Easter celebrates resurrection. A number of Christians believe that a dead man, Jesus, walked out of a grave and in a supernatural body appeared to his disciples. Yet many Christians don't believe that. For them, resurrection means something else.
The movie Whale Rider is a good news story. On the East Coast, the Whangara people believed their presence dates back 1000 years to a single ancestor, Paikea. Paikea escaped death when his canoe capsized by riding to shore on the back of a whale.
From then on, so the movie goes, Whangara chiefs - always the first-born, always male - had been considered Paikea's direct descendants. Pai, an 11-year-old girl in a patriarchal culture, believes she is destined to be the new chief. But her grandfather, Koro, is bound by tradition – and his own blinkered prejudice - to pick a male leader.
Whale Rider in a broad sense is a death-to-life story. It is about the resurrection of a tribe. Their leader, Koro, is old. The tribe is being pushed about by the currents of rural decline and flight of the young. It feels as though they are slowly dying and the old ways with them. Then Pai is born. More despair. She is no he. There is no male heir to lead them.
Resurrection stories have a surprise, or transcendent, factor that pushes the participants to think past their own prejudices. There might be no male heir but is leadership dependent on gender? [Note, in real time, the Whangara iwi have no problem with female leaders].
In the story it is the girl, Pai, who has the spirit of Paikea. She is the surprise, the transcendent, factor. The resurrection, a process more than an event, happens as Koro and the tribe come to realise this.
In the movie, there is a scene where Pai rides a whale. This is the ‘dead-man-walking’ parallel. This is a miracle scene, a creation of the special-effects department. This is the event that symbolises her power and mana. Pai has risen from the death of prejudice, turned the tables, and claimed her place forever as leader of the tribe.
Now, is this miracle scene necessary? Would Pai have risen anyway? What is more important: the miraculous event or the process of transformation/resurrection?
Some would say that a resurrection event, a miraculous whale ride, was necessary for the miracle of a young female leader to happen. One would not have occurred without the other. Event created process.
Others would disagree. The process, the gradual dawning that Pai was their leader, was happening regardless of any special-effects miracle. Indeed, this gradual dawning was the real miracle. Maybe the event, the literal whale ride, came about in telling and re-telling of the story in the years and decades that followed? Maybe as Koro saw the compassion of Pai in helping the stranded whale to re-enter the deep, later storytellers would have Pai riding the whale? Process created event.
The backdrop to this argument is the fact that 11-year-old girls don't ride whales. For us to believe in the power of this story, are we required to disregard our rational and scientific faculties and embrace something beyond sense?
On the other hand, the world is incredible, as is the mystery of the unknown. There are many things we do not know. Maybe an event did happen? Maybe it didn't? Possibility is not limited. Maybe we need to keep an open, albeit sceptical, mind while celebrating the real miracle, which is Pai herself and the restoration of her tribe.
The issues raised by the whale ride are not dissimilar to inter-Christian arguments regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Some would say that a resurrection miracle was necessary. An event needed to happen. The dead Jesus had to come back to life in a supernatural bodily form so the disciples could believe in the power of his message and mission.
Others would disagree. Jesus' coming back to life in a supernatural form didn't happen. Simply, dead men don't walk. The power behind the birth of the Church was the power of Jesus' life, and the spirit of that life lived on in his disciples. The resurrection was the interaction between Jesus and his disciples and the continuation of that relationship despite his execution. It was a process that happened within the believing community, which began before Jesus' death and continued after it.
Others would say, “maybe”. Maybe a miracle happened. Over a period, years probably, different key disciples could have experienced a supernatural occurrence. We don't know whether this happened because there are limits to our knowledge. It is possible that things happen outside of the bounds of our rational knowledge. Regardless of whether this miraculous event happened or not, the real miracle is that his early followers continued to work for the dream of love, justice, and mutuality.
Many Christians of great intellectual and moral integrity hold to the view that an “event” was necessary, just as there are many Christians, of similar integrity, who hold to the “process” and “maybe” positions.
In the earliest New Testament documents that speak of the resurrection – I refer to the authentic writings of Paul and the Gospel of Mark – there is no physical body brought back from the dead. Paul equates his experience of a disembodied heavenly voice on the Damascus road as on the same level as any other apostolic leader’s experience of the post-Easter Jesus.
In the accounts of Luke, Matthew, and John – written late 1st century and into the 2nd – the resurrected body of Jesus is quite distinct from a normal human body. The risen apparition was not a resuscitated Jesus. In John’s account, for example, his close friend, Mary Magdalene, didn't recognise him. In other accounts he walks through walls.
It begs the question then: “What is resurrection?” In the ancient world any Semitic or Greco-Roman soul could appear to the living, still bearing the recognisable form of the body. Any soul could pass through closed doors, give advice, and vanish. Did Jesus “appear” in order to just instruct his disciples after his crucifixion?
While some scholars will say various features of the apparitions of Jesus were unique, the questions remain: how does a resurrection event, whether or not it was unique, explain the birth of Christianity? Is a paranormal event the basis of Christian faith? If a resurrection event didn't happen, but a resurrection process did, would the way most Christians practise their faith change?
Whale Rider is the story of a community revitalised by the emergence of an unlikely leader. It is a resurrection story. Around the bravery, persistence, and vision of Pai, the tribe was restored. In the retelling of that story, audiences on the other side of the world stand and clap. The spirit of Pai touches their hearts. It is the story of a tenacious heroine and a community transformed.
Are not the biblical resurrection accounts similar? They are wonderful stories vindicating a tenacious hero [Jesus] and of the restoration and the revitalisation of the early Jesus community. Through these stories, the spirit of Jesus has moved the hearts of people in varied times and cultures, and still does today.
DeWane Zimmerman once wrote, “I believe the message of Easter is not simply “Don’t be afraid to die”, but “Don’t be afraid to live – to live for those things worth dying for.”
Pai – the Jesus figure in the story – epitomizes what is worth living for:
Be who you are, and who you are becoming.
Be courageous in the face of criticism, misunderstanding, and hostility. For there is a cost to being who you are.
Follow your heart into the deep
Love unconditionally – especially when you are not loved back.
In choosing a girl as the Jesus figure there is an implicit critique of Christianity, with its patriarchal aged leadership. Christianity largely adheres to the myth that wisdom is the preserve of the aged, and leadership a set of skills and experience. Whereas the attributes Pai epitomizes are the essence of leadership. If these things are right, the community will come right, and the wisdom and skills of all will be valued.