While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
This sermon is part of the Ask Andrew series that has been posted on this blog for several years now. Previous questions are still up there, if you want to look for them!
Ask Andrew 3, 2021: Is there a Trickster in Christianity?
Scriptures: Genesis 25:19-34, 27:5-17
Re-statement of Question for Brevity:
The question notes the existence of a Trickster character in many traditions and religions, including North American indigenous spirits and cultural heroes, as well as gods from Greek and Norse mythology. At the base is the question:
Do we have a space for a trickster in Christianity? If so, who fills that role? Prophets, Jacob and Jesus are all suggested as possible answers.
This is a challenging question. Tricksters do different things in different cultures ranging from the brave person who challenges authority to a jerk who does really dangerous stuff and serves as a bad example: “don’t do this”.
Traditional Christianity, particularly as developed by a powerful church, has built a theology that doesn’t handle tricksters well. God is presented as perfect and unassailable, something that the religions and cultures with tricksters never have in their pantheons.
The insistence on monotheism – that there is only one God – does not leave much room for challenge of an all-powerful, flawless God who is the source of all being and existence. Even our image of Satan that has developed over time presumes that he is doomed to fail, which might fit with the image we have of Loki in the Norse pantheon, but has little in common with the tricksters of North America.
The role of the prophets is indeed a disruptive one but the authorities challenged are always the human ones: the government or the religious establishment. Some prophets did things which left them open to mockery as a deliberate way to deliver God’s message which can remind us of tricksters.
Judaism is more comfortable with this than Christianity which is a failing on our part I believe; one we need to work to correct because it demonstrates the way our past has allowed us to buy into the kind of power that Jesus himself challenges.
Judaism has a clear sense of personal relationship with the creator, kind of like a marriage at times, between God and Israel where the relationship can show signs of strain. There can be anger and difficulty between the people and God and where there are fewer absolutes than Christian theologians appreciate, more sense of complex personality in our Creator.
The case of Jacob (who was re-named Israel) is an interesting one, even challenging. Our scripture lessons give a couple of key bits that we need to understand:
Rebekah, Jacob’s mother, is told by God that the two nations warring within her will result in the younger supplanting the elder. Jacob takes Esau’s birthright by himself because Esau traded it away for a pot of stew. Esau clearly didn’t respect what he got by tradition: the right to a double inheritance and the claim to be leader of the clan. It was like giving away his crown to eat a pizza.
Then, in the second situation Rebekah helps Jacob trick Isaac, the father and patriarch, out of his blessing. Consider: Isn’t Rebekah just following God’s plan? (Lori has always felt that Rebekah is criticized unfairly by the church.) And if God’s plan overturns the established and accepted order, the Patriarchal order, literally, then can you call them tricksters?
Maybe. There was trickery involved and there is a clear understanding in the Hebrew scriptures that people at the edges, the marginalized, need to resort to trickery to survive, to thrive, to fulfill God’s plan for them.
In the stories of Jacob it is clear that God blesses this sort of thing and by re-naming Jacob as Israel God blesses this approach for this chosen people who will always be a small nation in a world of great empires.
Christianity became a great empire through Rome and through successive nations over the centuries. The people in power in both secular and religious terms didn’t want this sort of trickery to flourish; it undermines authority, after all.
The Christian approach to God has been more rigid than the Jewish approach:
Early and influential theologians embraced the idea of absolutes. Thus, God is portrayed as the epitome of power, holiness, perfection: all knowing, all seeing, all wise. How could a trickster challenge perfection? The very existence of a trickster questions the idea of absolute right.
In that sense, there is no place in traditional Christianity for a trickster and I cannot comfortably identify anyone as filling that role. A super-human trickster would stretch the principle of monotheism: of the existence of only one God, while a human trickster, like Jacob, becomes pale in that role when you realize that he isn’t really challenging the ultimate authority.
Having said that, I am not forgetting the scene where Jacob wrestles at Peniel with a divine being. It’s not clear if it is an angel or God but Jacob assumes it was God. This striving with God has always been an uncomfortable story for Christianity while it remains a foundational idea for Judaism.
I believe that we have to be careful with a word like “trickster”. It doesn’t fit Christianity well especially as we have developed our theology in the past.
I also believe that Jacob and others represent an element of our faith that is strong in our roots in Judaism and that we have shied away from: an element of challenge to authority; an element of being able
to overcome power and position with the tools of the powerless;
the skill to play the system; the courage to work outside the rules; the nimble ability to duck and dodge as needed.
Jesus challenged authority and the very basis it claimed for itself, both in religious and social terms. Instead of keeping that practice of challenging authority alive, we have enshrined Jesus as the new authority and told people they mustn’t question the people who speak in his name.
In the Reformation we challenged that again but as soon as rebel protestant churches became state churches we were no longer comfortable with further challenges to authority and we fell back into old patterns.
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus is quoted as instructing his disciples to be “wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” which suggests to me that Jacob’s approach to life and faith is something that still belongs in our faith as much as we have denied and suppressed it; as uncomfortable as we might be taking serpents as role models.
I don’t think we can claim tricksters for Christianity but I do think that the tricksters we find in other faiths can call us back to our own faith story, can remind us that God is not bound by flawed human notions of absolutes.
As our final hymn (More Voices #138 My Love Colours Outside the Lines) will remind us: God doesn’t call us to colour inside the lines. We limit ourselves, often without thinking, too often by assuming that what society does is right.
God is the Creator and part of our calling is to be creative which means doing new and unexpected things and challenging the status quo.
Let’s recover that part of our faith. God gave Rebekah a vision that led her to subvert her Patriarch of a husband and undermine the whole system they lived in. God led Jacob into new places and gave him a vision for the future that included unsettling a lot of people, including whole nations.
That is a major part of our faith. It’s time we reclaimed it and pulled it back into the mainstream where it belongs.