Easter is almost upon us, and the Passover meal happens tonight. There are a lot of questions surrounding this tradition and the Easter story, and most people today have only a surface understanding of the origins of the tradition. Michael Lukas had a really nice article yesterday in Slate.com on science and the passover story. Very informative, timely, and an excellent summary of some of the popular scientific theories as well as some of the more theological perspectives on the passover story. For those of you who are interested, you can read the Passover story at biblegateway.com. If you click on the link, it will take you right to it. I am not going to tell the passover story, and I am not going to summarize the scientific theories, those things are already done nicely in the links above. I want to examine the value of the story in our current cultural context, and look at some of the ways that we might approach the story as Christians, Follower of Jesus, Baptists, United Methodists, Americans, or otherwise.
I want to start my evaluation of the passover story with a quick look at Star Trek. Stay with me, it relates. In literature and film, there is a critical analysis tool that is referred to as suspension of disbelief. This does not mean unbelief, it simply means that the reader or viewer allows some things to go unexamined because examining them does not lend itself to understanding the story. It is something that we do automatically most of the time, and something that takes a little work at others. Take the Starship Enterprise, for example. In space, there is no gravity. You would have to create an atmosphere and have all sorts of complicated denying of the physical laws of gravity to have people walking around on the ship as though it were a living room. That doesn’t really occur to most viewers, because it doesn’t really matter how they do it – the point of the story is that there is hope for humanity. We somehow survive, colonize space, and work together for peace and justice. We love Star Trek, and we don’t typically care that the women are green or whether or not the matter-anti-matter containment field is an actual piece of scientific exploration equipment. But no one claims that Star Trek is real. The genre of Star Trek is science fiction. It is not about science, it is about fiction. The really good science fiction uses enough science that we don’t even notice that we have exercised our suspension of disbelief. It just comes naturally. The study of Jewish and Christian events is not history, it is theological history. It is more about theology than history.
Most people today would assert that the bible has some historical significance. There are exceptions, some who say that it is entirely made up and that Moses was some drug addict who had hallucinations, but even that theory suggests that Moses was a real person. Historians recognize that there were a group of nomads living in Egypt around the time of the Jewish Exodus, but there was no way to say whether or not they were Hebrew. One of the main elements of the story was that the bush that Moses saw in the wilderness burst into flames and he heard the voice of God. Spontaneous ccombustion of plants in the desert is a possibility, and it has been studied, researched, and hypothesized. Some believe that it happened the way it is stated in the Bible, some believe that it was a natural occurrence interpreted in through the lens of theology, and some just believe that Moses needed a powerful image of God, and fire was the best he could come up with. Either way, the general population in the western world believe some version of that story really happened. The same is true for the 10 plagues, ending in the deaths of the firstborn sons of Egypt. This speaks directly to the Passover meal that is part of our Easter celebration as we honor the protection that God provided the Isrealites when he allowed them to mark their homes and the God passed over those households. Whether we say that we believe it or not, it is as much a part of our culture as the Easter Bunny, and it is important to understanding the story of Jesus, since He was celebrating the passover meal with His disciples when He had the Last Supper. He was arrested that night and sentenced to death the following day.
So back to the suspension of disbelief. No one here is claiming that the sories of the Bible are true, untrue, fact or fiction. The idea is that if you are reading the Bible and struggling with believing some of the stuff that is stated or that happens, I say ecercise your suspension of disbelief. It is not as important that you believe everything in the Bible as it is that you don’t disbelieve something so strictly that you allow the meaning and intent of the story to be lost. We have to admit that we have no idea what really happened or how – but that it was so inexplicable that people tried to explain it for lifetimes, and that we all agree (mostly) that something happened. Something big. Something powerful, and because we believe that it is possible for something that big and that powerful to happen, we can begin to understand, even believe in, God. Much more life transformation happens when you stop ardently disbelieving in something than when we try to prove that it is a fact. Michael Lukas gave us valuable insight into the ways that people have attempted to understand the Story of God and man, and the most powerful statement in his article was the very last line:
By speculating that the voice of God is a hallucination, Shanon, like Freud before him, is attempting to cast doubt on the foundations of monotheism. But not all the explanations of the Passover story are motivated by such ardent secularism. In The Miracles of Exodus, Humphreys writes that “a natural explanation of the events of the Exodus doesn’t to my mind make them any less miraculous. … What made certain events miraculous was their timing.”
Understanding science and the way that we interact with our world is valuable information, and speculating on the specifics of the stories if the Bible are valuable to a deeper understanding of their significance. We have to admit, however, that there will always be an element that we cannot explain, and that we have a choice every day whether or not we accept that unexplained part as the mystery and power of the story, or shrug it off as a delusion of the minds of men.
Because I recognize that there is often someone who can say what you want to say better than you, I will leave you with these two quotes from Anne Lamott:
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
and, from an interview on NPR with Terry Gross:
“The opposite of faith is not doubt, the opposite of faith is certainty.”