Tag Archives: Elaine Pagels

One interpretation of the Easter story

Elaine Pagels gives this summary of the events leading up to Easter Sunday:

“Jesus’ passionate and powerful presence aroused enormous response, especially when he preached among the crowds of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. As the Jewish and Roman authorities well knew, tensions were high during the religious holidays when Jewish worshipers found themselves face to face with the Roman soldiers. Jesus’ near contemporary the Jewish historian Josephus, himself a governor of Galilee, tells of a Roman soldier on guard near the Temple who contemptuously exposed himself before just such a crowd, an outrage that incited a riot in which twenty thousand died. When Jesus dared enter the Temple courtyard before a certain Passover, brandishing a whip, throwing down the tables of those changing foreign money, and quoting the words of the prophet Jeremiah to attach the Temple leaders for turning God’s house into a ‘den of robbers,’ the Gospel of Mark says, ‘he would not allow any one to carry anything through the temple’ (Mark 11.16). But soon afterwards the authorities took action to prevent this firebrand village preacher from fanning the religious and nationalistic passions already smoldering among the restless crowds. The Jewish Council, eager to keep the peace, and hoping to avoid recrimination from their Roman masters, collaborated with the Roman procurator to have Jesus arrested, tried, and hastily executed on charges of having threatened to tear down the Temple single-handedly, and having conspired to rise against Rome and make himself king of the Jews (Mark 14.58-15.26).

“Jesus himself, according to the New Testament, saw himself very differently, not as a revolutionary but as a man seized by the spirit that inspired Isaiah and Jeremiah — the spirit of God — as a prophet sent to warn humankind of the approaching Kingdom of God and to offer purification to those who would listen. Repeatedly, according to the New Testament accounts, Jesus chose to risk death rather than allow himself to be silenced.” Adam, Eve, and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), pp. 6-7.

Based on this Easter reading, here are two my two Easter thoughts this year:

(1) In today’s Western culture, religio-political leaders (and politico-religious leaders) like to style themselves as successors to Jesus, and followers of prophets like Jeremiah. However, history tells us that we have seen very few such leaders who actually were successors to Jesus, and many more who were instead successors to the Jerusalem’s religious leaders who were tools of the Romans. The difference between the two? Jesus answered to moral truth and to a God of humane justice; Jerusalem’s religious leaders answered to political expediency and to their political puppet masters.

(2) After Jesus was executed on trumped-up political charges, Jesus’s message was not silenced. Maybe it got seriously transmogrified by later philosophers (Augustine and Paul come to mind), but if we listen carefully we can still hear Jesus’ basic message of righteousness and humanity. Two thousand years later, that message is still very much alive; Easter is a good holiday to remember that message, and to remind ourselves to look for the strings by which many religious leaders are controlled by their puppet masters.

Good and evil

As I was writing this week’s sermon, I found myself thinking yet again about the strange, strange story of the Garden of Eden. I came across a passage in Elaine Pagels’s book, The Origin of Satan, where she tells about an anonymous early Christian author who wrote a book called “Testimony of Truth.” This anonymous author also tried to make sense out of the Garden of Eden story, and wound up by saying the character of God must really be the evil one in the story — after all, God lies to Adam and Eve (by telling them they would die if they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil), and is vindictive and mean-spirited. No, said this anonymous author, the real hero of the story is the Serpent, who (believe it or not) is actually Christ!

I don’t buy the bit about the serpent. But let’s face it, God behaves in a less than exemplary fashion in this story. I like to retell the Garden of Eden as an existentialist parable with Eve as the protagonist: Eve has to make a decision in an absurd universe — she makes the best choice she can, a choice that turns out to have unforeseen consequences — and her choice shapes the rest of her life. No original sin, just an existential choice in the face of absurdity.

In this story and elsewhere, I feel the Bible matches both Camus and Sartre as a source for good existentialist philosophy. Take Ecclesiastes — how existentialist can you get? And if you’ve gone beyond existentialism to postmodernism, the confusing figure of Jesus is just whimsical enough, and just engaged enough, to suit.

That’s the lovely thing about being a heterdoxical heretic who doesn’t give a tinker’s dam for creeds and dogma — when that’s your attitude, you can read the Bible as a source of spiritual inspiration suitable for this very moment. And as Elaine Pagels points out, people have been doing this right along.

Too mellow

Dear me, what’s a cranky person to do?

Mr. Crankypants is not feeling very cranky. Much to his dismay, Mr. Crankypants is feeling decidedly upbeat.

It’s all the fault of that foul phenomenon known as General Assembly. For what is supposed to be a big denominational business meeting, General Assembly sure made Mr. Crankpants feel — well, uplifted and hopeful.

Usually, General Assembly makes Mr. Crankypants feel mean and nasty. Amazed, at how Unitarian Universalists can argue endlessly about totally trivial matters. In the past, Mr. Crankypants has come home from General Assembly feeling so mean and nasty, that the meanness and nastiness lasted for an entire year.

This year, what with Elaine Pagels’s lecture, and some good sermons, and several good workshops, Mr. Crankypants came home feeling mellow and relaxed, and generally hopeful about the future of Unitarian Universalism. This was a novel feeling indeed.

Cranky people do not like to feel mellow, relaxed, and hopeful. It makes us feel as though we’re losing our edge. It’s enough to make Mr. Crankypants watch the television news… watching that mind-numbing drivel will surely bring on the crankiness again… enough of this stupid blog, hand me the remote!

Home stretch…

Fort Worth

We’re coming down to the home stretch at General Assembly here in Fort Worth. In some ways, things are slowing down — quite a few people have already left, people who could only take a long weekend and have to be back at work. In some ways, it feels as though the pace is picking up, as those of us who are left try to cram too many events into too short a time.

I’m sitting in the Raddisson Hotel, cramming some lunch into myself before heading off to the final session of Plenary, which I’ll be reporting on. So I’m quickly updating this blog before I have to run off. (I asked for a table near a plug, and they found one for me — but when I plugged in my laptop, I discovered the plug has no power — typical, I’m afraid, of this hotel, where the staff is pleasant and accomdating but the building is falling apart.)

I wasn’t going to go to Elaine Pagel’s lecture last night — went up to the Web room to write up some stories, and while I was writing, I turned on the live video streaming of the lecture — she was so good, I hustled right over to hear her live. A woman came in a little later to stand and listen — she obviously knew her Bible, because I could see her mouthing the words of Bible quotes as Pagels cited passages in the Gospel of John — and this woman, too, was captivated, found a seat, and sat down. I watched teenagers who were lost in rapt attention — and someone whom I know is pretty much of a humanist, also rapt in attention.

OK, so Pagels is a great speaker. But there was something more going on here.

After the lecture, I ran across Chris Walton, who’s on the staff of UU World magazine. Chris was sitting in the Raddisson lobby, typing away on his cute little 12″ Mac Powerbook, and he had just come back from Pagels’s lecture. “We are seeing a real change in Unitarian Universalists,” he said.

I wasn’t sure I agreed with him, but he went on.

“Ten years ago, I could not imagine over 2,000 Unitarian Universalists sitting and listening to a lecture about Jesus the way people did tonight,” he said. “No one got up and walked out in a huff.”

He’s right. there does seem to be a new openness to all things religious amongst Unitarian Universalists — a distinct movement away from the hardline ideologies that many Unitarian Universalists used to adhere to — there’s a new sense of intellectual openness, a new willingness to listen.

And Chirs and I agreed that this openness does have a generational aspect. The generation of younger Unitarian Universalists now coming up is far more open to exploring the Christian tradition, and not immediately rejecting it out of hand.