Summing up Eastertide: New creation, confuting the slanderers
Inasmuch as the scene of this story is that historic pile, Belpher Castle, in the county of Hampshire, it would be an agreeable task to open it with a leisurely description of the place, followed by some notes on the history of the Earls of Marshmoreton, who have owned it since the fifteenth century. Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jack-rabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.
P. G. Wodehouse, A Damsel in Distress ch. 1 (1919).
I sometimes wonder about the extent to which we commit narrative-olatry. I would say this peculiar idolatry is a mark of our age, but like most marks of our age its roots go far deeper; all the way down to the Garden, in fact. The sad result of this idolatry is that it makes us all ears for stories hastily drawn, and prevents us from hearing the better stories that more subtle, patient storytellers would tell, if we had an ear free.
About a year ago I realized something about the grand Story of God, something that made me think carefully about the exaltation of narrative in our time, and, especially, the exaltation of story over command: The first little story within the big Story was told by the Serpent.
God had, of course, started telling the grand Story, speaking everything into existence. By Genesis 3 He’d gotten as far as setting the stage, introducing the opening scene’s dramatis personae, and setting forth a few commands: the vocation for Man and Woman to multiply and subdue the earth, and the prohibition against eating the fruit of a tree. There were things to do, places to go, people to see. There was not yet, however, any struggle of the kind stories are made of – no pain, no evil, no battle, no enemy to fight or obstacle to overcome.
By taking His time in framing His story, God left it, for a time, open to the slander that it was too perfect: deathly stultifying, uninhabitable for red-blooded humans, a story where the characters couldn’t grow up. As we might say today, it wasn’t “real.” Seeing that little opening – and knowing that any creature made in God’s image would have a taste for a good story – the Serpent gave our first parents a story, about the pain of a deprivation, of God’s infliction, in which they would be the heroes. They would grow up to overcome the oppressive lie of the God who was keeping them down: that in the day they ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die.
“You will not surely die” was the Serpent’s word to Eve. It also was Simon Peter’s word to Jesus. The former spoke fully intending slander against the honesty of God; the latter, in reckless disregard of the honesty of God. Jesus’s death crushed the intentional slanderer, and corrected the reckless one. Upon a tree that was a true scion of fruit stolen from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the true Man surely died.
That brings us to the brink of the first Eastertide. One of the great songs from the Church’s first few centuries, the Te Deum, tells that part of the Story thus:
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
Thou didst open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
The lines are true, but incomplete – incomplete in a way that exposes the Story’s end to the same old too-perfect, stultifying, not-real slanders that had been leveled at its beginning. By contrast, the four Evangelists’ resurrection accounts, particularly those of St. Luke and St. John, do not leave the Story open to such defamation. For one thing, they are puzzling; Jesus’s transposition from old creation to new made Him unrecognizable, even to His closest friends, much of the time. For another, when the risen Jesus identified Himself, the characteristic means by which He did so was pointing to His wounds. Preserving the marks graven upon the great I Am’s hands, the stripes by which we are healed, connected the old creation with the new and decisively rebutted the charge of unreal perfectionism. There is here no narrative cheating, no cutting corners, no editing the not-nice parts.
Here is the brilliance of the master Storyteller. With a few marks, He vindicates the truth of His commands, eats up and spits out the lies of His enemies, corrects and restores His friends, ties the whole story of the old creation to the new, and spins riddles that draw us further up and further in to the end He has declared from the beginning.