Is Jesus Risen? Literal View Gains Ground

A group at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon studies Scripture and
A group at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon studies Scripture and "evidence books" about Easter. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

Growing up in Fairfax County, Donita Dickerson and her family typically didn't attend church on Easter. She would dress up and go with her grandmother some years, but the holiday's central theme -- that Jesus rose from the dead -- was symbolic, not real.

"We were coming out of the 1960s, and everything was being challenged," she said. "My father was very into being against the establishment, and everything was about questioning everything."

Now 41 and the mother of two sons, Dickerson is in a study group at Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon that reads books such as the best-selling "The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus," which focuses on supporting the traditional Christian view that Jesus returned from the dead, an event commemorated today.

"As you mature in your faith, at some point you say, 'I'm just going to believe this,' " she said as the group of 10 women gathered recently for an Easter-themed discussion. Everyone else nodded as she said, "I still believe it. That's why they call it faith."

The Easter story is the centerpiece of Christians' faith. For most, the miracle of Jesus overcoming death three days after the Crucifixion -- whether in body or spirit -- is not open to debate. Others do not view the Resurrection in a literal way but as a powerful, transformative metaphor about his message living on.

In the past two decades, there has been a heightened scrutiny of Scripture, with basic Christian tenets such as the Resurrection challenged by biblical scholars and others in their search for historical facts about Jesus. But in recent years, there has been a rise in the popularity and stature of books that embrace Dickerson's traditional view of Easter, experts say.

Two books, "The Case for Christ" and "The Case for Easter: A Journalist Investigates the Evidence for the Resurrection," have sold a combined 4 million copies. Both were written by Lee Strobel, a former Chicago Tribune editor and atheist who became an evangelical pastor. Others include more than a dozen meant to rebut various themes in "The Da Vinci Code," the hit novel that centered on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that the truth of his life was suppressed by Christian officials.

The current No. 1 theology book for the Christian Booksellers Association -- which tracks books sold through Christian retail stores -- is "More Than a Carpenter" by Josh McDowell, which reiterates the orthodox view. New Testament scholars have been talking since 2003 about "The Resurrection of the Son of God" by N.T. Wright, a prominent biblical scholar and a bishop in the Church of England who says that Jesus likely rose in body from the dead.

Many such writings challenge works by a group of biblical scholars, known as the Jesus Seminar, who in 1985 began questioning the historical authenticity of various Gospel teachings about Jesus. The group generated interest and set off a chain of magazine covers and television shows about "the historical Jesus."

"There seems to be in the past decade a move to embrace the traditional faith of the church, not really in a retrograde way, but in a 'let's take another look at what modernity may have too readily dismissed' sort of way," said Cynthia Lindner, director of ministry studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

The traditional books are part of a general surge in "evidence books." Two that take the opposite tack are "Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why" by Bart Ehrman and "The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus's Final Week in Jerusalem," by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan. Last week, they were on the Publishers Weekly top 10 list of religious hardcover books.

Despite such successes, a shift is seen even by some who believe that Jesus was not resurrected in the traditional sense -- and, more importantly, that the point is not essential to being a believing Christian. Ian Markham, dean of the nondenominational Hartford Seminary, said Christians are increasingly turning away from the idea that all life can be explained by science.

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