John Leland and the Rev. Will B. Dunn were my father’s favorite Baptist preachers. Only one was real, however, and it wasn’t the “deep-friend Southern preacher” of cartoonist Doug Marlette’s imagination.*
Leland, on the other hand, was very real: a religious leader in the new American republic of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He came to mind recently when a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian quoted the Baptist preacher on the need for a broad and tolerant approach to religious faith.
Experience teaches us that men who are equally wise and good may differ in political as well as in theological or mathematical opinions.
A strong supporter of the separation of church and state, Leland also warned Americans: “Guard against those men who make a great noise about religion, when choosing your representatives.”
We clearly need a sense of history in today’s discussions of religion and theology.
The Hope of Glory: Reflections on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (2020) by Jon Meacham is a devotional work that reminds us, “The work of discerning — or depending on your point of view, assigning — meaning to Good Friday and the story of the empty tomb is a historical as well as a theological process.” There is no better guide through this process than the Canon Historian of the Washington National Cathedral and the author of several seminal books that look at religion’s impact on American society.
In a context-setting prologue Meacham provides the reader with his personal beliefs established as a lifetime Episcopalian who is “in no sense an evangelical.” He doesn’t share the view that faith in Jesus is the only route to salvation and Meachum is no proselytizer. In support of that position, he provides the useful commentary of Leland and Thomas Jefferson (who were friends) as to the validity of other perspectives.
Meacham personally adheres “to the broad outlines of the Christian faith as it has come down through the Anglican tradition.” His hope in writing this slim volume is to provide illumination to readers so that they may make more sense of the cross “in a world too much given to the competing forces of hostile skepticism, blind acceptance, or remote indifference.”**
Meacham freely admits that why God would need to redeem his own creation — the central tenant of the crucifixion and resurrection — is a mystery. But so is the reason “why He would create a world in the first place and, having created it, why he would populate it with human beings whose free will would lead to sin and suffering.” Meacham references the assertion of the distinguished rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel that God “did not make it easy for us to have faith in Him, to remain faithful to him.” Whatever one thinks of Christianity, Meacham suggests, Jesus gave birth to a lasting vision of the origins, nature, and destiny of human life, “a vision drawn from the religion’s deep roots in Judaism.” In that vision,
Humility was essential; generosity vital; love central.
History is horizontal while theology is vertical, writes Meacham, and “their intersection is a motive force behind our religious, national, and personal imaginations.”
The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, what we love, and how we live are furnished and fired by the factual and the fabled. … Fact is what we can see or discern; truth is the larger significance we extrapolate from those facts.
In seven short meditations, Meacham takes the reader from “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” to the final, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Not all of the meditations — beginning with the first — take a traditional approach. Meacham is interpretive rather than literal, reminding us that the gospels tell stories in language that was foreign to Jesus. While most interpretations of those first words speak of absolution of the world’s sins, Meacham asks us instead to focus on the concerns of St. Luke, the gospel writer, who was seeking to bring as many souls into the fold as possible. Luke’s words of forgiveness help make the faith more accessible and appealing.
When Jesus speaks to one of the two men being crucified alongside him, Meacham reminds us of the history of crucifixion, and that it was reserved by the Romans for insurrectionists against the state. These two men were not mere thieves.
“If anything, the account of Jesus’s redemption of the insurgent at Golgotha” — today you will be with Me in Paradise — “should give anyone claiming to know the mind of God enormous pause.” Paradise, a Persian word signifying a garden or enclosed park, symbolizes the “gift of everything.” The meaning is far beyond our “control and comprehension.”
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me” leads Meacham into the heart of the matter. Only the gospel writers Matthew and Mark include these words, and Jesus, in their telling, is more of a tragic and ultimately human character. When asked how he can believe in such a God, Meacham replies that his belief is based “on the same evidence” as with his belief in love. “Both are invisible forces with visible effects.”
Throughout this thoughtful work, one of our most celebrated historians grapples with the intersection of history and theology. Facts lead him to accept as truths the belief that we should …
… love one another as we would be loved, take care of the least of these, keep the feast in remembrance of Our Lord’s sacrifice, and remain open, always open, to the mysterious grace of God.
More to come…
*Some Will B. Dunn humor…
**My beliefs on theology and religion are closely aligned with Meacham’s, who writes, “Literalism is for the weak; fundamentalism is for the insecure.”
The problem with arguing from biblical texts, of course, is that the books contradict themselves. Fighting verse to verse is like a guerrilla war that never ends.
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Rome, by DJB