One of the most popular stories in the Wall Street Journal this week is about Charles Murphy. This is how the article was titled
Wall Street Made Charles Murphy Successful and Rich, but Happiness Eluded Him
After his apparent suicide, friends say the brilliant, commanding, sometimes abrasive banker suffered from depression—and grew despondent maintaining the charmed life he built for his family
There are many filthers through which to look at the story. Depression certainly was a factor but he had all of the assets and access necessary to treat the illness. The article is popular on the Wall Street Journal because the paper is read by many who have what he had or are trying to get it. The article begs the question “is all that this world offers enough?”
Yuval Harari, an atheist best selling historian, drives the point hard in his two books that what sets us apart from every other species we know to exist and what makes us successful is that we are storied creatures. Our ability to live within stories is what enables us to collaborate to create vast structures and projects that puts us light years above and beyond any other species in the world. In the animal kingdom one animal might lay down its life for another, but only human beings will lay down their lives for someone or something other than blood kin. Stories create friendship. Stories create family. Stories create nations. Stories create causes and visions that people lay down their lives for, or surrender their lives in sacrifice towards.
Cultures are the layering of stories in unique and diverse ways. Stories compete, intermingle, evolve and in the process shape and reshape all human life on this planet. Cultures are composed of many narrative threads usually and become unique by which threads gain priority and which lose power.
The Triumph of Humanism
Harari notes that one easy way to track the evolution of our civilization can be how we view war. War is the kind of thing that defines because it deals in life, death and destiny. For a nation losing a war usually means misery, slavery or death. Winning a war means affluence, privilege and prosperity.
Older artistic portrayals of war illuminate the stories behind them.
In this picture you see a general on a horse with throngs of troops behind. Here the great leader is what matters and the little people lay down their lives for the great leaders or for their nations.
In this picture wars are ordeals that illuminate the battle for the heavens. Wars fought in the Ancient Near East viewed it that way. Religious wars in Europe saw it that way.
Neither of these threads totally disappear. They just tend to get de-prioritized in the modern period as humanism emerges. Notice Lincoln’s second inaugural where God is still present but Lincoln notes the ambiguities and God’s reticense to validate our priorities.
World War I was a good war to see the rise of humanism. You still had the other two threads quite active and strong in their cultures but what emerged from it was All Quiet on the Western Front, photography of the suffering and death of the common soldier. War was evaluated not so much on the glories or tragedies it brought to nations or religions or leaders but on what it costs soldiers on every side.
How Meaning Was Shifted by Humanism
This change brought on a shift in how we understood meaning. While nation and God and leaders continued to play in our stories the great ME became ascendant. I became the arbitor of beauty, truth, goodness and worth. We are constantly encouraged to “look within yourself” to find meaning and purpose. This partially helps to explain why it is in humanistic societies that people become more vulnerable to suicide via depression. If someone is wrestling with suicide usually all of their friends and family will rush in and beg them to stop, to not do it. But those voices are in competition with a litany of voices within the culture that say “you are the measure”, “what other people think isn’t important”, the you within is what finally counts. If the you inside doesn’t see purpose, therefore, who is the rest of the world that you should listen to them.
What has developed for us is the big ME. As we saw last week marketers have figured this out and figured how how to create little stories that we can unconciously identify with and insert ourselves into.
Notice the transition? We go from the general at the center, or God or the gods at the center, to the every man, to THIS every man, namely ME.
The Christian Story grows out of one singular event
Jesus was just one of many first century messianic hopefuls. A number of men, their names now long forgotten by all but wonky historians and scholars imagined that they would raise up the children of Israel to throw off the shackles of Roman imperial rule.
Jesus of Nazareth was different. He not only refused to follow the regular script of gathering followers to mobilize them into a military force for revolt or stir up a popular uprising, but his life and teaching were both extraordinarily attractive and offensive at the same time. Per the script he eventually ran afoul of the Romans and their Jewish proxies and was crucified as a threat to the established order. What followed, however turned his followers and his followers followers into a social force that instead of liberating Jerusalem from Rome liberated the entire empire from the common and assumed paganism was unchallenged throughout the world. Through a long, circuitous, almost unimaginable route became the dominant world religion and continues to spread rapidly through non-Christian areas of Asia and Africa today.
The event that forked Christianity from Judaism was the resurrection of Jesus and the account of that resurrection that most grips humanist westerners is the one found in John.
John 20:1–18 (NIV)
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying. 11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. 15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). 17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
The Miracle of the Bible
One of the amazing things about the history of Christianity is that its book is more than a little unwieldy. It’s full of all kinds of stories, poetry, and other things within which just about every culture will find something to object to, especially given its longevity. Nearly every culture also finds something that attracts it, and that is what this story does for ours.
For those of you who know the story well know that in this story Mary is desperate to find Jesus but she can’t. When Jesus speaks her name she knows him and for many in our culture THIS is the moment that grabs us. Notice it is intimate, personal, and at least in Google’s crowd sourced images very very white.
Other culture of course appropriate it within their own cultural frame. Notice how Rembrandt painted it.
In our culture the big ME stands at the center and what is forefronted is the experience, the moment, that is where the meaning and the importance is found.
I think in God’s missional wisdom he litters access points around for every culture within the Bible and within the Christian story.
Cultures Unconsciously Edit Out
Not only to cultures highlight things that attract or offend them, they also edit out elements that confuse them and in our case the moment that is highlight is combined with a moment that completely confuses us. Why does Jesus spoil the moment? Google knows what is supposed to happen.
Throughout history many couldn’t help but imagine that Mary Magdalene and Jesus were lovers or even married, but the Bible has not a word of it, and Jesus’ command that she not touch or cling to him is seriously unromantic.
Jesus and the Skeptics
The BBC did a survey this year about the resurrection. News usually time these kinds of things to pump up viewership. The survey wanted to find out how many people believed in the resurrection of Jesus.
This belief is problematic for many in our culture. Some thing that science means it can’t happen. Others say that even if it did happen what should it mean to them? Again we see the big ME coming through. This is where our assumptions obscure the meaning of what Jesus says to Mary.
Don’t Cling to Me
Jesus didn’t tell Mary not to touch her because he would go on to tell Thomas to touch her. It wasn’t about touching. The touching itself is important because the text wants to make very plain that Jesus wasn’t a ghost or some spirit. Jesus walked out of the tomb in his body, but a renewed and transformed body.
Jesus himself gives the reason. She shouldn’t cling to him because he hasn’t ascended to his Father yet.
Now for us that only confuses things further. What does he mean by this?
We wonder because we always wonder “where is he when he’s not around others?” Jesus after the resurrection seems to pop in and out on people. Where is he when he’s not here?
This gets into the life after death question about where we go when we die.
What seems clear is that what Jesus intended is that his resurrected body did not ascend. There was something very very important about that ascension which for the most part we contemporary Christians glide over.
If you were in charge of the risen Jesus’ event calendar where would you send him and why?
I bet you would pick all of the people and places that you think are most important and you think would be most strategic. In that day you’d probably think about bringing him to the Sanhedrin, or to Pilate, or to even to Rome. “Look at who I brought with me! Bam! What do you have to say now, sucker!”
It seems to make no sense that he would go see the Father. Doesn’t the Father already know?
Is seeing believing? Is that believing sufficient?
Every single one of the four gospels had stories of people seeing the risen Jesus and not believing. The resurrection itself is insufficient for belief. What is sufficient? Why did Jesus have to go with his new body to the Father?
Easter Morning Apocalypse
It is undeniable from the story that Mary loved Jesus and that Jesus loved Mary. We also know that Jesus loved Lazaras, another Mary and Martha and Peter and “the disciple that Jesus loved”. Jesus’ enduring command in the Gospel of John is that they love one another. It is clear that Jesus’ love and Jesus’ mission were one. He came to love his own and to rescue them and for that reason he appeared to his friends and then would ascend to his father.
It is our own assumptions that see the ascension as something of a dodge or an escape. We imagine the ascension is a nice ploy, either literary or real to keep Jesus “alive” and not in the center of the story WE consider important.
If Jesus were to rise today we’d want DNA samples. We imagine he’d be written up in scientific journals, appear on TV and Oprah would do a special. That would validate him for us, or so we imagine.
It is hard for us to understand what Ascension meant for their world.
“The early Christians, like their Jewish contemporaries, saw heaven and earth as the overlapping and interlocking spheres of God’s good creation, with the point being that heaven is the control room from which earth is run. To say that Jesus is now in heaven is to say three things. First, that he is present with his people everywhere, no longer confined to one space-time location within earth, but certainly not absent. Second, that he is now the managing director of this strange show called ‘earth’, though like many incoming chief executives he has quite a lot to do to sort it out and turn it around. Third, that he will one day bring heaven and earth together as one, becoming therefore personally present to us once more within God’s new creation. The Bible doesn’t say much about our going to heaven. It says a lot about heaven, and particularly heaven’s chief inhabitant, coming back to earth.” http://www.ntwrightpage.com/sermons/Pentecost07.htm
The Apostles Creed talks about him “sitting at the right hand of God the Father.” The Heidelberg Catechism notes that Christ, our own flesh now transformed and resurrected is in heaven. This is the heart of the early church profession “Jesus is Lord”.
The insufficient ME
The truth is that the humanist big ME, like we imagine our governments, derive their legitimacy from the consent of the people. If only everyone in our lives would validate us and love us and affirm us.
Stories like that of Charles Murphy haunt us. What if we get to the top of the ladder only to discover that there’s no there there.
Charles Murphy from 40 years ago
I decided to pick up Chuck Colson’s spiritual memoir Born Again. It was a sensation in the 70s after Nixon’s “hatchet man” became a Christian right before he did time for Watergate. It too is a story of someone who got everything he thought he wanted only to keep discovering that there wasn’t a there there. Then it all started to collapse.
Then John Dean began to talk to the prosecutors, and the White House went through another convulsion. The “resignations” of Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, and Nixon’s half-hearted effort to placate the nation on April 30, did nothing to slow the onslaught.
To the outside world I preserved the tough-guy façade, but there were moments when my own weakness now surprised me. I often woke up in the middle of the night with a sick feeling in my stomach, my heart beating rapidly and wild fantasies racing through my mind—scenes of jail, cold cement floors, iron bars and men in gray denim marching along steel walkways.
One day outside the Senate Office Building I was stopped and interviewed by a man from CBS News while the camera ground away. At the end, the reporter shook his head. “I don’t know how much of this you guys can take. I told my wife last night one of you is going to crack or commit suicide before this is over. keep your chin up, Mr. Colson.” There were days—and nights—when those words would return with a dreadful chill.
Colson, Charles W.. Born Again (p. 111). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
If all you have is you then your god is no bigger than your ego and your ego will be subject to every up and down of circumstance, health or mood. We love to imagine ourselves as the centers or saviors of our world but we are quickly exposed as Kendall Jenner in a Pepsi Commercial.
To become a Christian is to willfully inhabit Jesus’ story. To stop the insanity of imagining this is all about me and to recognize him as the center of it all.
Mary needs to stop clinging to the Jesus just out of the tomb and start clinging to the Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father. Jesus commands her to tell “my brothers” that Jesus is going ascending to “my Father and your Father, My God and your God” as in Ruth’s protest to Naomi “your people will be my people, and your God my God.”