For an altar boy, Easter Sunday was the closest thing you had to the Super Bowl. The Mass was longer. The rope belt you wore was fancier. Everyone’s clothes were nicer. Even the chalices and trays, freighted with their divine payloads of wine and wafer, seemed heavier. While suiting up for Easter Mass, my little hands would shake with game-day nerves.
Being an active participant in the Mass is like being an actor in a play. In fact, the pleasure and pain we derive from ritual feels interestingly similar to that which we derive from watching plays and other performances, as certain Christians have been aware for centuries. In his “Confessions,” for example, Augustine writes of “the theatrical shows” of Carthage, where he lived: “Why is it that a person should wish to experience suffering by watching grievous and tragic events which he himself would not wish to endure? … What is this but amazing folly?” Augustine regarded drama, which he loved before his conversion, as a travesty of genuine religious experience. But what if the drama-lover’s experience is, too, real and transformative?
The Lamb of God, the Son of Man, the Word, the Way: as early as can be figured, Christians have thought about Jesus metaphorically. In the early third century, Origen, one of Christianity’s first great theologians, argued that allegory and metaphor were profoundly important tools in interpreting the meaning of Christian scripture. In his “Homily on Genesis,” Origen dismissed literalist interpretations of the stories in Genesis as “silly” and described the “stupidity” of literalist Christians as “heavier than the sand of the sea.” To him, for instance, the story of Noah’s Ark was an allegory for how to survive within a church surrounded by a hostile world.
Sometimes I wonder what this singularly brilliant man would make of our world 17 centuries hence, in which people privy to information Origen could only have dreamed of persist in their fervent Biblical literalism — or should I say “literalism.” You can’t read any text without interpretation, after all, and interpretation always — always — takes place in the imagination, a playground prowled by God and demon alike.
Recently I sat for an interview about my new book, “Apostle,” which details my years-long journeys to the supposed tombs of Jesus’s original followers. My interviewer wanted to know one thing: whether I thought the stories in the Bible were true or false. But I don’t think this is the best question to ask. I tried to explain that all stories are true and false — that the act of imposing a narrative upon real events necessarily distorts those events. When a simple explanation as to why the major players of the Bush administration pushed us toward war in Iraq now seems as irrecoverable as Atlantis, having any opinion on the final “truth” of events said to have taken place in Judaea and Galilee two thousand years ago seems … well, to quote Augustine, what is this but amazing folly?
My personal opinion is that the New Testament’s accounts of the Twelve Apostles, as with many of the people and events it records, are a combination of historical information and imaginative information, reinforced by theological and evangelistic agendas. This, I think, sensible position becomes, in the minds of some, a broadside against belief. Whether the Twelve Apostles existed as the Bible records is not a question that’s answerable, or one that touches the most important aspects of religious belief.
What you can talk about are the stories early Christians told themselves, and how these stories became the raw material for how Christianity understands itself and its relationship to God. Stories, as the vessels of our beliefs, are often far more interesting and culturally adaptable than the beliefs themselves. Understandably, then, the it’s-just-a-beautiful-story approach to Christian beliefs greatly annoys some Christians. (As the devout Flannery O’Connor said at a Manhattan dinner party when informed that the Eucharist was merely a beautiful symbol, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.”) There seems to be little common ground here between the believer and non-believer: if something is a symbol, a story, a drama, one might conclude, it cannot also be true.
Fundamentalists fight so hard, and are often so angry, because they believe their faith cannot survive a non-fundamentalist makeover; their dearest, deepest, most private selves are endangered by looking at the stories of Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection as glittering metaphors. They look around and see fangs-bared atheists on one side and head-patting paternalists on the other, each chalking the Christian faith up to imaginative fiction. Literalists are not wrong; their fundamentalist faith probably wouldn’t survive. But I think there are more and arguably richer ways to believe than literally, as Origen observed in the third century.
Consider that Shakespeare knew nothing of developmental psychology, modern political theory, economics, or the genome, and the faith we nonetheless have in him to make sense of our own times. Storytelling has and always will have a corrective power less fragile than that of faith — less fragile because it is not vulnerable to mere fact. This is why anyone who derives meaning from art has no business claiming not to understand meaning derived from religion, and vice-versa: What are stories but part-time religions? What are readers but temporary fundamentalists?
This Easter, think of what so many of us have in common: a need to bring order to our lives, a desire for transcendence, and a love of stories. God is part of the same formless reality as thought, as fiction, as art — as real as all bits of data that float invisibly through this world, somehow creating output in the form of meaning. In this sense, everything that moves and shapes us is real. How comparatively unimportant that everything also be true.