The Incarnation in pop culture and poetry

The Incarnation in pop culture and poetry

Think about this:

If you were God and you decided to appear on earth in human form to bring about radical, lasting change at the deepest level (i.e., change that would mean the eventual eradication of all injustice), of what sort of demographic would you choose to be?  That is, what nationality, language, education, socio-economic status and occupation would be most suited to bring about this lasting change?

A politician (e.g., a benevolent monarch)?  A philosopher (a Socrates of sorts)?  Maybe a journalist (like a Walter Cronkite)?  Maybe an ascetic wise man or monk?

Whatever station in life you chose, it would be forever hallowed.  Others would see it not only as hallowed ground (“This is what God did!”) but as a means of strategic influence (“Here’s the way to make a real impact”).  That is, the station in life that God chose would give both dignity to the position and direction to people everywhere.

One of the most striking things about Christianity is how quickly followers of Jesus regarded him as sharing in the divine identity.  (E.g., one could contrast Jesus with Siddhartha Gautama–a.k.a. the Buddha–who was deified some 300-400 years after his death.)  Even more striking is that this immediate worship of Jesus took place in a deeply, even violently, monotheistic religious context.

According to our earliest Christian source, the Apostle Paul (himself a former violent persecutor of Jesus’ followers), what station in life had Jesus assumed in order to forever change the world?

Writing to the Philippian Christians only around 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion (and possibly quoting an already known hymn), Paul celebrates Jesus as the one who is “the form/expression of God” and “equal to God” and yet as one who “took the very form/expression of a slave.”  From there Jesus further “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death–the death of a cross.”  Crucifixion was, of course, reserved for Rome’s worst criminals, for those who were enemies of the state, who were a threat to the pax romana, and whose punishment, therefore, needed to be as public and shameful as possible (to send a message to any who might follow suit).

The first result of this, says Paul, is that the Creator–Jesus’ Father–has “exalted” him to a place of supreme cosmic authority and identified himself with Jesus, publically ascribing to Jesus his own name (i.e., Yahweh).  In so doing, according to Paul, Israel’s God had put his arm around this crucified slave, pointed to him with infinite pride and declared to the world, “This is my son!”

The second result of this, says Paul, is the inevitable submission of all creatures everywhere to Jesus:  “…at the name of Jesus every knee in the cosmos will bow–willingly or forcibly–and every people group [“tongue”] will confess, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord.'”

So Paul–and the early Christian community–sang of:

The God who became a slave.  The slave who became a crucified criminal.  The criminal who has become Lord of the cosmos.

The Ridley Scott film Gladiator (2000, Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix), of course, tells a very similar story (unwittingly?), as evident in the trailer:

The key line from the trailer–and one of the best lines in the film–comes from the emperor’s sister, who warns the demented despot:  “Today I saw a slave become more powerful than the emperor of Rome.”

That’s the gospel.  A crucified, resurrected slave has become more powerful than any emperor, politician, professor, philosopher….

As we said above, whatever position, or station in life, God assumed in human form, it would surely bring both dignity to the position and direction to people (especially influencers) everywhere.  And that is exactly what Paul is exhorting in the passage when he writes, “In humility consider others of greater value [i.e., of higher status] than yourselves, paying attention not to your own aims but to the aims of others.”  (This is what a slave does.)

We turn from pop culture to poetry, from folk culture to fine culture, to consider the late Czeslaw Milosz.

Milosz offers a contemplation of the incarnation that discerns how the mysterious event brings dignity not only to the position of the slave/servant but to every human deed, even to history itself.  In his poem “Either-or”, Milosz grapples with the staggering implications of either the truth or the falsehood of the incarnation, arguing:

 If God incarnated himself in man, died and rose from the dead,

All human endeavors deserve attention

Only to the degree that they depend on this,

I.e., acquire meaning thanks to this event.

We should think of this by day and by night.

Every day, for years, ever stronger and deeper.

And most of all about how human history is holy 

And how every deed of ours becomes a part of it,

Is written down for ever, and nothing is ever lost.

Because our kind was so much elevated

Priesthood should be our calling

Even if we do not wear liturgical garments.

We should publicly testify to the divine glory

With words, music, dance, and every sign.

The incarnation, most subversively, dignifies, giving status most of all to the slave, and directs, exhorting the would-be “influencers” of this world to consider what is truly strategic and, therefore, what is truly “great.”

Luke records that on the night when Jesus was betrayed, as he was with his disciples celebrating the Passover meal, “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.”  Jesus describes the self-serving, self-promoting power of the pagan influencers and then highlights the very direction and dignity we are discussing:

Direction:  “But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.”

Dignity:  “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

Therefore, Paul writes of the gospel which he–and every Christian–is to live:  “We do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4.5).


2 thoughts on “The Incarnation in pop culture and poetry

  1. “If you were God and you decided to appear on earth in human form to bring about radical, lasting change at the deepest level (i.e., change that would be mean the eventual eradication of all injustice), what sort of demographic would you choose to be?”

    I certainly wouldn’t have chosen to come as Jesus did: as a servant. That’s just not readily intuitive to those who bicker, struggle and war on this earth. And yet that’s just what he did and it blows my mind.

    I’ve been thinking about “dignity” a great deal, as it’s been all over the news in discussions about end of life care and “death with dignity.” This is not a new discussion, but the gaze of popular culture has been drawn to it again by the physician-assisted suicide of Brittany Maynard. While that is a discussion unto itself, I find it remarkable that many people speak of “death with dignity” without really recognizing what dignity is. It may relate to our relativistic culture that shies away from grounding anything absolutely. And yet, dignity, in order to be meaningful, requires absolute grounding!

    Milosz touches on this beautifully when he recognizes that all human endeavors acquire meaning thanks to the incarnation of Christ. This is our global context and purpose-supplier; anathema to the relativist, but comfort and calling to the Christian, even in death.

    As an aside, were the italics/emphasis in the poem yours or Milosz’s? Thank you for introducing me to this poet!

    1. Hey, Josh, to answer your immediate question: the italics were mine (I should have noted that!). Great comments–I love how you tied together Milosz and the discussion of assisted suicide.

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