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Easter heroism

How many great stories did the greatest history launch?

Easter heroism

Gandalf confronts the Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. (Screen grab from movie)

Christians know why Jesus had to die. Substitutionary atonement. Propitiation for sin. Payment for the debt we have incurred through willful disobedience.

Read just about any book of the New Testament and you’ll find plenty of Biblical backing for these concepts. For example, 1 Peter 2:24 tells us, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.”

But Christ’s death on the cross offered healing to billions over the past 2,000 years—and it also inaugurated a different kind of storytelling. The hero no longer had to be a Hercules whose strength moved huge stones. He could be one who gave his life for another—and then God would roll away the stone.

Gen. George Patton, famous for believing in reincarnation, claimed he had been a Roman legionnaire. His most famous saying certainly sounded like something a pre-Christian Roman could have uttered: “You don’t win a war by dying for your country. You win a war by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his.” But Christians in the Roman Empire flipped the adage from prosperity gospel to the cross: They won adherents by dying for their faith and their neighbors, imitating through their sacrifice the greatest sacrifice of all.

Ever since then, memorable characters have done the same. The most famous: Sydney Carton in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Since Carton loved Lucie Manette but she loved the imprisoned Charles Darnay, Carton had every cruel reason to relish the guillotining of his rival. Carton, though, out of love for Lucie, saves Darnay’s neck by replacing him in prison and going to his death.

Christ’s death on the cross offered healing to billions over the past 2,000 years—and it also inaugurated a different kind of storytelling.

Carton’s oft-quoted next-to-last thought: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.” But my takeaway: Once Jesus provided the real-life example of sacrificing all to save enemies, and millions of people saw that as ultimate virtue, Dickens could write a far, far better ending than was commercially viable when a story was supposed to end with killing enemies.

Forty years after A Tale of Two Cities came The War of the Worlds. Author H.G. Wells, the youngest child of a Protestant mother, had studied with Thomas Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Their dueling teaching led to Wells giving a mixed message. By survival-of-the-fittest logic the Martian invaders should have been the heroes: They were more evolved and showed their fitness by creating better weapons than Earthlings had. But Wells wrote of human heroes in a small boat sacrificing their lives to destroy Martian ships and allow refugees to escape. 

Forty years after The War of the Worlds, J.R.R. Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings. The scene my children found most dramatic was of Gandalf saving his band from the Balrog, at the cost of falling into an almost-bottomless pit and fighting the infernal beast up an almost Endless Stair. Gandalf dies and is then resurrected, going from Gandalf the Grey to Gandalf the White.

Different characters, different eras, but all motivated by heroic compassion of the kind that ancient literature did not have. Nearly a century ago James Frazer, in The Golden Bough, audaciously suggested that early Christians plagiarized the story of Christ’s death and resurrection from pre-Christian religions. Thirty years ago, though, University of Chicago professor Jonathan Z. Smith showed Frazer’s case for an abundance of “dying and rising deities” to be based on “imaginative reconstructions.”

Some mythic gods, Smith observed, returned from a far place but had not died. Others died but were not resurrected. Smith wrote, “There is no unambiguous instance in the history of religions of a dying and rising deity.” None, that is, until Jesus Christ. He really did it: not just story, but true history. Gaining victory by compassionate suffering-with-others was a new idea in Rome. Gaining individual resurrection to the next life, as opposed to a collective national revival, was a new idea in Jerusalem.

At Easter I’m primarily thankful that up from the grave Christ truly arose, and because of God’s grace we can too. But as a writer I’m also glad for the great stories that the greatest history inspired.


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  • WM
    Posted: Sun, 04/07/2019 04:34 pm

    Wonderful seeing and telling.  Art in stories follows Jesus' own Story played out in true time & space history; Jesus dying and being raised from death in order to bring mercy and grace to God's enemies.  The consequences of Jesus' Storyline are far, far greater than human imagination could ever provide.  I am one example; because of Jesus sacrificially and obediently giving up his life and then being raised into his new, ever-lasting life, I am a man fully pardoned for having been a toxic rebel against God, and now because Jesus lives and loves, I have the confident expectation that I will one day inherit true inner goodness in a new, ever-lasting body.  More than that, because of this pure and true goodness, I will be qualified to live in nearness to the magnificent beauty that emanates from God's eternal and infinite Person.  I truly cannot imagine a better story.

  • TxAgEngr
    Posted: Sun, 04/07/2019 06:56 pm

    Amen.  The Gospel is an unprecedented story in the history of humanity.  It is obvious in hindsight, but no one saw it coming, looking forward. Even the disciples could not see it after having had the plan explained to them by Jesus himself.   

  • DS
    Posted: Fri, 04/12/2019 11:44 am

    You know, Gandalf never actually died; he just passed, in his own words, "out of time and knowledge." In other words, he went back to Valinor (the "Heaven" of Middle Earth) and was sent back in a stronger form to complete his mission, which was to do battle against Sauron, though he himself wasn't allowed to battle Sauron face-to-face.

  • kk
    Posted: Sun, 04/21/2019 10:45 pm

    Marvin, you are good at telling histroy.  Why don't you tell the true history of Easter & Christmas & where they both came from? Where are they in the Bible???? Christ is our Passover Lamb.  A good reason to celebrate Passover instead holidays that to begin with had nothing to do with Christ or the Bible.