The Easter Effect, Dolly Parton, and a Specific Kind of Jesus

Happy Easter! By now, the ham leftovers should be about finished, the bonnets returned to […]

Bryan J. / 4.6.18

Happy Easter! By now, the ham leftovers should be about finished, the bonnets returned to their boxes, and the elusive eggs left unfound on Sunday are easily discovered by following the faint smell of sulfur. Clergy are just about recovered from the multiple services of Holy Week. And for those of us from liturgical traditions, Alleluias are back on the table. Lent has passed, and we’re now in an “Easter State of Mind.”

That “Easter State of Mind” is the subject of one of the better think-pieces offered up by the web this year. At the Wall Street Journal, George Weigel gives a half-history lesson, half-apologetic for the Resurrection.

There is no accounting for the rise of Christianity without weighing the revolutionary effect on those nobodies of what they called “the Resurrection”: their encounter with the one whom they embraced as the Risen Lord, whom they first knew as the itinerant Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, and who died an agonizing and shameful death on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. As N.T. Wright, one of the Anglosphere’s pre-eminent biblical scholars, makes clear, that first generation answered the question of why they were Christians with a straightforward answer: because Jesus was raised from the dead…

This remarkable and deliberate recording of the first Christians’ incomprehension of what they insisted was the irreducible bottom line of their faith teaches us two things. First, it tells us that the early Christians were confident enough about what they called the Resurrection that (to borrow from Prof. Wright) they were prepared to say something like, “I know this sounds ridiculous, but it’s what happened.” And the second thing it tells us is that it took time for the first Christians to figure out what the events of Easter meant—not only for Jesus but for themselves. As they worked that out, their thinking about a lot of things changed profoundly…

The article mentions three positive secular outcomes brought to the ancient world through Christianity—an increased dignity given to woman in contrast to the classical culture, a self-denying healthcare provided to plague sufferers, and a focus on family health and growth. Weigel suggests that it’s only through an Easter State of Mind, what he calls the Easter Effect, that these benefits make sense. This set of actions performed by early Christians only makes sense if people actually believe in Jesus’s resurrection.

Weigel goes on to suggest that this “Easter Effect” changed more than just behaviors that benefited the ancient secular culture. It changed the way people thought about time and history, their responsibilities to their neighbor, their worship and temporal rhythms, and even their relationship with the idea of resurrection itself. Early Christians are changing their sabbath days to Sundays, inviting new members into their religion, embracing persecution and death, and living as if they knew the outcome of history itself. The social changes that followed Good Friday, documented in both Bible and history, make the most sense if the people engaging in them actually believed in the resurrection of Jesus.

All these things are good and true, and it’s a good thing this conversation is happening in a national publication. There’s an addendum worth adding to the article which helps make its case, and it comes from an unexpected source. The greatest Easter anthem ever composed was not written by Bach or Handel. It’s Dolly Parton’s version of He’s Alive, a retelling of The Resurrection from Peter’s point of view. The third verse in particular is a work of theological depth—John and Peter have heard about the empty tomb, they’ve run out to see it, and now they’ve returned home.

Back inside the house again
The guilt and anguish came
Everything I’d promised Him
Just added to my shame
When at last it came to choices
I denied I knew His name
And even if He was alive 
It wouldn’t be the same

Peter, of course, is famous for boasting of his devotion to Jesus on Thursday and denying him three times before Friday got out of bed. And the great insight of the song is that The Resurrection could very well have been the world’s most terrifying event. The risen Jesus could have come back with vengeance on his mind, now immortal and ready to carry out a war against the Romans and Sanhedrin. The risen Jesus could have returned with a host of angel soldiers and began his Final Judgment that very Sunday morning. The risen Jesus could have found Peter and had a “come to Jesus” conversation about the denials, expelling him as a disciple. Peter isn’t just worried about Roman soldiers, he’s now worried about facing up to the Jesus he denied a few days prior.

Reading the resurrection stories in the gospels, there are plenty of themes that the four authors want to emphasize. One among them is that the resurrection was a bodily resurrection—scars were preserved, fish was digested, hands were placed in wounds. Another is that the resurrection was an embarrassment to worldly powers, with heavy stones moved, Roman soldiers terrified, and religious authorities spreading cover-up propaganda. Equally as important to the story, however, is that The Resurrection is an act of divine love to the undeserved. Jesus appears to weeping women, terrified men, doubters, runaways, people who don’t know their bibles, and disciples who quit the business and went back to their day jobs. It’s almost as if a qualification for meeting with the resurrected Jesus is being a really bad disciple of Jesus.

Which is to say, The Resurrection isn’t just that someone rose from the dead. The reanimation of Lazarus didn’t inspire a women’s rights movement, nor did the resuscitation of the Rabbi’s daughter inspire a generation of self-emptying plague doctors. The good news is that the one who rose from the dead is, specifically and uniquely, Jesus of Nazareth, friend of sinners, love incarnate, son of God, and full of grace. It’s this particular Jesus that caused the disciples to reconsider time and space and Sabbath, and also, love and forgiveness and the entire nature of the divine. Replace this Jesus with anyone else, and the whole movement falls flat.

The news doesn’t get much better than that on Easter Sunday. Take it away, Dolly!

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3 responses to “The Easter Effect, Dolly Parton, and a Specific Kind of Jesus”

  1. Michael Nicholson says:

    This is great!

  2. Emily Zank says:

    Just to give credit where it’s due, the song was written by Don Francisco. My parents were big fans, so I listened to his version a few hundred times during family road trips during my childhood. Love Dolly’s rendition.

  3. Patricia F. says:

    I love this song; I remember listening to Don Francisco’s version on Christian radio, back in the early 1980s. Dolly’s version is good, too.

    And thanks for this great post, about ‘The Easter Effect’.

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