Last week, I attended The Elephant Piece, a musical by Darryl Curry, produced in a small theater in Portland, ME. Although the play is unlikely to become a hit on New York's Broadway or in London's West End, the play raises questions about life, death, and what—if anything—may follow death.
The result of a collaborative creative process, The Elephant Piece feels disjointed in places and has multiple themes. One theme centers around the capture, display in a zoo, and death of the last elephant. Another theme features a young boy (invisible) being reared by his father following the mother's death. A third theme involves a minstrel group that functions as a proxy for Homo sapiens. Added to the mix are overtures of Hinduism (the god, Ganesha, has an elephant body) and Christianity. Interpretations of the musical's meaning may vary widely, sometimes in conflicting ways, because of the swirling, intertwined content.
The Elephant Piece felt appropriate for Holy Week and Easter. If honest, a close look at the themes woven into the Christian narrative that runs from Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his empty tomb on Easter morning swirl and intertwine in conflicting, provocative, and incomprehensible ways. Consider, by way of illustration, the following:
- Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem sets the stage for his execution by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Yet the Jews conspire and agitate to have the Romans kill Jesus because the leaders of the Jews regard Jesus as a blasphemer.
- Jesus was supposedly buried in a rich man's tomb. The Romans would not have guarded the tomb—they would not have permitted Jesus' burial in the first place. The Romans left an executed criminals hanging on the cross, a grizzly and graphic warning to potential miscreants to behave. Defenders of the Christian belief in the resurrection created the guards as a literary device to defeat arguments by non-Christians that Jesus did not rise from the dead, but that someone stole Jesus body from the tomb.
- No amount of harmonizing can force the three gospel accounts of the resurrection (Mark's gospel does not include a story of the resurrection) to form a single, interlocking narrative that makes good sense. For example, no known life form or other substance can pass through solid walls and be able to be touched, as if solid, by human hands.
In The Elephant Piece, the motif of story links the three major themes. The characters want to remember the story. The gospel narrative is a story that Christians want to remember. This story resides permanently in the Creator's mind. One theological interpretation of resurrection life that has emerged out of process theology in the work of Marjorie Suchocki is that life after death is being part of the Creator's story, forever, held in the mind of the Creator, receiving an abundant, dynamic, and imperishable existence.
If that theological interpretation of new life is correct, then the resurrection of Jesus is also a part of that story. The power of his resurrection does not lie in the resuscitation of Jesus' physical body or in an effort to prove an empty tomb but in how the story of Jesus changed following his death. Jesus' story changed as his disciples told a story intended to communicate God's presence and love that they experienced in their relationship with Jesus, an experience that incredibly continued even after his death—hence, the importance of the resurrection.
Conflicting themes, historically inconsistent details, paradoxical actions—these reassure rather than interpose obstacles to following the Christian way. If the Christian way were reducible to a comprehensible, logically coherent, and tightly interlocking mosaic that a human mind can fully grasp then the Christian way could be nothing more than an entirely human invention. Conflicting themes, historically inconsistent details, and paradoxical actions may also point to an absurd nothingness, a human invention that flopped.
However, they may also point to a power and presence that we call God or the Creator. The disciples' changed lives that changed the world suggest the latter, which is the hope and new life that we celebrate on Easter.