A Really Big Caricature

The seed of an idea

Scott Hoezee in his weekly blog The Lectionary Gospel refers to an incident in The River by the Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor in which a child drowns while trying to baptize himself in a river. O’Connor was heavily criticized for this depiction that seems to many grotesque. She responded by reminding us that within the symbolism of baptism is the notion of dying to the old self and being reborn in Christ. She noted that:

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures.

The text

Last week in a piece entitled Bread  I asked the question: do we at St Martin’s come Sunday by Sunday with a real expectation of eating the bread from heaven?

The bread from heaven is the a phrase Jesus uses in his conversation with the crowd following the feeding of the 5000 in John 6. We’ve spent the last two weeks making our way in bite-sized chunks through this chapter.

This week’s gospel section opens at verse 51 where Jesus, again likens himself to the living bread that came down from heaven. We see that the debate with the crowds is now heating up, initially sparked by Jesus’ question: are you coming to see the signs of God or for a free meal? They don’t like his referring to himself as the bread from heaven. They know this man and because they know his family background the crowd objects when Jesus attributes to himself a phrase they associate with Moses and the feeding of their ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai. Such attribution amounts to a human confiscation of God’s qualities – in other words, blasphemy.

Not being a man to over explain himself in an attempt to avoid an argument, Jesus now ratchets up the level of tension by abandoning the historically significant and metaphorically rich bread from heaven image, an image that is already getting him into trouble with the crowd. Instead, he offers them a really big caricature: his very flesh and blood:

Very truly I tell you. Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you … for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 

The power of big caricature

As with our instinctive reaction to Flannery O’Connor’s story of the boy drowning himself in a baptism seemingly gone tragically wrong, Jesus offers an image to his hearers, which for them, is truly grotesque.

It’s grotesque on two levels. Firstly, it’s cannibalistic, and secondly, it’s blasphemous. The first reaction is the instinctive repulsion human beings feel when confronted by cannibalism. The second reaction is the equally strong and socially programmed reaction of human beings to an assault upon cherished religious images and beliefs.

In the land of the nearly blind, you need to draw really big caricatures!

Intuitively, I draw back from really big caricatures. They offend my need for reasonableness. We live in a political world where reasonable debate has been replaced by grotesque caricature and incendiary sound-bite.

If you are Episcopalian, chances are you have come to the Episcopal Church attracted to the reasonableness and moderation of its Anglican ethos. Anglican ethos has a tendency to smooth over the bumpy caricatures of more extreme and less reasonable forms of Christianity with a spirit of balanced and gentle moderation. Yet, it has to be noted that our great strength at the same time is always in danger of degenerating into a kind of nothingness that is so vanilla that no one can take offense at it. If you never make any demand of people then no one ever has to say no, and we can all happily jog along in the land of the nearly blind. 

Revelation is never reasonable

The fact is that the message of Jesus is not reasonable – it is revelatory. Jesus is not trying to convince his hearers of rightness based on the reasonableness of his worldview. In that sense, he’s not very Episcopalian. Jesus’s priority is to shock us out of our cultural and religious insularities in order to catch a glimpse of things from the perspective of a self-giving God. Jesus reveals God giving [his] life to the life of the world. How better to do this than to present an image of religious participation as the ingestion of his flesh and blood, with no apology for the inevitable cannibalistic overtones.

So what do we at St Martin’s think we are doing Sunday by Sunday? Do we really come expecting to eat the bread of heaven? Possibly, when understood as tasteful metaphor. Do we come with and intention of consuming the flesh and blood of Christ? Unlikely, not even if understood as a less attractive metaphor.

I believe that most of us attend compelled by an inarticulate desire for what Anglicanism traditionally has referred to as the awe and wonder of worship, or the beauty of holiness. What does this mean, and what might it look like?

In the land of the blind

In 1979, The Rev. Bruce Reed published his book The Dynamics of Religion. Reed was an example of that great English tradition of a priest deeply involved with a sociological and psychological engagement with wider society. An American focus might be: how does church serve an individual? The English focus finds expression more in the question: how is society served by the existence and practice of the Church?

Drawing from Durkheim as well as Freud, Reed described the process of worship in terms of oscillation. Psychologically, oscillation describes a movement between rational and non-rational states of awareness. Reed understood the non-rational not as irrational, but akin to dream or even psychospiritual states where the boundaries of time and space and individual identity, are in constant flux. Sociologically, oscillation describes the process of movement between individual and collective aspects of experience. Reed noted that a primary function of worship is to focus and then manage the process of oscillation in both senses.

Put most succinctly oscillation is the process of energetic renewal. Psychologically, we arrive at worship clothed in our right minds in order to experience without interruption to rational functioning the irrigation of deeper currents of energy. Interestingly, charismatic worship most clearly exemplifies a process, which for non-charismatic Christians operates mostly at an unconscious level. Charismatic worship allows for a more dramatic oscillation where the influx of the deeper currents of energy for a time, overwhelm the rational state of the worshiper. Charismatic forms of worship meet the needs of communities where the day-to-day experience of suffering rooted in the experience of poverty, racism, and other forms of discrimination, is more intense.

Similarly, in our relationship between our individual and our collective identities, we are empowered individually through our participation in communal or collective rites of passage, in order for our lives to become better shaped by a deeper and more energetic connection with the common good.

Eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ is a psychotic idea. What I mean by this is that to eat human flesh and drink human blood requires a serious alteration of rational consciousness. For example, the Maori of New Zealand practiced ritualistic cannibalism prior to European arrival. They consumed human flesh within a context of religious ritual. The Maori ate the flesh of their enemies only in the highly ritualized context of warfare where cannibalism expressed spiritual domination over one’s mortal enemies through ingesting their flesh.

The interplay within and between – getting to the nub

Jesus did not literally offer his flesh and blood. No one ate Jesus and he did not intend for anyone to do so. He was employing psychotic- non-rational imagery – a really big caricature – as a revelatory device to show that through him, God is doing a new thing. God, through Jesus, is entering into the very heart of created life as an expression of love for the world. Jesus embodies this love through the events of the cross and resurrection. The really big caricature of eating his flesh and drinking his blood is his way of driving home the message that nothing short of complete incorporation of God in the form of physical ingestion will satisfy our spiritual hunger.

I cannot overemphasize two points here:

  1. Communion, i.e. participation in God’s self-giving is not an individualized, esoteric, spiritualized phenomenon according to Jesus. Communion with God requires ingesting real food – bread and wine transformed by collective memory and future hope into the flesh and blood of the Savior. This is the psycho-spiritual event of Eucharist.
  2. Eucharist is also a community event, properly understood when we realize that no one individual can celebrate Eucharist alone. Through the ritual of Eucharist we are incorporated into a communal meal at which it is as a community we take God into ourselves, thus satisfying our need to recharge our individual batteries from the our communal charging station. This is the socio-spiritual event of Eucharist.

Psychospritually, the ritual of Eucharist weaves a complex interplay between the ideas of physical and spiritual hunger, spiritual and physical food. In both cases, ingesting is the way to satisfying our need of God. Sociospiritually, the ritual of Eucharist draws us as individuals into an experience of the communal, an entity greater than the sum total of its parts, also referred to a the Body of Christ. Eating and drinking is the most powerful expression of social solidarity. Consuming the bread of heaven is the most effective way of ensuring that there is enough bread of the world to feed the hungry.  

In the land of the nearly blind, this requires drawing a really big caricature!

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