May 26, 2010

IF hE DIDN'T SUFFER THE CROSS WOULD HAVE TAUGHT hIM NOTHING (via Rod):

What Did Jesus Do?: Reading and unreading the Gospels. (Adam Gopnik, 5/24/10, The New Yorker)

ven if we make allowances for Mark’s cryptic tracery, the human traits of his Jesus are evident: intelligence, short temper, and an ironic, duelling wit. What seems new about Jesus is not his piety or divine detachment but the humanity of his irritability and impatience. He’s no Buddha. He gets annoyed at the stupidity of his followers, their inability to grasp an obvious point. “Do you have eyes but fail to see?” he asks the hapless disciples. The fine English actor Alec McCowen used to do a one-man show in which he recited Mark, complete, and his Jesus came alive instantly as a familiar human type—the Gandhi-Malcolm-Martin kind of charismatic leader of an oppressed people, with a character that clicks into focus as you begin to dramatize it. He’s verbally spry and even a little shifty. He likes defiant, enigmatic paradoxes and pregnant parables that never quite close, perhaps by design. A story about a vineyard whose ungrateful husbandmen keep killing the servants sent to them is an anti-establishment, even an anti-clerical story, but it isn’t so obvious as to get him in trouble. The suspicious priests keep trying to catch him out in a declaration of anti-Roman sentiment: Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not, they ask—that is, do you recognize Roman authority or don’t you? He has a penny brought out, sees the picture of the emperor on it, and, shrugging, says to give to the state everything that rightly belongs to the state. The brilliance of that famous crack is that Jesus turns the question back on the questioner, in mock-innocence. Why, you give the king the king’s things and God God’s. Of course, this leaves open the real question: what is Caesar’s and what is God’s? It’s a tautology designed to evade self-incrimination.

Jesus’ morality has a brash, sidewise indifference to conventional ideas of goodness. His pet style blends the epigrammatic with the enigmatic. When he makes that complaint about the prophet having no honor in his own home town, or says exasperatedly that there is no point in lighting a candle unless you intend to put it in a candlestick, his voice carries a disdain for the props of piety that still feels startling. And so with the tale of the boy who wastes his inheritance but gets a feast from his father, while his dutiful brother doesn’t; or the one about the weeping whore who is worthier than her good, prim onlookers; or about the passionate Mary who is better than her hardworking sister Martha. There is a wild gaiety about Jesus’ moral teachings that still leaps off the page. He is informal in a new way, too, that remains unusual among prophets. MacCulloch points out that he continually addresses God as “Abba,” Father, or even Dad, and that the expression translated in the King James Version as a solemn “Verily I say unto you” is actually a quirky Aramaic throat-clearer, like Dr. Johnson’s “Depend upon it, Sir.”

Some of the sayings do have, in their contempt for material prosperity, the ring of Greek Cynic philosophy, but there is also something neither quite Greek nor quite Jewish about Jesus’ morality that makes it fresh and strange even now. Is there a more miraculous scene in ancient literature than the one in John where Jesus absent-mindedly writes on the ground while his fellow-Jews try to entrap him into approving the stoning of an adulteress, only to ask, wide-eyed, if it wouldn’t be a good idea for the honor of throwing the first stone to be given to the man in the mob who hasn’t sinned himself? Is there a more compressed and charming religious exhortation than the one in the Gospel of Thomas in which Jesus merrily recommends to his disciples, “Be passersby”? Too much fussing about place and home and ritual, and even about where, exactly, you’re going to live, is unnecessary: be wanderers, dharma bums.

This social radicalism still shines through—not a programmatic radicalism of national revolution but one of Kerouac-like satori-seeking-on-the-road. And the social radicalism is highly social. The sharpest opposition in the Gospels, the scholar and former priest John Dominic Crossan points out in his illuminating books—“The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant” is the best known—is between John the Faster and Jesus the Feaster. Jesus eats and drinks with whores and highwaymen, turns water into wine, and, finally, in one way or another, establishes a mystical union at a feast through its humble instruments of bread and wine.

The table is his altar in every sense. Crossan, the co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, makes a persuasive case that Jesus’ fressing was perhaps the most radical element in his life—that his table manners pointed the way to his heavenly morals. Crossan sees Jesus living within a Mediterranean Jewish peasant culture, a culture of clan and cohort, in which who eats with whom defines who stands where and why. So the way Jesus repeatedly violates the rules on eating, on “commensality,” would have shocked his contemporaries. He dines with people of a different social rank, which would have shocked most Romans, and with people of different tribal allegiance, which would have shocked most Jews. The most forceful of his sayings, still shocking to any pious Jew or Muslim, is “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him unclean, but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him unclean.” Jesus isn’t a hedonist or an epicurean, but he clearly isn’t an ascetic, either: he feeds the multitudes rather than instructing them how to go without. He’s interested in saving people living normal lives, buying and selling what they can, rather than in retreating into the company of those who have already arrived at a moral conclusion about themselves.

To a modern reader, the relaxed egalitarianism of the open road and the open table can seem undermined by the other part of Jesus’ message, a violent and even vengeful prediction of a final judgment and a large-scale damnation. In Mark, Jesus is both a fierce apocalyptic prophet who is preaching the death of the world—he says categorically that the end is near—and a wise philosophical teacher who professes love for his neighbor and supplies advice for living. If the end is near, why give so much sage counsel? If human life is nearly over, why preach in such detail the right way to live? One argument is that a later, perhaps “unpersonified” body of Hellenized wisdom literature was tacked on to an earlier account of a Jewish messianic prophet. Since both kinds of literature—apocalyptic hysterics and stoic sayings—can be found all over the period, perhaps they were merely wrenched together.

And yet a single figure who “projects” two personae at the same time, or in close sequence, one dark and one dreamy, is a commonplace among charismatic prophets. That’s what a charismatic prophet is: someone whose aura of personal conviction manages to reconcile a hard doctrine with a humane manner. The leaders of the African-American community before the civil-rights era, for instance, had to be both prophets and political agitators to an oppressed and persecuted people in a way not unlike that of the real Jesus (and all the other forgotten zealots and rabbis whom the first-century Jewish historian Josephus names and sighs over). They, too, tended to oscillate between the comforting and the catastrophic. Malcolm X was the very model of a modern apocalyptic prophet-politician, unambiguously preaching violence and a doctrine of millennial revenge, all fuelled by a set of cult beliefs—a hovering U.F.O., a strange racial myth. But Malcolm was also a community builder, a moral reformer (genuinely distraught over the sexual sins of his leader), who refused to carry weapons, and who ended, within the constraints of his faith, as some kind of universalist. When he was martyred, he was called a prophet of hate; within three decades of his death—about the time that separates the Gospels from Jesus—he could be the cover subject of a liberal humanist magazine like this one. One can even see how martyrdom and “beatification” draws out more personal detail, almost perfectly on schedule: Alex Haley, Malcolm’s Paul, is long on doctrine and short on details; thirty years on, Spike Lee, his Mark, has a full role for a wife and children, and a universalist message that manages to blend Malcolm into Mandela. (As if to prove this point, just the other week came news of suppressed chapters of Haley’s “Autobiography,” which, according to Malcolm’s daughter, “showed too much of my father’s humanity.”)

As the Bacchae knew, we always tear our Gods to bits, and eat the bits we like. Still, a real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what’s required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative. The idea, for instance, that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy’s camp makes sound and sober sense, of a kind, in Tolkien; but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy. Anyone watching Hamlet will find his behavior completely understandable—O.K., I buy it; he’s toying with his uncle—though any critic thinking about it afterward will reflect that this behavior is a little nuts.

In Mark, Jesus’ divinity unfolds without quite making sense intellectually, and without ever needing to. It has the hypnotic flow of dramatic movement. The story is one of self-discovery: he doesn’t know who he is and then he begins to think he does and then he doubts and in pain and glory he dies and is known. The story works. But, as a proposition under scrutiny, it makes intolerable demands on logic. If Jesus is truly one with God, in what sense could he suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, horror, and so on? So we get the Jesus rendered in the Book of John, who doesn’t. But if he doesn’t suffer doubt, fear, exasperation, pain, and horror, in what sense is his death a sacrifice rather than just a theatrical enactment? A lamb whose throat is not cut and does not bleed is not really much of an offering.

None of this is very troubling if one has a pagan idea of divinity: the Son of God might then be half human and half divine, suffering and triumphing and working out his heroic destiny in the half-mortal way of Hercules, for instance. But that’s ruled out by the full weight of the Jewish idea of divinity—omnipresent and omniscient, knowing all and seeing all. If God he was—not some Hindu-ish avatar or offspring of God, but actually one with God—then God once was born and had dirty diapers and took naps. The longer you think about it, the more astounding, or absurd, it becomes. To be really believed at all, it can only be told again.


You can easily imagine what He'd do today, break tortilla with illegals.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 26, 2010 9:06 PM
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