Photo Credit: Max Elman/Flickr (cc)

Parades, peeps and paradoxes

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sightings is sponsored by the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Sign up to get Sightings in your inbox twice per week (on Mondays and Thursdays). You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter.

Easter parades survive in classic Hollywood films, on the avenues near cathedrals (which paraders pass but rarely frequent), in peeps, and in song. Seldom is there a trace of connection to the religious event which prompts Easter celebrations. Evidently there once was such a connection. But as Wikipedia remembers and comments: “By the mid-20th century, the parade’s religious aspects had faded, and it was mostly seen as a demonstration of American prosperity.” Peeps—those colorful marshmallow bunny- and bird-shaped seasonal candies—have now morphed into generic multi- or non-seasonal treats, the sweet religious particularity of Easter having thus “faded” at the candy counter.

Christmas is easier for Americans in prosperity to address. The angels and infants of the Christmas story are now de-particularized, so they can belong to everyone in the worlds of commerce, publicity, and celebration. No offense. Easter, however, while the supreme holy day for most devout believing Christians, is harder to handle. The key event that inspires the observance is the resurrection, however witnessed and defined, of a dead person—or, in caps, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. How to handle that in the media of a pluralist society, where believers in the event, while still in the majority, see their numbers declining annually?

For one very public example of how this inescapably Christian topic is covered, we turned to the March 31-April 1 issue of the Wall Street Journal, whose conservatism is legendary but whose implied religious leanings and commitments reflect the paper’s diverse roles in our pluralist society. The weekend World News section did not deal with Easter, but included a serious column by the Journal’s Vatican correspondent on the “Pope’s Uncertainty Principle.” Bottom line, writes Francis X. Rocca: the pope “resorts to less formal [than doctrinal] means … for shifting the perception of the spirit of Catholic doctrine without changing its letter.” And regular columnist Barton Swaim, in his non-Easterly “In the Beginning Was the Word,” observes the politicization of the group now called “evangelical,” but says that “mainline” publics were there first. Easter was not his topic either, though art historian and Episcopal canon E. A. Carmean does justice on another page to a “Romanesque carving [which] conveys the Good News of Easter.”

By far the most extensive and penetrating one-day Easterization of the Journal, on the first two pages of the Review section, was George Weigel’s “The Easter Effect.” Its subheading tells us more: “The first Christians were baffled by what they called ‘the Resurrection.’ Their struggle to understand it brought about a revolution in their way of life—and astonishing worldly success for their faith” by the fourth century. Weigel, a conservative stalwart, is a believer who reports (relying, in this case, on specialist historian Rodney Stark) on how the early Christian “ragtag band of nobodies” became “such a dominant force in just two and a half centuries.”

In his treatment of the “how” paradox, Weigel leaves behind Easter parades and peeps for a serious and humble attempt to deal with the mystery of the faith of Christians as expressed in our pluralist culture. He does not fall into the trap of trying to “explain” the Resurrection in philosophically satisfying terms. Not to worry: he discusses the event in terms that were demonstrably part of the story from the beginning and then through the centuries. He elaborates one episode of “The Easter Effect”: “However important the role of sociological factors in explaining why Christianity carried the day, there also was that curious and inexplicable joy that marked the early Christians, even as they were being marched off to execution. Was that joy simply delusion? Denial?”

We’ll give Weigel the last word. “Perhaps it was the Easter Effect: the joy of people who had become convinced that they were witnesses to something inexplicable but nonetheless true. Something that gave a superabundance of meaning to life and that erased the fear of death. Something that had to be shared. Something with which to change the world.”