At its most succinct, Christianity is a religion interested in convincing you of the necessity of God’s death.
Across traditions, denominations, creedal statements, schisms, and potluck suppers in the poorly ventilated fellowship hall under the sanctuary, the death of God is the lynchpin descriptor employed when stressing the importance of Christianity for individuals, families, heads of state, and people from parts of the world you cannot pronounce without help.
Growing up Baptist in East Tennessee, I was quickly introduced to a God who loved me so much that he killed his own, perfect, definitely-never-let-you-down-by-cheating-on-his-standardized-test-in-4th-grade-Son* in front of everyone 2000 years ago. And, because this perfect Son took the punishment awaiting me, the rather imperfect 6th grader in husky jeans from Sears who once stole a Cecil Fielder rookie card from a lost and found at his daycare and cried about it for 3 days when his actions were discovered, I am allowed to have a totally secure relationship with the divine creator of the universe who is, now, no longer mad at me, mostly.
(*NOTE: If you're confused about the difference between "the death of God" and "the death of God's son" just 2 paragraphs in, don't worry, people have been arguing about the nature of Jesus as both totally God and totally a human person who wasn't God (it's rather confusing for me too, and I've spent more money than I care to admit trying to figure out the answer).)
Weirdly enough, this part of the Christian story (what religious professionals call: "substitutionary atonement") I was handed down from on high didn’t really give me much pause. In my own world of prepubescent depression, anxiety, and insecurity it made perfect sense that I was exceedingly deserving of being a nailed to an ancient executioner’s stake for occasionally using profanity during church-league basketball games. God’s filicidal wrath burning against me and my longstanding sinfulness (see: Cecil Fielder rookie card) was, in my opinion, a logically air-tight theological explanation for the crushing pain I felt in my chest every time I contemplated where I fit in the world from the confines of my uncomfortable sleeping bag in my dad and stepmom’s living room where I spent every other weekend.
When you hate who you are it isn’t all that hard to believe God occasionally joins in both now, and possibly forevermore in the Earth’s molten core.
No, what tripped me up was the fact that even though Jesus (both God and God’s perfect Son) was murdered by the Roman Empire (or, by the wrath of His Heavenly Father depending upon whom you ask) for my (and your) middle school transgressions, 3 days later he confusingly got to get back up off the mat and terrify his old disciples by spooking them in a locked room, walking along the road with them without revealing his identity, and cooking them breakfast over a fire on the shore of Galilee’s sea (what religious professionals call: "resurrection").
In my Baptist tradition, the resurrection served no function other than reminding us of 3 things each year:
1.) When Easter (or Spring Christmas) is (one year, the death and resurrection of Jesus resulted in me receiving Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball for SNES, so, in the words of Super Bowl Champion Kurt Warner: “THANK YOU JESUS”).
2.) God’s Son was so good that even taking the punishment for our trifling (yet, still historically significant) mistakes couldn’t kill him. So, TAKE HEED, anyone who may have quit the wresting team after two weeks in 10th grade because the spandex uniforms were unflattering and practice was hard.
3.) Just like (hypothetically) spoiling the outcome of a basketball game your father-in-law was saving to watch when he gets home ruins the drama, knowing the outcome of Jesus’ tomb-clearing follow up to the crucifixion takes a bit of the energy out of the dry ice and laser lights of Easter celebrations. Therefore, every year, your Easter extravaganzas must involve exceedingly ludicrous amounts of pastel, egg hunts, brass instruments, and billboard advertising campaigns.
Which brings us back to the importance of hearing and occasionally believing that God dies. Because God does, even when we might not want God to.
As a kid, anytime I was confused about something I mostly just assumed I was the problem.
My parents splitting up?
Math (all kinds)?
Yep, Me again.
Doubting* the validity and goodness of the Christianity I was introduced to by thoughtful and well-meaning people with microphones?
Still totally me.
(*NOTE: Once again, if you have a fundamental grasp of your brokenness and inadequacy, is it terribly good news to hear: “Yeah, well everyone else is broken too, and God is equally dissatisfied with them. So get over it...or else.” ?)
Which is why, for many years, I thought my confusion and/or disinterest in the resurrection was yet another example of my spiritual ineptitude, that is, until, I discovered the writings of two of my favorite theologians, Tina Fey and Jurgen Moltmann.
In her landmark opus on the nature of human frailty and fart jokes, Bossypants, Fey attempts to apply the “yes and” philosophy of improv comedy to almost every nook and cranny of life, pithily noting:
“Just say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards.”
In his much less funny work, The Crucified God, Moltmann opines that the source of our misunderstanding about God’s nature in the world is rooted in our utter confusion about the point of God’s death. He reminds us, in a German accent no less, that:
“The God of freedom, the true God, is... not recognized by his power and glory in the history of the world, but through his helplessness and his death on the scandal of the cross of Jesus”
For Moltmann and Fey what's the relationship between God and Jesus, between death and resurrection, between faith and doubt?
St. Paul (you know, from the Bible), had this phrase about the death and resurrection of Jesus being a stumbling block as it trips up so many of us attempting to grasp at redemption. However, Paul argues, the "foolishness" of Christianity is that the thing that keeps so many of us away for so long, if we'll let it, ends up being what brings us back home.
It might not be true for you, but for me the resurrection has become the only thing terribly interesting at all about the Christian faith. Namely, because the first time it happened not one person who knew Jesus personally expected it, not one person who knew Jesus personally planned for it, not one person who knew Jesus personally had any idea what to do with it, and not one person who knew Jesus personally would have chosen it for him or for themselves.
To be clear, I’m pretty sure his friends and family would’ve preferred he (and them) not have to die.
When I started to understand the resurrection as God’s rather disappointingly necessary answer to the question of how to survive after your God has died, my relationship with Christianity changed profoundly. Because, whether it’s a dream, a job, a partner, a kid, or the life you always promised yourself in the midst of a rather melancholy childhood, the death of the thing you always thought would save you is almost unsurvivable.
Many of us, in fact, don’t end up surviving.
In my own life, I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that the things I've always told myself about who I am as a way of keeping me from making permanent decisions to impermanent problems probably weren't true, or at least not in the ways I always hoped they would be. I’m not terribly special. I’m not terribly chosen. I’m not terribly unique. And that everything I’ve “endured” (as a white man, please take the weight of this word with a grain of salt) is not a ledger I get to later collect on in the form of people tearfully reading, listening, and following along with me from the cheap seats in a darkened amphitheater as I talk to them about my published witticisms on life and God.
I thought humorously and thoughtfully convincing other people that Christianity was worth it, would save me. would heal me, and would finally fix the wobbly and misaligned parts of my soul.
It didn’t, and it won’t.
Which is why I want to argue that across our collective understandings and misunderstandings about the who, what, when, where, and why of God, the resurrection of Jesus is a way of whispering “yes and” to the collective deaths of everything we thought played a central role in determining who we are or aren’t, where we fit or don’t, and why we’re here and not somewhere else?
But my marriage is over.
But I’m sick and I don’t think it’s the “get over it” kind.
But I’ve tried to kill myself, a few times actually.
But I don’t believe in God.
But I want to have kids and I can’t.
But I think I’m an alcoholic.
When we meet people who have survived the death of their God, of their salvation, it’s like seeing, and eating, and talking with someone who should be a ghost, but strangely isn’t. When these not-ghosts talk openly about their own scars, and doubts, and deaths (even inviting us to trace the nail holes in their palms from time to time), we almost never hear them say things like: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “God has a better plan for my life”.
Because those are the mantras of people who refuse to let God die.
Instead, they say things like: “It’s hard to move on” or “This isn’t how I planned it” or “I don’t know that I’ll ever be the same…but most days I’m almost okay.” People that are still barely-standing despite not ever getting what they always wanted or deserved from life, or after having what they always wanted taken from them, are bearing witness, even if they vehemently refuse, to the central truth of the Christian faith.
Namely, that yes, no matter how we answer the "why" of God's death, at some point our God will die, our God will disappoint, our God will have to leave, and at some point we have to decide what to do with the rest of our lives. If we keep going long enough, I believe that God will eventually return to us, albeit maybe with a limp, a scar, and a rather strange story to tell.
Or, as Richard Kearney says in his brilliant work, Anatheism:
“For in surrendering our own God to a stranger God no God may come back again. Or the God who comes back may come back in ways that surprise us.”
In my experience I have this habit of confusing the God of the resurrection (Kearney’s “stranger God”) for the God of manifest destiny, touchdown celebrations, and 401ks that never nosedive, when in fact, the God of the resurrection is the God who adopts, and gets sober, and remarries, and doesn't "beat" cancer (whatever that means), and finally talks to someone about his demons, and even though she might refuse to go back to church, the God of the resurrection still leaves the door cracked to sacredness from time to time.
In my experience, the God of the resurrection is covered in scars, and luckily for me and many of the folks who inspire me, so are we.
So are we. So are we. So are we.