True Myth Part 4: Jesus and the Tricksters

Eamonn Clark

Jumping ahead quite a bit in Scripture in our “true myth” series, today we will look at an incredibly powerful relationship between Jesus Christ and the “trickster archetype.”

Fans of the Baltimore Catechism will recall that God “neither deceives nor is deceived.” How then, could God incarnate fit into this paradigmatic role of the Trickster, occupied by deceptive figures such as Loki, Hades, various coyotes, ravens, and other such creatures – including serpents – throughout the history of mythology? These figures use trickery in order to gain power… What does Jesus have to do with this?

Without a full exploration of the ins and outs of the trickster paradigm, we can point out just a few commonalities which apply to Jesus:

  1. He is, in many ways, in between life and death. (See Levi-Strauss on this characteristic of tricksters qua mediators of life and death for more… think of how the animals which normally portray trickster characters are neither herbivores nor hunters but eat already dead animals…) Here are some examples of this “in between” space:
    1. The Baptism in the Jordan – in between the Nations (death) and Israel (life), in between the Sea of Galilee (full of fish and where He calls the first disciples) and the Dead Sea (…dead…), in the midst of the flourishing jungle but in the lowest part of the Earth, and in water (which both gives and takes life).
    2. His first act after the Baptism – He goes out into the desert (to deal with a real trickster) in between Jericho, the city of sin and death, and Jerusalem, the city of spirit and life… This same space will be the setting for the story about the Good Samaritan (representing Himself), who picks up the half-dead (!) sojourner (Adam), of which He is the renewal.
    3. He touches the unclean (symbols of death) and gives healing/life – For example, the raising of the little girl in Mark 5, or the healing of the leper in Matthew 8.
    4. The Resurrection – Did He actually die? Is He really alive? Whatever the case, it’s clear that our sense of the “in between” is tapped into… The psychology of the uncanny valley is maxed out.
  2. He normally dwells on the outskirts of society, frequently retreating to the wilderness for solitude. Much of the 3 years of the public ministry is spent camping just near the Decapolis and other such places. Bethany is another place worth mentioning, as it is not quite in Jerusalem, but it is near it, where he raises Lazarus from the dead (more “in between” life and death imagery) and prepares for Passover for the last time… Gethsemane and Golgotha are also just outside Jerusalem.
  3. He claims the role of a gatekeeper to the underworld. (Even more death-life ambiguity.) “I hold the keys of life and death,” He says in Revelation 1:18. Or take John 10:9 – “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved,” or John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
  4. He is a shapeshifter.
    1. The Resurrection – He is the same, but different. (More ambiguity!) The disciples can only half recognize Him, though the wounds give testimony that it really is the same man they knew. But He is changed somehow.
    2. The Eucharist – Jesus literally takes the shape of bread and wine.
    3. God has become a human being – certainly a kind of changing shape, albeit in a qualified sense.
  5. He cannot be contained or caught by the power of opponents. He passes through the crowd, or He hides effectively, as seen in many passages in the Gospels, such as the rejection at Nazareth in Luke 4. Instead, only He has the power to lay down His life… and take it up again (John 10:18).
  6. He does not often give direct answers. Instead, He speaks in parables, riddles, questions, and ambiguities. He arguably only directly answers 3 questions of the over 100 put to Him, and He arguably asks over 300.

Other “trickster” characteristics might be noted as well, such as spiritual power, unclear origins, and a preference for working in the midst of obscurity and chaos. What are we to make of all this?

It is that Jesus goes to the most “uncomfortable” place in our psychology and asks us, nonetheless, to trust Him. So one of the deepest parts of our mind, which is intuitively inclined to see the brokenness of the world, is “cured” by His reversal of the trickster archetype.

God “deceives” in a way by becoming human (thus not “looking like God,” as He did on Mount Sinai with fire and thunder), in order to gain the power of persuasion or condescension. But also, and perhaps in a deeper and plainer sense, God is not only reversing the trickster’s goal-paradigm but inverting it as well… Instead of deceiving to become powerful, God becomes weak in order to tell the truth.

 

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