As the Christmas holiday descends upon us and the streets fill with festive symbols and music, we are reminded of the stories of old, those with divine encounters in the form of visions, angels or even ghosts.
We only need consider the ghosts of "A Christmas Carol," or Clarence the angel of "It's a Wonderful Life" or Gabriel in the Christian story itself to quickly transport us to these "other" worlds.
Visitations are usually accompanied by important revelation. The most famous example of all is that of the Apostle Paul and his "Road to Damascus," as portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles.
Bright lights shine from the sky, blinding Paul and knocking him from his horse. The Lord speaks to him, the scales fall from his eyes and he is reborn -- the usual protocol. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" And from this point forward Paul was given his new mission.
Curiously, the boastful Paul never mentioned these dramatic details but does claim an encounter with Jesus in the form of a vision. New testament scholar Paula Frederickson says that Paul was witnessing a "spiritual body" of some kind.
Spiritual apparitions are not uncommon to our religions or our literature. Hyam Maccoby, in his book "The Mythmaker," claimed that Jesus was no more the founder of Christianity than Hamlet was the author of Hamlet, but rather the invention of Paul.
As Hamlet, after his ghostly encounter, claims "the time being out of joint of cursed spite, that ever I was born to set things right," Paul too speaks of himself in the Greek as ektroma or "born out of time" -- someone called to fulfill an incomplete mission or "set something right."
Our plot thickens when we consider that Hamlet had recently graduated from the University of Wittenberg, home of Paul's most famous convert, Martin Luther, father of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformer frowned upon "other worlds" like Purgatory -- places from whence ghosts might come and go -- because they did not appear in scripture and provided the church justification to extort indulgences from the living.
Shakespeare explores these contrasting ideas and how Luther's new "religion of the book" impacted a believer's response to a visitor from another world. Should one follow an apparition, even if it resembled their father? Was a mere vision sufficient to carry out an act of revenge?
In Paul's time heavenly visitors calling great prophets like Abraham, Elijah or Jeremiah were commonplace, a sign of initiation for any prophetic career including his own. Yet, even according to his own writing, his peers were highly suspicious of his vision.
Peter and James in Jerusalem wanted to put the protagonist's life-changing vision to the test, by giving Paul a mentorship under Barnabas in Antioch. Certainly if he had met with the real Christ, his message would resonate.
In the case of Hamlet, his test would come in the form of a play, "The Mousetrap." If Hamlet's vision was true, his uncle, slayer of his father and now husband to his mother could not sit quietly while the narrative revealed his darkest secrets.
If Paul's message of a lawless Gospel to Gentiles was what Jesus had called him to preach, surely his mission in Antioch and beyond would bear fruit in synagogues throughout the diaspora. This was not the case.
Hamlet received his answer once his uncle stumbled out of the theater pricked to the heart with a murderer's guilt. From that point forward, Hamlet knew too much and we as the audience knew this vision was real, almost.
Paul's failed ministry and subsequent clash with James and Peter in Antioch forced him to return to Jerusalem to defend his vision and even his identity. They were not pleased with the extent of his Gentile mission, now a source of conflict even 15 years into his ministry.
Two thousand years later, we are haunted by the question of why a religion started by Jesus and followed by his 12 apostles -- plus Paul -- was in conflict over the inclusiveness of Gentiles. Was this vision the real thing? Certainly, if the other Apostles accepted the vision, they would not have questioned Paul.
Eventually, it took a collection and an ethnic bifurcation of the mission fields amongst Jews and Gentiles to keep it afloat, but even after this tepid endorsement, Paul's mission was inhabited by more spies and intruders.
Whereas Hamlet even in light of his play's evidence revealed the evildoings of the king, he is still hesitant to act, and it is this inaction that has defined his character ever since. Paul, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, stubbornly pressed on.
Even in a first-century universe of ascending and descending gods, Paul's was a shaky position. The Messiah came personally to this great Pharisee in order to reveal the great commission to the Gentiles, but Jesus' own family and closest apostles did not accept this?
Paul mission was challenged for the remainder of his ministry by men who knew of his encounter with Jesus. These men supposedly believed the Messiah had arrived, and yet, to them, Paul's Gospel remained his own.
As modern readers, familiar with the New Testament, we read these conflicts as inevitably coming to form the church, yet if we place ourselves in Paul's "real" time -- as he lived it -- we see that nothing was for certain except for his own vision.
The Apostle to the Gentiles would suffer and die for his vision and his message would transcend his friends and enemies, but at what cost? How many were demonized through his message and through the centuries by his converts?
History has not been kind to those Paul had deemed his enemies, namely those who did not agree with him. Luke's later attempt to weave this tragedy into a mythical tale of divine destiny does truly miss the point.
Personal visions have impact on others. This was true in the Bible's prophetic tradition, as it is today in our modern myths where "invisible hands" guide the free markets, and at times lead to unbridled financial schemes without consideration for others.
The grumpiest capitalist of all, Ebenezer Scrooge, was awoken by visions, namely his former employee Bob Cratchit and his family during Christmas dinner. Similarly, George Bailey's visit from Clarence was not about the visit itself, but about the angel's message. A realization that life without a shared commitment in human beings fails to produce "A Wonderful Life."
During this holiday season -- as we enjoy our divine stories -- let's remember that ghostly sources are valued by how they help others. Messages from other worlds that lose sight of this simple fact are not a worthy source for peace on earth and goodwill to men.