The Language and Imagery of Easter

For those Christians who do not find meaning in the concept of “blood atonement”, the imagery of Easter, and particularly Good Friday, can be problematic. We find it difficult if not impossible to reconcile our understanding of a loving God with one who would require a human sacrifice in order to open the gates of heaven to human beings. Even more convoluted is the idea that the sacrifice was in some way, through the Trinity, God’s self.

One of the reasons for this conflict is that our understanding of Christianity has been dominated by literalist thinking for several hundred years. Although we’re rapidly getting out of the straitjacket that literalism placed around our faith, that heritage is still part of the underlying background of how we define our relationship with God. It is, as a social scientist might say, how we “frame the dialogue.”

Theologians such as Marcus Borg, Karen Armstrong and Douglas John Hall talk about re-imaging faith in various ways – Borg’s “traditional” and “emerging” paradigms concept, for example, has become a common way of expressing this effort.

Others, such as Gretta Vosper, have concluded that the language of Christianity has so much baggage that we can never escape it. No matter how much effort we expend, this rationale goes, the first thing that comes to people’s minds when they think of “God” is some Zeus-like dispenser of lightning bolts and perdition. Their solution is to dispense with traditional language and imagery altogether.

There is, of course, a challenge to understanding any sacred text, whether the Christian New Testament or the sacred writings of any other faith. For one thing, they were written by people living in a different time, place, and culture; they were written for a different audience. What’s most important, however, is that they were never written to be understood literally.

Today, we’re used to easily dividing our written records into “fiction” or “non-fiction.” The latter deals with people, places, or things; the former deals with stuff that’s “made up.”

Sacred text is neither. And both.

While we often use the word “metaphor” when we talk about sacred text, a more accurate word is “mythos.” (We could also talk about “midrash”, but let’s leave that one for the preacher crowd for now.)

The problem is that we’re used to lumping mythos into the fiction category, as “mythology.” It brings to mind Odin and Thor, Apollo and Aphrodite.

Mythos, however, does more than entertain. It uses story to tell us things about ourselves, our world, and our Creator. Which is why it’s so difficult for us to simply give up the imagery that has informed our faith for so long. We feel the power of what the stories in the New Testament are telling us about our place in Creation, even as we reject the literalist interpretation of those stories.

Over the years, I’ve written about Lent and Easter from a number of different perspectives. This year, I’d like to offer three articles on the powerful mythos of the wilderness, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection.

I hope you’ll drop back and, if you feel so inclined, offer your own perspective.