Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Man Who Gave Us Green Beer

I was on my way home from work yesterday and realized it was St. Patrick's Day. It kinda snuck up on me, and if it were a rake I might be dead. Nevertheless, I read a rather interesting article on St. Paddy on MSN's The article makes the typical, and correct, assertion that very little is actually known about St. Patrick himself. Most of what we know about the "historical St. Patrick" does not inherently and by necessity lead to the consumption of green beer. Americans came up with that twelve-hundred years later.

The point that the article is actually making is that everyone seems to want and try to claim Patrick as 'their own'. "The scarcity of facts about St. Patrick's life has made him a dress-up doll: Anyone can create his own St. Patrick." Roman Catholics depict him as a bishop, ordained and commissioned by the Pope himself. Protestants reject this claim and see him as an innovative evangelist, from whom came a distinct form of what is called today Celtic Christianity. But what I found interesting is the observation in the Article that Mormons associate with him in that he traveled over the sea to evangelize barbarous people there - much like what is 'recorded' in the Book of Mormon and the supposed indigenous Lamanites and Nephites in pre-Columbian North America.

Even more recently Patrick is now claimed by gay activists, and interestingly, is the feature of a recent Fox TV special called "St. Patrick." This Fox Patrick leads the good people of Ireland in a revolt against the English bishop who says they owe taxes. "The fearless colonist [i.e. Patrick] leads a tax revolt against the villainous English. We Americans, like everyone else, think St. Patrick is one of us."

What I found interesting in all this St. Patrick-ing, is the similar way that Jesus is treated. Whether it is the 'historical' Jesus, the Buddy Jesus, or Bad Religion's "American Jesus" (wow, does that take you back to the early 90s or what), there is a limitless supply of versions of Jesus dressed up to look like what people want or need him to be.

This tells me two things. Firstly, all people have desperate need of a hero, or a substitute, someone on whom they can lay claim. Now, this might not be the same hero their whole life, in fact, it might suffice to lay claim to a particular hero once a year on March 17th, or on December 25th for that matter. But the point is that all people need someone outside themselves from whom they can draw identity. Shrinks might tell you this is merely a form of transference of what's already there, but even if it is (and I don't think it is), the reality for people is that we need our celebrities. We have to know that someone above us relates to us and that we can claim for ourselves, even if we've never met them nor have any chance of ever meeting them (because they are, for instance, dead and have been dead for centuries).

This of course can get sick and twisted fast, ergo stalkers and crazy fans who have to get restraining orders and therapy. But why do so many people and so many groups of people scramble to claim Patrick as their saint. Why do so many people desperately want to do the same with Jesus, your own personal Jesus (Depeche Mode)?

The second this all the tells me is that the difference between Patrick and Jesus, apart from the whole question of divinity, is that the definitive portrait of Jesus is found in the Gospels of the New Testament. Many scholars claim that even this Jesus of the Gospels is a construct of the writers of the Gospel, but as Richard Bauckham argues brilliantly, if a little dryly, in his Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, "such a historical Jesus is no less a construction than the Jesus of the Gospels"
In the Gospels we don't get a 'dress-up doll' on whom we can pin whatever hopes and dreams and desperate needs and thus create in our own image.

Instead, what we find in the Gospels is a savior. The hero who has come to earth and in whom it is good and right to lay claim. Our inherent and desperate need for a substitute is wrongly placed in all manner of celebrity and historical figures, like Patrick, but rightly placed in Jesus, because he is the only one, according to the Gospel, who can actually do something about our plight, and in fact has done something. This is the Jesus of the New Testament, for any other Jesus is inevitably our own personal Buddy Jesus, even if we are scholars trying to find out who he really was. Don't believe me, go and read them for yourself.

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