Saturday, April 16, 2011

Reflections on Easter: The Jesus story, zombie faith issues, and the unlikely victory of Icarus

There’s no promise of safety on these secondhand wings/ but I’m willing to find out what impossible means / Climb though the heavens on feathers and dreams / cause the melting point of wax means nothing to me
~ The Melting Point of Wax; Thrice

So, it’s happened again. Easter time has snuck up on me, and now that I’ve taken a moment to think about it, it’s difficult for me to know what to make of it. Those of you who know me well know that Christian holidays have been difficult for me since I left the church several years ago. I never know what to do with Easter – not celebrating it doesn’t feel like an option. I’d be opting out of multiple family gatherings, and for what? A defense of my belief system? My belief system doesn’t permit me to hurt people I love just so I can be ‘right’. But celebrating often feels like a giant hypocrisy, because I don’t believe in the Easter story. Or, more accurately, I’m not sure whether I believe in the Easter story and I’m not overly concerned with figuring that out right now.

More on that in a moment.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Jesus story lately, probably in large part because I just finished reading Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins. It’s been prompting me to think deeply about the loss of my faith and about leaving the church, which are both fairly unpleasant topics, but both important.

There are things no one tells you about what it is to lose one’s faith. Holidays have been hard for me over the past several years for the same reason Easter feels difficult this year. And there is a profound loneliness involved in losing one’s church and god. I remember very clearly reading Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby around the time this all went down for me, and being profoundly impacted by the strong focus it had on human loneliness. Leaving the church was a deeply thought out, very difficult decision. It had become apparent that the Jesus story I was reading in the Gospels wasn’t the Jesus story I was being preached from the pulpit (and yes, I tried many pulpits). I came to realize I didn’t actually believe the same things the Church believed, even though we were reading the same text (and for this I say, Rob Bell, I feel your pain, man.) I didn’t feel I had a choice but to leave – staying was a lie. But being without the church community you have relied on for years is harrowing. It is heartbreaking, soul-sucking loneliness. It is constantly questioning yourself, never feeling sure of anything, always feeling on the outside and never understanding exactly why. Not exactly pleasant, I’m sure you can imagine.

Church communities, as it turns out, can be replaced. Cuthbert and I have since somehow managed to build a vibrant, healthy community we rely heavily on, and that I’m honestly not sure I could survive without. We have Christians, atheists, agnostics, pagans… anyone who can live with our adherence to creating a safe space for people to live in community. Gods, though… well, they’re not very replace-able. I will never forget reading the passage of Eleanor Rigby in which one of the characters describes what it is about zombies that is so frightening…. the way they have no souls, and have lost their connection to the divine. I felt that so strongly, that loss of a connection to the divine. To this day, I have never felt lonelier or more lost than I did during those first few months without a god.

And so, it turns out that reading Rob Bell around Easter time is basically stirring a giant pot in my head, for reasons that should be obvious at this point.

I like the Jesus story that Rob Bell seems to read when he reads the Gospels. It isn’t at all unlike the Jesus story I thought I was reading.

The Jesus story – the one you get if you read the Gospels as a story, not the one the church lays out in rigid dogma and single verses and alliterated fill-in-the-blanks – is beautiful. It is the story of a man who breaks all the rules in order to love people he isn’t ‘supposed to’ love. This is a man who answers questions with questions, who consistently questions authority and challenges religious leaders. He is a gifted storyteller who consistently finds himself in community, eating with others, walking with others, talking with others, drinking wine. He’s celebrating with people, hurting with people, and loving the people on the fringes right where they are. He does quiet contemplation and angry outbursts, celebrating with people he loves and weeping for losses. He is genuine and human in a way most people cannot be. Injustices piss him off.

He says, in essence, over and over again, “I don’t care what you think the rules say I am or am not supposed to do. This is what I’m going to do because this is what love looks like. I will defile your Sabbath, because the very idea that I cannot heal (read: love) people because of your rules defiles everything I am.” And if you read the story as a story, sometimes you can almost hear the quiet sighs as he realizes, once again, no one is ‘getting it’.

It is a beautiful story. There is absolutely no denying that.

I don’t know if it is true or not, but it is a beautiful story.

All of this makes me think of Icarus. Random, I know, but this will all make sense in a moment. In the event that you are not familiar with the story of Icarus, here’s a quick rundown: Icarus and his dad are imprisoned at Crete as punishment for royally pissing off King Minos (pun intended). Icarus’ dad comes up with a brilliant plan to create two pairs of wings out of feathers and wax so that they can fly off the island and escape. There are a few issues with the wings though: they can’t fly too close to the sea, or the feathers will get wet and weighed down, and they’ll fall into the sea and drown. They also can’t fly too close to the sun or the wax will melt, the feathers will fall off, and they’ll fall into the sea and drown. Cheery stuff. Icarus curiously soars toward the sun, and realizes only as his feathers fall off that he has flown too high. He falls into the sea, et cetera, et cetera.

This is Cuthbert’s favorite story of Greek mythology. He reads it, and in it he finds something beautiful – that Icarus flew toward the sun, testing his limits, and truly living, not settling for mediocrity, but flying as high as he could. Cuthbert finds victory in the melted wax, and the fluttering feathers, and, well, that nasty bit about falling into the sea. There’s a song about Icarus, The Melting Point of Wax, that makes the points I always have such a hard time explaining about this story. It’s a song about refusing to accept limits without testing them ourselves, about refusing promises of safety in exchange for making ourselves smaller, about taking leaps of faith in ourselves. It’s essentially the dirty rocker boy version of Defying Gravity from Wicked, only about Icarus instead of a green witch. (Yes, that sentence made complete sense to me. Really.) I’m a fan of the dirty rocker boys.

When Cuthbert tells us the story of Icarus, or when I hear that song, I cannot help but find the story to be beautiful. It simply is.

As far as I can tell, Cuthbert doesn’t believe that the story of Icarus actually happened. It’s a little bit out there, isn’t it? Very likely it isn’t true. But that has not stopped Cuthbert from loving this story, from finding the beauty in it, and in celebrating it whenever and wherever he can. The story being only a myth hasn’t stopped him from tattooing Icarus onto his chest. None of us think this is strange (us Tuesday Nighters, anyway). The beautiful things he has found in this story are worth celebrating, whether they really happened or not. The truths he finds in the story are central to what he strives to be, and so he owns them, and we own them with him.

There is no church of Icarus (at least that I know of) that will say Curthbert is a heretic for valuing the story without believing it is true. No one is going to tell Cuthbert he is going to hell for blasphemy in regards to his position on the story. No one will make religious assumptions about Cuthbert based on his love for this story. No one is going to do anything except listen to the story and decide for themselves whether they find it beautiful as well.

For that, I envy him. Loving the Jesus story always seems to come back to haunt me.

But anyway, back to Easter. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?

I love the Jesus story. I really do. It’s up there with The Dark Tower for me, and for good reason. It is a beautiful story. I don’t know if it is true or not. To be honest (and I know this will get to some of you – I’m sorry) I don’t really care. I’m just not overly concerned with it at the moment; I find peace in not knowing. I also fail to understand why it matters whether it is true. I strive to live more like the Jesus story, not because of a religious conviction, not because I am afraid of hell (which I have not believed in for years), and not because I necessarily think it is a true story. I strive to live more like the Jesus story because it is a beautiful story, and it awakens a part of me that wants to live in a better way – much like the Icarus story does. And that, to me, is worth more than all the religious conviction, all the church community, all the promises of heaven in the world. I think that’s what stories like this are supposed to do. That’s why we love them.

And so I’ve decided to follow Cuthbert’s example. I am going to own this story as a story I love, as unapologetically as I can. Which, as discussed earlier, is a little bit more difficult than owning Icarus, but I’m going to try. According to the Easter story, Jesus was crucified on a Friday and rose from the dead on Sunday morning to redeem mankind and spread God’s love through the world. Good Friday has always been a day that has felt sad to me. I am going to mourn it, because that’s what feels right to me. And on Sunday I am going to celebrate, because I have the culmination of a beautiful story to celebrate.

Then on Monday, I am going to continue loving people as best as I possibly can, just as this story has always inspired me to try to do. I’m going to continue playing the role of storyteller whenever I can, live in community as best as I can, love the people who are hard to love as best as I can, and, in the words of Meghan, try to “go around making injustices my bitch”. Because that’s what the Jesus story inspires me to do.

Some people will call me a hypocrite, but the reality is that the only thing that colors my love of the story with something deemed hypocrisy is the modern Western Church’s idea that they have the market on how the story should be valued. I haven’t much cared what the modern Western Church has thought of me for some time now, so this shouldn’t be a problem.

It is a story I love. I am going to celebrate it. And if anyone has a problem with that, well, that’ll mean about as much to me as the melting point of wax.

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