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Easter under the cloud of corona: a story’s power

Published: 01st April 2021 Last updated: 01st April 2021

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​​​​​​​Stories have tremendous power: they can leave deep scars, but they can also inspire hope – and hope springs eternal. For the second year running, we will spend Eastertime under the cloud of corona. For many of us that is a raw deal. How do we carry on, how do we remain standing? One way could be to tell each other old and new tales of hope and endurance. Perhaps no longer sitting at a table with many others, but in a small group and in Zoom. That might help us practice and tell those stories that underscore the good things in life. And perhaps it might even help us as a university community to create a meaningful narrative about how our research might benefit society. Essay by Bart Koet, Professor of the New Testament and early Christian literature at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology.

It may not be widely known in our academic community, but a new assessment procedure for scientific research conducted at Dutch universities is about to see the light of day: the Strategy Evaluation Protocol (SEP). Under this protocol, our research will be evaluated against our own strategy and the choices we have made, but the assessment will also, and even more so than earlier editions did, take into account what the SEP terms ‘the narrative’. Each research unit or School is requested to present its research in a modestly sized story; numbers and lists of publications may be relegated to the annexes.

When in Rome … tell a story

‘Upgrading’ the narrative appears to be a novelty, and to an extent it is, but it is also a tried-and-true formula: presenting a message as a story is as old as the hills. In the Roman republic, the narratio was regarded as a crucial element of a speech – a good speech was expected to begin with a story – and at the time speeches were a vital means of communication.

Stories, then, are a dependable means of persuasion. But that is by no means all. Not only do stories speak to us intellectually, they play to our emotions as well. A story may also strengthen group identity and even forge it. And, finally, a story can become a paradigm, a thought model. One of the evergreens of unifying narratives is the Christian story of Easter. Admittedly, in the Netherlands a dwindling number of people are familiar with the religious significance of this holiday – the Easter bunny is replacing the risen Christ – but the Christian version builds on an earlier story, that of the Jewish people: Passover, or Pesach.

That story is told in Exodus, the second book of the Jewish Scriptures (and of the Christian Old Testament). As a collection of ‘narratives’, prayers, lists, and even an erotic poem, to the Jewish people these scriptures are a portable homeland. The story in Exodus narrates how under the leadership of a stammering and insecure man (Moses), who relies on the support of his brother (Aaron), a motley group of enslaved men, women, and children flee Egypt and take to the desert hoping to find a faraway land where they may be free.

Celebrating the yearning for freedom

The extraordinary thing about the Exodus story is that even before the Jewish people free themselves of the shackles of slavery and leave Egypt a festival celebrating their escape is decreed. And the manner of celebration is also specified: using rituals and stories. The central motif is that an enslaved people will escape oppression, and the ingenuity of the plot is that by decreeing a celebration of the exodus even before that exodus is a fact the past becomes relatively insignificant; what matters is what the future might hold. The liberation has yet to happen, but the story of that liberation is liberating in itself, and so it grows into something more than an account of past events: it becomes a thought model for the future.

Thought model for the future

That thought model endured for many centuries and, after the book in the Scriptures in which it first appeared, is often called the Exodus model. In the Christian tradition it is the thought model that Jesus and his disciples used to describe his life and death, but it was also used in a variety of political and non-religious contexts. The Republic of the Seven United Provinces used it, which is why to this day the street between the New Church and City Hall in Amsterdam is called Moses and Aaron Street (except during the Second World War, when it was temporarily renamed Post Street, its original name being considered too Jewish). The Exodus model as deliverance from slavery was also used by Martin Luther King and his followers in their fight against racism, by liberation theologians in South America fighting dictatorships, and by the famous (as well as infamous) American film director Woody Allen in his movie Broadway Danny Rose, teaching New York yuppies an object lesson in solidarity. The model was also important to a communist philosopher such as Ernst Bloch and to many other thinkers from different backgrounds.

To hope is to live

A man who could relate, and relate to, the Jewish Passover story at an intensely personal level was Yehuda Aschkenasy (1924-2011). He was a Holocaust survival and after his liberation he resolved to teach Christians about the essence of Judaism and so he become a lecturer and professor at my one-time school of theology. Yehuda would invite his students to celebrate Passover with him at his dinner table. He would then tell them about his people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt and about his own deliverance from the horror that was Auschwitz. After all, Passover by any name is a thought model that instills faith – faith that despite all the misery and oppression there is a way out of despair. Victor Frankl (1905-1997), who also survived the Holocaust, would remind people that inmates of concentration camps who lost hope died. Many who had hope still died, of course, but the only chance of survival was to keep hope alive.

Bart Koet is Professor of the New Testament and early Christian literature at the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology. He is also its Vice-Dean for Research.