It is very difficult indeed to watch the new documentary “Bully” without experiencing both an intense sadness and a feeling of helplessness. The film opens with the heartbreaking ruminations of a father whose son committed suicide after being brutally bullied by his classmates.
The cover story for “Newsweek” magazine this Holy Week, penned by political and cultural commentator Andrew Sullivan, concerns the “crisis” that is supposedly gripping Christianity. Weighed down by its preoccupation with doctrines and supernatural claims, which are incredible to contemporary audiences, compromised by the corruption of its leadership, co-opted for base political ends, Christianity is verging, he argues, on the brink of collapse. The solution Sullivan proposes is a repristinizing of Christianity, a return to its roots and essential teachings. And here he invokes, as a sort of patron saint, Thomas Jefferson, who as a young man literally took a straight razor to the pages of the New Testament and cut out any passages dealing with the miraculous, the supernatural, or the resurrection and divinity of Jesus. The result of this Jeffersonian surgery is Jesus the enlightened sage, the teacher of timeless moral truths concerning love, forgiveness and non-violence. Both Jefferson and Sullivan urge that this Christ, freed from churchly distortions, can still speak in a liberating way to an intelligent and non-superstitious audience.
I saw an advance copy of a survey by William J. Byron and Charles Zech, which will appear in the April 30th edition of “America” magazine. It was conducted at the request of David O’Connell, the bishop of Trenton, and its focus was very simple: it endeavored to discover why Catholics have left the church. No one denies that a rather substantive number of Catholics have taken their leave during the past 20 years, and Byron and Zech wanted to find out why. And they did so in the most direct way possible: they asked those who had quit.
When I was a junior in high school, I read Shirley Jackson’s great short story “The Lottery,” and I will confess that her narrative still haunts me. You might remember the plot. The townspeople of a village in the American heartland are gathering on a beautiful summer day in late June for a festival. There is good food, lively conversation, and upbeat music. It becomes clear that the focus for this celebration is the annual lottery, and the reader naturally assumes that the winner of the lottery will receive a prize of some kind. But when the choice is made, the “winner” shrinks away in fear, protesting the injustice of it all, while her fellow citizens close in on her, rocks and stones in hand. As the story ends, they are upon her. In ancient Mexico, the Aztecs would choose a particularly handsome and brave warrior from a rival tribe. For a year, they would wine and dine him, provide entertainment for him, and treat him like a celebrity. Then, at the close of the year, they would lead him to the top of a tall pyramid and rip his still-beating heart from his chest, and offer it to the gods. In the arenas of ancient Rome—most famously in the Colosseum—young gladiators would engage in mortal combat for the entertainment of blood-thirsty mobs, and emperors would use these spectacles for cynical political purposes. In the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur, we hear that the king of Crete obligated the king of Athens every year to send seven young men and seven young women to battle the Minotaur who was hidden in a devilishly complex maze. No one survived the ordeal, until Theseus managed to outwit the monster and escape from the maze.
The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar to them that they probably don't sense their properly revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death.