I’ve been on a history kick lately, particularly focused on the American founding and the Civil War period (and I’m shifting somewhat to the post-Civil War period of Reconstruction) and in that effort, the two most well-known American historians I know are David McCullough, who supplied two of the books I’ve reviewed as of late, and Jon Meacham. I haven’t read any of Meacham’s books. When I was at the library, I sought one of his books out and saw the title, Hope for Glory. I didn’t even realize it was a religious book until I picked it up. I hadn’t noticed the subhead: Reflection on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.
My first intellectual awakening, around 14 or 15 years old, wasn’t into politics or social issues quite yet; it was into religion. For whatever reason, my first intellectual ruminations were about the nature of God, organized religion and the words of Jesus and at that point, I was rejecting organized religion and the possibility of a God. I don’t know what happened or why I was already keeping religion and God at a skeptical arm’s distance. Some of the first arguments (and I don’t mean that with the negative connotations, perhaps “dialogues” would be a better word) I can recall having as a nascent internet user was about such questions.
From there, I went through my phases of being a stupid (yes, stupid) aggressive atheist — you know the types; those who think anyone religious is a fool and worse yet, that religion and religious followers are poisoning society —, which, in my defense, I was only 15-ish and like a lot of the blossoming I was doing at the time, I maturated out of it, thankfully.
Nowadays, I settle somewhere around agnostic, and more pointedly, I am far, far more accepting and welcoming of religious views. And no, I don’t think religion or those who are religious are poisoning the well. I still will take a hardline stance against fundamentalism, particularly as it rears its head in the social and political realm, but otherwise? Believe what you will. The pluralism of it, too, is beautiful: Judaism, Christianity (and its myriad denominations and nondenominations), Islam, Buddhism and so on.
I’ve taken a particular interest in the latter, as I enjoy the focus not on a a deity, but on being present and mindful. Look not at me but where my finger is pointing kind of thing.
Among my favorite classes in college were the religious ones and learning more about Islam in particular was great.
That’s the thing, even “nonbelievers” and agnostics ought to study religion, both from an academic standpoint and by engaging with the believers, who are genuinely interested, as Meacham is here, in explaining. I always say, too, that one of my favorite books, and I mean it, is N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian. I enjoy reading about religion from the believers who are interested in explaining. I may not always get it or agree, but it makes for illuminating reading.
All of that is a long way of saying: I’m open to reading about religion because of its worthwhile contribution to my overall intellectual stimulation, as well as personal questioning and enrichment.
To that, naturally, I’ve been fascinated by Jesus, both the historical figure and the theological one, with emphasis on the latter. The overall arc of the story told in the New Testament is something that resonates with me, even though I can’t quite call myself an adherent of it: For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son (John 3:16), who became flesh like man and died like a man, to save humanity; wherein, Jesus’ arrival signaled the hope of a new beginning and the triumph of love over hate and mercy over vengeance. That Jesus was the king of the downtrodden and the lepers. That Jesus, even while nailed to the cross, said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (More on that from the book in a moment.) Love thy neighbor and lift the least among us up. Do unto others as you would want done unto you. The wisdom of exercising grace. That, even if you hate yourself, God still loves you. Even if you see yourself as rightly imperfect and blemished, God still loves you. Jesus still loves you. That Jesus suffered so much and still. And yet. The idea of sacrifice and martyrdom has also always fascinated me. That sort of unselfishness.
That story resonates with me on a fundamental level because, take the chunks of theology out of it, and my own worldview is within the folds: grace and humility, love over hate, mercy over vengeance, helping the least among us, loving unconditionally, and hope for humanity. So while I may not take that next step to add theology to the mix, saying that Jesus was indeed divine, rose from the dead, conquered death, and surely, one day, shall return, whereupon God will merge Heaven and Earth into a paradise, I appreciate the message and the story, nonetheless.
Finally, I should note, as someone who likes to think of themselves as a radical thinker, at least beyond the bounds of normal social and political discussions, I appreciate that Jesus himself comes across like a radical. He was someone upending and threatening the status quo of the time by preaching about God’s kingdom to come. And he was killed for it and in the most public way possible, crucifixion, to deter others.
Meacham, I should note, hits all of my N.T. Wright buttons: He rejects fundamentalism, which he calls blind faith; he readily admits that there is a lot we can’t know and answer; that reason is the twin wing (along with faith) that allows us to soar and flourish as human beings; he acknowledges that the Bible is of human hands, and those human hands, in large part, were trying to sell a story (which doesn’t make the story not worth learning); and isn’t trying to convert, as it were, but rather elucidate and situate the theological Jesus within a 21st century framework. I appreciate that work, that humility, and that desire to explain.
Before I start diving into the last words, a quick aside about the aforementioned Bible point. Something Meacham said sort of blew my mind. A lot of nonbelievers, myself included I’m sure, have long wondered why is it that the Gospels were written decades after Jesus’ death? Doesn’t that render their accounts inauthentic? But in Meacham’s telling, the apostles and adherents to Jesus’ ministry, thought God’s kingdom, of which Jesus spoke, was imminent. They thought the presence of Jesus, fulfilling the Hebrew Bible’s prophecy, was going to usher in that kingdom. So, when he died on the cross … and that ushering in didn’t happen, they were left baffled and trying to understand amid the chaos what that meant. Add in the resurrection, and still, more chaos. The Gospel writers weren’t writing an at-that-time biography of Jesus because God’s kingdom would soon be at hand! That’s fascinating.
So, one of the main items about Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified, I’ve always found most resonate, even as an agnostic, is the seeming idea of Jesus’ mercy while nailed to the Cross. The first of the last seven items he said: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
Meacham, however, asks the obvious question: Why would Jesus forgive them for playing their bit role in a play of which he already knew the outcome? Their role was a necessary bit role to ensure the saving of mankind. Luke in the Gospel wanted to cast the widest possible net, according to Meacham. That is, he wanted to show to the world that Christianity and the God of Christianity, was a merciful, graceful and loving God. That even in the midst of great pain and suffering, Jesus forgive his tormentors and his enemies. Further, in the immediacy of when the Gospel was written, Meacham argues that it was “rhetorical genius” for Luke to write that because it exculpated the Romans and the Temple authorities for crucifying Jesus, thus, again, casting the widest possible net of potential receptive ears.
Another of the powerful moments at Golgotha (where Jesus was crucified), was when one of the two criminals also being crucified alongside Jesus, called out to him and said, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Upon which Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”
That is essentially the whole ballgame as it concerns Christianity. Opening yourself to God and taking that leap. Accepting him into your heart. Humbling yourself before Him. The courage to, in that moment, call out to Jesus.
In the third of seven words from Jesus, he says, “Woman, behold they son! Behold they mother!” These lines, which I’d never previously considered much, are supposed to represent how outward-thinking Christianity is supposed to be. That is, we are thinking of ourselves too much and at times, we place that inward thinking even above God Himself. These words from Jesus encourages us to behold others and to take care of others, Meacham explains. Or more pointedly, we must be “doers” of the world, not only “hearers.”
Now, the fourth of seven words has always baffled me. Jesus says, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Much like the first of his words on the cross, why would Jesus ask such a question, if he knew how the saga was to play out? And it seems counter to the idea of sacrifice for Jesus, if he seems to almost be relenting or wavering in his suffering by asking God why He has forsaken him.
However, Meacham turns to Mark and Matthew of the Gospels to help explain what may be going on here. Mark and Matthew wanted to make Jesus more like us, more man and somebody we could relate to in his suffering. In other words, when Jesus cries out, “… why hast thou forsaken me?”, that’s a very human uttering and question. Or, put another, poignant way, Jesus was “not a god pretending to die.”
That rebukes my own temptation about how to interpret Good Friday: I’ve long thought that it does, indeed, seem like a roleplay. That God is only pretending to die. How can he be both man and deity and actually suffer and “die” in any real sense of the word? But Mark and Matthew at least try to demonstrate that he lived and died as a man, feeling all the pain he endured.
Even more importantly, as Meacham points out, God, in this way, has experienced grief, the pain of his people, and the most longing question we’ve asked since we were breathed into existence, “Why?” That’s powerful.
This is also where Meacham situates Jesus in the historical context, saying, “… for whatever we might think of the accuracy of the Last Words or of the sundry details of the crucifixion, we can safely say that Jesus of Nazareth really did suffer and really did die on a Roman cross.”
The fifth word, “I thirst,” goes back to the ideas of God coming to us even when we are at our low point. “Yet thou comest.” “And yet” has always been one the two most powerful words to me, theology or otherwise. There’s something deeply affecting about the idea that all of us are living through the human condition, with its tragic tribulations, and yet, we still go on. And yet, we live. That’s beautiful.
With the sixth word, “It is finished,” Meacham gives a brief detour into whether Hell exists and what Hell means. I’ve always considered that Hell is not a physical space, just as Meacham explains that Heaven isn’t the physical space we think of (it’s God’s space and in point of fact, the point of God’s Kingdom is to meld Heaven and Earth, not bring us all to Heaven). Similarly, I see Hell as the absence of God rather than a physical space of torment, which is, if you believe in God, a seemingly indescribable existence.
As to the words themselves, I don’t think Meacham quite knows what it means, per se, but I interpret his attempt to interpret as those words meaning that both the work at hand (Jesus sacrificing himself) is finished and that the work of making the Earth ready for the melding with Heaven is unfinished.
The last word Jesus spoke before dying was, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” That goes back to my earlier rumination about opening yourself to God. Jesus did that here.
My sensibility, maturated over the years, has been to reject the idea of authority (and certainly, kings and kingdoms) in our polity. Not to the point of “lawlessness,” but in a deep and abiding political sense of self-governance and individual autonomy. As such, I’ve always found it difficult to reconcile that with the idea of God having a “kingdom” or Jesus being a “king.” Such things seem to me, at least, below the station of a prophet, a messiah and a God. Aside from the issues of believing in a deity itself, the rejection of authority is something I struggle to get beyond.
Anyhow, Good Friday and what happened to Jesus on the cross has always resonated with me, as I’ve said, and so, I appreciate this quick book from Meacham explaining the final words Jesus uttered while on the cross and situating them both in the historical time in which they were written and attempting to explain them with 21st century eyes, as aided by centuries of theological underpinnings.
I would recommend the book to anyone as a quick primer on the central themes and tenets of the Christian faith. Again, if you’re an atheist or agnostic, or even someone of a different faith entirely, it seems folly to ignore something 2.4 billion human beings believe.