When things would get bleakest for me (often because of my own unyielding need to be right), I used to revel in telling a story about the tour following Dylan’s show at the Newport Music Festival when he went electric for the first time to a chorus of boos.
He was confident, resolute, and completely committed to the idea that his new electric sound was the future, so he played show after show across America where the first half was comprised of old folk stand-byes (Blowin’ in the Wind, Don’t Think Twice, Oxford Town, etc.), while the second half was his new electric set. The 1966 World Tour was sold out, and town-to-town-to-town, the arena would be full for the first half of the show, people would sway and sing and cheer, intermission would hit, 25 percent of the crowd would immediately leave, and those who remained did so only to boo for the entirety of the second set. Bob and his band, as described by his lead guitarist, would roll into town, rehearse, eat, sleep, play a show, fans would boo, pack up, drive, roll into the next town, rehearse, eat, sleep, play a show, fans would boo, repeat.
“[Dylan] didn't budge, and we stuck with him, and in time it's been proven that the world was wrong and we were right. That's quite a feeling."
-Robbie Robertson, lead guitar
Reading this now, we of course know who won that argument, the original hand-scrawled manuscript for Like a Rolling Stone sold for $2 million dollars in 2014. Which is inspiring and all, but at the end of the day I find that hagiographic stories about famous people who weren’t always famous overcoming obstacles (sometimes of their own making) to “make it” in the end, to be the most depressing of motivational posters.
Especially for a writer who writes things for free on the Internet.
The older I get the more I realize that the “making it” part of these kinds of stories aren’t terribly interesting to me. Is the “making it” part why we’re telling the story at all right now? Probably.
But does it have to be?
I won’t ever be Bob Dylan, I have been booed (at a church!), but I have not had someone offer me 2 million, 2 thousand, or 2 dollars for my work. Does Dylan's unyielding commitment to the work he was put here to do somehow mean more than mine in light of his success? And is mine somehow a waste because it never went platinum?
I often feel the same way when people tell me stories about folks “fighting” cancer, regaling me with stories about their loved ones who “kicked cancer’s rear-end” and who are now enjoying remission. In light of these fist pumping narratives, we celebrate together in the warmth of news that their partners and kids and grandparents are still upright. At the same time I can't help but allow my mind to wander over to everyone else I’ve known who weren’t as successful in “kicking cancer’s rear-end,” we don’t really tell their stories well, or if we do, there’s this kind of melancholic wistfulness that accompanies our loved ones finally “giving up the fight”.
Cancer isn’t an opponent.
Cancer is mostly random.*
Just like success, fame, the power of some people’s last names, and however we define “making it”.
(*NOTE: except to your friend who has definitely steeled himself against this scourge by talking invasively about Monsanto every time you hang out).
It’s almost Easter, and the older I get the more I realize that the resurrection of Jesus has very little to do with an amazing one time event when God, in a twist ending of cosmic proportions, pantsed the universe with a tomb clearing encore to the crucifixion.
“[Jesus] didn’t budge, and we stuck with him, and in time it’s been proven that the world was wrong and we were right. That’s quite a feeling.”
-St. Peter, lead guitar
Usually, the stories of the crucifixion are read through the lens of triumphant history, much like Dylan going electric, where we (the victors) stand on the other side of whatever hell we (others) went through to get here, patting ourselves on the back for seeing what others failed to in real-time. Except that we forget that in the minds and hearts of his closest followers, the death of Jesus was the failure of his teaching, inspiration, leadership, and ability to sway the powers that be into bringing God’s kingdom to Earth as it was in heaven.
For clarity's sake: the boos weren’t vindicating, the tears weren’t rewarding, the pain was unbearable, and the defeat was deafening. Just like when the doctor called you at home after your test results, or someone close to you gave you the "we need to talk" look at family dinner.
When Jesus was arrested and later executed, (unless you were a Roman authority figure in Judea or a member of the Jewish priestly class) no one believed this was somehow good news, or a rather confusing way for God to cathartically exhaust his anger at humanity for Internet pornography and middle school smoking habits.
For most people on the underside of power, the death of Jesus was bad news, the worst actually.
So when anxiously triumphant Christianity gets its hands on Easter, it will interrupt your pain, ignore your limp, explain away your questions, and strike up the Oscars band before your lament has had time to finish. Triumphant Christianity always starts at the end of the story, during the “making it” montage, where Jesus and his followers are all in on the joke, anxiously anticipating their redemption.
"When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain, I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride"
-Chris Tomlin, God's lead guitarist
Which makes it hard for Triumphant Christianity to know what to do with the responses of almost all of Jesus’ closest followers in the wake of the death of their hopes, dreams, and futures, as they fearfully locked themselves away in their room, or headed down to the tomb to desperately stare at the body, willing it to come back to life.
If we read forwards rather than backwards, we find that the season of Easter is about how, at the core, Christianity is a way of seeing everything for people who never got what they wanted from God, from life, from their families and friends, and even from the very religion founded in the name of Jesus and his resurrection.
Christianity isn’t a religion that saves us by finally bringing our dreams to life, it’s one that sustains us by keeping us afloat even when they die, again, and again, and again.
Easter reminds us that Christianity is a miserable failure, it leaks, and swears when it drops a flashlight on its foot when the power suddenly goes out, it makes weird faces in family photos, and gets uncomfortably honest about its break-ups after too much wine at your cousin’s wedding reception. It sometimes seems like it’s barely hanging on, but it never gives up, even when it has every reason to, even when it stops breathing for three days.
And that’s what makes it such good news for so many of us. Arguably, all of us, if we’re being honest.
A Christianity that only ever gives us what we want, forever, isn’t a religion as much as it’s a pyramid scheme whose validity is found only in the sheer numbers of people we’re able to capture under the spell of unending exotic vacations on golden streets that never reach their end. Our ability to transfix more and more people under the spell of this longed for end to our lives is the way many of us were taught to believe, to find our worth, and to locate the source of our strength to survive the unexpected diagnoses, job losses, and early NCAA tournament exits that make up the whole of life on Earth.
The belief that eventually we’ll get what we always wanted (which, in this analogy isn’t actually God, but some heavenly layaway plan our fidelity to God buys us in the end of days) hasn’t, doesn’t, and won’t ever save us from anything: it only painfully postpones the inevitable for everyone not named Bob Dylan.
And it hasn't even saved Dylan.
However, a Christianity that brings newness to deadness, even if the newness was something we would never have chosen for ourselves, a newness that doesn’t ride off into the sunset, but one that’s coughing, and screaming, and gurgling, and terrifying, and scarred, and limping, and never quite whole, well, that might blow the doors off the universe if we’ll let it.
At the least, this kind of limping newness seems both more and less plausible than a man coming back from the dead, depending of course upon your own level of personal deadness. Your friend who loves to read Richard Dawkins books undermining the “validity” of mystical experiences in religion aside, all of us have met folks whose turned-around-lives were so dead that the resurrection of Jesus seems pretty tepid by comparison.
I know I have.
So may you, if you’re a parent, but to kids with different last names
or if you aren’t a parent, but not for lack of trying
or if you’re employed, but only barely some days
or if you aren’t, but not for lack of trying
or if you’re still married, but only barely some days
or if you aren’t, but not for lack of trying
or if after several surgeries things still don’t feel right
or if you’re single at your age, and always answering invasive questions about why
or if you don’t have any more “fight” left in you
remember that Christianity isn’t the symphonic conclusion of the things that did, are, and will stoop our backs, Christianity is the thing holding us up on the other side of something that should have killed us (or maybe even did kill us).
This Easter may you discover that “making it” is for chumps, but “living through it” or “coming back to life after it,” for me at least, empties my tomb every time.
Photo Credit: Creative Common