SERIES: RESURRECTION, PAUL, JESUS AND EASTER
The four gospels in the New Testament disagree on whom Jesus was. Some of the stories are diametrically opposed to one another. Mark doesn’t even relate a resurrection story. Is there a reason for these different visions of Jesus?
To keep our story of Jesus and his resurrection in perspective, let’s fast forward to Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK). We can use his life as an analogous example to see what that might mean to our understanding of the man, the Messiah, Jesus, if we started writing a gospel today.
King was a great teacher, a man of God. He was virtually worshiped by many of his followers as an example to live by, a teacher, a visionary, a “savior” of and for his people; but more than that, he was considered by many in our nation as a savior of all peoples whom would travel his path of love—and he was killed. He was murdered for trying to change the consciousness of a nation. Years later we also find out that he was being tracked and reported on by the government, in this case at least, the FBI, and perhaps other agencies as well as a potential subversive. Sound vaguely familiar to a story we all know?
King was killed in 1968, 49 years ago. The very first Gospel to be written (Mark) was written in about the year 70 CE—roughly 40 years after Jesus died. So it is almost exactly analogous of our situation with MLK. If we were to try to sit down and compose the story of MLK’s life in our fast-forward scenario, it will be a “Gospel” (which means, Good News) account of MLK’s life.
Let’s continue with our journey into the here and now; let’s imagine that there has been no radio or television transcriptions or recordings, no newspaper accounts, no written documentation at all of what MLK said or did—just memories of those that were close to him (just like Jesus). As with Jesus, let’s also assume that we don’t have any writings from any of MLK’s original followers (because we don’t).
If any of his thoughts and beliefs are now to be remembered 46 years later, it will have to be by later day followers of his—none of which knew MLK personally—because none of the Gospels were written by any of Jesus’ disciples; they were written by followers of followers.
So our later-day chronicler of MLK’s life has to go out and try to record people’s memories of him and then try to make sense of the wildly divergent memories and weave a story that ties his life together and makes sense to those that would read and later follow this special man with his unique teaching of love. It is now 46 years after MLK died, and in our example, this would be the first story to be recorded (similar to the Gospel of Mark). There won’t be another story written to compare our story with or to for another 15 or 20 years, and yet another 10 or 15 years after that before the final stories end up being written.
That’s 4 different people trying to write down the salient parts of MLk’s life and teaching, and these 4 different people are not only writing decades apart, but each of them are writing in different countries and different cultures. It’s getting problematical to come up with a single cogent vision of the man, isn’t it? That is exactly what we find in the case of Jesus.
What would be the result of our first chronicler’s efforts? How accurate would the stories turn out to be to the historical man? what it is like to try to reconstruct Jesus’ life from the writings that we have of his existence (the Gospels and the authentic letters of Paul), and I’m positing that we begin to understand our Christian legacy by understanding how and why we inherited what we did. By fast-forwarding to Martin Luther King Jr. and recreating his life without the aid of modern communications, we can hopefully gain a glimpse into the process of what molded the Christianity that we inherited; and my ultimate goal, to show what the Master was really like before the changing commenced.
In our alternate universe—without our modern communications—people would spread the story of MLK to those that they met. They would tell about this wonderful preacher, teacher and social activist, that they knew, or had heard about second or third-hand, whom had changed their world and the world of many others as well. When asked, they would recite a story, or one or two of his saying that they remember this teacher uttering and that made an impression on them. MLK’s sayings would be handed down from person to person as an oral tradition.
Fortunately (like Jesus) MLK was a great storyteller and could encapsulate short pithy observations or truisms (aphorisms) in memorable one-liners, so it would make our effort to create a ‘gospel’ easier than it might be with an average person of average skills and average vision. In our effort to compile this first story of MLK, we probably would find people reciting his remembered saying such as:
“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
“We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
“Let no man pull you so low as to hate him.”
And in his most famous speech delivered on the Mall in Washington DC on August 28, 1963 (now 54 years ago) he said:
“…and so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’
"I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
"I have a dream today!”
These stories and sayings all point to a man that had overcome hate with love, divine love, but there might also be recitations of stories that could cause some listeners—or the person compiling the gospel—to feel uncomfortable, to pause and take stock, to question. We might find that the compiler starts to pick and choose which stories to tell, and which stories he judged should be left out or ‘tweaked’ just a bit to comport with his own feelings or beliefs as to what should be passed on to others—or not passed on at all. He might include the quotes that he wants to be remembered and he might 'forget' those that are hard upon his ears. And, if we use his “I Have a Dream Speech,” for example to include in our imaginary Gospel of MLK, then which speech do we use? Did you know that he delivered several versions of that speech before it was memorialized in perpetuity on that day in Washington DC? If we were an oral society, as it was in Jesus’ lifetime, which version would the chronicler include in his Gospel? Jesus undoubtedly told the same stories over and over again. Which version is included in our Gospels?
“Truth” is already deforming with MLK. People are already deciding what should be remembered about the great man; what sayings should be preserved and presented to others for the future.
There is a statue that has been erected near the Washington Mall, adjacent to the Potomac River’s Tidal Basin depicting his likeness. On the statue, carved in stone, there are quotes chosen from his life similar to those I have chosen above. One of them, taken from a sermon at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church two months before he was killed, was considered so powerful that it was carved in stone on this statue. The short snippet of a longer speech that was quoted was, “I was a drum major for justice, peace and righteousness.”
No one thought any the less of MLK from the fragmentary quote until the great poet, Maya Angelou, told the Washington Post that the shortened quote “makes Dr. Martin Luther King look like an arrogant twit. He was anything but that. He was far too profound a man for that four-letter word to apply… It makes him seem an egotist.” The result was that the ‘offending’ quote was chiseled away and replaced with a decorative stripe. A saying that millions of people might have seen here on the statue and remembered for life, will never be seen. Someone has made the decision as to what will be remembered, just like they did with Jesus.
We will explore how this phenomenon of selective inclusion—and exclusion—might come about (in our example with this MLK gospel, but also in the New Testament Gospels that we have inherited) in the next
To be continued with Installment 4.