“An old thing born of a very distant place”: On the oddness of Christianity

By Evan Gage

“Christianity was the last great work of Greek mythology.”I’d heard some odd things hosting an English conversation club with a Turkish university’s Theology Department, but I couldn’t quite make sense of this one. I must have betrayed my confusion, so my student continued. 
“It’s just another Zeus story. Zeus is a god, then Zeus is a bull. Zeus, God, comes to earth. He interacts with people. He leaves. Isn’t this just Christianity?”

Over tea a Turkish convert to Christianity told me about the first time she read the Gospels. “Jesus said he was the son of man, that he would come in glory, he even mentioned legions of angels and all that. So the night he was arrested, it never crossed my mind that he might be harmed. And when he was hurt, when he died, I couldn’t go on. Then I realized I loved that man. I put down my Bible and cried.”

In early April, the students in my remedial English course were eager to get me off topic. When I mentioned I would be absent the following week for Holy Week, they saw their chance and asked why. Translating my motive into digestible monosyllables, I jumped at their newfound enthusiasm. 

“Jesus—uh, Isa, to you—died. Jesus died. And he was buried” (nods in comprehension appearing only after I perform a particularly hearty gravedigger pantomime) “and after three days he rose again.” Students look about in obvious confusion until one girl, a girl named “Flower”, eyes gleaming, pointed at herself.

 “Rose?!” 

“No, uh, not quite.”

I decided to change my mode of attack. I sprawled on a desk, looking good and dead, and—after a liturgically appropriate amount of time—hopped back up. Still no comprehension: mostly just stifled laughter. I gave up and wrote on the board “resurrection”, and reverted to speech. “I am happy about Jesus’s resurrection.” My students, after consulting Google translate, looked up with no less confusion. “So, you are happy about a kind of zombie?”

After a chance meeting on the street—he’d heard me speaking English and asked me to prove I was a Christian—an Iraqi refugee invited me to share dinner with his family. That night the family met me with hugs and kisses at the apartment door, ushered me into their living room, and pointed gleefully—almost subversively—at a collection of Christian icons, postcards, statues and pictures on their mantel. “Here!” the father said, “we really are Christians! Here are our images of the most holy, living God!”

I don’t share any of these stories to point out quaint idiosyncrasies or to denigrate my co-conversationalists—far from it. I hope to point out what my friends and students pointed out to me: the sheer oddness of the Christian faith. In musty old churches and over bitter coffee and in the dim light of overnight buses I came to see my faith through new eyes, and in doing so recognized what an odd thing the Christian faith is. It is an ancient, near-eastern death cult; it is the twenty-century-long echo of a first-century response to the destruction of the temple; it is mystical participation in—of all things—the body of a Jewish carpenter. Sure, you’ve got the standard monotheistic fare: God is the creator of all things visible and invisible; the font of being; mover of the sun and stars and other planets; ineffable being beyond being; unknowable; omnipotent—but you take all that and you incarnate it? What exactly should a person make of a God who assumed body odor and bad breath and puberty? And, more, who went to dinner parties, who drank alcohol, who wept over his friends, who descended into hell, whose picture you can keep on the mantelpiece? 

Being immersed in a textually based religious culture also deepened my appreciation for the Christian scriptural tradition. Islam has worked out an extremely elegant answer to the vexing critical-historical questions modernity puts to faith. The Islamic tradition teaches that the Qur’an is the pure, unchanged, unedited, un-touched-up recital of God, delivered (in classical Arabic) through the illiterate (read: unsullied and unable-to-sully) channel of Mohammed. If the fundamental mystery of the Christian faith lies in the Incarnation, the mystery of the Islamic faith lies in the Qur’an’s preservation through time. The closest analogy to the Qur’an in the Christian faith is not the Bible at all, but the Eucharist; by participating in the recitation of the Qur’an, one participates in the life and logic of God. That being the case, the immutability of the Qur’an is a major historiographical commitment that mainstream Muslim scholars must make, and an intellectual position that makes even the most fundamentalist of fundamentalist Christians look like freewheeling Unitarians by comparison. I don’t, for the record, say this out of disrespect: at the heart of the Islamic faith, as at that of the Christian faith, sits a mystery that’s pretty cheap to insult. If you’re tempted to see this particular theological commitment as a little far-fetched, well, see the paragraph above.

All this said, encountering the Qur’an meant rethinking my encounter with the Bible. Students frequently asked questions about the Bible that I had no choice but to answer by taking recourse to the type of complicated hermeneutics I once found exhausting and by making use of, and even kind of glorying in, the critical historical work I once found irrelevant. In doing so, I discovered what I prioritized in my approach to Scripture. I might not know when Leviticus was written, or who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, or if the Gospel according to Matthew was just Matthew’s expansion on Mark. I might not ever be able to reconcile the fact that oft-repeated words might have meant any number of divergent things to the authors who originally penned the documents in the Biblical canon. But because I do believe that God came down from heaven and became man, and because I do think he rose again on the third day after his crucifixion, and because I do not hold up the documents in the Bible as God’s unsullied recitation delivered through a channel, those questions don’t threaten my faith. Indeed, knowing that Christ could interpret those Scriptures to find himself therein only deepens my wonder at the chronological mystery of the incarnation. The commitment is, in a sense, even stranger than the Islamic one: I am certain that an anthology of ancient documents composed by a small army of authors and their subsequent revisers tell, through histories and creation stories and erotic poetry, the story of the Incarnation.

If you are a Christian—and I will unfairly assume that, as a reader of The Hillsdale Forum, you are—I hope you recognize the sheer weirdness of your religious tradition, and take some uncharacteristic pride in its oddness. It is an old thing born of a very distant place. It is not something unique to the western world or to the modern age. It is not something supportive of, and is often inimical to, bourgeois morality. It has withstood the rise of Islam and the fall of Rome and a whole host of schisms and the homogenizing influence of the nation state and will outlive our family names and our political arrangements and our cultural sensibilities. And it will be, then as now, an ancient near-eastern death cult.

Evan Gage graduated in 2014 with degrees in history and English and a minor in religion. He spent the past year teaching English at Gaziosmanpaşa University as a Fulbright scholar and joins the faculty of Trinity School at River Ridge in Eagan, MN, this fall.

Image courtesy Emily Lehman.

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