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Reflections: Lord of the Tube

Being a Christian on Easter Sunday is embarrassing enough. Must we have a tacky TV Passion zooming in on the nail wounds in super-slo-mo instant replay?

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I saw a staring virgin stand

Where holy Dionysus died,

And tear the heart out of his side

And lay the heart upon her hand

And bear that beating heart away;

And then did all the Muses sing

Of Magnus Annus at the Spring,

As though God's death were but a play.

--William Butler Yeats, "Two Songs From a Play"

When it comes to tawdriness and cheapness, to beliefs that would shame even a gorilla, you simply cannot top the goyim.

--Philip Roth, Portnoy's Complaint

OK, I confess: I'm a Christian, a Protestant to be more precise. Many people would say I am no such thing: I have never had an ecstatic "born again" experience, I was never baptized or confirmed, I have never tasted Communion wine, I have not been inside a church since 1968. Still, I went to church a lot when I was a kid, I know half of the Bible by heart, my grandfather was a Mennonite minister, my mother a Holy Roller: I'm entitled.

Protestants are the only people who feel they have to live up to their religion, who believe they can do something that will make them lose it. A Catholic is always a Catholic, lapsed or not. A Buddhist is a Buddhist, he doesn't have to ask anyone's permission to say so. You don't hear anyone saying he "used to be" Jewish. Your religion is like your ethnic background: you can't stop being Polish, even if you want to. But Protestants are always apologizing, agonizing, questioning: Am I still a Christian? Did I take one drink too many, indulge in too much fornication, did I lose it somewhere? Will God strike me dead if I take Communion?

This is an odd time to come out of the closet, I know. The recent scandals among the Pentecostal TV evangelists are giving God a bad name. It's tempting to distance myself from the whole mess. At best, Christianity is an embarrassing religion, and never more so than on Easter Sunday. Even as a kid I knew that the central image of Christianity -- the Crucifixion -- is pretty revolting. And consider the Byzantine rationalizations necessary to explain how nailing a Hebrew man to a cross two thousand years ago could be of any use to me in this or the next world. If you can understand Christian theology, you can probably also understand postmodern antideconstructionist literary criticism.

Nevertheless, it's my religion and I'm stuck with it. It's part of me, like my last name, the shape of my nose, my appendix scar, and my taste for trashy love novels, and no oversexed snake-handling speaking-in-tongues hillbilly Bible-thumper can take it from me.

So it's Easter morning and I'm going to church. I turn on the TV and watch it on and off as I get ready. NBC has visited a big Southern Baptist church and has recorded its Easter celebration. A woman with red-dyed hair and a lot of eye makeup sings a song about how painful it must have been up there on the cross. This emphasis on the bloody details of the Crucifixion has always made me cringe. It's bad enough to worship a god who was crucified, without zooming in on the nail holes in super slo-mo replay. The singer is belting it out into a high-tech microphone, and behind her are six or seven backup singers with microphones too. Someone has coached her and them in vocal technique and gestures; it's just like a show you might see in a nightclub in Las Vegas, except they're singing about God. It hardly seems like a proper hymn.

Then we're treated to an Easter pageant, a reenactment of the Passion. It is quite a production, with scenery, full orchestra and chorus, lighting, sound effects, choreography, and a huge cast of actors in costume.

It is difficult to choose the worst moments to tell you about. A little boy staggers onstage, twisted, limping, on a crutch. Jesus, in full beard, bouffant shoulder-length hair, flowing robe, sandals, scary messianic eyes (looking, I am sorry to say, a lot like Charles Manson), lays hands on the kid, and zap! He's healed. It happens a bit too fast for my taste: the director should have had the kid take a beat to realize what has happened to him, but no, he instantly hurls his crutch away and starts to leap around on his new legs. Then the disciples and townspeople roll their eyes and wave their arms a lot, and the kid hugs Jesus, while the orchestra and chorus reach a loud, brassy climax in the background.

Jesus is crucified while I am in the shower, so I can't tell you whether we got to see him nailed up. This scene is played for all it's worth: I hear the crying of women and the shouts of soldiers, a lot of emoting and chewing of scenery, and loud, frenzied orchestra music (heavy on the kettledrums). Clearly the producers of this extravaganza have been much influenced by Hollywood Bible epics.

While I'm washing my hair I hear the Last Words of Christ. The script is taken from the New American Bible or some other atrocity (What ever happened to the King James version?). The line "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." comes out "Forgive them, they don't know what they're doing!" "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" comes out "Why have you forsaken me?" Jesus is apparently a method actor. He delivers these lines in an anguished, full-throated Shakespearean roar that makes my hair stand on end.

(I have always imagined that these last words of Christ were delivered sotto voce, though Matthew and Mark both say that they were cried out in a loud voice. Never mind authenticity, I was happier before I heard this version, I can tell you that.)

It takes Jesus a long time to die. I come out of the shower just as he is being cut down and carried out on a board. We get a good close-up shot of his face; he looks real dead, pale and used up. I feel sad and sick, the way I used to when I was a kid and had to listen to this story. The orchestra is playing a dirge.

Then there he is, in the tomb, on a slab, toes up.

Suddenly, lo and behold, he sits up. Gathers his skirts modestly around him, swings his legs off the slab, stands up, strides briskly down to center stage.

This is the Resurrection? After that Cecil B. De Mille Crucifixion scene with all the crying and yelling and the people rolling their eyes and hallelujahing and carrying on with full orchestra and chorus? Then Jesus just pops up off the slab -- surprise! I'm alive! I mean, we are talking serious anticlimax here.

Maybe it looked silly because the actor sat up and hopped off the slab a so quickly. Maybe he should have stretched and yawned and rubbed his eyes first. No, that wouldn't be any better. Maybe there is no way he could get up off that slab and not look ridiculous.

I think the only way for this to play is to follow the original script. In the Bible, the Resurrection occurs offstage. It is a private event, nobody witnesses it. We have to take it on faith.

The play over at last, the preacher gets up to give his sermon. I listen with half an ear while I try to find something to wear. My three-year-old spring suit seems suddenly too small in the shoulders: they're cutting clothes big and roomy these days. I try on three pairs of pantyhose before I find some without a run.

First the preacher reads the Resurrection story from the Bible (one of those new translations) and I learn that when Mary Magdalen went to the tomb early in the morning, she found Jesus gone and the bedclothes neatly folded. My good old King James says only that Peter "beheld the linen clothes laid by themselves" and that the napkin that had been around Jesus's head was "not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself."

When I hear this I fear that I have been away from church too long. Perhaps important new details about Jesus's life were discovered from the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I missed hearing about it. This detail could be of momentous significance. If the bedclothes were neatly folded, who folded them? Did Jesus stop, mid-Resurrection, and make up the bed? Who taught him such good housekeeping skills? Or maybe the angels folded the sheets. Started tidying up the tomb while waiting for Mary M. to appear? And what does this signify?

However, I suspect this passage was probably not based on newly discovered data, but was sneakily rewritten by a Felix Unger type who took this opportunity to strike a blow for neatniks. Would Jesus get up and leave his bed linens disordered? No, and neither should you, not if you hope to enter the kingdom of heaven.

After yet another retelling of the Crucifixion story, with loving attention to the gory details, the preacher gets to the meat of his message: Life would be just a cruel joke without the promise of the Resurrection.

We're born screaming, he says, our life is nothing but pain and agony, and then we die. The only thing that makes life worth living is that we get to go to heaven afterward. I don't believe in suicide, he says, and I don't think anyone should take his own life, but if I didn't believe in life after death, I think I would just slit my wrists or take poison. Terrific. Just what would-be suicides need to hear. Anyway, I find this argument unconvincing. Even on my worst days, I am always glad to be alive. I remain unimpressed by the Resurrection, and the prospect of eternal life makes me weary.

It's time to go: TV off, cats fed, answering machine set, I'm out the door. After 20 years of denying Christ, I am going to spend a Sunday morning in church. I don't know what I expect to find there. In my heart, I am hoping to find my grandfather's austere 17th-century sect translated intact to a storefront on Lincoln Avenue. Since that is unlikely, I will be happy to find a plain, quiet place where my clothes -- and the rest of me -- will not be out of style. The Passion will be retold with restraint and tact. There will be no microphones or TV cameras, no brass and kettledrums. We will sing hymns by Bach and Handel. The people there will believe as I do that there is more to be learned from the life of Christ than from his death.

At the last minute I decide to take my notebook with me. If I run into anyone I know, I can always say I'm doing research.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Peter Hannan.

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