- At the Desert Retreat House -
If Christians show up for church during this “Easter” season they are likely to hear one of many biblical stories about various times when the disciples encountered the living “Christ” after his resurrection. Most of these stories depict a scene in which apostles or disciples are sharing a meal together and as they do so, the once-dead and now living “Christ” appears to them. He walks through locked doors, sits down with the disciples, eats a piece of bread and fish with them, and then just as quickly he vanishes.
A few years ago I remember being confronted by someone after a church service during which one of these Easter stories were read. A young man literally shook his head at me and said: “You seem like an intelligent guy, you can't really believe that story you just read about a recently killed Jesus who walked through a locked door and then, to the delight of his disciples, sat down to eat a meal, then mysteriously vanished?” The young man who confronted me thought that “magical” stories like this were basically ludicrous fantasies. I told him that he probably needed to understand the role metaphor and poetry always play in all the stories (not only in the Christian Bible) but in all the various scriptures of all the world religious traditions.
As I see it, language about “God”, faith, belief, religion and spirituality always involves some use of metaphor and poetry. Whenever we talk about any experiences of transcendence we will inevitably turn to poetic and metaphorical language to help us “get at” an experience that cant be logically described. But metaphorical language is a different kind of language than most people employ nowadays in ordinary everyday life. In fact, lots of people today hardly even know what a metaphor is and are unable to recognize metaphor when they see it, thinking instead only in a language of fact and description.
As I see it, it is virtually impossible to understand the Bible (or the scriptures of almost any faith tradition) without realizing that it is filled with an abundance of “stories’ written thousands of years ago that are always rich in metaphor, much more prone to poetry than to history. If you don’t understand metaphorical language then, of course, many if not most of the stories of the scriptures will be either seen as magical fantasy to unbelievers or as basically “irrelevant” to the everyday lives of believers (most of us have never seen a dead person appear while having supper, so it’s a nice story but it doesn’t really have much to do with our everyday lives).
I think of the story in the Buddhist scripture about angels singing in the heavens at the birth of the Buddha and the story in the Hebrew Bible about the earth being formed and fashioned in the six days of creation. These are all beautiful poems celebrating the harmonious splendor and unity of all creation. I think of the story in the Christian Gospels about Jesus walking on water and calming a turbulent sea or the Easter story about the risen Christ walking through locked doors. These also are “rich” in metaphor, stories told to inspire and strengthen faith, to give hope and provide guidance for the living of everyday life in our own time and place. If you take this language too literally, you will inevitably miss its richer meaning.
I am reminded of something scripture scholar and theologian, Dominic Crossan, once said about the kind of language ancient peoples used in composing the various stories of faith in the scriptures:
My point is not that those ancient people told literal stories
and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically,
but that they told stories symbolically
and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.
I am also reminded of something the theologian, Dan Maguire, also wrote in his provocative book, Christianity without God. He makes an interesting observation about how fundamentalist believers as well as well as hard-core atheists often fall into the same camp in their inability to recognize and appreciate metaphor as the language of spirituality - especially “metaphor” as found in the scriptures.
Fervent atheists often join faithful believers in reducing
the infinitely varied and image-rich narratives in the scriptures to a literal reading
as though they were historical tracts or a kind of ancient journalism.
Anti-poets take teaching like ‘paradise,’ “exodus,’ ‘incarnation’ and ‘resurrection’
and downsize them as if they could have been caught on film
and featured in a documentary.
During this Easter season, Christians may go to church and hear stories about how the ancient disciples encountered the “Living Christ” while they gathered together and shared a meal. There are many times when I have sat down to share a meal with others, sometimes sharing a communion meal at church, sometimes sharing a meal in my home around our dinner table, and during meal I have experienced a deep sense of relationship with those who were gathered together with me, sometimes I experienced a sense of profound Love. My guess is that I have encountered the living Christ as we broke bread together, and I think that this is exactly what these “Easter stories” are trying to say.