Thomas and Jesus, at the Resurrection

Apr 03, 2016   •   John 20:19-31

We read this gospel the Sunday after Easter every year. That’s not something we usually do, read the same gospel, year after year. I know this because I must have preached on it a good 6-8 times, which is a lot given my relative short years in ministry. But it tends to fall to the seminarian and assistant priest to preach the week after Easter.

Reading it again, this year, something new struck me. See, I think this reading of the story put too much emphasis on Thomas and his doubt. I think it is either too hard on Thomas or too soft on him, depending on whether you think he is the hero or the antagonist in this story. Thomas wasn’t the only one who doubted. It’s not as if the other disciples and the Mary and the other Mary saw the crucifixion and went out to the cemetery for a resurrection watch. They saw Jesus die and assumed he was dead. They took that as plain, hard fact until Jesus showed up and told them otherwise. The other disciples needed to see Jesus with their eyes just as much as Thomas did. He just wasn’t there when they saw him.

And that’s interesting to me; he wasn’t there. I wonder where he was. It probably was someplace really bad. Times were dangerous, after all. Was he taken in for questioning, perhaps? Or maybe it wasn’t safe for him to leave his hiding place and he couldn’t get away because he was in danger. Or maybe he was too depressed and dejected to join the others – what was the point? Whatever it was, Thomas was late to the resurrection party and was left out.

It’s a strange thing we do, isn’t it? Reading these old stories. I mean, we’re a bit looser here at St. Mark’s. We sometimes read a poem or have a scene from a play or we change the words around when we really don’t like them. But for a bunch of progressives we really stick to this reading the same scripture stories over and over again. We could get a lot more reading done if we expanded the reading list to include what’s on the New York Times Review of Books. We could definitely make our Sunday readings more inclusive and diverse.

I think one reason, besides the weight of tradition and any sort of deep faith in the “word of God” argument, is that reading the same stories again and again gives us a kind of shared language. I need only say “Doubting Thomas” and we know that I’m talking about issues of doubt and faith, seeing and believing. I could say Prodigal Son and we’d know I was talking about repentance and forgiveness. The Good Samaritan – courage and kindness. This shared vocabulary gives us a way to step into these issues despite our different backgrounds. It gives us a place to play with our values and beliefs in a shared context.

I read an interesting article about the problem of creating a shared context several months ago in the Atlantic. Eric Liu of the Aspen Institute Program on Citizenship and American Identity as well as a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton wrote about the ongoing project of defining cultural literacy. This has typically been a thorny issue and has gotten caught up in the so called culture wars. Liu writes about how a liberal professor, E.D. Hirsch, got entangled in politics when he wrote a little book called Cultural Literacy. On the one hand, cultural literacy has been a conservative project. The contents of that literacy usually include many dead, white men. I know, I went to St. John’s College, the Great Books School and I’ve let them know that they won’t be receiving my tens of dollars until they diversify the program.

On the other hand, the goal of cultural literacy is to include people in a shared language. The goal is to draw the circle wider. Hirsch points to an example from the Black Panthers. In their 1972 platform they quote the Declaration of Independence verbatim as well as use popular idioms such as “almighty dollar” “land of milk and honey” and “law and order” to state their case. Hirsch’s point is that while the Black Panthers might have been the epitome of anti-establishment, they were comfortable using the imagery of the dominant culture to make their case. In fact, it make them more powerful. Cultural literacy can be used to indoctrinate and assimilate, but also to empower and encourage.

However, the fact that our society grows ever more diverse means that cultural literacy grows ever more complex. Our differences threaten to create a kind of entropy that pushes us farther apart so that we have no shared language, no shared context because even when we’re saying the same words, they only make sense to some of us. Many Thomases may be kept out by locks and find themselves with no shared experience that draws them into the circle of faith and friendship.

Thinking about the lack of shared context and the uses and perils of teaching a proscribed cultural literacy got me thinking about one of my favorite Star Trek episodes. I’m a Next Generation kind of Trekkie, so think Patrick Stewart, not William Shatner.

In this episode, the Enterprise is drawn by a beacon to an encounter with an alien race with whom the Federation has never been able to communicate. Despite a universal translator, the two different races seem to have no way of speaking to one another. The Aliens, or the Tamarians, use proper nouns of people and places: “Darmok at Tanagra” says the alien captain. But it means nothing to the human crew on the Enterprise. Picard responds, “Would you be prepared to consider the creation of a mutual non-aggression pact between our two peoples?” Yet the Tamarians do not understand.

Frustrated, Captain Picard finds himself transported to the nearby planet surface with the captain of the Tamarian ship. This turns out to be the alien’s strategy. He wants to engage Picard in an experience, an experience of the two of them fighting off a dangerous beast just like in the story of Darmok atTanagra (the words the captain said to Picard at the beginning) who fought off a beast with a new friend, Jalad. Picard and the alien enter into the story becoming Darmok and Jalad. Sharing the experience helps them conquer the inability to speak with one another.

Would you believe that while googling information to help jog my memory about this episode, I found another thoughtful Atlantic article all about this very Star Trek episode? Ian Bogost, a computer gaming professor at Georgia Tech, writes about how Picard and his crew get the Tamarians all wrong. They think the Tamarians’ language is all about metaphor. Picard and the alien captain are like Darmok and Jalad. Just like the mythic figures do, they fight a beast. Picard believes the Tamarians are so enmeshed in myth that they have no ability to self-identify.

We at church can get accused of the same behavior. On Good Friday, we participate in the myth and pretend that Jesus has just been killed. On Easter Sunday, we pretend he has just risen. We play in the myth and when others play along with us, we are all able to speak the same language. Through metaphor, we simulate experiences of the scriptures.

But Bogost claims that the Tamarians are doing something entirely different with language, something more advanced than our communication. They are not obsessed with metaphor; metaphor describes and the Tamarian language is not descriptive. For the Tamarians to be an advanced alien race with enough power to hold the Enterprise captive, they can’t just rely on metaphorical speech. How would anything ever get done? No, the Tamarian speech refers to strategies or logics.

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra is not just a myth, it is a strategy. It’s a dangerous strategy that gets the alien captain killed, but it works to bring two strangers together and create friendship. In answer to how the Tamarians get anything done, Bogost posits that their language has advanced beyond description. To accomplish a task, a Tamarian wouldn’t say, “Here, hand me that ¾ inch wrench.” She would say, “Baby Jessica, in the well.” And everyone would know what to do.

Something like this is going on in religious speech, I believe. We are not just playing in myth and metaphor (as awesome as it can be to play in myth and metaphor). Jesus, when he said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood” was not speaking in metaphor. He wasn’t saying, “This bread is very much like my body”, that’s not going to get anyone crucified or change the world.  No, he was referring to the process by which we make his body present. Or, if you’d rather not get into what Jesus meant by saying anything because you’re not sure what he said, then that’s what we’re doing when we say it. We only experience the presence of Christ, I think, when we share our bread, see our own brokenness in its brokenness, and share love with the brokenness in the world. It’s a process, a strategy, not a description. Otherwise we’re just playing Jesus and inviting others to play with us. Play is good, but it’s also just fantasy.

Playing with metaphor and finding ourselves in the story can be illuminating. It’s typically what I do in a sermon. But sometimes, at best it can be a literary exercise with no real consequences and at worst split us into camps: Thomases and disciples; doubters versus believers. Trekkies versus the rest of you.

Perhaps we could advance in our communication still further and perhaps our shared myths are also strategies, not metaphors. You could say, “Thomas, in the locked room.” And we’d know that we needed to gather around the latecomer, the outsider, the one who can’t understand what we’re even talking about; the one who hasn’t experienced the miracle yet and breathe peace and strength into her.  I could say, “Peace be with you,” and you could say, “and also with you,” and we’d pour all our wishes for shalom and well being into our hugs and handshakes. We can try it soon right here. Peace be with you.