A secular sermon for Good Friday

Even if you don't believe in its theological or cosmic significance, the trial and death on the cross of Jesus of Nazareth is the central, defining narrative of Western civilisation. It has been argued about, staged, reimagined, set to music, painted, filmed, dissected, analogised, even (in the Philippines) literally re-enacted more often than any other event, real or fictional, in human history. Its historical circumstances, impossible to reconstruct exactly, must forever remain a source of debate - there are even a few who assert that it never happened at all. As myth, however, it retains its protean ability to remind us who and what we are.

Its cast of characters are all archetypes: the vacillating politician; the grieving mother; the soldiers "just following orders"; the man who betrays his dearest friend; the compromised and compromising clergy; the easily-mainipulated people, one moment hailing their new hero, the next demanding his destruction. And at the centre of it all - what? The Messiah? A rabble-rouser? A straight-talker who has rattled the authorities by undermining their bogus legitimacy? A subversive? Or just a convenient scapegoat, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time? Who knows? Jesus can be anything you want him to be.

Richard Dawkins has more than once made the bizarre suggestion that Bach would have written more profound music had he been inspired by Darwin rather than the Bible. Here's a passage from Unweaving the Rainbow:

Michelangelo and Bach were paid to celebrate the sacred themes of their times and the results will always strike the human senses as sublime. But we shall never know how such genius might have responded to alternative commissions. As Michelangelo's mind moved upon silence "like a long-legged fly upon the stream", what might he not have painted if he had known the contents of one nerve cell from a long-legged fly? Think of the Dies Irae that might have been wrung by Verdi by the contemplation of the dinosaurs' fate when, 65 million years ago, a mountain-sized rock screamed out of deep space at 10,000 miles per hour straight at the Yucatan peninsula and the world went dark. Try to imagine Beethoven's Evolution Symphony, Haydn's oratorio on The Expanding Universe or Milton's epic The Milky Way.

I doubt they would have been much good. Bach's settings of the Passion are sublime because they use the Christian story (in which, of course, he profoundly believed) to illuminate the human condition. That is what great art does. An attempt artistically to recreate the fate of the dinosaurs would be doomed to fail. Either it would exclude the human, and thus fail to stir the soul, or it would descend into anthropomorphism and kitsch. Dawkins quotes, as an example of what might be achieved by scientifically-aware artists, a truly dreadful poem by DH Lawrence about a hummingbird, which contains the ineffable lines:

I believe there were no flowers then,
In the world where the hummingbird flashed ahead of creation.

I believe he pierced the slow vegetable veins with his long beak

Probably he was big

As mosses, and little lizards, they say, were once big.

Probably he was a jabbing, terrifying monster.

Dawkins admits that, scientifically, this piece of doggerel is "almost wholly inadequate" but notes that "Lawrence lacked only a couple of tutorials in evolution and taxonomy to bring his poem within the pale of accuracy, and it would be no less arresting and thought-provoking as a poem". Hmm.

Much of the art inspired by the crucifixion is also bad, of course: garish, blood-bespattered crucifixes, trite, syruppy hymns, The Passion of the Christ. And of the good stuff, a fair proportion has been the work of sceptics. Leonardo da Vinci, whose greatest painting depicted The Last Supper, was something very like an atheist. His anatomical studies are as close as we are likely to get to the great scientific art that Dawkins would approve of - but they do not move us as the image of the disciples gathered around the table, knowing what dreadful events were at hand, moves us. Verdi, whose choice to set the text of Requiem mass rather than a passage from The Origin of Species (as he might, after all, have done) so annoyed the professor, was an agnostic. And even that comedic parody, The Life of Brian, cannot help but touch sublimity in its final, brilliantly ironic, number, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.

The meaning of the crucifixion is contested even among Christians, and always has been. Many today would say that it reveals a suffering God, a God who enters into, and shares, the worst that life has to offer - pain, injustice, treachery, hard-heartedness and miserable, lonely death. But you don't need to believe in God to realise that. In fact, it helps not to. At the moment of the death of God - killed not by Nietzsche, but by Pilate - we are on our own. Even Jesus himself knows that he has been abandoned: My God, Why have you forsaken me? he demands, quoting a psalm. Answer comes there none. He dies, and is taken down, and placed in a tomb. It is over.

And that, really, is where it should have ended. No such powerful emotions are evoked by the Resurrection, that baffling, nonsensical coda which, thank goodness, does not spoil the conclusion of Bach's Passions. Such art as it has produced is inferior, infused with bathos, silly. In Piera della Francesca's famous image, the risen Christ looks merely hung over. In another version, by Domenico Passignano (right), he appears to be experimenting with a rocket-pack. It doesn't work, because the denouement itself doesn't work. It trivialises what has gone before. Nor does it resonate. Christianity proclaims the resurrection, but after his return Jesus ceases to be inspiring, or even interesting. He has become a remote divinity who comes to judge the world, who will return at the head of celestial armies to scatter his enemies to the four corners of the world, who is perpetually surrounded by archangels and saints singing Hosannas. No longer one of us, he no longer matters.

Even Rowan Williams recently admitted that God would not intervene to "save the planet":

We are capable of doing immeasurable damage to ourselves as individuals, and it seems clear that we have the same terrible freedom as a human race. God's faithfulness stands, assuring us that even in the most appalling disaster love will not let us go; but it will not be a safety net that guarantees a happy ending in this world.

The Passion narrative is a tragedy, after the Greek pattern. I have long believed that both its form and its content are inspired by some of the great Athenian plays - including the Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus and, especially, Euripides' Bacchae. In that play an unknown god, disguised as a man, is seized and interrogated by a king confident of his own right to rule. But the tables are turned: it is the king himself who ends up cruelly and unjustly put to death. Dionysus is a god who cannot die and thus is never really alive: it is his victim, Pentheus, who speaks to and for humanity. The genius of the gospel story is to switch the two around. It is not just that God has become man but that man (Pilate, Caiaphas, even Judas) acts the part of God. A fallible, deluded, self-interested, badly-informed God. Which is, basically, what tends to happen.

So ignore the sequel: they are rarely as good as the original, in any case. But don't ignore the main story, or imagine that we would be better off without it, or that it is likely to go away. And if its central image of self-sacrifice, of passive acceptance, seems alien in today's climate, if our true sympathies are with Pilate or Judas, if the death seems completely pointless, that, too, only shows the Passion's infinite capacity to make us think. Jesus on the cross not only shows us what we are, it made us what we are.


BarabbasFreed said…
I was watching the first "Lord of the Rings" movies in New Zealand. Behind us were some Kiwis who obviously had no idea of the plot. At the end they sat in silence then to say "Hoa stink! What a crap way to end a movie." (Erudite lot us Kiwis)

With one eye on artistic expression, the pathos of Good Friday is dramatic and revealing. However, without being too hollywood, pathos draws its strength from the dash of hope. The problem is most art sanitises the resurrection, ignoring the dusty feet and the hunger, and wraps it in emphemeral light.
Heresiarch said…
The glimmer of hope, surely, is that by reflecting on the events that produced the tragedy we can resolve to do better next time.
LFSS said…
Hello, Heresiarch,

A splendid post, as ever. For a Christian the Resurrection, must, I suppose, be the more important event. However, for those of us without belief but for whom the Christian tradition still holds a strange attraction, then, yes, the Crucifixion is certainly the more compelling.

And that Dawkins. Scientifically, I doubt I'd disagree with much he says: the broad fact of evolution seems blindingly obvious if you take a stroll round any decent Natural History museum (although there are plenty of devils in the detail). When he strays beyond explaining the mechanisms of evolution, though, he does become rather off-putting.

Ah well. Happy Easter!
Sarka said…
Great article, especially the first half. I had mercifully forgotten the Humming Bird poem, which we had to "appreciate" at school with my Leavisite Englit teacher who insisted dogmatically that it was brilliant.

I can't quite share your dislike of the sequel to the passion story. Victory over death may be a total illusion, a peace of wishful thinking, and it is obviously a lousy subject for visual depiction (though I must say that I enjoy Stanley Spencer's strange pictures of very ordinary folk climbing out of their graves)... but the hope of it has inspired very moving music and literature. I'm rather fond of the Messiah...to cite an extremely obvious seasonal example, or "Death be not proud"...or old T.S.Eliot's mystical as well as his miserable bits..You can take these human intimations of immortality any way you like - as defiance, celebrations of some metaphorical human transcendance, the human capacity for hope in the midst of suffering, but you can't really call them all just kitsch and mawkery...

Without the mythical element of hope, the Passion story is really just another nasty story.

Apart from the Humming Bird debacle and a number of other rotten poems, Lawrence wrote some very moving stuff on his own approaching death. The "ship of death" (too long and occasionally too bombastic, obsessively written in two variants), takes as its "myth" not the Christian one, which the poet despised, but supposedly Etruscan afterlife myths and practices. The balance of the terror of extinction and the small hope of some transfiguration is to me hypnotic and brilliant.

Anyway, Happy Easter Heresiarch!
Edwin Moore said…
I must stick up for Lawrence as a poet - the ones about the snake and the mountain lion remain as fresh as ever. As for the less good ones, ach I blame Whitman.

Great article Heresiarch. 

Re the end of Life of Brian, when the film came out it was banned in Glasgow, and I remember someone pointing out what he thought was key to the end of the film, the forest of crucifixes - Jesus' act of redemption was unique (from a believer's point of view) but he didn't die alone and his suffering was not unique - far from it.

I take it you know that Judith Iscariot is currently mayor of Aberystwyth and has rescinded the town's ban on the film!
martinhayes said…
As I constantly mumble into my beard, or would, if I had one, Christianity is true: archetypally true. I love your explication of the cast of character archetypes, and that Jesus is anyone you want him to be. It calls to mind the labours of John Dominic Crossan's Jesus Seminar.

But which archetype is Jesus? My understanding, from Jung, is that Christ is a symbol of the Self. This dovetails nicely with your Jesus as a placeholder for anything.

I confess I have only the vaguest idea of what Jung meant. Reading his Aion twice hasn't really helped.
Gerard Depardouchebag said…
great article! this is better than cif
Anonymous said…
You say that an artist requires a subject laced with humanity to truly touch us?
I think Holst would take issue with that.

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