A THEOLOGY OF DEATH AND RESURRECTION BASED ON PIGEON FEATHERS

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“For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature.” (Romans 1:20)

 “…unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat…. (John 12:24)

Christians often view resurrection as an event that will occur down the road – after death – in that future time beyond time. We see the relevance of resurrection as something that happened in the past to Jesus, and as something we hope will happen to us in the future. The purpose of this note is to focus on death and resurrection, not as future events, but as events that are part of the very fabric of our daily lives. The seeds of eternal life are sown during our time on earth, so that time is the medium through which eternity must force its way into our hearts and souls. Christianity is a religion that requires a resurrection in one’s life before death if there is to be a resurrection to eternal life after death. Using an example from literature,I hope to shed some light on how, during the course of our lives, we encounter death and resurrection as first-hand experiences which draw us closer to God.

John Updike’s short story, Pigeon Feathers, presents a striking example of a person who undergoes a death and resurrection experience in the very context of trying to understand the meaning of death. In Updike’s story, David, at age 14, suddenly finds himself doubting his childhood faith at a time when the turbulence of a move to a new home has him feeling displaced and insecure. To strengthen his childhood belief in life after death, which he finds under attack after browsing through a book skeptical of Jesus’ resurrection, he turns to his parents for guidance and support. To his own surprise, David finds out that his parents’ faith in the claims of Christianity is not altogether that strong. In fact, David discovers, his father is practically an atheist!

Still, David holds out hope that his minister, Reverend Dopson, will confirm that each person’s soul is immortal. But far from providing David with consolation, Dopson shatters David’s security in life after death by suggesting that after death, “I suppose you could say that our souls are asleep.”

Panicked and depressed about his parents’ and his minister’s “submission to death,” David takes a rifle out to the family barn to shoot some pigeons. With “splinters of light” shining through the darkness of the barn, the barn becomes almost a micro-universe for David to work out his struggles with the issues of life and death. David then proceeds to the task of retrieving the dead pigeons he has shot in order to bury them.

David had never seen a pigeon up close before. An examination of some of the dead pigeons up close produced a resurrection in his life. Updike movingly describes David’s resurrection experience:

“The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a  pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body…and across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seems, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds breed into  the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhymes of lilac and grey. The next was almost wholly, white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: That the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy his whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

David had to die to his childhood faith in order to be reborn into a deeper, more mature faith.  He had to take control over his own faith life rather than living it vicariously through his parents or his minister. He had to shoot down his childhood faith in order to see how precious and costly that faith was to him. The wonderful form, symmetry and beauty of the pigeon feathers revealed to David the majestic presence of a loving God. David discovered in a moment of time a transcendent truth: that God loved him with an everlasting love.

The deaths we die and the resurrections we experience in our daily lives are the events which shape who we are and what we are to become for all eternity. Whether it is a teenager in despair (like David) discovering God’s presence, or an addict finally falling to his knees to invoke God’s help, these are the kinds of experiences in life which radically draw us closer or further away from God. In the final analysis the person of Jesus helps us to understand that our desire for permanency is not an illusion. God “vindicated” Jesus in history by raising him from the dead. And by trusting in God, like Jesus, God will also open to us the door to eternal life.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

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