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King Arthur is alive and well.
That’s good news for someone who reigned in England some 1500 years ago, and whose very existence is questioned by numerous medieval scholars.
With the passing of time, an astonishing number of legendary stories have become attached to his name. Purdue professor Dorsey Armstrong, an Arthurian scholar, likens the famous king to a vacuum that sweeps up and incorporates tales from other cultures, transforming them in the process. Lancelot, Galahad, Excalibur (the sword in the stone), and Merlin the magician weren’t part of the original accounts, but gradually entered the Camelot narrative via creative storytelling in France, Germany, and Scandinavia.
Today there is a veritable industry of Arthurian lore. Since 1980, at least 5,000 new Arthur-themed books, films, articles and memorabilia have hit the market every year. You can buy Excaliburgers, Barbie and Ken dressed as Arthur and Guinevere, Camelot wallpaper, and cutting-edge comic book adventures of the knights of the round table.
Then there’s that most iconic of all Arthurian pursuits, the quest for the Holy Grail.
No consensus has ever emerged as to the Grail’s actual identity. It is usually imagined to be a cup or a serving dish. One tradition says that Arthur and his knights hoped to find the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. Another declares the Grail to be the vessel that Joseph of Arimathea used to catch the blood of Christ at the foot of the cross. Still others believe it was a stone that fell from heaven. Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code proposes that the Holy Grail is a person – a physical descendant of Jesus himself.
Where can the Grail be found? In Europe, perhaps, or somewhere in the Middle East. Some say it’s hidden in Britain, right where Joseph of Arimathea left it.
What power is it supposed to have? One tradition, on display in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, suggests that the Grail can heal all wounds and impart the gift of eternal life. Or it will meet every need of the one fortunate enough to drink from it or bestow the ultimate mystical experience of the Divine.
Scientists speak of the Holy Grail of physics – finding a way to unite quantum mechanics with Einstein’s theory of relativity. The Holy Grail of cancer research is targeted therapy that will snuff out every malignancy without snuffing out any patients. The Holy Grail of Purdue’s football program is – well, let’s just say it usually comes down to the words, “There’s always next year.”
The Arthurian legacy of the Grail is the notion of the quest – the search for something worth finding, something worth understanding – a lifelong pursuit that yields surprises and adventures along the way.
Is there a quest that is part and parcel of every human life?
Most would agree it’s the search for the meaning of life itself.
A London cabbie once asked British philosopher and arch-atheist Bertrand Russell for his take on the meaning of life. What’s it all about, Bertie? Russell was uncharacteristically speechless. “Only precise questions deserve precise answers,” he said.
Harvard philosopher William Van Orman Quine, when asked the same question, replied, “Life is agid, life is fulgid. Life is what the least of us make most of us feel the least of us make the most of. Life is a burgeoning, a quickening of the dim primordial urge in the murky wastes of time.” No one is really quite sure what he was talking about.
For literary critic Terry Eagleton, the meaning of life is “a subject fit for either the crazed or the comic.” For the comedians known as Monty Python – whose classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail is Dorsey Armstrong’s all-time favorite Arthurian movie – life is nothing but a joke. According to Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the fictional computer Deep Thought took seven-and-a-half million years to discern that the most important answer in the cosmos is “42.” Now it will take a bigger computer to come up with the right question.
The existentialist philosopher Albert Camus famously began his book The Myth of Sisyphus by stating, “There is but one serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Since the meaning of life is not self-evident, should I or should I not put an end to my own existence? That is the only question worth considering.
If human beings can agree on anything, it’s that the meaning of life truly matters. Cultural critic Os Guinness acknowledges that we cannot answer three vital questions – what is happiness, what is success, and why should we care for our neighbors? – unless we have some sense of why we are here.
Unsurprisingly, the Bible is not silent on this issue.
Here’s a key text from the Old Testament: “[God says] This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the Lord is your life…” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20, emphasis added).
And here’s a key text from the New Testament: “[Jesus said] I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
The meaning of life, according to the Judeo-Christian Scriptures, is to know, love, and serve the one true God, so that we may know, love, and serve one another.
According to the Arthurian narrative, these Latin words were carved on his gravestone: Rex quondam, Rexque futurus – “the once and future king.” It is an expression of profound hope. The valiant king who delivered his people in the past will return in their hour of greatest need.
That’s merely legend. A wistful story.
But Christ-followers believe that there really is a once and future king. His name is Jesus. Having come to his people to die for their sins, he will come once again to set the whole world right.
In the meantime, our quest is to know him and make him known.
That’s the true Holy Grail.
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