When Leslie Newbigin served as the Bishop of Madras, India, visiting pastors, theologians and denominational leaders rang at his door for a meeting with the intellectual and pastoral star of the ecumenical movement, before catching their flight home. Newbigin’s home was conveniently on the way to the airport, which only increased traffic. He graciously invited in the unsolicited visitors for tea despite his busy schedule. Many guests inevitably asked him for his opinion on the still toddler-aged Church of South India – an ecumenical church formed in 1947 from several Protestant churches and of which Newbigin played a vital role and had been appointed as one of its first bishops (serving from 1965-1974). Some were skeptical, waiting for the seams of integration to fray in due time. He answered them, “I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore the question doesn’t arise. In regard to a fact, one is not optimistic or pessimistic. One is believing or unbelieving.”
I imagine Newbigin’s reply offended some – he rarely cushions his words, instead preferring clarity and directness. Succinctly, Newbigin presented the essential conflict between the modern Western world and the gospel with the subsequent compromise: the scientific and individualistic worldview that whittles resurrection (a public truth) into a private opinion (a matter of psychological state).
“Easter still matters,” W.S. Di Piero, essayist and poet, said in an interview with Image Journal, “but as a recurrent energy of emergence detached completely from the thought or imagining in mind of Jesus’ intervention in history. That’s shriveled and puny.”
If the church no longer seems to matter in the Western world, it is because Easter no longer matters to the church in the way it should. The church doesn’t make the emperor’s knees knock any more – nor that of CEOs or anyone with institutional power – as the early church did, because resurrection has been shaved into a synonym for the spring return of flowers and birds. Easter Sunday is not much more than a Christianized spring festival with bunnies – fecundity without sexuality, and no longer a commitment of everything to the death-shattering event of the empty tomb. A shriveled grape doesn’t make good wine, and a mythological resurrection can’t sustain a church against the powers of the world.
A new way of knowing
The mythologization of resurrection – turning Easter into a mere symbolism for new beginnings – started, ironically, with the “demythologization” of the gospel. This was Western Christianity’s desperate attempt to hold onto respectability – and a seat in the academia – before the impressive accomplishments of Enlightenment, a rational, empirical and materialist worldview that produced one technological feat after another, from steam engines to electricity. In a world of “guns, germs and steels,” a story of a son of God who clawed his way out of death sounded quaint and as dismissible as Zeus with his thunderbolts and harem. Besides, is resurrection provable by the rigorous standards of the scientific method? What cannot stand up to these new rigors of empirical knowing cannot be offered as truth.
Rudolf Bultmann, professor of New Testament, made what seemed a brilliant move in the 1940s: Save the kernel of the gospel by conceding the husk of the historical events of Jesus. The events in the New Testament were mythological telling by mythologically wired pre-science ancestors. We must peel away their mythology to get to the edible seed of the message. The kernel of resurrection is not the defeat of death, but the courageous defeat of the fear of death in those inspired by Jesus’ heroic sacrifice. Resurrection was a lost cause in the realm of truths, so it was re-planted in existentialism, the experience and renewal of a person. Existentialism, of course, is its own mythology, a symbolic system, as all language is, with its talk of being, ground of being, existence and so forth. We simply swapped mythologies. Without historical mooring, resurrection became the myth of the individual’s courage to live out one’s freedom.
Liberal theology isn’t the only culprit. Fundamentalist theology reduced resurrection into a matter of personal decision: whether or not you believe God has the power to resurrect Jesus, in which belief functions as an entrance test to the gates of immortality. What’s important is not that resurrection happened, a public event that sent tremors through all of creation, but whether you believe it happened. If you believe it, you are in. To believe in resurrection is good for your soul, the way practicing yoga is good for your body and mind.
This retreat into the personal (via existentialism of liberal theology or personal salvation of fundamentalist theology) was the final acquiescence to Enlightenment, the acceptance of divorce between the public and private. Christianity is not a matter of truth, but a matter of personal choice.
But the testimonies of the first witnesses don’t leave us that option. One can be dismissive about what they said, considering them gullible peasants ready to believe any evidence for life after death. However, we cannot change what they said. We would be rewriting history to fit out prejudices, making ourselves even more unreliable historians.
A good historian lets the witnesses speak for themselves. So we start with their claim that the rabbi they saw crucified is no longer dead. In their worldview (which is not irrational, but rational with different premises than our own), they tried to explain what they were experiencing. The idea of a “ghost” was one way to explain their experience. But ghosts don’t ask for a broiled fish. Ghosts don’t have skin you can press with your finger. After some days, most (though some still held to their doubt) were convinced that the only explanation for all these meetings with Jesus was Jesus’ own explanation: God resurrected him. This explanation was a whole new theory that reinterpreted all previous theories about God, life, death and history. Resurrection was not a new piece of knowledge. Resurrection was a new way of knowing.
Post-resurrection: A new creation
The post-resurrection world was a world where God took human flesh, a world where God revealed God’s essence as love by sacrificially suffering the cruelest death, a world where death’s jaws were broken, a world where God’s Kingdom had firmly established a beachhead, a world where all worldly powers were subdued and their disobediences were sore losers’ skirmishes done at their own peril. It is a historical event that offers another way to see history: a new creation has begun.
In this sense, resurrection was like the Big Bang of creation. The Big Bang theory cannot provide explanation for its own initial condition. It is not repeatable. It doesn’t fit our current way of knowing. But the Big Bang theory describes and explains the general evolution of the universe going forward from that point on. It provides our knowing.
The blast of the Big Bang is the galaxies, the stars, our earth. The blast of the resurrection is the miraculous and missional birth of the church: Galilean peasants venturing to neighboring Samaria, then as far as Spain and Syria. Even more mindboggling, they proclaimed the news of Jesus not only to the diaspora, but to the natives of the lands they visited, even to “evil” occupying Roman centurions.
Two years ago, I had lunch with a Buddhist monk who was serving as a religion professor at Duke University. He told me that Christianity is the only missionary religion and that other religions are missional only as they have learned from Christianity.
That is the great mystery of Christianity, not it’s growth, but how it became missional when most religions are happy to stay put within their ethnic family. The fire of mission is found in the core of the message. Paul preached to the Gentiles because Jesus didn’t defeat a Jewish death, but every person’s death, and thus it was a message for everyone.
In defense of resurrection
A poet opened my ears to hear the “big bang” of the resurrection: Mary Karr’s jarring physical retelling of resurrection in her poem “Descending Theology: The Resurrection.” She doesn’t ruminate on the metaphor, mythology or the metaphysics of the resurrection. Rather she gives a journalist’s details of the flesh dying then awakening, 14 lines of raw physical depiction.
The poem starts with the dead weight of Jesus’ body drooping on the cross.
Cold inched in — black ice and squid ink — /till the hung flesh was empty.
Death is not spiritualized. Death is cessation of physical processes.
Lonely in that void even for pain, / he missed his splintered feet,
Then the unexpected thump of the heart.
In the corpse’s core, the stone fist/ of his heart began to bang/ on the stiff chest’s door.
It could be a description of Frankenstein’s monster rising from the table. Of course anything back from the dead will scare the pants off a person, as it did to the first witnesses. Resurrection as an idea is interesting. Resurrection of the body is scary. But if it is true, then it is not an issue of personal belief. If death, the universal fate of all men, has been broken even in one person, then that is public news that questions death and every other power that uses the threat of death for control.
This is why Paul defended the bodily resurrection vehemently. If it wasn’t a bodily resurrection, then it wasn’t public news. Spiritual resurrection was a mystery religion, a personal matter that can be safe in Rome’s love for plurality under its single government. Bodily resurrection meant everything has changed.
The church did not shape resurrection. The resurrection shaped the church. Here is how Newbigin describes the impact of the resurrection to the church:
“They affirmed that the message which had been entrusted to them was one which concerned the destiny of the whole human race. The one who had died and risen again was the savior and judge of the world. The news was of vital concern to every human being. It was public truth. Fidelity to it required the momentous decision to withhold acknowledgement of the emperor as supreme power. They accepted the price which had to be paid for this fidelity.”
What the church needs is not another strategy for growth, but a renewed confidence in its resurrection message. We are living in the ripples of a new creation.
The public truth of resurrection
At the age of 65, Newbigin retired as the deputy moderator for the Church of South India. Many urged him to take the permitted four-year extension. He declined, feeling it was time for an Indian leader. He came home to Birmingham, England, having served 17 years, with 17 books and over 50 articles to his name.
His retirement involved teaching a few classes at Selly Oak College. He declined many alluring offers out of retirement, and even turned down the assistant bishopric in the Anglican Diocese of Birmingham.
After five years of teaching, he stepped down to a full retirement. During a meeting of the Birmingham District of the United Reformed Church, a local vacancy was discussed. A small, struggling urban congregation facing the Winson Green prison had to be closed if no one filled the vacant pulpit. After much prayer, Newbigin stepped forward. In 1981, at the age of 72, he became a solo pastor of a dwindling church in a blighted community.
He was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about that church. There was a need and he said yes because the Lord is risen – and before the public truth of resurrection, one lives courageously and adventurously.
SAMUEL SON is co-pastor at New Life Triangle, a new multi-ethnic church/1001 new worshipping community of New Hope Presbytery in Raleigh, North Carolina.