It's interesting that what looks to be the front-running contender for this year's Best Picture Oscar, American Hustle, has a lot in common with the last year's winner, Argo.
In addition to the fact that both Hustle and Argo take place at about the same time in recent American history and both are loosely based on real events of the period (and both flaunt actors willing to be seen with bad hair), both movies, and the events they are very loosely based on, have to do with scams. American Hustle and Argo are both driven by clever characters pretending to be someone else, lying, scheming, doing whatever it takes to trick people more powerful than they but not as sharp. And succeeding.
It would seem that historical hoodwinking is right now all the rage!
And, as unsavory and implausible as it may seem for inclusion in a sacred text, hoodwinkery is a phenomenon prominent and playfully celebrated in our Bible. Throughout the text, Old and New Testaments. Even at the cross.
It is hardly recognized or noted anymore, at least not in the West, but the first understanding of the crucifixion story was, essentially, a trickster tale.
This is how it goes: By the time of the New Testament the understanding of how reality was constructed had shifted a bit. No longer was there the one sole God commanding the Universe. Now it was understood there were essentially two super-entities: God and the Devil. The Devil was currently in control of the earth and everyone's fate after death, because all humans were descendants of Adam and Eve and, hence, inherently tainted sinners. All were condemned to life in the Eternal Furnace, and God had had it with the situation; He wanted companionship in Heaven!
So, God sent to earth his Divine Son to free believing souls from Hell, and this is how He did it: Jesus came looking and acting human but remaining free from sin. When He died, looking like the world's biggest sinner up there on the horribly cruel cross (what a ruse!), the Devil brought Him to Hell (licking his chops to boot, I'm guessing) and chained Him up like everyone else. But because Jesus had remained sinless, He was not subject to the power of Hell's chains. When the Devil wasn't looking (I like to think Jesus said something like "Look, a plane!" or, more historically plausible, "Look, a wooly mammoth!"), Jesus broke His chains, stole the keys of Hell out of the Devil's pocket and unlocked everything so folks who wished were free to fly to the upper realms of eternal happiness and harp-playing. Doesn't this sound like the coolest Mission Impossible episode ever???
While I took the liberty to add some comic touches, this is essentially the "Ransom" theory of atonement (i.e. one of the many explanations of how God reconciled with humanity via the cross), refocused and renamed "The Christus Victor" theory, alluded to in scripture at Colossians 2:15 as well as the Apostle's Creed ("He descended into Hell"). It is the historically oldest theory of atonement, and the reason Eastern Orthodox Christians come to church the day after Easter to tell jokes. God sure got the last laugh on the Devil!
This Ransom Theory probably sounds crazy and not possibly biblical. In large part that's because we've been so conditioned to understand "the cross" from a tragic lens, with only One God who is so angry at the current state of human sinfulness the only way His anger can be appeased and honor somewhat restored is through the blood sacrifice of His only Son, which Jesus solemnly if sometimes haltingly accepts to be.
There are also other atonement theories (and oh, what the waitress must hear as she serves a table of theologians battling over them, their beers); while all theories have their well-intended reasons for being, none are anywhere near as entertaining as lively as the Heavenly Hustle (as I like to call it!).
I find it quite fascinating that the earliest Christians experienced God as a little "lower" than we feel able to consider today. They understood God on par and at battle with Devil (aka the powers of Evil), and while this notion still captivates Christian thinkers and preachers, rarely does anyone see the comic possibilities it offers. And offered to the ancients. In many ways, as a part of the story of Jesus, God becomes more of a "Little Guy" needing to use rapier wit and chutzpah to get the job with the Devil (aka the powers of Evil) done. Which God does with much aplomb, btw. imho.
It's the stuff for future blogs to explore the implications of a 'comic crucifixion' if I might be so bold as to suggest it whilst allowing for the possibility of lightening to strike.
In the meantime, I invite all to contemplate how the divine Spirit of cleverness and tricksterism has intersected, to the good, even cosmic good, in their lives and communities. It seems to me this is an aspect of our humanity (and divinity) (and Christianity, for those of that persuasion) that is unfortunately overlooked.
Except, perhaps, at Oscar time....