If you've never heard it, check out Paul Newman plunking out the classic version of Dashboard Jesus from Cool Hand Luke, then do yourself a favor and sit down and watch the whole movie.
There aren't many finer explorations of the sacrificial hero archetype in contemporary film than this one. (plus Millennials and Gen Z will finally learn what all the fuss is about that hunky blue eyed salad dressing guy ;)
It's Palm Sunday, Passover and Easter time of year again, so queue up the platitudinous reflections on death, rebirth, hope and springtime!
First instagram meme to kick to the curb––the persistent seasonal trope that Easter was originally a celebration of Ishtar, the Babylonian fertility goddess. (hence those horndog rabbits, and all the eggs...)
Actual evidence is super sketchy for that one, which appears to more reliably trace back to Germanic and Old English and a German deity Eostre. But the rest of Europeans pretty much all called Easter some variant of the Latin for Passover, Paschae. (French it's Paques, Italian it's Pasqua) and that's where most of its cultural foundations unsurprisingly lay.
So feel free to get frisky, it is spring after all! But don't blame it on the Ishtar Bunny, even if she is wearing fishnets and red bottoms...
My most vivid memory of Easter (beyond sucking the filling out of Cadbury Creme Eggs and smoothing the foil wrappers out into a perfect rectangle) was at school during the Good Friday service.
After moving to the States from the UK, I'd been dumped in the nearest parochial school without a backwards glance from my parents. Needless to say––this world was not my world, and I sat through these services with a macabre fascination.
If you've never been in a Catholic church, the Stations of the Cross adorn the walls––fourteen excruciating way points of that unlucky Friday.
(One of the easiest ways to tell denominations at a glance: Catholic and other orthodox branches of the faith almost always feature an emaciated, anguished Jesus on the cross. Theirs is the cross of the crucifixion. Protestant and especially evangelical branches typically display an unmanned cross, minus the guts, but with all the glory. Theirs is the cross of the resurrection and it's noticeably more upbeat. You can see which version is winning these days #branding).
Once a year, the priest and the choir boys would slowly make the rounds, pausing at each station to solemnly intone. "Jesus falls the first time" on his road to Calvary. "Jesus falls the second (and then the third) time." Then some random stations involving bit players Simon and Veronica and a super puzzling one where he disowns his mother. Didn't matter really. We all knew where this was going...
I never really vibed with those stations. They seemed to belabor the point, and nitpick the inevitable. It was the Vatican equivalent of play-by-playing the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination––just swapping out a grassy knoll for the Hill of Skulls (aka "Golgotha").
Years later, long after I'd left Catholic schools, I looked back and realized I'd put together an alternate Stations of the Cross that seemed much more useful for me–It wasn't focused as tightly on the last few hours of JC’s life and death. It wasn’t as gruesome and depressing, either.
But it included those moments of his life that popped up as reminders, cautions and instructions on this mortal path. If you grew up never knowing any of the Bible stories, then consider this an utterly unreliable primer. And if you were raised in the tradition, consider this a contrarian reboot of familiar stories. (and feel free to quickly Google any unfamiliar terms, did my best to explain most of them in context).
What follows is a heretic's handbook for building your very own dashboard Jesus to keep you safe on your travels down the road of Life. (shorter and way more fun than the altar boy version)
#1. Tricksy Satan in the Dusty Desert 🌵
First off, all the raddest shit happens in the desert, to this day. Jesus had posted up there for "forty days and forty nights" to get right with the Lord. This was after he was baptized by John, the Eponymous Dunker, but before he really blew up the feed. Satan creeps in and tempts him, ending his escalating taunts with "kneel before me and all this will be yours!" And then Jesus does the "Satan, get thee behind me!" bit, and passes his first serious test.
Moral: Don't be seduced by the fledgling superpowers that often accompany initial spiritual practice or, as they're called in tantric buddhism the "siddhis." If you mistake this false light for the real deal, you will get sidelined or corrupted in your path. Imagine how less cringey our social feeds would be if every rookie breathworker, reiki master, or "temple priestess" took this one to heart!
#2 Fish or Cut Bait 🐟
JC rolls into the Sea of Galilee region to kick off his apostolic recruiting drive. There he finds Pete and Andy, two brothers fishing with new boats and nets. They're all set to make bank. But, not unlike Jonah in the Old Testament who was a thriving businessman before Yahweh tasked him with saving Nineveh, they didn't want to upset a good thing. Jesus drops the bomb, "put down your nets, and come, be fishers of men!" And that's that. They ditch it all to follow the Man. Two down, ten more to go.
Moral: At some point in all of our lives, we have to decide whether pursuing self interest must take a back seat to deeper service and sacrifice. Whether that's giving up a lucrative career for one of social good, or marching in the streets to protect disempowered folks, or chaining oneself to an old growth tree because the Lorax is AWOL). The question is, when do we actually Heed the Call and put down our nets?
Bonus: Leonard Cohen's spookybeautiful verse from his tune Suzanne:
And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them
But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
#3 The One Closest to Me Will Betray Me. ⚔️
This one is such a powerful archetype, from Obi Wan and Annakin, to King Arthur and his bastard son Mordred, to Caesar and Brutus to almost every Marvel superhero and their nemesis...Judas was his ride or die, but somehow still had his sacred part to play.
Moral: Betrayal's a bitch. It really is. But in the Grand Scheme of Things, it's a feature, not a bug, and thickens the plot like nobody's business. (and, if you can't kiss 'em on the lips without resentment, you've already let the Devil into your heart, so love freely, knowing the score ahead of time).
#4 Jesus Loses His Wingmen in the Garden. ⛲️
JC has a lot to ponder after the Last Supper and went to the Garden of Gethsemane to sort it out with Peter and another couple of apostles. All he asks is that his homies hang with him through the night while he contemplates his undoing. But they don't. They say they will, but then all fall asleep.
Moral: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak!" Whether it's sleepiness, greediness or horniness, not many people are able to resist the urges of the body. Don't be surprised if they say one thing, then do another, even, and especially, in the Dark Night of Your Soul.
#5 Fourth and Long–Jesus Punts! 🏈
While his lazy friends are still taking a nap in the garden, Jesus sinks to his mortal low-point. The clock has almost run down, so he launches this Hail Mary, "If this cup be not mine, may it passeth from my lips!" No reply from the Big Guy upstairs. Just silence. So he has to accept going it alone.
Moral: Just because it's your destiny, doesn't mean it's gonna be easy. Absolute panic inducing, confidence crippling doubt is par for the course––even for one of the most famous "success" stories in history! As a later, less perfect messiah once reminded the throngs, "if you should go, no one may follow, that path is for your steps alone!" It's a solitary road, wherever it leads.
#6 Jesus Gets Denied By Peter (that little bitch). 🐓
Petey swears up and down that he's not gonna deny Him. Then he gets into a tight pinch back in town and denies he even knew Jesus, not once, not twice but thrice. All before the cock-a doodle dooed. (and this guy is the "rock" that the Church gets built upon? No wonder it’s had problems)
Moral: Social pressure will cause even the most professedly loyal friends to bail, despite what they say up front. Take them at their word, but don't be surprised by their “go along to get along” cowardice.
#7 Do Not Take Me for a Conjuror of Cheap Tricks. 🪄
When, near the end, JC is brought before King Herod to be judged, the King is stoked because he's heard this guy does miracles. But Jesus, even though it might save his life, doesn't even speak or respond to Herod's berating. (see Gandalf busting out something similar when Bilbo Baggins tries to get more fireworks out of the old magician)
Moral: The magic of one realm is not alway immediately demonstrable in another. And only a fool would try. In fact, magic is almost never 1:1 cause and effect into 3D. It's tangential, orthogonal. Tricksy. Sometimes your rabbits are best left in the hat.
#8 Deadbeat Dad. ✝
Now we’re finally up to Good Friday itself, where the traditional Stations of the Cross begin. Looking down from “his lonely wooden tower”, JC feels super duper bummed. He cries out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my god, why have you forsaken me???" And he really means it. He's on the verge of death, he's been betrayed by his friends, mocked by the same crowds that had praised him with palm fronds a week earlier. He's endured the gall and crown of thorns, he's borne the cross, and...no superpowers. No righteous calm. No spiritual bypassing. Just a slow, excruciating, humiliating death. Alone.
Moral: (They're all pretty much converging at this point See: “If this cup be not mine”).
#9 The Last Temptation. ☀️
The Grand Finale. In Scorcese's Last Temptation of Christ Willem Defoe (#sexyjesus), returns from an extended fantasy sequence where he gets to live out a happy life with his wife Magdalene, only to find himself back on the cross. He looks around, sees the robbers on either side, barely hears the crowd shouting, the centurions soldiering and the Marys weeping, and he is overjoyed. He did it. He bridged heaven and earth. He resisted the temptation of the easy way out. He cries out "it is accomplished!" And then he gives up the holiest of ghosts.
Moral: Something profound happens when we can resist seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. When we hold the agony and the ecstasy of existence without flinching from the former, or grasping for the latter, it sends shockwaves through time and space.
Never understood why that movie was picketed by so-called Christians. It was the most powerful expression of the stakes, and the sacrifice I've ever seen. (It's got a rad soundtrack by Peter Gabriel ta boot. So now you've got two movie recs for the Easter week ;)
So hope this crash course in guerrilla bible study was helpful––it's all the points I've ever remembered that have seemed relevant, even essential on charting our own paths forward. It contains the lessons and cautions of what it can feel like when striving for something precious, but getting the shit kicked out of you along the way. It’s medicine for treating all those slings and arrows, disappointments and betrayals. Even if the orthodox tales are feeling super stale, there's a secret hidden within the secret that's still worth holding onto.
And here's a “Glory Glory Hallelujah” to bring it all home.
Sixty years ago to the day, during the famous Good Friday Experiment at Marsh Chapel in Boston (where Tim Leary, Richard Alpert/Ram Dass, and Huston Smith forever broke down the fourth wall between spirituality and psychedelics), Black mystic and preacher Howard Thurman dropped some serious Gnowledge.
(and huge hat tip to MAPS founder Rick Doblin for sharing this story with me, just in time for me to fit it into Recapture the Rapture).
Here’s the excerpt from RTR:
In one of those grace notes of history, Howard Thurman also delivered the sermon at the famous 1962 Good Friday experiment at Harvard Divinity School. Most accounts of that service focus on the headlines—seminarians were given the psychedelic psilocybin and many of them had profound mystical experiences that day.
But virtually nowhere can you find accounts of what they were thinking about, sitting in Marsh Chapel, watching the sunlight stream through its rose-petaled, stained-glass windows.
Everyone is familiar with the musical cadence of the Baptist preacher tradition. Martin Luther King epitomized it. Barack Obama rode its rhythms into the White House. Thurman sounded nothing like that. His voice was a rumbling baritone. His cadence was irregular and marked with as much silence as sound. In the closing minutes of an hour-long Good Friday sermon in a chapel of tripping mystics, he told the story of hearing “an anguished voice crying out, ‘Forgiveness.’
“I went out and searched and found a man in the throes of crucifixion. I said, ‘I will take you down.’ I tried to take the nails out of his feet, but he said, ‘Let them be, for I cannot be taken down until every man and every woman and every child will come together to take me down.’
“I said, ‘But I cannot stand to hear you cry. What can I do?’ He said, ‘Go about the world. Tell everyone you meet that there’s a man on the cross, a man on the cross.’ Tell everybody, everybody that you meet.”
That man on the cross is anthropos. That cross lies at the intersection of Kairos and Chronos. A couple of thousand years ago, his realization was rare and remarkable. Today it’s required of all of us. It’s this recognition of our divinity and our mortality that delivers us to our full humanity. Every man, woman, and child. Every HomeGrown Human. Take out the nails, remove the thorns. Forgive ourselves and each other. Not to usher in the Second Coming, but to bring about the Umpteenth Coming.
It’s time to take him down.
It’s time for us to step up.
Tell everyone you meet.
So I really don't care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sittin' on the dashboard of my car...
Happy Eostre to one and All!
We is Risen!
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