Friday, April 06, 2007

Easter, Dover Beach

Ok, it's only Good Friday, but this is worth posting anyway. Story devised by Tom Wright, and you can find the original context at

"Let me end with a parable, returning one more time to the story of the two on the road to Emmaus. To understand this parable, you need to know Matthew Arnold s poem “Dover Beach.” In it Arnold describes—from within his mid-nineteenth century perspective—the way in which what he calls “the sea of faith” has emptied. Once, it was

. . . at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d;

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the breath

Of the night-wind down the vase edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.3

Two serious-minded unbelievers are walking home together, trying to make sense of the world of the mid-1990s. The dream of progress and enlightenment has run out of steam. Critical postmodernity has blown the whistle on the world as we knew it.

Our two unbelievers walk along the road toward Dover Beach. They are discussing, animatedly, how these things can be. How can the stories by which so many have lived have let us down? How shall we replace our deeply ambiguous cultural symbols? What should we be doing in our world now that every dream of progress is stamped with the word “Babel”?

Into this conversation comes Jesus, incognito. (It is just as well that they do not recognize him, since modernism taught them to disbelieve in all religions, and now postmodernism has rehabilitated so many that Jesus is just one guru among dozens.) “What are you talking about?” he asks. They stand there, looking sad. Then one of them says, “You must be about the only person in town who doesn’t know what a traumatic time the twentieth century has been. Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx were quite right. We had a war to end wars, and we’ve had nothing but wars since. We had a sexual revolution, and now we have AIDS and more family-less people than ever before. We pursued wealth, but we had inexplicable recessions and ended up with half the world in crippling debt. We can do what we like, but we’ve all forgotten why we liked it. Our dreams have gone sour, and we don’t even know who ‘we’ are any more. And now even the church has let us down, corrupting its spiritual message with talk of cosmic and political liberation.”

“Foolish ones,” replies Jesus. “How slow of heart you are to believe all that the Creator God has said. Did you never hear that God created the world wisely? And that he has now acted within his world to create a truly human people? And that from within this people he came to live as a truly human person? And that in his own death he dealt with evil once and for all? And that he is even now at work, by his own Spirit, to create a new human family in which repentance and forgiveness of sins are the order of the day, and so to challenge and overturn the rule of war, sex, money, and power?” And then, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, and now also the apostles and prophets of the New Testament, Jesus interpreted to them in all of the scriptures the things concerning himself.

The three arrived together at Dover Beach. The sea of faith, having retreated with the outgoing tide of modernism, was full again as the incoming tide of postmodernism proved the truth of Chesterton’s dictum that when people stop believing in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. On the shore there stood a vast, hungry crowd. They had cast their bread upon the retreating waters of modernism, and now they discover that the incoming tide of postmodernism is bringing them bricks and centipedes instead.

The two travelers began wearily to open a small picnic basket, totally inadequate for the task of feeding so many. Gently Jesus took it from them, and then in what seemed like moments he had gone to and fro on the beach until everyone had been fed. Then the eyes of them all were opened, and they realized who he was, and he vanished from their sight.

Then the two travelers said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us on the road, as he told us the story of the creator and his world, and his victory over evil?” And they rushed back to tell their friends of what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known in the breaking of the bread.

Actually, that is not a story. It is a play, a real-life drama. And the part of Jesus is to be played by you and me. This is Christian mission in a postmodern world. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God"

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