Notre Dame had the football. My team, Michigan State, was behind. “This would be a great time for Notre Dame to fumble,” I said out loud—and they did. On the very next play they lost the ball to Michigan State.
That actually happened while I was a student at MSU.
But that’s not all. A while later in the same game Notre Dame had the ball again. “This would be a great time for them to fumble again,” I said—and they did! On the next play they turned it over one more time. (Honest.)
It was great. I don’t remember who won the game, but the turnovers sure helped. As Notre Dame committed their second fumble, though, I couldn’t help thinking, This had better not work a third time.
I tried, of course. It didn’t work. It’s never worked again in the thirty-five-plus years since then (don’t think I haven’t tried!). Honestly, I was relieved—not surprised, but relieved nonetheless. Imagine if, like some lucky(?) character in a movie, I had been gifted with the ability to speak and make Notre Dame fumble. There’s no way I could have handled the power. It would have destroyed Notre Dame first; for to destroy Notre Dame football is, I take it, to destroy Notre Dame. Soon after it would have destroyed me.
For every game Notre Dame played, I would have had to decide who would win. Empires—both scholastic and gambling—would have risen and fallen on my word. Please don’t think I’m getting grandiose: I’m only imagining, based on a couple of lucky guesses and a great big what-if.
There’s something instructive in the thought, though. To handle that kind of power successfully is quite beyond anything I could imagine. Think of it this way. Picture yourself writing a novel about someone who could speak and change the outcome of sporting events. Take it up a notch and imagine that person being able to predict and to control the stock markets with a simple word. Think of how you would make that character a model of genuine self-giving love and virtue, and at the same time interesting—a genuine human being—rather than flat, dull, and preachy.
I’m seeing such a character in my mind’s eye, actually, and I’m imagining that novel. It’s the story of some gifted person’s deep inward struggle, as he fights daily to do what’s right rather than what serves himself.
Rather than having to come up with such a character creatively, though, I can see one truly presented in literature. This was one who experienced no such struggle, though. Still his life has inspired millions of others, and indeed countless other works of literature. Of course the person I’m speaking of is Jesus Christ.
I want to run a bit further with the idea of such a character in the realm of imagination, though.
Suppose the Bible were a work of fiction. If so, it’s the only fully original literature I know of in which the authors envisioned men and women who had such great power, yet who weren’t ruined by it. Many characters in the Bible failed morally, but the prophets and historians who wrote of them kept their moral compass clear, and the failures only serve to reinforce the successes, through which men like Isaiah, Daniel, and of course Jesus Christ became our greatest models of serving others above self.
Their stories remain not just readable but compelling. Jesus above all was a character with unparalleled power, yet one who did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life for many (Mark 10:45). There was no sense in him that he had to struggle internally to restrain and direct his power for the good of others.
If he was a fictional character, then he was a character invented by the greatest moral thinkers in history: for whoever invented him (if he was indeed invented) came up with the one original story in all history of a man who wielded such unbelievable power, with such an unbelievably relaxed sense of himself, and yet with such unsurpassed other-centeredness.
If it’s fiction, it’s the greatest fiction of all time, far surpassing Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens—or even J.R.R. Tolkien or J.K. Rowling. I mention Tolkien and Rowling because they envisioned characters of power combined with virtue; but they made it clear, both in their actual works and in discussions of their work, that biblical themes infused their stories. The inventors (if there were such) who came up with the Hebrew prophets and with Jesus Christ had no such template to work from. They were inventing from scratch.
Which leads to two determinative questions:
- Who could create characters of such moral leadership but a person (or a community) of the greatest moral insight?
- Who could pawn off such a hoax as Jesus (if he was a hoax), but a person or community of the greatest moral confusion?
If the New Testament is fiction, it’s the product of the most viciously deceptive yet other-focused, loving, moral and literary geniuses in history. But how on earth does that make sense?
Believe it if you must: but I cannot. I think that to do so must take a much more amazing kind of faith in your unbelief than I could ever muster in my belief.