journey post 8: “Luke, I am your Father”
Significant moments of life have a way of scribing themselves indelibly in memory. Those of us old enough remember exactly where we were when we heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Events in fiction can also be written in the memory of a culture, like the moment Darth Vader revealed to Luke Skywalker that he had not killed Luke’s father, that he was, in fact, Luke’s father.
Sometimes cultural memory gets it wrong, however. Lord Vader did not actually use Luke’s name, but the quote above does reflects how it has been passed on in cultural memory. (http://starwars.com/watch/episode_5_i_am_your_father.html )
Surprised? The misquote has now taken on a life all its own. The name “Luke” has taken on other meanings for me, and that has to do with un-assuming a different aspect of our cultural memory, i.e., that the Bible is a collection of stories that teach good moral lessons; otherwise, it doesn’t have much relevance to my personal life. In our culture, the Jesus story has an air of mythology about it—hence my hospital question (in June, 1969) about him being a cosmic Santa Claus. My un-assuming of the cultural narrative began early in 1971… in a library of course….
As a boy, the only Luke I knew was one of those Bible guys, as in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Yes, there was also Luke McCoy (a fictional Luke from “The Real McCoys” TV show). When I got serious about answering my question, I decided to read through the four Gospel accounts. This was for me uncharted territory. Luke’s Gospel was addressed to some obviously important person named Theophilus (I did not know any Theophilus growing up, either). My trained historian’s attention was arrested by what followed:
“[B]ecause I have carefully studied all these matters from their beginning….I thought it would be good to write an orderly account for you….so you will know the full truth about everything…” (Luke 1:1-4, Good News New Testament). What I was seeing here was a man who had taken time to speak with—and verify—sources and to write so as to present a credible account of some things he had not personally witnessed. (If you read through the book of Acts, the same Luke is writing to the same Theophilus, only this time, about events that he did take part in.)
Not far into my search, I was in the library next to where I worked. I had often spent lunch browsing the shelves. One day, I came across an intriguing book: Archaeology and the New Testament, by Merrill Unger. Archaeology? Until that very moment, it had not even been on the horizon of my search,… but here it was. Briefing the table of contents, my eyes lighted on a chapter, “Luke the Historian.” Someone else (Unger) was already onto what I was beginning to think about Luke. I checked out the book and carried it back to the cafeteria, where I devoured it over the next few days.
My thinking about the Bible before this was unclear. I had always assumed it was true, but also unreal in a way. Was it myth? I had read Beowulf and the Greek myths, some legends of the Vikings (my ancestors). But reading Luke, and now this book….The way Luke had listed places, times, participants, conversations, etc., was not the typical stuff of mythology. Granted, there were those miracles sprinkled in, but even they seemed somehow so “natural.”
There was something else: a ring of authenticity about how Luke described things. (This was in the other Gospels too.) Here was Peter, revered by many as the first “Pope,” but: just how many times can one man stick his foot in his mouth anyway, and this, in an account designed to “sell” Jesus and Christianity? The writers or editors had forgotten to take the “stupid” out. And women: how in the world would someone leave in the part about women being disciples to a rabbi or witnesses to the resurrection—in a culture in which women were more or less property and whose testimony could not be accepted in court? And how about all those followers who were to become “pillars” of the church arguing about who was the greatest, or asking permission to call down fire on scoffers, or getting their mom to ask Jesus to be seated on his right and left in the Kingdom? Not exactly spiritual giants.
Because modern Bible translations sound relatively “modern,” we moderns tend to miss just how radical was the style of these accounts, just how different they were from other books that recounted the tales of heroes. What stood out in Luke’s and the other’s stories was how some unbelievably ordinary people, afraid and hesitant and brash or timid and wondering if this guy Jesus might be their Messiah, but unbelieving and mystified at first…. What stood out was how they were gradually won over by the winsomeness of Jesus, by the authority of his teaching, and, yes, by the miracles. He not only possessed healing powers like others who were healing and casting out demons at the time, but he demonstrated power over nature, making things happen that had never been imagined.
Authenticity. Did I mention that these accounts seemed more and more authentic? That’s a word that had been part of my vocabulary reaching at least back to Davy Crockett and the Alamo. Authenticity was important to me, now more than ever.
I don’t have a copy of Unger’s book today. (I left mine in Africa.) But the impact of the book is undoubted: reading Unger’s look at the archaeological evidence moved the Bible from the category of legend to the level of history for the first time in my thinking. I could now approach the Gospel accounts as reliable and authentic. While much of the American church got caught up in a vitriolic controversy about the “inspiration” of the Bible in the course of the 70s, I was left wondering what much of the hubbub was for. I felt they were totally missing something I had learned while spending long hours reading and researching the Alamo, and later the Civil War as a boy: The Gospels all presented the same Jesus, they all taught the same things, each author choosing and highlighting things as he thought best, and all coming to the same conclusion as a result of the resurrection.
The resurrection. At some point, my researches pointed me to one thing. That one thing, I realized, would determine whether or not I could honestly “sit in the chair,” whether or not I could trust Jesus to be what he said. That became my next focus.
And, before I forget: Thanks, Luke!