Easter After Israel

It’s now been about two weeks since I arrived home from Israel; as you might note, I haven’t written much since then. But a few days after Easter seems a fitting time to share some of my reflections over the past few weeks. The experience of Easter Sunday has spurred me to think deeply about how my experience of the places where the Easter story unfolded has changed my perception of the narrative.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I tend to relate to my faith through intellect and intuition far more than through emotion. To a great extent, this is simply a matter of the way I’m wired, and while it makes me especially good at some aspects of theology, it doesn’t always prove terribly helpful on my faith journey. Since Maundy Thursday, in revisiting Christ’s death and resurrection through the Gospels, a few thoughts have dawned on me about my own failings in understanding the crux of our faith. Perhaps some of you, dear readers, might be helped by my reflections on weaknesses of my own that my pilgrimage is–I hope–working to remedy.

I have discovered within myself two places where–though I did not know it until recently–my understanding of the Passion and Resurrection were woefully insignificant.

The first of these, given my psyche, is perfectly understandable (I tell myself). I have allowed my understanding of Christ’s redemptive work to be too abstract and global without also realizing how palpable and intimate it is. Seeing the places where the events unfolded, being exposed to the nuances of the location and culture–to the extent that they remain available after 2000 years, has plunged me into the thick of the narrative to consider with great detail what the experiences might have meant to those who experienced them. Given my existential approach to theology, it’s actually rather embarrassing that I’ve for so long neglected the import and emotional impact of being personally involved in the story in favor of looking to the transcendental and eternal truth of the Gospel as if it were merely on of Joseph Campbell’s “myths to live by.”

Let me be clear: this is a story with mythopoeic–perhaps better stated as theopoeic or theopoetic–power. There is great and deep truth in the Gospels that needs nothing from historicity to be true. That said, some things, sacrifice especially, have more meaning when someone actually had to endure the suffering and loss. Otherwise the meaning is only a metaphor for the idealistic world, a fine point on our weltschmerz, that “suffering unto death” that underlies the human condition and the existential states that God’s redemptive work addresses and heals. Acts of sacrificial love are only well-intentioned ideas until they are acted upon. There are many of the Bible’s stories that have the exact same meaning regardless of whether they are histories or stories, because they speak to the nature of reality. With Jesus and the entirety of the Incarnation, the something would be lacking from the Gospel message if it the events described did not actually happen. Easter is not merely some celebration of the story; it is a celebration that God, through Jesus, actually did the things that redeem us. He is Risen, indeed.

Thus, the Gospel story should be encountered as personally as possible, because the redemptive acts of the Passion and Resurrection–under whichever theory of atonement we might choose to understand them–are deeply personal and we are living them out, each and every day, though we often fail to see this in the bright lights and constant motion of daily survival.

From a certain perspective, perhaps I should offer myself some grace, because I lacked the tools to place myself within the events before my journey. I had not seen much of Israel, even in pictures, so I had little my imagination could grasp (except for illustrations in children’s picture books, bad Biblical reenactments and fleeting glimpses from documentaries) to build an image of the action and setting.

And that is especially true in America, I think. As a recent comment I overheard about Sunday’s live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar demonstrates, the images we associate with the strength demonstrated by Jesus in the Gospels falls into the same problem that plagued the people who encountered Him directly when He dwelt on the Earth: we superimpose our social ideas of strength upon Him rather than seeing the true strength He demonstrates in His sacrifice. We want a warrior king instead of a humble servant to represent the things we should aspire to. A pastor friend of mine likes to point to the “P90X Jesus” as an iconographic example of this–the image of an Olympic athlete with .001% body fat displayed on the cross (and usually white to boot).

A better understanding of the particulars of the people who experienced the Incarnation, the culture into which Jesus came and the places where Jesus preached and died both brings the truth of the story home and reinforces the actual meaning of the story rather than allowing this to be a mutable myth that we can make to be a mirror of ourselves.

The second realization I had is that I take for granted knowing the ending of the Easter story. I know that the Resurrection follows Good Friday and never stop to consider what it must have felt like not to have known–no matter how much faith one might have had in the expectations of what would come to pass.

When the disciples watched Jesus die, watched His suffering without any power to stop or alleviate it, were forced to doubt the reality of all He had taught them. I imagine most of you have read the C.S. Lewis quotation arguing that Jesus was either God or a madman; now imagine having invested three years of your life to answer that question, believing that Jesus is God, and then watching Him die, yourself likely a criminal subject to personal persecution if you too much attention comes to you.

Kafka could not have written a story of greater absurdity, Satre one of more extreme existential strength. There is no avoiding, I think, that if you were a follower of Jesus on Good Friday, you felt your soul on that cross with him though your body remained free, felt each nail pounded slowly deeper into your very essence, felt your ability to breathe and not to panic slowly fade to oblivion, felt everything you ever knew or believed threatened, felt forsaken by the One in whom you placed all your trust.

How fortunate we are never to have suffered this dark night of the soul! Though, I suspect that most of us at one point or another in our struggle to come to faith have encountered something similar in substance though lesser in degree.

As we march toward Pentecost and the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit, let us try to feel the wonder and amazement when the disciples encountered the living Christ, how their faith had been fully, finally and undeniably affirmed, how nothing in the world could touch them or hold them after seeing the ultimate truth of Creation. That is redemption. That is grace.

Modern Mythopoeia

Tolkien’s legendarium is arguably the sine que non of the practice of modern worldbuilding (founded, of course on the ancient mythopoeias of Greece, Rome and especially the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe). The mythological histories that lurk behind the stories of Patrick Rothfuss, Susanna Clarke and G.R.R. Martin likewise inspire a wonder that deepens the metaphoric and thematic meanings of their respective works, reinforcing the actual narratives through foreshadowing, repetition of events and themes and the creation of seemingly-living systems of belief and culture that bring characters to life.

Mythopoeia is powerful because its focus is unabashedly meaning without the need for historicity and “hard” logic—it is the intuitive quality of dreams brought to bear upon the waking world. It is important on one hand because it makes for better fantastic worlds and tales; on the other it bears a power of its own that cannot be found in any other mode of storytelling.

Here’s the rub—the natural drive to develop mythologies and legends for our created worlds is to emulate the feeling of known mythopoeia, to capture the nostalgia of indulging in such modes of thought without sufficient critique of the cultures and ideologies that informed old ways of thinking—whether from the early 20th Century A.D. or the late 20th Century B.C.

Some of my first steps into Avar Narn involved journeys into the mythological and legendary foundations of the setting. I looked to the great writers before me in too imitative and awestruck a manner.

There were two mistakes here. First—this is my opinion based upon my own experience, so take it for what it is—one should not start at the beginning when crafted a world meant for storytelling. Quite the contrary, one should begin in forming the milieu in which the stories will take place—the worlds “modern day,” if you will—because this will more heavily influence the types of stories you tell with that setting. Start with the immediate, and work backwards—what kind of things might have historically occurred to result in the current state of political affairs, what legends and mythologies would have shaped the “modern” ideologies, perspectives and values that exist in that world?

Second, if we adhere too closely to historical mythologies and their fantastic descendants, we are not carefully crafting the values our world has.

By way of example—a world with a mythology of creation that draws heavily upon the Adam and Eve story is more likely to result in a misogynistic worldview—blame Eve for Adam’s sin as historic theologians tended to do. If that influence is there, it either has to be somehow present in the current time of the setting (even if its influence has waned such that people do not openly espouse such a view—but still think it to themselves) or something has to have occurred to change the initial perspective created by that mythology. This could be as simple as a change of the interpretive hermeneutic applied to a mythology or story of spiritual import. But it could represent a major change in theology or the mythology itself—perhaps one explanatory story was replaced by another. This could be a result of historical events: new propagandistic motives of rulers; the influence of foreign ideas upon domestic, whether by trade or conquering; events (natural or otherwise) that undercut or destroyed the explanatory power of the earlier story.

In other words, if we uncritically draw upon Tolkien’s legendarium to shape our own, we’ll get a mythology informed (subtly or not) but the dominant ideas of the early 20th century (and, perhaps, ancient Germanic mythologies as interpreted through the lens of that same time). Draw heavily upon Greek mythology for your world and—without an outside influence—the inhabitants of that world will have Greek values.

I’m tempted to say that sometimes this doesn’t matter, but any work on worldbuilding or crafting narrative that doesn’t influence some other aspect of the process is time wasted and meaning lost.

For me, the productive turn (which has occurred only recently as I return to the Avarian mythologies and legends to revise them as the setting moves toward its final state) happened when I realized that I needed to think about the social values I want to have (and, as important, have conflict over) in the setting.

The most important (and thus controversial) social matters—race, sexuality, religion, politics, immigration, environmental issues, bioethics, etc.—are treated with outdated and untenable views by much mythopoeic work, old and more recent. If you want to deal with these issues in ways that modern readers could relate to, ways that stimulate thought about the subject (particularly as an examination of all sides of an issue rather than solely a diatribe or invective current in your work), your world’s mythopoeia itself needs to challenge or wrestle with these ideas. What does it mean in your world if your mythology has divine beings engaged in homosexual relationships? It is not enough simply to have such stories—if questions of human sexuality are something you want to explore in your world, the context of those stories also matters heavily.

Maybe my point is simple—like Penn & Teller’s statement that “words mean shit!”, stories mean shit! No part of the crafting process of a setting or story should go without scrutiny or intentional design.

From this, the real crux of my argument is simple: do not imitate sample mythologies uncritically! Strive to capture the power and the feel of the mythopoeic, borrow from the tropes of the mythopoeic when helpful, but craft something that is uniquely yours and that tells readers something about the setting and your story! Take hold of the explanatory purpose of the mythopoeic and use it to your own ends! Your fantasy world’s mythologies should inform both you and your readers about the kinds of values and ideas that are taken for granted, as well as those that rebel against traditional beliefs and those that have come into question. Your mythologies are not so much about the conflict within those stories as the conflicts they set up for your “main” narratives.

Rant over.