April 15, 2009
Wittiness has become something of a virtue in our day. Wit combines cleverness and humor to offer amusing insights. Though entertaining and often insightful, sometimes wittiness enters the realm of the ridiculous which could also be amusing, yet essentially pointless.
An example of such ridiculousness can be found in the April 10th edition of The Huffington Post in an article titled "Killing Jesus For Today's Market" by Spencer Green. The article is based upon the popular quote attributed to H.G. Wells that basically states: "If Jesus Christ had been hanged, the symbol of Christianity would be a noose." The author tries to make the point, albeit in a humorous way, that the cross of Christ has become too commercialized in our day and has become a symbol that may be powerful yet is unrelateable to the contemporary age. He then proceeds to give alternate tools of suffering and death Christ could have gone through to make the story more attune to twenty-first century ears. In doing so, he proposes alternative symbols for Christians that would make the story more relateable, such as the hammer and nails instead of the crucifix itself. Green further elaborates the hypothesis of H.G. Wells with a bunch of "what if's".
For example, what if Christ had been hanged by a noose? "Would Christians today wear little nooses around their necks?" Green asks. Or if he was killed by a firing squad, would we wear little guns. After being creative with a bunch of death scenarios that could have been used for Christ, such as tying him to a boulder and pushing him off a mountain, or being kicked in the balls by Roman guards in a cage fight and other such tortures involving the penis, or tearing him to pieces in the arena which would make for a "kick-ass resurrection", the author then asks what symbol would Christians use if Jesus never died at all. His answer: not much, which means Jesus would get depressed, drunk and probably hang himself.
After reading this article which aimed at being witty, I just thought it was ridiculous and pointless. I can't say I was offended, because such sarcasm about Christianity has become common in today's media, and as Oscar Wilde said: "Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit". In other words, it's nothing new under the sun, nut just told a different way. And with the rise of atheism, such boring and dark sarcasm has become a staple of entertainment and comedy in our day.
Take for example two of the best and most influential comedians of the twentieth century, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks, who also elaborated on the line of H.G. Wells. Lenny Bruce joked: "If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses". And Bill Hicks said: "Do you think wearing a cross is really a good way to make Jesus happy? Maybe that's why he hasn't returned yet. 'Once the fish comes back in I'm there'. Kinda insensitive really. Like going up to Jackie Onassis with a rifle pendant and saying 'just thinking of John, Jackie,... we loved him'."
Now when I hear all these jokes which try to make the Christians devotion to the cross seem ridiculous, I wonder who really is ridiculous? Granted, if one doesn't understand the significance of the cross for Christians and is not a Christian himself I can see the ridiculousness of it, but it doesn't make the joke itself any less ridiculous because it is pointless and only shows the ignorance of the one trying to be funny instead of his cleverness. I will also grant the fact that many crosses, especially in the Western art, are repulsive and scary, but this only merits a joke about its repulsiveness or scariness, which in turn could also merit the title of being witty.
One could even examine the same type of joke in the Monty Python comedy, Life Of Brian, in the scene where Brian is running away from a bunch of self-deceived hysterics who believe him to be the Messiah, and as he runs away he loses a sandal which they begin treating like a relic or cross in an over-exagerated way.
In all these instances, we are not merely presented with irony to evoke petty laughter. Rather, I believe it goes back to a proverbial truth known for centuries and first articulated by Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales (c. 1387): "A man may seye full sooth [truth] in game and pley"; then by William Shakespeare in King Lear (1605): "Jesters do oft prove prophets"; and also by the more well-known version from Roxburghe Ballad (c.1665): "Many a true word hath been spoken in jest". Oscar Wilde gives the most modern rendering: "If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you." In other words, some truths, too painful or too likely to provoke, can be spoken only when the listener has been disarmed by laughter. In all these sayings laughter is the means to an end, the end being truth. However, just because we laugh at an apparent truth does not mean it is the truth. And what all these comedians are doing is leading the cynics in their audience to the illusion of an apparent truth by means of laughter to appear clever.
I understand that sometimes we have an urge to laugh at something funny and not think too hard about it. In so doing we make the truth (or apparent truth) as the means to an end, the end being laughter. But this is how entertainment distorts our sense of what we normally classify as sacred and holy. And for Christians, this is exactly what the cross is for us. The cross is Christianity's most sacred and holy symbol and we should be watchful and diligent lest it becomes anything less. Since the cynics are trying to instill truths through laughter, it is necessary to examine how true the claim may be that if Jesus had been hung by a noose instead of crucified, would the symbol of Christianity really be a noose instead of a cross?
This question (or remark) evokes similar questions once addressed to Scholastic theologians by fellow Scholastics of the Middle Ages and Humanists of the Renaissance. One question was: "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" Another is: "Can God create a stone so big that he cannot move it?" Both of these questions have been answered ad nauseum, but what it basically comes down to is that the questions make logical fallacies, thus making them self-refuting. The same is true with the question: "If Jesus died by hanging, would the noose become the new Christian symbol?" Among logical fallacies this is called a "Hypothesis Contrary To Fact" where you argue from something that might have happened, but didn't. And that is the whole point - Jesus did not die by any other means but by crucifixion, no matter how outdated and unrelateable this fact is to contemporary ears.
To answer the question more objectively and seriously so even the cynics can understand, I would say that Jesus died on the cross because he had to die on the cross. It was God's will that he died specifically on the cross. If Jesus did not die on the cross and instead died any other death, then he would have died as a charlatan and a false messiah. Therefore, the assumption that Jesus even could have possibly died another death except by crucifixion is a false assumption, irrelevant and even impossible.
To a non-Christian this may all sound absurd, until the evidence is examined as to why Jesus indeed had to die by crucifixion in order for his claims as to his person to be taken as true. The evidence comes from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament we see many times the cross being prefigured as the instrument through which death would be destroyed and demons vanquished, which is exactly what Christians believe about the cross.
In Genesis 3 we are told about the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. By the latter came the curse of death through the devil. The Tree of Life becomes the cross of Christ through which we enter into God's glory. We see this typified in the crucifixion of Jesus where one man crucified next to him ridicules Jesus and dies (Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) while the other man hanging on the cross accepts Jesus and enters into eternal life because he partook of the Tree of Life. Thus, as the Apostle Paul says, by one tree came death and by another tree (the cross) came eternal life.
There are many other places throughout the Old Testament where specifically the cross is revealed to be a source of life and a source of the power and salvation of God. We see this in Exodus 15:29 where the bitter waters of Marah turn sweet after Moses throws a tree by God's command in the water. In Exodus 17:8-13 we witness the Israelites defeat the Amalekites by the power of God which worked through the wooden rod of Moses that he was commanded to hold up with his arms in the form of a cross. In Leviticus 9:22 Aaron brings forgiveness of sins and peace to the people by lifting his arms in the form of a cross. In Numbers 2 we read how the camp of the Israelites were to be divided by tribes around the Tabernacle in the exact position of a cross, and this prevented Balaam the Prophet from cursing Israel when he looked at their formation from the mountain and blessed them saying: "How shall I call down a curse upon whom God did not curse? For from the top of the mountains I see him, and from the hills I envision him" (Number 23:8, 9).
When we read in the Book of Judges that Sampson was tied to two pillars in the form of a cross, and how through this position his strength returned to him and he destroyed his enemies, we are reminded of the power of the cross. Also in Ezekiel 9:4 God sends an angel to mark the foreheads of all his people before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem; the literal translation says to "mark a tau" which is the letter "T" which is in the shape of the cross. And there are other such stories in the Old Testament in which the cross is a source of life, a source of power and a source of salvation and protection.
There are also a few prophecies which foretell the cross as being a source of salvation for Israel. Psalm 22, quoted by Jesus on the cross, foretells the death of the Messiah which can only best be described as a crucifixion. This is especially evident in verses 17-19: "For many dogs surround me, an assembly of evildoers enclosed me. They pierced my hands and my feet. I numbered all my bones. And they look and stare at me. They divided my garments among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots." In Deuteronomy 21:23 God commands that all those who are put to death on a tree should not hang there overnight, and he curses all those who hang on a tree to die. The Apostle Paul explains in Galatians 2 that God did this to show by what sort of death the Messiah was to die.
To conclude, what we get from all this is that if Jesus was to die the death of the Messiah of Israel, then his only choice was to die by crucifixion, which was clearly foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament. There was no other option for the legitimate Messiah, and there is no other option for his followers but to look to the cross as the source of life, the source of power and the source of salvation for all mankind. And it should not surprise us that the world ridicules the cross. This was done in apostolic times as well, as St. Paul writes: "We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to all those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 23, 24).
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