Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

Yes, it appears that Easter and resurrection of Jesus are still controversial

It's a challenge, but every Easter preachers around the world strive to find something different to say about the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

This applies to the pope, as well, in his Holy Week and Easter sermons. Journalists always sift through these papal texts searching references to the Middle East, global warming, social justice or other "newsy" topics worthy of headlines.

 But Pope Francis did something different this year, abandoning his prepared sermon to speak from the heart about a recent telephone conversation with a young engineer who is facing a serious illness, as well as life-and-death questions.

Christians insist that Easter is the ultimate answer, said Francis.

"Today the church continues to say: Jesus has risen from the dead. … This is not a fantasy. It's not a celebration with many flowers," he said, surrounded by Easter pageantry.

Flowers are nice, but the resurrection is more, he added. "It is the mystery of the rejected stone that ends up being the cornerstone of our existence. Christ has risen from the dead. In this throwaway culture, where that which is not useful … is discarded, that stone -- Jesus -- is discarded, yet is the source of life."

So the pope has to defend Easter? As it turns out, anyone seeking other motives for the pope's blunt words could point to headlines triggered by a new BBC survey claiming that many self-identified British Christians have rejected, or perhaps watered-down, biblical claims that Jesus rose from the dead.

The headline proclaimed: "Resurrection did not happen, say quarter of Christians." Among the survey's claims:

An honest Easter with doubters and the 'nones'

It's the first thing people do after meeting strangers in coffee shops and clubs favored by the young professionals now flocking into Austin, Portland and America's other trendy postmodern cities. Job one is to define themselves in terms of what they do and what they believe. "I am an accountant," one will say. "I am a vegetarian," or "I am gay," or "I am a techie," others will reply. Hipsters don't need to say, "I am a hipster," because everyone can see the obvious.

"Usually, our identity will emerge as a composite" of these kinds of labels, noted the Rev. Jonathan Dodson of Austin and the Rev. Brad Watson of Portland, in a small book of meditations on the resurrection entitled "Raised?"

"It will have a hidden mantra that goes something like this: I am what I eat, who I sleep with, how I make money, what I wear, what I look like, or where I came from. ... If you cannot imagine yourself without that statement being true, you have likely found something that is core to your identity."

For many Americans that core still includes a religious label, like "I am a Christian," noted Dodson, founding pastor of City Life Church, which meets in the Ballet Austin complex near downtown. And millions who make that claim, with varying degrees of fervor, will flock to churches this weekend for the year's one service in which almost all pews are full -- Easter.

Instead of affirming a "sentimental" or "mushy" faith on this Christian holy day, Dodson thinks more pastors should ask a blunt question: Do you really believe Jesus was raised from the dead?

If some people confess doubts, that would be good because sincere doubt leads to true faith more often than hidden apathy. This is especially true when discussing the brash claim that has been at the heart of Christianity for 2,000 years, he said. Thus, it's time to ask lukewarm believers to question their faith and to ask modern doubters to question their doubts.

This blunt approach would be timely in light of surveys indicating that more Americans -- especially the young -- are changing how they think about faith, including the role of scripture and the need for any ties to organized religion.

For example, the American Bible Society's recent "State of the Bible" survey found that the percentage of "Bible skeptics" is now precisely the same -- 19 percent -- as for those who are truly "engaged" in Bible reading and who strongly value biblical authority. The "Bible friendly" segment of the population shrank from 45 to 37 percent.

The 19 percent figure for "Bible skeptics" matched the key finding in a headline-producing Pew Research Center survey in 2012, which found that nearly 20 percent of American adults -- the so-called "nones" -- no longer identify with any given religion. The "religiously unaffiliated" number was 30 percent for those under the age of 30.

Meanwhile, one common theme in recent surveys is that an increasing number of Americans no longer believe they need to claim a traditional faith, and Christianity in particular, because they no longer see themselves as sinners -- especially when discussing doctrinal issues linked to sexuality.

This moral sea change could, for some people, even undercut belief in the resurrection. After all, if the resurrection actually happened, that validates the central claim of Christian tradition, which in turn validates biblical teachings about sin, repentance and forgiveness.

"What ruffles feathers is the God-sized claim" that Jesus died to atone for the sins of humanity, noted Dodson and Watson. This insistence "that we all need an atoning representative troubles our dignity. ... In light of recent horror trends, we might be more inclined to believe in a zombie emerging from the dead than a resurrected and fully restored person."

With doubts and open unbelief on the rise, it's time for church leaders to face this issue head on, said Dodson. This is no time to duck the central question at Easter.

"In so much of popular Christianity today, people are just nodding their heads and saying they believe all of these doctrines, but this really isn't having much of an impact on their lives," he said. "If they actually believe in the resurrection, it should make a difference. … The resurrection matters more than the Easter bunny."

Dueling Anglican pulpits

There is nothing new about Anglicans worrying about the environment.

One of the Church of England's most famous hymns, after all, offers this somber vision of industrialization from poet William Blake: "And did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills? And was Jerusalem builded here among those dark satanic mills?"

Nevertheless, a recent sermon by the U.S. Episcopal Church's outspoken leader raised eyebrows as it circulated in cyberspace. Some traditionalists were not amused by a bookish discussion of bovine flatulence on the holiest day in the Christian year.

In her Easter message, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori stressed that all Christians should let their faith shape their actions in real life and, thus, affect the world around them.

"How can you be the sacrament, the outward and visible sign, of the grace that you know in the resurrected Christ? How can your living let others live more abundantly?" she asked, before turning to environmental concerns.

"We are beginning to be aware of the ways in which our lack of concern for the rest of creation results in death and destruction for our neighbors," added Jefferts Schori, who has a doctorate in oceanography. "We cannot love our neighbors unless we care for the creation that supports all our earthly lives. ...

"When atmospheric warming, due in part to the methane output of the millions of cows we raise each year to produce hamburger, begins to slowly drown the island homes of our neighbors in the South Pacific, are we truly sharing good news?"

This short sermon seemed to focus more on affirming the doctrines of Al Gore than on proclaiming the reality of the Resurrection, said Father Kendall Harmon, canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and editor of The Anglican Digest. This is regrettable, since it's crucial for the modern church to do more to help protect the environment. This concern is, in fact, linked to Easter and to the ultimate hope for the renewing of God's creation, he said.

"The problem isn't so much what the presiding bishop said in this sermon, but what she all but left out of it," said Harmon. "The emphasis is totally on this one ethical dimension of our faith. ... That's important, but she didn't really connect it to what is the most important reality of all for Christians, which is that Jesus truly is risen from the dead and that really happened in time and in history and that changes everything -- literally everything."

On the other side of the Anglican aisle, the Easter message offered by the leader of a controversial missionary movement also addressed social issues, but did so after a strong affirmation of a literal resurrection.

Then, Bishop Martyn Minns linked the doctrine of the empty tomb to the church's belief that miracles continue today.

"I have seen it. I have seen men and women who were dead to the things of God come alive -- I have seen blind people be given their sight and I have seen sick people made well," said Minns, who leads the Convocation of Anglicans in North America. This is a network of conservative churches that have fled the Episcopal Church and are now linked to the Anglican Church of Nigeria.

"I have known people who were locked into patterns of abuse and addiction set free. ... I have witnessed broken marriages made whole and children who were lost brought back home."

It's crucial to note that these very different bishops begin with references to the Resurrection -- expressed in different ways -- and then build on that doctrine to talk about issues in modern life, noted Phyllis Tickle, an Episcopalian best known for writing "God Talk in America" and other books on spirituality and culture.

The bishops do have different reference points, she said.

Jefferts Schori seems to be "starting inside the church" and then saying, "Look out there. Look at the world and see what we need to go and do." Meanwhile, Minns is "starting inside the church" and then saying, "Come in here. This is what happens when the church is really alive."

The sad reality in Anglicanism today, she said, "Is that both of these leaders are talking to their people, to the people that they lead, but they are no longer part of the same body."

A vote for the resurrection

The Rt. Rev. Nicholas Thomas Wright believes in the resurrection.

The bishop of Durham, England, doesn't think the disciples who said they saw Jesus after his death were describing his spirit dwelling in their hearts. The former canon theologian of Westminster Abbey doesn't believe that Jesus swooned on the cross and woke up three days later. He doesn't believe robbers stole his body, leaving the grieving apostles to explain away an empty tomb.

No, the famous New Testament scholar -- author of 30 books, both lofty and popular -- believes that Jesus rose from the dead and talked with his followers, walked with them, touched them and, in one mysterious episode in the Gospel of John, prepared them grilled fish for breakfast.

"None of the disciples dared ask him, 'Who are you?' because they knew it was the Lord," said Wright, speaking at recent commencement rites at Nashotah House seminary in Wisconsin. This simple statement "speaks volumes about the nature of Jesus' resurrected body. It was the same body, yet renewed, transformed into a physical body, now beyond the reach of suffering and death -- yet still bearing the telltale marks of the nails that spoke of that suffering and that death."

Wright's speech received little or no media attention in the days leading up to the 75th General Convention of the U.S. Episcopal Church, which began this week and ends June. 21.

This is no surprise.

After all, the 200 bishops and 850 delegates gathered in Columbus, Ohio, face many hot-button issues -- such as how to respond to demands by Anglican archbishops around the world that they apologize for the 2003 consecration of the openly gay Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. This and other issues related to sex and the sacrament of marriage could shatter the 70-million-member Anglican Communion.

Truth is, it isn't controversial when an Anglican bishop says that he believes the resurrection of Jesus actually happened.

But, in this day and age, it also isn't controversial when Anglican bishops, priests and seminary professors quietly suggest that the resurrection was a spiritual, but not historical, reality.

Wright knew that when he stepped into the pulpit.

"Questioning the biblical accounts of the resurrection has been the general direction of liberal British scholarship for quite some time now," said the Very Rev. Robert Munday, dean and president of Nashotah House.

"Given where we are in this church on a wide range of issues, I don't know what would happen if someone proposed a resolution that affirmed that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead," said Munday, after arriving in Columbus. "I'm not sure if that resolution would make it out of committee. I'm sure it would be controversial."

After all, a 2002 survey found that a third of the clergy in the actual Church of England doubt or disbelieve in the physical resurrection of Jesus. The Daily Telegraph reported that only half of the 2,000 clergy in the survey said that faith in Jesus is the only way to salvation.

Conservatives may, said Munday, make another attempt to defend doctrines such as these. In 2003 they offered a General Convention resolution stating that "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man" and that the church must not teach what is "contrary to God's Word written." This failed in the House of Bishops. They may try a new resolution this year.

While Anglicans wrestle with these biblical issues, the public is searching for answers in shopping malls. In fact, "The Da Vinci Code" offers a picture of what faith looks like without the resurrection, said Wright.

According to author Dan Brown and many others, "Jesus was just a good man. He taught people a pathway of inner spiritual self-discovery. The early Christians had no thought of an institutional church or of Jesus as divine, or a savior, or risen from the dead. Jesus certainly didn't think of himself like that," said the bishop.

This multi-media myth of Christian origins has the potential to undercut centuries of doctrine and faith.

Rather than waffling, said Wright, church leaders must face this challenge head on. Otherwise, they will find it all but impossible to preach "a Gospel in which Jesus did actually rise from the dead and, therefore, really is Lord of the world."