Easter Week, 3: Mythologising Sacrifice
“My favourite definition of mythology: other people’s religion. My favourite definition of
religion: misunderstanding of mythology. The misunderstanding consist in the reading of
the mythological symbols as though they were primarily references to historical events…”
- Joseph Campbell
AND MAN MADE GODS in his own image, and that of the animals he saw around him, and he saw these stories were sometimes helpful psychologically in a a pre-philosophical age. But one of these gods was a jealous god. For this god was so angry at the world he sent one-third of himself to die to expiate the sins of those with whom he was angry, for sins that (in his omniscience) he would have always known they would commit.
It’s not just history the christian story challenges, is it. It’s logic. Their god, both all-knowing and all-powerful (the two key features that make him a god) not only knows all that has happened ad will happen, he is also responsible for all that has happened and does happen - that's what being both all-knowing and all-powerful really means.
Which means that he is not just at one with our sin and suffering: he caused it all, and he knew it would all happen.
Human suffering, according to this view, is not an accident, it is god-given.
On this view, in this story, this god is not just in favour of pain and suffering, he not just actively wills it, in “saving” the world from himself by having his own son tortured and killed he is an example to parents everywhere. (Just like, you know, Abraham.)
EVERY RELIGION HAS ITS own core myths portraying the very heart of their beliefs. The pagan Greeks told stories of their gods, those Attic super-men, consuming Ambrosia and gambolling on Olympus. The Norse heroes told stories of their gods lustily wenching and feasting in Valhalla while waiting for Ragnarok. And the Christians? They tell about the time when their god sent his son down to be nailed up to a piece of wood.
As a myth, you’d think it’s hardly something to celebrate.
Yet the Easter Myth is central to Christianity, and all too revealing of the ethic at Christianity's heart.
Art reveals that core. Look at that fantastic painting below, by Salvador Dali. A great, powerful, awe-inspiring, revealing piece of art. What does it represent? It represents man-worship -- the presentation of an ideal – one of the greatest presentations of the theme in the twentieth century. (Thank you, Salvador Dali.) Note how the main figure is larger than life and seemingly immune to pain or destruction; a figure, incongruously in this context, portrayed without pain or fear or guilt.
Christus Hypercubus, Salvador Dali
The figure at left, much smaller, looks up at the blindingly bright Christ figure with a look not simply of curiosity or sadness, but of literal man-worship. If we have questions here, when looking at a man – not just a man, our ideal man – nailed up to a piece of wood, they might be along these lines:
"How can you worship the destruction of your ideal man?”
“Why would you celebrate his torture?”
“Why is suffering so central to your mythology?”
Fair questions, especially when confronted with splatter-fests like Mel Gibson’s Passion that lovingly depict every act of torture and every drop of blood in high-definition Technicolor.
That’s what painting and film can do with the theme. How about music? Bach’s St Matthew Passion musically and beautifully dramatises this Myth while revealing its true nature. The Passion’s thematic centre occurs when Jesus appears before Pilate and the mob.
When Pilate asks the crowd who should be freed, Barabbas or Jesus. The crowd replies, "Barabbas!" and Pilate asks, "When what should I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?" The crowd shouts, "Let him be Crucified!"
This final shout is musically rendered in such an awful way that the hearer is almost struck dumb. One can feel the terrible doom being called down.
Pilate then asks (in Part 56), "Why, what has this man done?" His question is answered by what is probably the loneliest Soprano ever, who says, "He has done good to us all, He gave sight to the blind, The lame he made to walk; He told us his father's word, He drove the devils forth; The wretched he has raised up; He received and sheltered sinners, Nothing else has my Jesus done."
Following this is an even more poignant aria that begins, "Out of love my Saviour is willing to die." After that the chorus repeats the sentence, which is made worse by what we have just heard.
"Let him be Crucified!"
Made worse, much worse, because of the good he has apparently done.
Just think, Christians revere Christ as their ideal, and in some of the most plangent music ever Bach has his chorus and soloists praise him, worship him, eulogise Him – this, above all, was their hero (Bach tells us); a man known only for good deeds; who spread the good word; the man they believe their god sent to earth as an example of the highest possible on this earth -- and then they and that god went and had him killed.
That's the story. This, says Bach in the true honesty that great art reveals, is what Christians revere: The murder of their ideal man. The sacrifice of himself to himself. To appease what? Why, to appease his own blodlust.
It’s an astonishing ethic to celebrate, isn’t it: the sacrifice of the ideal man just to appease and placate the mob.
THE SACRIFICE, YOU SEE, is the thing. Sacrifice is the central ethical thesis of Christianity—so important that an all-powerful god was supposed to sacrifice his own son (who is also himself) to himself just to make the important point: that sacrifice of a higher value—of the very highest—to everything that crawls on earth is central to the Christian ethics.
Central? As the apostle Paul set it up, it is his religion’s very core.
In the Easter Myth giving voice to this ethic of sacrifice, we are invited to praise the willing sacrifice of the man they hold up as their ideal to a mob of the vilest sinners--sacrificed as a point of ethical and religious necessity in the most vile and bloodthirsty way imaginable.
It's of no avail whether in the Christ myth we hear that he was arrested for blasphemy, or for disrupting temple rituals, or for preaching without a police permit, or that he came to replace one stone-age form of witch-doctory for another. It's of no avail because none of those points are central to the Easter Myth, or of the central Christian ethic portrayed therein: they’re all just plot devices to get the story to Golgotha, and the god-son nailed up.
That is the vile story we are invited to admire and the ethic we are enjoined to emulate.
“What would Jesus do (WWJD)?”, we’re enjoined to ask by religionists Why, he would give up his very life up to the mob, and his very body to be tortured by it. Why? To save (somehow) all you miserable sinners.
The sacrifice, you see, is the thing. And just to be clear:
“Sacrifice” is the surrender of a greater value for the sake of a lesser one or of a nonvalue. Thus, altruism gauges a man’s virtue by the degree to which he surrenders, renounces or betrays his values…
That a story is celebrated in which a divine sacrifice, a human being, a son of the “all-powerful” is offered up in the most vile, most bloodthirsty way possible--to "save" a mob who, according to those same Christians, are created as vile sinners--and to "appease" a bloodthirsty and omnipotent God who intended all this to happen, and (according to the story) sent this ideal man down to earth to make sure that it did …. now if that's not a vile story, even if t'were true, then my name is Odin.
And there's certainly nothing enlightening there on which to base an ethics. And base an ethics on it the religionists certainly do. One they insist is “sublime.”
No wonder the religionists see nothing to apologise for today when priests quietly sacrifice young children to their own misbegotten lusts.
HANS HOLBEIN’S PAINTING ‘CHRIST AFTER CRUCIFIXION’ lays bare the reality of the sacrifice even more directly than Mel Gibson’s splatter movie.
Hans Holbein, 1521, ‘A Christian Confronts Reality’ (after Dostoyevsky)
It’s not a pretty painting, as this detail makes plain:
Hans Holbein, 1521, ‘A Christian Confronts Reality’ (after Dostoyevsky), detail
A good subtitle for this 1521 painting might be ‘A Christian Confronts Reality.’ That, at least, was how the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky felt when confronted with this naturalistic depiction of the battered Christian corpse in 1867: confronted with the horrific reality of crucifixion and its results, Dostoyevsky was struck by the importance of this confrontation for his faith, and inspired to dramatise in his next novel what that confrontation meant. Said his wife,
The figure of Christ taken from the cross, whose body already showed signs of decomposition, haunted him like a horrible nightmare. In his notes to [his novel] The Idiot and in the novel itself he returns again and again to his theme.
Holbein confronts the Christian viewer with a powerful choice: One must either believe that God raised this ravaged body from the dead, and that the Christian myth, therefore, “offers hope for humanity beyond this life”; or else accept that the dead stay dead, that such an event did not and could not occur, that reality is what it is – with all that follows therefrom. As Dostoyevsky has a character in The Idiot explain it,
His body on the cross was therefore fully and entirely subject to the laws of nature. In the picture the face is terribly smashed with blows, swollen, covered with terrible, swollen, and bloodstained bruises, the eyes open and squinting; the large, open whites of the eyes have a sort of dead and glassy glint. . . .
Looking at that picture, you get the impression of nature as some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, though it may seem strange, as some huge engine of the latest design, which has senselessly seized, cut to pieces, and swallowed up–impassively and unfeelingly–a great and priceless Being, a Being worth the whole of nature and all its laws, worth the entire earth, which was perhaps created solely for the coming of that Being!
Good art need not be a thing of beauty, but it must have something to say.
This, Holbein’s painting (and Dostoyevsky’s novel), they certainly do that.
If you believe the Creation myth and all that goes with it, the idea that all this was designed by something supernatural and omnipotent, then you must believe this torture too was designed. That it was intended. That the god that once insisted Abraham sacrifice his own son now makes the mob insist on the sacrifice of their ideal.
Let me ask you again, Don’t you think it astonishing to celebrate this barbarity?
IT WOULD BE EVEN MORE astonishing if that were what Easter really meant. Thankfully, it’s not.
More on that tomorrow…
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