On paper, Karen King and Matt Potts’ “The Death of Jesus” might sound like a trainwreck of a course: co-taught by two professors with wildly different interests, readings veering wildly back and forth from contemporary fiction to the esoteric texts of the Nag Hammadi library, and intense meditation on disturbing materials like ancient martyrdom accounts, lynching photographs, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It would be easy to glance at the course description and pass it over in favor of happier materials discussed in a more harmonious classroom environment. Had I done so, however, I would have missed out on what may be the most interesting and engaging course I’ve ever taken.
Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings? If everything fades, does anything matter? Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God?
The highlight of the course, for me, was our discussion of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. For those who haven’t read it, the book is a terse post-apocalyptic story about an unnamed father and son wandering a frozen earth after some unspecified catastrophe. All plants and animals are extinct, ash falls from the sky like snow, and what few people remain survive by scavenging for canned food or cannibalizing each other. Needless to say, the story is bleak. Unlike other stories of apocalypse like I Am Legend or 28 Days Later, The Road precludes any hope of a happy ending. There is no secret farm community or enclave of scientists working on a solution. The man and the boy will die, almost assuredly gruesomely, and the ragged remnants of life on earth will not be far behind them.
As our class discussed, a story like this raises important theological and philosophical questions. Can hope and meaningfulness be divorced from happy endings? If everything fades, does anything matter? Do prayer and ritual have a place in the face of the earth-freezing, stone-cracking absence of God? These questions are not idle musings about a hypothetical apocalypse. As Dr. Potts likes to say, The Road is just the human condition cranked up to 11; all things are stamped with their own expiration date, and if we as scholars, ministers, or anyone just trying to get by are going to affirm goodness and meaning and hope and love, we need to reckon with these expiration dates.
Dr. Potts’ own work draws connections between Cormac McCarthy and Christian sacramental theology, and it was through this lens that our class tackled the book. To condense a centuries-long tradition of sacramental theology that traces back through Luther, Aquinas, and Augustine into a few lines: In the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, the priest holds up a loaf of bread and says “this is the body of Christ”; the bread is then broken and distributed to the community. What is important to note is that, for sacramental theology, the priest is not correct in identifying the bread with Christ because she is speaking metaphorically, as if the bread were a signpost pointing to some “more real” body that exists in some heavenly beyond. Neither is she correct because the bread has ceased to become bread and is now Christ, as if the ritual were some kind of alchemy that sweeps away mundane “breadness” so that the more meaningful “Christness” can take up shop. Rather, the point of the ritual is that the bread is both bread and Christ, that the mundane can be meaningful and holy in and of itself, without recourse to anything beyond or outside it. A stale crust of bread can be sacred when the gathered community behaves as if it were sacred, independent of any “more sacred” that might exist outside of the ritual.
The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life. How are we to love when we know the other will die? Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually? Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust?
Bringing things back to The Road, what makes the father and son’s journey down the road meaningful is not that they are heading towards anywhere better than where they’ve been. When the man bathes the boy or the two share a meal, these acts of love don’t represent a meaningfulness or a holiness outside of themselves; they actively manifest that meaningfulness and that holiness. Like the sacramental bread that is holy unto itself without recourse to an outside, the characters in The Road can find meaning and hope and love without pretending that the world through which they wander is anything other than bleak and terrifying.
The discussion we had during those three hours is one that can easily be taken out of the classroom and into real life. How are we to love when we know the other will die? Why should we care about climate change when all species will go extinct eventually? Why pursue academic work when all books will someday crumble to dust? What our discussion of The Road (informed by a particular brand of sacramental theology) emphasized is that acts of love and meaningful work can be good and sacred in and of themselves, in all their brokenness and finitude. That Thursday afternoon, to me, represented the core of what HDS offers: intense classroom discussion that leads to insights that can be taken and applied to ministry, academic work, and especially our relationships to others.