I’ve always loved- relied upon- the full-throated, ballsy way Peter begins his Pentecost sermon:
“You people of Israel, listen to this. Jesus of Nazareth, you people used those outside the law to nail him and kill him. But raised him from the dead.”
And when you stop to recall that Jesus’ tomb was only a stone’s throw away from Peter’s listeners, you realize it’s one hell of a way to begin a sermon.
You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead. He’s not there anymore.
And when you stop to consider that any one of Peter’s listeners at any moment could’ve gotten up from Peter’s preaching and simply walked over to Jesus’ still fresh tomb to see for themselves whether or not this preacher was a liar, you quickly realize that Peter’s preaching in no way allows for any vague, spiritualized notion of resurrection.
Similarly, I’ve always leaned on the way Paul defends the resurrection not by way of scripture or philosophy but by ticking off all the names of the people encountered by the Risen Christ. Over 500 of them. Including, last of all, Paul himself.
Paul won’t coddle any pablum that tries to water down this defiant declaration of resurrection to a limp existential feeling that ‘Christ is with us still.’
Of course that limp, reductive, hesitant, existential feeling (love is stronger-fingers crossed-than death) is precisely what many of us call ‘Easter.’
Take, for example, this exchange cum confession from the conclusion of the article I posted last week from Texas Monthly about the poet Christian Wiman:
“When asked if he believes that the son of God, the Word made flesh, was actually crucified and placed in a tomb only to rise again after three earthbound days, Wiman glances up at the ceiling of the perfectly quiet conference room in the stylish offices he will soon vacate. His eyes close behind his rectangular glasses. It’s probably unfair to ask a poet and a conflicted Christian, a man who writes carefully and slowly and wonderfully, to opine off the cuff about a topic so weighty. He does believe it, he says, though not in the same way he believes in evolution or in the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. It is a different sort of belief, a deeper kind of truth. Finally, he finds the words: “I try to live toward it.”
Okay, so this isn’t as limp and lifeless a profession as, say, ‘Jesus is still alive in our hearts’ but it’s still nowhere in the neighborhood of Peter’s clear-eyed profession:
You had him killed. He was buried right over there. God raised him from the dead.
I bring this up because a reader of the blog asked if I would respond to Wiman’s appraisal of the resurrection.
‘Isn’t it just Bultmannian pablum?’ I think was the exact question.
And to bait me even further, the questioner compared me, in sarcastic tone and depth of substance, to Bishop Will Willimon.
To return the flattery with a kindness of my own, I wanted very much to drag Christian Wiman through the rhetorical mud. I wanted to stuff Wiman with straw and then knock him over with heavy-handed prose.
But, truth be told, I can’t bring myself to do it.
As much I don’t want the Willimon comparison to slip away, I can’t write Wiman’s comments off as ‘pablum.’
And not just because I admire Wiman’s poetry.
I can’t because Wiman has cancer. Will always have cancer. Near certain death has intruded upon his life at several junctures. Tumors in his blood have welled up to push and stretch at his skin. Pain has at times crippled him.
Wiman, therefore, is someone who’s carried a burden I only know from a distance, which makes him someone who would know very well how empty are our culture’s spiritual cliches.
He’s also someone, I imagine, whose own likely shortened life has prompted him to wrestle earnestly with what Peter and Paul have to say about life after death.
And so I’ll have to save the snark for another day. Christian Wiman’s words may not be Christian enough for me.
They may not bear too close a resemblance to Peter’s words, but I’m wiling to grant that they are nevertheless words hewn on faith.