Monday, January 9, 2012

12-01-08: The Epiphany

The Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6 / Psalm 72 / Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6 / Matthew 2:1-12

In the history of biblical criticism one of the first stories to become a casualty of what’s called demythologization was that of the Magi. In fairness we have to admit it was a big target. Hard to envision three kings leaving some precious gifts in a stable in front of a manger where a young teenager has placed her baby with some shepherds mulling round looking more unkempt than the animals. Besides, how does a star come to rest?

Demythologizing is what the Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon, seems to be all about as well (my friend had two tickets and I couldn’t disappoint him when his wife refused to go). She had good reason, too. The play is utterly irreverent and makes you laugh – a lot - at some of the fundamental beliefs of Mormonism. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did like it; it was, as they say, very well done. No doubt if they had chosen Catholicism as the theme there would be no end of hearing from William Donohue and the Catholic League. (Makes you wonder why the Mormons don’t have a Bill Donohue and a Mormon League). The audience was overwhelmingly young and attuned to the type of humor and overly-numerous scatological allusions that the creators of South Park (the writers of the play) are known for. Yet, the thing that shocked me was not the material but the fact that there were a good number of children, pre-teens and teens, in attendance. I don’t believe too many would disagree that The Book of Mormon is not for kids. I wonder though if that’s not precisely why they were there – parents wanting to de-mythologize their kids, like a vaccine, against what they understand to be the illusions and delusions of organized religion, exposing them to some memorable sarcasm and satire that highlight hypocrisy and absurdity as religion’s twin bookends.

Yet, in the end, the African villagers in the story all become Mormons despite their wise acknowledgement that the founding story of Mormonism is a myth or, as the play puts it, metaphor. And all the ulterior motives for joining a western religion are more than present, offering more than a few materialistic benefits to converts. But the play seems to leave the door ajar to a mystery here: that religion, for all its many faults, not only serves a basic human need but proposes the possibility that the divine is somehow real and continues to allure us in ways unexpected.

The story of the Magi has survived and thrived these two millennia – but never more so than when its authenticity has been challenged. The story that scholars might gladly give up to the axe of demythologization is the very story that evokes awe and wonder even in this most skeptical of ages. “The self,” G.K. Chesterton wrote, “is more distant than any star.” And our journey toward and beyond that star makes us all magi, in one way or another, carrying our expectations and our gifts in search of something or someone to whom to offer them and with whom to share them.

I wouldn’t be surprised – really – that, in twenty years or so, if those teens and pre-teens who saw The Book of Mormon were interviewed about their attitude toward religion and the divine and one or two of them might say they came to an appreciation of religion, and maybe even to belief, because they experienced The Book of Mormon. Irreverence serves to make religion, if not believable, at least relevant – a subject worthy of attention and discussion. Believers have nothing to fear from irreverence. It’s but a back-handed compliment to belief; because irreverence, served with gusto, opens the door to questioning what is relevant and sometimes we realize, shockingly, that the answer lies not in the practical but in the mysterious. And the mysterious almost always comes to us through metaphor and myth.

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