Spring's Great Truths: Stranger than Fiction
by Christian Y. Cardall
An idea in Newsweek's cover story this Easter Week, From Jesus to Christ, reminded me of the old adage: "Truth is stranger than fiction." It also reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit featuring Mormon missionaries. (You don't have to read the Newsweek story to read on, but you should at least watch the short skit.)
Now that you've had a laugh, I am obligated to cash out the connection.
In discussing the despair and confusion of the disciples during and after the Passion, the Newsweek article argues that the story of Christ's resurrection was so strange, so foreign to the cultural context, that it's not something the disciples would have simply made up in order to win friends and influence people. On the contrary, an arresting painting in the article depicts the crucified, burnt, and torn bodies of the Coliseum. The resurrection must have a historical basis, the argument goes; for if the PR department were designing a promotional campaign, they would have come up with something more easily sold.
The Saturday Night Live skit reminds us how strange talk of gold plates and seer stones is in our own day. Hence the Newsweek theory could be replicated as an argument for Joseph Smith: His story is so strange, it must be true; why would he make such easily-ridiculed stuff up? Joseph himself may have had this in mind:
No man knows my history. I cannot tell it: I shall never undertake it. I don't blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I could not have believed it myself. (TPJS, p. 361)Not unexpectedly, neither do the writers of Saturday Night Live---which in this case serves as a much milder, but no less public, Coliseum.
Strangeness for its own sake as a marker of truth is a foreign notion to a physicist. As a discipline, physics seeks the elucidation of a cohesive set of a few key principles, a tight logical basis that unifies (and hence "explains") diverse phenomena. In this enterprise, it is elegance, simplicity, and beauty that are prized as hallmarks of truth (second, of course, to empirical confirmation of predictions).
I can imagine that systematic theology might strive to be like physics or philosophy in this respect, but early Christianity and its Restoration are not really about "system"---at least, not primarily. Instead, they are history, narrative: compelling stories of God's power at work in the world. The disciples with their doubts, confusion, and frailties, and the sectarian war of words and tumult of opinions: The likes of these are too much for elegant, beautiful "system." Instead, they are the birth pangs of new stories---stories that more "overcome" than "solve."
The opening of a tomb, and the opening of a new dispensation, are hailed by millions as great truths of Spring. They are so perceived not because of their coherent elegance, but because of their surprising strangeness. Truth is here discerned not in the clean logic of man, but in the wonderful and strange power of God.
[Thanks to Rusty at Nine Moons for bringing the Saturday Night Live skit to the Bloggernaccle.]