Appeared in North Shore News – April 15, 2011
Good Friday being ahead and this column dark, as journalists say, on the day itself, it seems fair weather to discuss what it’s all about.
It begins some 2,000 years ago with the birth in Bethlehem of a boy who grew up in Nazareth, which in Israel apparently was considered an unfashionable town for anyone of importance to hail from — a sort of Buffalo of its time. (I hope that isn’t too glib or too insulting to Buffalonians. I fear it’s both.)
Nor were his antecedents impressive.
He was born in a stable and, though 14 generations removed from the great Jewish King David, this probably wasn’t an unusually distinguished bond, considering that the Jews were a smallish population and could all claim kinship with notables. (It’s remarkable in our day that the fiance of a future king is happily discovered to be a descendant of George Washington.)
His father was working class and almost nothing is known about his early days — again, no surprise. Until very recent times, history was entirely about kings, the upper class, their amours and their wars. Lesser people were invisible on history’s pages.
Incidentally, this is why Shakespeare’s identity is fruitful ground for employment for literary scholars denying that a wool merchant’s son without university education from (also unfashionable) Stratford could possibly have written Sonnet 29, let alone the rest of the astonishing words attributed to him, which led the critic A. L. Rowse to drily remark that their argument essentially was that Shakespeare’s works weren’t written by Shakespeare but by “someone else with the same name.”
But I digress. At about age 30 the man began to preach, targeting sinners, not the pious, and allegedly to work miracles on the blind and even restore life to the dead — but most controversially, to claim to be the Son of God and the Messiah anticipated in Jewish scriptures.
Religion was then taken extremely seriously, and he infuriated the priests and intellectuals of the day. Mobs were incited to demand his death.
It is worth noting that an unlikely convert to Christianity, the acerbic and confessedly sinful journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, declared that had he lived then he’d have been in those mobs.
The man’s fate was left to the Roman governor of the province, Pontius Pilate, who, though vilified through the ages, seems to this writer to have been remarkably fair and reluctant to pronounce the death sentence on a man he considered innocent. He also spoke words that remain penetratingly current: “What is truth?” That quest is not finished.
Under pressure, Pilate shrugged and handed the man over to his accusers. Even his disciples, but not some women, including his mother, Mary, fled from him. He was crucified. He rose three days later and ascended to Heaven. (Naturally, this is disputed. The Wikipedia entry is furiously multi-footnoted.)
Oh, you know this story? About Jesus, called by some Christ?
Or maybe not.
A few generations ago, a huge majority of Canadians knew it by heart. For centuries, Christian culture produced great art, literature, music (still revered by the cognoscenti today — carefully stripped of Christianity). Shakespeare’s works aren’t understandable without their Christian context.
Today the Christian church is almost everywhere in retreat.
A paper recently presented to the American Physical Society — and God knows we can rely on experts in science, the academy, government, business and media — predicted a steady decline toward extinction in religious affiliation (the word “Christianity” does not appear in the news report) in most Western countries.
Statistics Canada says between 1971 and 2001, Canadians reporting no religious affiliation rose from four to 16 per cent, and in 2004 almost half those aged 15 to 29 had none.
West Vancouver soprano Katy Hadalen joined the pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain in 2009, singing a cappella in every church she could find, “an impromptu sort of concert.”
She emphasizes it was not a religious journey — her songs included “Over the Rainbow” as well as “Ave Maria.” More like a contemplative exploration of self.
She found, to her amazement, “I hadn’t realized how screamingly positive I am.” (Hadalen and Stephen Charles will give a concert of music, stories and images about the Camino next Thursday morning at the Silk Purse.)
Humbled, perhaps cleansed by some hard lessons learned — notably about Catholic priestly abuse of children and, worse, cover-ups by relocating abusers rather than calling the cops — the Christian church trundles on. Might even outlive the American Physical Society.
© Trevor Lautens, 2011