I have sometimes complained that it is very difficult to stir up a proper theological controversy in Canada. We have a small population spread across a vast geographical expanse, and few media outlets have the ability or readership to carry on an intense theological discussion. The average Canadian Christian — or the one who takes interest in such things —sharpens his theological skills on the debates that flourish south of the border.
Maclean’s did its best to rouse our religious passions during Holy Week by publishing an article that questioned the historical existence of Jesus. The article suggested that new research into memory and oral history has drawn into question the firsthand reports of witnesses and the integrity of accounts passed on through generations. Groundbreaking scholars, we were told, have proposed that Jesus was more a myth in the collective consciousness of his followers than an actual historical person. (Of course, a version of this argument is rather old hat by now.)
Perhaps the most striking thing about the article was how little anyone cared that a national affairs publication concerned itself with such matters. Surely the editors hoped that questioning the very existence of Jesus, just before Christians remember his death and resurrection, would garner a little enthusiasm. But I suspect most failed to notice: for some the argument is too distant to register a threat, while others failed to see it at all. The article missed the nerve.
Our apathy regarding various forms of unbelief within our culture and even within our church is astonishing. Given the perpetual proliferation of skeptical and heterodox convictions, maybe we have little choice. But it is hard not to long for a time when belief in Jesus actually meant something in our public life, and its loss was capable of causing pain. Maybe that is a dark wish, but for a child of the ’90s it is hard to shake that Goo Goo Dolls sentiment to “bleed just to know you’re alive.”
My doctoral research led me to many popular Victorian loss-of-faith narratives. Some are better than others. Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (C. Scribner’s Sons, 1907) describes the agonizing estrangement between the author and his father, as well as the fundamental role that Gosse’s emerging unbelief played in this agony.
Samuel Butler’s Way of All Flesh (Grant Richards, 1903) is wonderful though troubling reading for Anglicans. Ernest Pontifex spends his young clerical life drifting between the Church of England’s various parties. After stints as an evangelical, a Tractarian, and then as a broad churchman, Pontifex retires to a gloomy and cool agnosticism, a 19th-century form of David Hume’s natural historian of religion. Here again, the protagonist’s unbelief, while ultimately celebrated, comes at an enormous relational cost.
Mrs. Humphrey Ward’s Robert Elsmere (Macmillan & Co., 1888) is one of the more gripping novels of the genre, with an intense but tragic Christocentric focus, though it may not be the best piece of literature. Robert is a young, talented clergyman who falls in love with, and marries, Catherine, a beautiful, sincere evangelical Anglican. His ordained ministry begins with great passion and ambition. But in his first parish Robert comes into contact with a cynical old squire (some say he represents Benjamin Jowett) who introduces him to biblical and historical criticism. The squire offers Robert access to his enormous library, and over the course of a few months Robert engages in intense study of the historical Jesus. Though he resists with all his power the notion that the gospels misrepresent Jesus — his miracles, divinity, etc. — his faith is gradually eroded by the squire’s cold logic and by his own research. Ever the optimist, Robert cannot live with a barren skepticism, and through his friendship with the English Hegelian, Professor Grey (really, T.H. Green), Robert eventually gropes his way to a murky Idealistic humanism of sorts, which cannot quite relinquish the person of Jesus.
Of course, all the while Robert’s ministry begins to suffer, and eventually he feels compelled to renounce his orders. The novel’s most poignant scene comes when Robert explains his unbelief to Catherine. The reader half expects the two to reunite around his newly discovered Idealism, but instead an irreparable wound opens up between them. Catherine never renounces her faith. For Robert, the incredible stress of his unbelief and the hurt he caused his wife eventually take a toll on his health. Finally a social worker in the city, he eventually takes ill and dies young.
To be sure, the novel valorizes his struggle. The Victorian unbeliever was a hero to some, a brave explorer willing to encounter the deep unknown. The unbeliever lived with no “certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,” while the “ignorant armies” of the church “clash by night” (Matthew Arnold, “Dover Beach”). But the novel nonetheless registers something profound about the reality of Christ. The pain and remorse of apostasy, the division between husband and wife, are almost biblical. To the believer, and perhaps from a great distance in time, even the denial of Christ can witness to his existence in ways that resonate deeply with Scripture.
I am less sure about what the Maclean’s article portends about our Lord. The cover picture showed Christ’s face painted onto a puzzle with key pieces missing and the strong suggestion that they will never be found. Somehow the broken image recalled to me Christ’s silence and distance before his questioners, and ultimately before his death. Before the detached perplexity of Pilate or Herod, or the passionate hatred of the high priests, Jesus seemed incomprehensible, as he must appear to many Canadians today.
One can only pray that some casual observer hurrying past a newsstand caught a glimpse of our Lord broken for us all.
The featured image comes via The Rebel.