He said to them:
You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.
He has been raised. He is not here.
The novelist Salman Rushdie says that, in the storytelling tradition with which he grew up in India, the storyteller begins her tale not with the words, “Once upon a time,” but rather with, “It was, it was not.” In other words, as the storyteller gathers her listeners around the campfire or the dinner table, she starts by acknowledging that what she is about to share exists in the realm of memory, of paradox, of imagination. Maybe of faith. The storyteller says:
What I am about to tell you is true.
But it exists outside of the realm of the quantifiable, outside of the realm of the reproducible experiment, outside of the realm of fact.
This paradoxical setup – it was, it was not – in many ways forms the basis for the genre in which Rushdie has written across his career, the genre that we call magic realism. Magic realism is characterised by an amorphous or permeable relationship between the literal and the metaphorical, the one continually melting into the other. The literary critic and academic, Matthew Stretcher says that magic realism is “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”
We live in an era with a huge focus on the literal. Sometimes that is good and healthy. When I fly on an airplane, it is my preference that the pilot and the ground crew rely on hard data. Similarly, I am a big fan of fact checking the claims made by politicians. And generally speaking, I’d like my doctor to offer me advice that is supported by peer-reviewed research. There are lots of categories, in other words, in which the literal or the factual is the best and the strongest and the most sensible tool that is available to us.
I’m not persuaded that faith – and that scripture in particular – is one of those categories.
Now, I realise that I am in dangerous territory here, that I am skating out to where the ice is thin. For many of our fellow Christians, particularly those who identify as fundamentalists, reading scripture as the literal and inerrant word of God is a major building block of their relationship with Jesus, maybe even the cornerstone of their relationship with Jesus. For a lot of our fellow disciples, faith starts to shake if we allow that scripture might be something other than full-on fact. Thus, the reality of evolution is threatening, the mounting archaeological evidence that the stories in Exodus and Joshua aren’t history is threatening.
Those Christians on the more liberal end of the spectrum are by no means immune to this focus on the literal or the historical. While the search for the historical Jesus has yielded profound insights into our faith – to know about the culture in which Jesus lived, to know about the land on which he walked, is to hugely deepen your understanding of Jesus’ life and of the parables that he tells – it has also led us into us into really limited and really limiting territory.
When we encounter the miraculous in scripture, for instance, a lot of the historical Jesus crowd have attempted to make these stories conform to a 21st Century understanding of reality. Sometimes that takes the form of projecting modern or post-modern explanations into the text. For instance, I’ve heard folks argue that when Jesus walks on water what is actually happening is that there are stones just beneath the water’s surface on which he is standing. Reading scripture in this fashion is a bit like being an audience trying to puzzle out how David Blaine or David Copperfield does a magic trick. You know what you are encountering isn’t real, that it can’t be real. You just have to figure out where in his sleeve Jesus has hidden the card.
The other common strategy is to simply declare that 100% of the miracles that we encounter in scripture are nothing more than metaphors. In this perspective on faith, the resurrection, which we celebrate today, is simply a bit of poetry about what happened in the disciples’ hearts after Jesus died.
I don’t know about you, but all of these variations on literalism strike me as hollow and false and devoid of holy fire. They read to me as an effort to domesticate scripture and, in turn, to domesticate Jesus. They read to me as an effort to strip out an essential element of faith from the Gospel, and that is the element of wonder.
Maybe that is one of the reasons why I am drawn to the storytelling introduction of Salman Rushdie’s childhood and why I am wondering this morning about the possibility of applying it to scripture. What might happen if, here in church, we encountered the Bible using the introduction of the storytellers of Rushdie’s childhood, if we stood up at the lectern on Sunday morning and said not, “A reading from the Book of Genesis,” but rather:
It was, it was not.
What would happen if we out tried understanding scripture as a magic realist text?
It was, it was not is an invitation to rediscover our sense of wonder. It is an invitation to acknowledge that, “Did that literally happen?” and “If so, how did that happen?” are good questions, maybe even important questions. But that never progressing beyond them holds us back from encountering beauty and meaning. An overemphasis on these questions hold us back from allowing ourselves open ourselves in wonder to the awesome and transformative story of God becoming a human being and walking the earth and healing and telling stories and casting out our demons and sharing in meals and going to cross and proving to be bigger than death.
To encounter that story with open wonder. Well, that might just change everything.
A group of us from Grace are just returned from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. We touched down Tuesday evening after a huge day of travelling – it was a 26-hour project, door to door. (If I say anything particularly heretical this morning, blame the jet lag.) We are coming home with an extraordinary bucketful of stories.
There is one story that I would like to share with you today.
We were staying in Nazareth, the town in which Jesus spent much of his life. And our accommodations were in a convent, a guesthouse run by the Sisters of Nazareth. One evening, we were invited to meet one of the Sisters. She was an Italian woman who spoke a startling number of languages, English included, the language in which she gave the tour.
Sister had a gentle and yet almost mischievous smile. I was reminded of interviews with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, of people of faith so deep that there is a gentle and persistent joy and even playfulness that permeates their lives, a sense of okayness with everything.
Sister asked us to follow her. And we went downstairs.
Down one set of stairs after another we went. Until we were standing in a cavernous, underground room. And there Sister explained to us that, a while back when some workers had been doing renovations on the convent, they had discovered the remains of a church down below, and then down below the church, the remains of a house.
As you will know if you have been to Europe or the Holy Land, it was often the custom to build a church on top of a holy site. And the guess, Sister explained, is that this forgotten church was built on top of the house of Joseph. That we were standing in the house, in other words, in which Jesus grew up.
We stood there, our group of pilgrims, looking at the stone walls and the dirt floors and the place where the skylight had been to let in the sun in and then the remains of the old church above and the new convent still above that. And then one of us couldn’t resist, one of us asked Sister:
“Do you think this was really the house where Jesus grew up?”
And there again was that gentle and mischievous smile on her face. She said:
“It doesn’t matter.
“It doesn’t matter. This place tells me something about our Lord. It tells us that he lived in a house, that he drank water, that he ate food, that he had a family.”
Sister might have answered our question, was this really Jesus’ childhood home, by saying:
It was, it was not.
What we hear in the Gospel accounts of the resurrection are stories of encounter with deep mystery, stories of an experience that cannot be measured or quantified. Here is the tomb empty and Jesus walking around outside of it. But the resurrection has changed the rules of how reality works: sometimes his friends don’t recognise Jesus until he shares a meal with them or until he calls their names, at which point they see him with clarity; Jesus is able to come and go through walls and locked doors; Jesus is alive, but the mortal wounds remain on his body. The resurrection is laden with paradox.
Resurrection is, as Matthew Stretcher says, reality invaded by something too strange to believe. It is reality, to borrow Madeleine L’Engle’s line, reality invaded by the glorious impossible. And as such, it may sound like something that we need to explain away as nothing but metaphor.
Except I want to suggest that, if you have had any kind of experience with loss and love, with grief and joy, you will have caught a glimpse of what resurrection looks like.
When, after the death of my friend, Doug, I said that I knew that Doug was safe and home, I couldn’t prove that he was in God’s hands. But I knew that he was. When my children were born I couldn’t prove that the divine was still soaked into their skin. But I knew that it was. When I said that I loved another person and that they loved me, I couldn’t prove that there was love between us. But I knew that there was.
When I say that I believe that the women found the tomb empty, I cannot prove that. But I know that it was.
In these moments resurrection, we are invited no into certainty but, rather, to amazement, to imagination, to possibility, to faith.
Maybe that is what the storyteller’s of Rushdie’s childhood are getting at when they say, It was, it was not. They are getting at those realities that you can’t know through measurement or fact or proof but, rather, that you can know through wonder. If we allow ourselves to accept the gifts of possibility that God gives us, we will catch glimpses of resurrection. Like the women at daybreak, we will find the tomb empty. And we will meet Jesus walking the earth.