On Belief, Talk is Cheep, Stories are Gold

March 31, 2013

Of course I preferred presents to boiled eggs. Who wouldn’t? But still: Easter was better, no question. Maybe it was just a fact of growing up a Southern Baptist in rural Louisiana, since the weather was nearly always great for Easter, and the Easter music was always lively. The Sunrise Services out by the lake were happier by far than the bleary-eyed, tense Christmas mornings pretending Santa had brought the very gifts my parents had literally fought to afford mere days ago.

But, more than all of that, as a devout boy, I could always count on Easter to affirm my certainty about the nature of the world. The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just an ancient version of E.T.—a nice story about an unusual visitor who has a miraculous recovery at the end–it was a singular event that re-ordered the very structure of the Cosmos. Those bright, energetic, springtime Easter Sundays were a yearly reminder to a faithful child that, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, there was no longer a veil between a righteous God and a wicked Humanity. This was not a world doomed to be choked to death by religious and government tyrants; it was a world where, in the end, love wins.

But something happens as we get older, as we become aware that love is up against some tough competition. We start to learn, sometimes intimately, of violent people, control freaks and power-mongers, manipulators, deceivers, and legalistic pedants trying to use our love to their advantage. We learn that these people often go unpunished, that happy outcomes are all too rare, that people—even us—can live and die beaten down, oppressed, victimized. From what we can see, no, love does not win, not always–hardly ever.

Eventually, in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence, some of us stop saying that we believe in the Resurrection, while others of us, in defiance of the world’s injustice, proclaim our belief with greater fervor each year, often deferring love’s victory to the afterlife or the end of days. Love wins, sure, but not before we ruin everything. We—even the atheists and agnostics–make broad doctrinal statements about what we do or do not believe, so that our religious discussions become little more than declamations of varied color and weight lobbed back and forth at one another. It becomes a matter of Fundamentalist vs. Progressive, Spiritual Individualist vs. Church-Goer, Atheist vs. Christian, etc.

Well, luckily for all of us, how we actually live has little to do with what we proclaim out loud. It’s like Jesus said: talk is cheep*.

Well, he didn’t say it in so many words, and he would have spelled it correctly, but Jesus viewed public proclamations of faith with a great deal of suspicion. Remember? Some “greatest hits”:
When you pray, pray in sackcloth and ashes. If you love me, feed my sheep. Woe to you, hypocrites, you clean the outside of the cup, but the inside is filthy. You can tell a tree by the fruit it bears. Peter, despite your proclamations, you’ll deny me three times before morning.

In fact, every time a disciple made a loud statement of faith, Jesus rebuked him, sometimes harshly, and demanded not words but humble deeds.

And it seems the disciples managed just fine without public proclamations of belief even after Jesus was gone. The Nicene Creed wasn’t invented until: 325. Christianity was older than America before it had its “profession of faith”. Without “benefit” of public agreement on doctrinal specifics, they somehow managed. In fact, without their legalistic litmus tests, they seemed to thrive simply on telling and retelling the story of Jesus.

Stories matter. How we tell them matters. And how we tell them changes. Indeed, our evolving way way of looking at events often supersedes the events themselves.

As I continue to prepare for this summer’s New Orleans premiere of my new musical Upstairs, I’m constantly blessed with new, untold stories surrounding the very real crime and subsequent disaster at the Up Stairs Lounge. To be sure, the deadly gay bar arson fire that inspired my play is a story of death, destruction, and unspeakable loss, but there are other stories surrounding it, as well. In the immediate aftermath, some people told it as a story of “those people” getting their just punishment. Others told it as a story of a narrow escape, or the church’s indifference to suffering, or a city’s conspiracy of silence, or an activist’s attempt to motivate social change. And there are still more stories about the fire—stories rarely told–of bravery, love, survival, and hope.

How we view an event depends not just on the facts, but on the stories we tell about the facts, the stories we ignore, the stories we give a deeper meaning in our lives, the stories that point us to a larger truth. Don’t you know atheists, agnostics, or people of other faiths than Christianity who live as if the world is abundant with love and compassion? Don’t you know many, many Christians that live selfishly, cynically, and without compassion? It’s not the ability to claim belief in a set of events that changes our point of view, it’s ordering our lives and our thoughts toward the larger truths that the story (among other stories) reveals.

Don’t the lines separating us seem less about creed than point of view? Do we say we believe in the Resurrection or do we actually live it out?

The Supreme Court listened to arguments last week on the Constitutionality of laws prohibiting Marriage Equality. Different prognosticators have predicted different outcomes, but, if we do have a win in court, it won’t be because of some genius legal argument, or some bit of sudden logical clarity. No, it will be because, for decades, now, thousands upon thousands of people have decided to simply live as if same-sex marriage were already a reality. We didn’t wait for government approval before we could love and commit to one another, and our allies tossed legalism aside and accepted us as they would accept any other couple. Together, we tossed legalism aside and simply started living into the world we wanted to see. We didn’t just proclaim a doctrinal believe that love wins; we acted as if it has already won! Now, whether they do it in June or a few years hence, the courts will have to catch up.

It’s been inspiring to see.

So, on this uncharacteristically grey SoCal Easter morning, I return again to the faith of my childhood, if not to the doctrine. I choose again to order my life toward the Resurrection ideal that love wins, to recognize that I needn’t be stingy with my kindness, as there is plenty to go around, to eschew the nihilism and despair that seem to constantly infect our art, our ideas, and our politics, and to continue discovering and retelling the great stories of faith, hope, and love that remind us, even in the midst of tragedy: love wins.

Happy Easter!

  • Share:

You Might Also Like