began to read literature, including More’s Utopia and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in more religious contexts, basically viewing each work through a lens of theological criticism just as we had applied feminist or sociological criticism in our literature classes.

When we hit the Gospels, they came as a revelation to me.  Not for content; I knew what they said.  I narrated the Nativity when I was in second grade.

What came as a surprise was the questions we raised about them.  Who wrote them?  Was Jesus a real person, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and on the third day rose again from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures?

Just asking those questions, nevermind the questions themselves, came as an epiphany for me; in those Catholic schools I’d attended, we weren’t allowed.  It could earn us detention.  Or worse.

***

When you ask questions in math or science, usually the answer is either an equation or an experiment away.  In literature and philosophy, five pages of well-argued bullshit do quite nicely.

History is different, though.  We want facts, evidence, citations, sources.  Or I do, anyway.  Maybe it’s the scientist in me.  When I consider life and its origins and evolution, nothing about it strikes me as so “convenient” that I require a deity to have initiated the process. There seems to be quite a bold leap from measurable, documentable evidence to “There must be an invisible dude in the sky.”

As with so many aspects of the Bible, problems with Jesus emerge when considering his life and story in the context of evidence.  There is, arguably, more circumstantial evidence of Jesus than of Shakespeare (four gospels versus a few signatures and a will), but Jesus didn’t write 30 plays.

Facts are hazy.  We know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by Anglican names—they were probably Matthaeis and Yuchanan, for two, and Marcus and Lucas, I suppose—but we’re not precisely sure who they were, when they were writing, or why.  By most modern academic agreement, the earliest gospel was Mark.  Mark was not an apostle, and he didn’t write until decades after Jesus’ crucifixion; most believe he was basically Peter’s secretary—Peter being Simon Peter, on whom Jesus declared he would build the Church, the building of which seems to have gotten in the way of Peter ever actually recording anything.  Most scholars in addition believe that two of the three other gospels—Matthew and Luke—were based on Mark and another source, called Q, and written several years later.

Those three—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are the synoptics, meaning they summarize the life, ministry, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  None of the authors actually met the man in question.

John’s is an oddball gospel; not only is it written in a completely different style, but John’s record of events don’t always coincide with the others’, to the point that he places the date for Jesus’ crucifixion in a different year.  John’s also the guy who wrote Revelations.  I’ve also heard that John is the guy who wrote while fasting on an island on which he consumed nothing but hallucinogenic mushrooms for a while.

I can’t argue the veracity of that claim, but it would certainly explain a lot.  Especially considering Revelations.

But the veracity of the Gospel accounts overall is something that’s fascinated me for years.  Some studies have claimed the most recognizable brands on Earth are Coke, McDonald’s, and Disney, but they seem to completely ignore Jesus (TM).  The Bible is the greatest-selling book of all time by several orders of magnitude.  Lately it seems like social media gurus have been talking endlessly about personal branding, and here’s the guy with the most powerful personal brand in history.  “Love your neighbor.”  “Blessed are the meek.”  He spoke in soundbites ready for mass consumption.

Except, of course, he probably didn’t.

Which is the part that’s fascinated me.  The separation of the man from the brand.

His appearance, for one.  A quick scan of IMDb lists numerous actors who’ve tackled the role: James Caviezel, Jeremy Sisto, Christian Bale, Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe to name arguably the most famous (and I have no idea why I always think of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, but I could have sworn O’Toole gave the role a shot).  What you’ll notice is a bunch of white dudes of mostly European heritage.

Which, of course, Jesus was not.  The big geographical points of his story are Bethlehem, in Judea, and Nazareth, in Galilee.  Most of his ministry occurred in the latter until he traveled to Jerusalem, which was where he ran into all the trouble and was crucified.

The most famous aspects of the Judas story are the pieces of silver and the kiss.  The silver is incidental, but the kiss is important; without it, chances are the soldiers arresting Jesus wouldn’t have recognized him.  Because he was just a regular bloke, and being a regular bloke back then meant he was short, probably under 5’5”.  He was also Jewish, which meant he probably had a darker complexion, and while most accounts refer to him as a carpenter, he was actually a tekton, which is closer in meaning to builder, and probably a stone mason.  So he was a short, muscular, Jewish guy.

Not Christian Bale.

***

I think the more important aspect of the Spy Wednesday story, however, at least in Christian terms, is that it is the day Jesus became Christ.  The two words, nowadays, are so inseparable people sometimes confuse Christ with Jesus’ last name.

It’s not, of course.  They didn’t really have surnames then, not like we do.  There wasn’t a Jesus Jones and a Jesus Smith and a Jesus Washington.  People were identified, mostly, by where they came from, their parents, or their occupation; Jesus would likely have been Yehoshua ex Natzeret or Yehoshua bin Miryam—that is, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus, son of Mary.  That latter because, remember, Jesus would have been an illegitimate child, and had no father.  This little factoid is interesting considering that, when Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus and the other prisoner, that other prisoner was Jesus bar Abbas, literally “Jesus, son of the Father.”  Make of that what you will.

Christ, however, is not a name.  It’s a title.  Like doctor, or professor.  An honorific.  It means annointed, which is what Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom Jesus was staying on the outskirts of Jerusalem, did on Holy Wednesday.  She annointed Jesus with a luxurious oil.

This annointment is what made Jesus both Messiah and Christ.  Both terms simply mean annointed.

***

I think about all this right around now every year for obvious reasons, not least because I still wonder about that account.  I can’t break from my scientific mindset; like Thomas the Doubter, I need more evidence to be convinced of any of the supernatural aspects of the story of Jesus.  I find the evidence he existed, and preached, and was crucified, reasonably credible.  There are enough accounts by enough writers that I can say I think it’s pretty likely a man named Jesus lived during the early part of the first century, and preached about love and our neighbors and had some relaxed and groovy philosophies.  I’m reasonably convinced he was a bit of a socialist and believed in judging not, and for that he got on the wrong side of the government, who didn’t know what else to do with him besides crucify him.

And that’s about it.  Virgin births and miracles and resurrections from the dead: not only am I not even a little convinced any of those things occurred, but neither am I convinced they matter.  In fact, most days, I go so far as to note I think that the supernatural aspects of the story cloud the truth of the man and his ministry.

Then again, as Pilate so famously asked: “What is Truth?”

(Image from here, after a BBC program and subsequent Popular Mechanics issue that explored forensic imaging of Jesus. Fascinating stuff.)