In his first epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul made it perfectly clear that a belief in the bodily resurrection of Christ as the sine qua non of Christianity. If Christ was not raised from the dead, that the whole of the Christian faith is an utter sham, the apostolic witness fraudulent, the basis of Christian hope nonexistent, and the poor saps who go on attempting to live a life guided by the teachings of Christ are "of all people most to be pitied."
But the editors of the Washington Post's On Faith section apparently didn't get that memo, choosing to run for their Holy Saturday edition a Religion News Service article which hyped the beliefs of liberal religious scholars like the former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, John Shelby Spong, who not only denies that Jesus was physically raised from the dead but that the Bible really, truly teaches the same if you just interpret it the way he prefers to.
The story itself, by freelance writer Kimberly Winston for the Religion News Service, portrayed the resurrection of Christ as a hotly-debated topic within Christianity, not as the most central tenet of faith which defines it and sets the parameters for who is and who isn't a Christian.
Even as Winston included Christians who vigorously affirm the centrality of the resurrection to the faith, one such individual offered a fair share of criticism of how other, unnamed churches and ministers preach on the resurrection of Christ:
Reg Rivett, 27, a youth minister at an evangelical house church near Edmonton, Canada, said his belief that Jesus literally rose from the dead is central to his Christian identity and faith. Nonetheless, he still has conflicting feelings about how the Resurrection story is used in some circles.
“You hear about it year after year or at the end of every youth event — ‘This is why Jesus came and why he died,’” he said. “We tack it on to the end of everything and that is not what it should be. It’s like we’ve taken something that is very sacred and made it very common.”
That leads to some internal conflict on Easter Sunday, even as he goes to church with his family and joins them for a big meal.
“It becomes something I need to do and I do it out of respect for others,” he said.
To restore the Resurrection and the Easter story to its appropriate place, Rivett said, the church should “build” toward the holiday throughout the year — place it in its context within the whole biblical saga.
“It is another story about Jesus, another piece of the whole Bible, but at the same time it is such a significant piece,” he said. “Neglecting it completely would be wrong, but over-saturation is wrong, too. It is hard to find a balance.”
It's possible to over-saturate your parishioners with preaching of Christ crucified, resurrected, ascended to heaven, and coming again to judge the living and the dead? That's hardly the complaint one would expect from an unapologetic conservative orthodox Christian.
At any rate, it was then that Watson turned to the resurrection-denying Spong and his "brand" of Christianity, which she suggested was gaining in popularity, although, of course, the Episcopal Church USA, and other liberal mainline Protestant denominations, have been hemorrhaging members for decades:
Retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, best known for his liberal interpretation of Christianity, does not adhere to Rivett’s literal view of the Resurrection. His 1995 book, “Resurrection: Myth or Reality?” caused a dust-up when it asked, “Does Christianity fall unless a supernatural miracle can be established?”
For Spong, 82, the answer is an emphatic no.
“I don’t think the Resurrection has anything to do with physical resuscitation,” he said. “I think it means the life of Jesus was raised back into the life of God, not into the life of this world, and that it was out of this that his presence” — not his body — “was manifested to certain witnesses.”
Like Rivett, he too said the Resurrection must be placed in context to be interpreted and understood — something he tried to do as a young priest in the Bible Belt through yearlong Bible study classes culminating in the Easter story, he said.
“I tried to help people get out of that literalism,” he said. “But you don’t do it in a single sermon. You need time to lay the groundwork and for people to process it, ask questions. You have to begin to build it.”
Spong’s Bible studies were enormously popular, attracting 300 people to each session, he said. His congregations grew as a result.
“When people hear it, they grab onto it,” Spong said. “They could not believe the superstitious stuff and they were brainwashed to believe that if they could not believe it literally they could not be a Christian.”
A Christian, Spong said, is one who accepts the reality of God without the requirement of a literal belief in miracles.
“What the Resurrection says is that Jesus breaks every human limit, including the limit of death, and by walking in his path you can catch a glimpse of that,” he said. “And I think that’s a pretty good message.”
Rivett and Spong have wildly different beliefs on the central element of the Christian faith, but they seem to share the same smug, self-righteous estimation of their flocks. Readers, regardless of their view on the resurrection of Christ, deserve better than a story centered on such self-important personalities.