The following, an essay I wrote in 2014 for a course on the Gospel and Postmodernism.
Did you swear to anything lately? Pinky swear? Cross your heart and hope to die? Oaths have come into odd times. Back when I was a court sketch artist, swearing by the Bible was already being challenged in a world of diverse cultures and religions. Satanists were a strange case because everything in Satanism is backwards, so that if you swore to tell the truth, it meant you were planning to lie. A Vietnamese defendant wanted the Chicken oath, which is well-known in Asian countries. You sign a paper, cut the head off a chicken, and burn the oath, vowing that if you lie, you should suffer the same fate as the chicken. An African oath was also discussed. The person to be forsworn bites a piece of skin from a live dog and vows that he should be eaten just like the dog if he lies. These various oaths were obviously impractical, because observing them would turn the courtroom into a zoo. But the issue remained – what is that power that is at the end of ourselves, which is universally binding?
Perhaps more frightening than diverse beliefs, are those who do not believe in anything at all. One Toronto murder trial showcased this phenomenon. The victim was a naive farm girl who kept running away to hang out with punkers, because as she told her parents, they were all one big family who took care of one another. Free from outside rules and regulations, they made up their own code. One day she went to a boarded up squat house with two boys. Recognized their good fortune, the boys agreed, “let’s rape her and kill her”, and that is what they did. When burning her body afterwards became too much work, they got bored, stole ten dollars and a pair of Doc Martins from the corpse, and went to eat at MacDonalds. The court was astonished that they seemed to show no remorse whatsoever, and tried to determine what could possibly make people turn out that way. The expert sociologists were puzzled by their lack of moral conscience, but they did concur that the Punker movement itself is based on total rejection of authority. Punk rockers live outside the system, panhandling from people they think are slaves and dupes. In their world, the girl who came to the squat was simply dumb and deserved to be a victim. Welcome to the world without limitations, where there is not much people will not do.
Absolutes, are what the tale Life of Pi by Yann Martel is talking about. Co-existence with a tiger confronts the reader with an almost unimaginable more dangerous possibility outside of the boundary of our ordinary everyday life. The tale is about a young Indian boy named Pi, whose family runs a zoo. His father is concerned that the wild animals may appear too tame, and forces Pi and his brother to witness a goat released into the cage of a hungry tiger so they can see what nature is capable of. This stark image of the goat sacrificed to the tiger sets the tone for the whole story, and young Pi is haunted by the taunt that his brother whispers in his ear… “You are going to be the next goat”! Pi’s family suffers a shipwreck and Pi ends up stranded in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a bengal tiger. Nature’s food chain works its way through and he winds up in the sole company of the tiger. For three months at sea, he must sustain his own life, and keep from becoming the next goat in the food chain. Miraculously, despite all that nature throws at him, he survives and washes up on the shores of Mexico where he is rescued.
Two Japanese officials ask him to account for the shipwreck for an official insurance report. When he tells them his unbelievable story, they are displeased and ask him to give them another more rational tale. He creates a version where he is in the company of his mother, another sailor, and a cook. The sailer dies from gangrene, his mother is murdered by the cook, and he ends up killing the cook. The Japanese officials are displeased because now they do not know what to believe, and Pi insists that in the absence of proof, they must choose the version they prefer, the beautiful unbelievable version, or the stark ugly one. In the end they choose the beautiful story, and this is the kernel of theology that Pi offers us, that “so it is with God”. A religious system is painted as the more beautiful story because choosing one gives us structure and purpose. Any old belief system will do so long as it delivers a “happy ending”.
Like Pi, all of us are familiar with the laws of the jungle, and we get our first lesson in the schoolyard. My version arrived in school when I was in grade seven. A rough and tumble family of five Italian kids breezed into the neighborhood, and life was never the same. When two of the sisters got into a bare-knuckle brawl, we knew the DeCarlos were hard-core scrappers. When not fighting amongst themselves, they fought with everybody else. The law of the jungle had arrived at Adam Scott High.
I got Roddy DeCarlo in my class. It didn’t take long for Roddy to establish his rule and he did it in an unusual way - fighting lessons. If you were so unlucky, Roddy would slap you on the back and announce that he was going to give you “fighting lessons” into the foreseeable future. At recess and after school, Roddy would put you through scenarios of a real fight, in slow motion re-enactment, with a grin on his face. Arm twisting, headlocks, punches, kicking, tripping, he went over them all lesson by painful lesson. Your part, was to come to school with funds to pay for your instruction, to show your appreciation that his fighting lessons were a valuable tool, and only slightly more gentle than the real thing.
One new kid who arrived at school was befriended by a smirking Roddy DeCarlo, and the worst part was he believed in the friendship. The peaceful co-existence didn’t last long however, once Roddy determined that his new friend could not read between the lines, he had to beat him up for real. We all lined up for that fight, because somewhere in the back of our brains we thought that particular kid really had it coming to him for being so naive as to not recognize absolute power when he saw it. His sanguine delusions could not save him.
All of us meet our bengal tiger sooner or later, when we grow up and realize there are things more threatening than physical strength. This fall, I was reminded of that every day on my commute to work. A fatal accident had occurred on the onramp to the QEW, and every time I went past , I saw a roadside cross with crumpled flowers, and a hoodie hung up in remembrance. This roadside memorial bothered me. Every time I saw that hoodie I wondered who this kid might have been and how he died. I didn’t want to deal with the concept every day on my commute, that people die on highways.
Finally I looked up the crash up on the internet and found my man. He was not a teen, he was a 32 year old biker from Hamilton, the very picture of power and vitality. His face came up on the screen in the obits, earrings, goatee, someone whose stare matched the no fear tattoo on his neck. Yet, on the roadside he had met his match.
Then something very strange happened. Coming into December the hoodie and cross suddenly disappeared. in place of that grim reminder of death stood a Christmas tree - a symbol of beauty, hope, and new life. My wife told me she had seen something remarkable on the way home one day, she passed a biker there at the Christmas tree, reading from the Bible. A biker, the very epitome of rebel power which rejects all authority. Death had made him cut to the chase.
In the fifteenth chapter of Corinthians, the Apostle Paul also cuts to the chase. He is castigating the Corinthians, a very cosmopolitan society in love with a pantheon of world views and clever philosophies. They are arguing over semantics, so Paul gives them the gospel, in nutshell. He tells them, “By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures”. Paul goes on to say, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”
The truth that resonates with the Life of Pi, is the shiver that haunts each of us when we encounter a Roddy DeCarlo, or a roadside cross. It’s the recognition that we could become the next goat. But unlike the Life of Pi which offers squishy hope, God, has also made an oath, and it is a promise of faith that moves us beyond the dread of the graveside, the tiger, the things that we encounter in life that bring us to the end of ourselves, our strength, our methods, and our philosophies. Hebrews chapter seven promises us “…a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God. And it was not without an oath ...” Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.
It is important that what the Gospel promises us is true, that the story we choose is not of our own construction, it is a promise which must transcend our own life and powers because it is clear that we cannot save ourselves. I am reminded of what is beyond the tiger yet again talking on Skype with my wife who is at the bedside of her father. He is in the final stages of cancer and his body is wizened and almost unrecognizable as the vibrant and strong man we once knew. He is often not there, his body is engaged with fighting his disease, and the only response you can get from him is grunts and moans that come through despite the breathing tubes and medical apparatus. And there are the other times my wife tells me about, when he seems strangely quiet. He is not sleeping, he is praying. She realized he is not unconscious, he is deeply engaged, not with his body, but with his spirit. He is in that strange middle zone where he is encountering already, that next thing beyond the tiger, and he seems strangely comforted despite his affliction.
In the postmodern world, we avoid the tiger, we dance around the absolutes until they ultimately hit us square in the face. But the cross of Jesus Christ allows us to move beyond dread, to a beautiful hope. If the Apostle Paul had read the Life of Pi, he would have closed the book after chapter seven, and told Yann Martel. “Don’t waste your breath. You are not going to be the next goat, because Jesus Christ has stood in your place.” This is the core of the gospel, and the truth of Christianity which flies high above all the worldly philosophies and systems. The sacrifice of God’s son as the sacrificial lamb, and the promise of the resurrection of the dead.
Death has been defeated. If we grasp the promise of God, we can move beyond the tiger, and find the better story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.