Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Five Gospels

The writing in the dust

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A few days ago, I found myself thinking at length about what might well be the most moving passage in the entire Bible. It’s the scene in the Gospel of John in which the Pharisees, hoping to trap Jesus, bring forward a woman taken in adultery and ask him if she should be stoned according to the law, only to hear him respond: “Whoever is sinless in this crowd should go ahead and throw the first stone.” After the other onlookers drift off one by one, embarrassed, leaving just the woman behind, Jesus asks if anyone has condemned her. When she answers no, he says: “I don’t condemn you either. You’re free to go, but from now on, no more sinning.” (The story was memorably, if freely, adapted as one of the most powerful scenes in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ.) In The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar writes of the passage:

The earliest ancient manuscripts of John do not have it, and modern scholars are virtually unanimous in concluding that it was not an original part of the Fourth Gospel…An impartial evaluation of the story has been impeded by its preservation as part of the Gospel of John…The fundamental question is whether this anecdote is a fragment that survived from an otherwise unknown gospel. Had it been discovered as a separate piece of papyrus, it would have attracted serious scholarly attention in its own right.

In the end, the seminar endorses it mildly, less as a real incident than as a reflection of what we know about Jesus himself, and the companion volume The Five Gospels includes the remarkable line: “While the Fellows agreed that the words did not originate in their present form with Jesus, they nevertheless assigned the words and story to a special category of things they wish Jesus had said and done.”

I feel the same way. But I haven’t even mentioned the one detail that has always struck me—and many other readers—the most. When the Pharisees first pose their question, Jesus doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he stoops down and silently draws on the ground with his finger. He responds only after they insist on a reply, and then he bends down to write in the dust again. It’s impossible to read this without wondering what he might have been writing, and nearly three centuries ago, the biblical commentator Matthew Henry did as good a job of summarizing the possibilities as anyone could:

It is impossible to tell, and therefore needless to ask, what he wrote; but this is the only mention made in the gospels of Christ’s writing…Some think they have a liberty of conjecture as to what he wrote here. Grotius says, It was some grave weighty saying, and that it was usual for wise men, when they were very thoughtful concerning any thing, to do so. Jerome and Ambrose suppose he wrote, Let the names of these wicked men be written in the dust. Others this, The earth accuses the earth, but the judgment is mine. Christ by this teaches us to be slow to speak when difficult cases are proposed to us, not quickly to shoot our bolt; and when provocations are given us, or we are bantered, to pause and consider before we reply; think twice before we speak once.

That last line seems reasonable enough, and Henry concludes: “He did as it were look another way, to show that he was not willing to take notice of their address, saying, in effect, Who made me a judge or a divider?”

And the passage, authentic or not, is also precious as one of the few everyday actions of Jesus that have been passed down to us. I’ve spoken elsewhere of a gospel of nouns and verbs, but nearly all of it occurs in Jesus’s words, not in descriptions of him preserved by others. Jesus writes on the ground; he falls asleep in a boat; he feels hungry; he breaks bread and pours wine; he weeps. There isn’t much more. Part of this reflects the fact that the gospels emerged from an oral tradition, but it also testifies to its debt to its literary predecessors. In his great book Mimesis, Erich Auerbach writes of the Old Testament story of the binding of Isaac:

In this atmosphere it is unthinkable that an implement, a landscape through which the travelers passed, the servingmen, or the ass, should be described, that their origin or descent or material or appearance or usefulness should be set forth in terms of praise; they do not even admit an adjective: they are serving-men, ass, wood, and knife, and nothing else, without an epithet; they are there to serve the end which God has commanded; what in other respects they were, are, or will be, remains in darkness. A journey is made, because God has designated the place where the sacrifice is to be performed; but we are told nothing about the journey except that it took three days, and even that we are told in a mysterious way: Abraham and his followers rose “early in the morning” and “went unto” the place of which God had told him; on the third day he lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. That gesture is the only gesture, is indeed the only occurrence during the whole journey, of which we are told…It is as if, while he traveled on, Abraham had looked neither to the right nor to the left, had suppressed any sign of life in his followers and himself save only their footfalls.

At first glance, this style might seem primitive compared to that of the Iliad or the Odyssey, but as Auerbach points out, its effect on its audience goes much deeper than what we find in Homer:

The world of the Scripture stories is not satisfied with claiming to be a historically true reality—it insists that it is the only real world, is destined for autocracy. All other scenes, issues, and ordinances have no right to appear independently of it, and it is promised that all of them, the history of all mankind, will be given their due place within its frame, will be subordinated to it. The Scripture stories do not, like Homer’s, court our favor, they do not flatter us that they may please us and enchant us—they seek to subject us, and if we refuse to be subjected we are rebels…Far from seeking, like Homer, merely to make us forget our own reality for a few hours, it seeks to overcome our reality: we are to fit our own life into its world, feel ourselves to be elements in its structure of universal history.

This is the tradition to which Jesus—a historical person who feels much closer to many of us than the distant, shadowy figure of Abraham—was subordinated by the author of the gospels. As a literary strategy, it was a masterstroke, and it went a long way toward enabling Jesus to strike up an existence in the inner lives of so many. (Which doesn’t mean that its virtues are obvious. Norman Mailer once said of the gospels: “Where you don’t have a wonderful sentence, what you get is some pretty dull prose and a contradictory, almost hopeless way of telling the story.”) It also means, for better or worse, that Jesus can mean all things to all people. We no longer see him clearly, and he’s being used even as I write this to justify all forms of belief and behavior. My version of him is no more legitimate than that of anyone else. But I prefer to believe in the man who drew that line in the sand.

Swallowing the turkey

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Benjamin Disraeli

Lord Rowton…says that he once asked Disraeli what was the most remarkable, the most self-sustained and powerful sentence he knew. Dizzy paused for a moment, and then said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

—Augustus J.C. Hare, The Story of My Life

Disraeli was a politician and a novelist, which is an unusual combination, and he knew his business. Politics and writing have less to do with each other than a lot of authors might like to believe, and the fact that you can create a compelling world on paper doesn’t mean that you can do the same thing in real life. (One of the hidden themes of Astounding is that the skills that many science fiction writers acquired in organizing ideas on the page turned out to be notably inadequate when it came to getting anything done during World War II.) Yet both disciplines can be equally daunting and infuriating to novices, in large part because they both involve enormously complicated projects—often requiring years of effort—that need to be approached one day at a time. A single day’s work is rarely very satisfying in itself, and you have to cling to the belief that countless invisible actions and compromises will somehow result in something real. It doesn’t always happen, and even if it does, you may never get credit or praise. The ability to deal with the everyday tedium of politics or writing is what separates professionals from amateurs. And in both cases, the greatest accomplishments are usually achieved by freaks who can combine an overarching vision with a finicky obsession with minute particulars. As Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé, who was both a diplomat and literary critic, said of Tolstoy, it requires “a queer combination of the brain of an English chemist with the soul of an Indian Buddhist.”

And if you go into either field without the necessary degree of patience, the results can be unfortunate. If you’re a writer who can’t subordinate yourself to the routine of writing on a daily basis, the most probable outcome is that you’ll never finish your novel. In politics, you end up with something very much like what we’ve all observed over the last few weeks. Regardless of what you might think about the presidential refugee order, its rollout was clearly botched, thanks mostly to a president and staff that want to skip over all the boring parts of governing and get right to the good stuff. And it’s tempting to draw a contrast between the incumbent, who achieved his greatest success on reality television, and his predecessor, a detail-oriented introvert who once thought about becoming a novelist. (I’m also struck, yet again, by the analogy to L. Ron Hubbard. He spent most of his career fantasizing about a life of adventure, but when he finally got into the Navy, he made a series of stupid mistakes—including attacking two nonexistent submarines off the coast of Oregon—that ultimately caused him to be stripped of his command. The pattern repeated itself so many times that it hints at a fundamental aspect of his personality. He was too impatient to deal with the tedious reality of life during wartime, which failed to live up to the version he had dreamed of himself. And while I don’t want to push this too far, it’s hard not to notice the difference between Hubbard, who cranked out his fiction without much regard for quality, and Heinlein, a far more disciplined writer who was able to consciously tame his own natural impatience into a productive role at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.)

R.H. Blyth

Which brings us back to the sentence that impressed Disraeli. It’s easy to interpret it as an admonition not to think about the future, which isn’t quite right. We can start by observing that it comes at the end of what The Five Gospels notes is possibly “the longest connected discourse that can be directly attributed to Jesus.” It’s the one that asks us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, which, for a lot of us, prompts an immediate flashback to The Life of Brian. (“Consider the lilies?” “Uh, well, the birds, then.” “What birds?” “Any birds.” “Why?” “Well, have they got jobs?”) But whether or not you agree with the argument, it’s worth noticing that the advice to focus on the evils of each day comes only after an extended attempt at defining a larger set of values—what matters, what doesn’t, and what, if anything, you can change by worrying. You’re only in a position to figure out how best to spend your time after you’ve considered the big questions. As the physician William Osler put it:

[My ideal is] to do the day’s work well and not to bother about tomorrow. You may say that is not a satisfactory ideal. It is; and there is not one which the student can carry with him into practice with greater effect. To it more than anything else I owe whatever success I have had—to this power of settling down to the day’s work and trying to do it well to the best of my ability, and letting the future take care of itself.

This has important implications for both writers and politicians, as well as for progressives who wonder how they’ll be able to get through the next twenty-four hours, much less the next four years. When you’re working on any important project, even the most ambitious agenda comes down to what you’re going to do right now. In On Directing Film, David Mamet expresses it rather differently:

Now, you don’t eat a whole turkey, right? You take off the drumstick and you take a bite of the drumstick. Okay. Eventually you get the whole turkey done. It’ll probably get dry before you do, unless you have an incredibly good refrigerator and a very small turkey, but that is outside the scope of this lecture.

A lot of frustration in art, politics, and life in general comes from attempting to swallow the turkey in one bite. Jesus, I think, was aware of the susceptibility of his followers to grandiose but meaningless gestures, which is why he offered up the advice, so easy to remember and so hard to follow, to simultaneously focus on the given day while keeping the kingdom of heaven in mind. Nearly every piece of practical wisdom in any field is about maintaining that double awareness. Fortunately, it goes in both directions: small acts of discipline aid us in grasping the whole, and awareness of the whole tells us what to do in the moment. As R.H. Blyth says of Zen: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.” And don’t try to eat the entire turkey at once.

The gospel of nouns and verbs

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The Elements of Style

That’s not a Bible issue.

Franklin Graham, on the presidential refugee order

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White advise in The Elements of Style. It’s one of the first rules that many aspiring writers hear, and it doesn’t take long to figure out why it works. When you make a point of telling stories and expressing thoughts using tangible nouns and concrete verbs, you quickly find that the result is more vivid, clear, and memorable. It’s an exercise in clarity that amounts to a form of courtesy, not just to the reader, but to yourself. Not every idea can be conveyed in the form of images or actions, but by at least making the effort, you’re more likely to discover the areas where your own thinking is muddled or incomplete. The reverse also holds true. Just as a safety handbook becomes a sabotage manual when you just do the opposite of everything it says, The Elements of Style can be used to confuse and mislead, simply by inverting each of its rules into its own negation. By relying on the passive voice, vague language, and empty abstractions, you can make it harder for readers to understand what you’re really saying, or even to think for themselves. As George Orwell knew, such tactics can be used deliberately by governments to discourage critical thinking, and they can also be used unconsciously to avoid uncomfortable truths that we’d prefer not to confront. (My favorite illustration is Vijith Assar’s “An Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar,” which is maybe the single best piece of online content I’ve seen in the last decade.)

And for an example of its potential consequences, you don’t need to look any further than an ongoing experiment that has been underway, in one form or another, for close to two thousand years. It’s called the New Testament. I’ve spoken before of my admiration for The Five Gospels, an ambitious attempt to use modern scholarly tools and consensus to uncover the original core of Jesus’s message. The Jesus Seminar takes a number of approaches to evaluating the authenticity of this material, but one of its most powerful methods comes down to an application of simple common sense. By definition, anything that Jesus said that survived to be written down in the latter half of the first century must have persisted for decades by word of mouth. We can get a rough sense of how that oral tradition might have looked by figuring out, almost from first principles, what kind of material is most likely to be passed down with a minimum of alteration. It tends to consist mostly of short, pithy, self-contained sayings or stories with distinctive ideas, memorable images, or apparent paradoxes. The resulting “database” of parables and aphorisms can be used as a baseline from which we can analyze the rest, and what we find, inevitably, is that the teachings that pass this initial test are concrete, rather than abstract—a gospel of nouns and verbs. You could even say that the whole point of Strunk and White’s rule is to make written prose approximate the vigor and power of spoken language. And the sayings of Jesus that have been transmitted to us intact exemplify a predominantly oral culture at its best.

The Five Gospels

As the scholars of the Jesus Seminar take pains to point out, identifying certain verses as more likely to have emerged from an oral tradition doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rest. But it’s no exaggeration to say that when we read the gospels with an eye to emphasizing what might plausibly have been recalled by Jesus’s original listeners, we end up with a picture that is startlingly different from what many of us hear in church. For one thing, it’s a message that consists largely of specific actions. Here are some of the sayings that seem most likely to be authentic:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to everyone who begs from you. Love your enemies.

The Jesus Seminar also identifies verses in which the sentiment appears to have been modified over time to make it more palatable. Matthew, for instance, has “Give to the one who begs from you,” which feels like a softening of Luke’s impossible “Give to everyone who begs from you.” In addition, we end up losing many extended passages of theological exposition that seem unlikely to have been remembered by anyone. Most strikingly, this means giving up nearly all of the Gospel of John, in which Jesus does little else but make claims about himself or expound upon his own nature—a portrait that is inconsistent with both the mechanics of oral transmission and what little we know about Jesus himself.

And I don’t think I’m alone in saying that this gospel is very different from the one that I associate with going to church, which sometimes seems to consist of nothing but metaphysical claims and confessions of belief. This is partially a statistical artifact: the original words of Jesus, whatever they were, account for a very small percentage of the verses in the New Testament. But I think there’s also something more insidious at work. Organized religion embraces abstract language for the same reason that it was incorporated into the gospels in the first place: it makes it easier to live with the underlying message by diluting it beyond recognition, and it excludes outsiders while smoothing over inconvenient issues that might divide the congregation. It’s far easier to meditate on the nature of Christ than to consider the true implications of the words “Sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor.” (One of the first notable schisms within the church, revealingly, was over a choice of adjectives.) Like many forms of institutionalized abstraction, it has real implications for the inner lives of its believers. It makes it possible for millions of Christians to convince themselves that the recent presidential order on refugees is consistent with the values that Jesus explicitly expressed toward the poor, the vulnerable, and the homeless. Franklin Graham, whose own charity is named for the parable that tells us that compassion goes beyond borders, says that it isn’t a biblical issue. Maybe it isn’t, at least not in the subset of the Bible that he has chosen to take to heart. But Orwell had a word for it—doublethink. And Graham would do well to remember the verse that reads: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

The kingdom of leaven

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The Parable of the Leaven by Jan Luyken

Last month, at the church that my wife and I attend in Oak Park, the pastor delivered a sermon on a passage from the First Epistle to Timothy, which I can only assume was intended to make his overwhelmingly liberal congregation uncomfortable:

I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all goodness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our savior, who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto knowledge of the truth.

He followed this with a prayer that invoked both presidential candidates by name, asking that they be granted wisdom and strength, regardless of the outcome of the election. After the service, my wife said to me: “I don’t want to pray for Donald Trump.” I responded, a bit lamely, that I had to give the pastor credit for delivering a message that the majority of his congregants probably didn’t want to hear. But I didn’t disagree with her. And it’s a point worth raising again today, when well-meaning calls for the country to come together are being opposed by voices that argue, unanswerably, that it’s hard to ask the groups that are most vulnerable right now—minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community—to preemptively forgive and embrace their oppressors.

So what would Jesus do? When we honestly ask this of ourselves, the answers don’t become any easier, and perhaps they shouldn’t. But it’s an important question. I’m agnostic, and I go to church mostly for the sake of my wife and daughter, but I also spend more time thinking about the words of Jesus than I do of any other religious figure or philosopher, if only because they reward extended reflection. My usual gateways are The Five Gospels, in which the Jesus Seminar valiantly attempts to separate the authentic sayings from material that has accrued or been deliberately added over time, and the work of the scholar R.H. Blyth, who saw Jesus as an exemplar of the life of Zen. This approach is unavoidably skewed, a view through a particular lens, but that’s also something that we all do. The fact that evangelicals voted overwhelmingly for Trump tells me that they’re picking and choosing, too, and that they’re acting according to the subset of the Bible that they find most congenial to their needs. I don’t have any qualms about doing the same thing. In part, it’s because it consoles me, but it’s also because I refuse to allow the religious right and their opportunistic allies to claim Jesus for themselves. On some level, we’re all editing the text, taking the parts that we need and leaving the rest. For instance, I doubt that my pastor would have gotten the same response from the crowd if he had gone just a few verses further in his text and read: “Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed by Jan Luyken

And when I turn to what seem like the original words of Jesus, or at least the ones that might plausibly have been preserved through a purely oral tradition, there are two that stand out for our present moment. The first is “Love your enemies.” The second is “Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give to God what belongs to God.” Neither is a particularly easy saying, but they both arise from the same set of concerns. As I’ve written elsewhere, I prefer to see Jesus as the ultimate pragmatist. If you believe that the kingdom of heaven is something that is happening right now, it has a way of focusing your priorities. Hating your enemies is a waste of time and energy. If you’re ruthlessly practical about it, you find that it makes more sense to love them. Similarly, from the perspective of the truly destitute, the beggars who are beneath even the ordinary poor, it doesn’t matter who rules. It certainly doesn’t change the way they ought to act. Jesus of Nazareth, the historical figure, would be utterly indifferent to political outcomes. That seems clear enough. But part of me also resists it. Taken literally, it appears to advocate passivity, acceptance, and a surrender to the idea that everything is part of a larger plan. Maybe it is—but it’s worth remembering that this plan can also include our reactions to it, in pockets of opposition, big and small, that take place far from the circles of power. And it doesn’t speak much to those who are honestly afraid right now. So you’ll forgive me if I push past the obvious answer, even if I suspect that it’s probably true, and dig deeper for something that gives me what I need.

I’m going to close my thoughts on this awful week, then, with the idea of the kingdom of heaven itself. Jesus talks about it endlessly, but he never says explicitly what it is. Instead, he speaks in parables, which are ultimately the only way in which it can be described. And what strikes me the most about the kingdom of heaven, as reconstructed from the sayings that we have the greatest reason to regard as genuine, is how modest and everyday it is. In the original version of the parable of the mustard seed, for example, it’s a tiny seed that grows into a weedy little shrub. It’s only much later, in versions that were designed to make this disconcertingly humble analogy seem more conventionally impressive, that it gets inflated into “the greatest of shrubs,” or a majestic tree in which the birds of heaven build their nests. But the underlying image is that of a common plant that grows underfoot and can’t be eradicated. And in both Matthew and Luke, it’s followed by the most beautiful parable that we have, as well as one of the strangest:

The kingdom of heaven is like leaven which a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.

I may not know what the kingdom of heaven means, but I think that we get very close to it here. It’s invisible. Like leaven, or yeast, it’s something that the unthinkingly devout dismiss as impure, unclean, or sinful. It does its work in hiding. And it happens in the hands of a woman.

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November 11, 2016 at 9:04 am

My alternative canon #5: The Last Temptation of Christ

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The Last Temptation of Christ

Note: I’ve often discussed my favorite movies on this blog, but I also love films that are relatively overlooked or unappreciated. Over the next week and a half, I’ll be looking at some of the neglected gems, problem pictures, and flawed masterpieces that have shaped my inner life, and which might have become part of the standard cinematic canon if the circumstances had been just a little bit different. You can read the previous installments here

With the passage of time, most of the great scandals of film history start to feel positively quaint, but I don’t think there’s any doubt that if The Last Temptation of Christ were released again today, it would be the most controversial movie of its year. Even if you were to subtract its most obviously inflammatory scenes—the early sequence of Jesus as a crossmaker, the fantasy of his marriage to Mary Magdalene—you’d be left with a work of art that commits the ultimate sin of religious cinema: it engages the message of Jesus on its own terms, rather than as a series of sedate picture postcards. As studies like The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus make clear, one of the few things we can say for sure about Jesus of Nazareth is that many of those around him believed that he was insane, and when we watch Willem Dafoe in the title role, we can begin to remember why. This isn’t to say that I necessarily regard Scorsese’s, or Kazantzakis’s, vision as historically accurate: the idea of Jesus as a failed revolutionary who finally came to terms with his divinity makes for a nice three-act structure, but I’m not sure if it’s sustained by a close reading of the gospels. But the movie’s agonized effort to reimagine the most familiar story in the western tradition is unbelievably important. It’s the only Biblical movie I’ve ever seen that tries to stage these events as if they were happening for the first time, and the experience of watching it forces us, at every turn, to confront the strangeness of what it might mean to be both fully human and fully divine. The movie never doubts the divinity of Jesus: it’s Jesus himself who does.

And the fact that this film exists at all is something of a miracle. It was Scorsese’s second attempt to adapt Kazantzakis’s novel, and you can tell that it was shot on a shoestring. If it succeeds far more often than we’d have any right to expect, it’s thanks largely to the script by Paul Schrader, which is the best he ever wrote. (Among other things, it’s often genuinely funny, which is incredible in itself.) It’s full of fine performances, including a nice little cameo by Irvin Kershner, but my favorite is Harvey Keitel as Judas Iscariot, a role that is inevitably charged by our knowledge of the actor’s history with his director: in the scene in which the aging Judas accuses Jesus of having abandoned his mission, Keitel asked to deliver the speech to Scorsese, who is lying just out of the frame. It may not be my favorite Scorsese movie—these days, it’s a tossup between Taxi Driver, Casino, and The Departed—but it’s the one that continues to mean the most to me. I’ve watched it many times, and it rarely fails to move me to tears, although never in the same place twice. These days, the moment that haunts me the most comes after a beautiful young angel has taken Jesus down from the cross, inviting him to look at the world with fresh eyes: “Maybe you’ll find this hard to believe, but sometimes we angels look down on men and envy you. Really envy you.” The angel, of course, turns out to be Satan. And the movie’s central accomplishment is that it makes the last temptation, with its vision of an ordinary life, seem very tempting indeed, which only reminds us of the courage required for any man to reject it for something more.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2016 at 9:00 am

My great books #10: The Five Gospels

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The Five Gospels

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

It’s hard to deny that the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth deserve to be a part of any thinking person’s education, regardless of one’s religious convictions, and to the extent that many people are uncomfortable with this, it has less to do with the teachings themselves than with the interpretations and additions that have accrued around them over time. What makes this even harder is the fact that the process of revision begins in the gospels themselves, which were written long afterward to serve an early church with urgent needs of its own. Restoring the original message to the degree that we can stands is a project of tremendous importance, and The Five Gospels, published by the Jesus Seminar, is the most attractive and thought-provoking effort I’ve seen to present those core ideas in a form accessible to readers of all backgrounds. It’s a fascinating act of communal detective work, and even if the results are far from definitive, they deserve our consideration and respect. The seminar’s methods—voting by means of colored beads, with passages marked red, pink, gray, or black in order of their level of perceived authenticity—might seem odd at first, and you could make a good case that its judgments are colored by certain assumptions, such as the idea that Jesus was unlikely to have made assertions about his own nature, and that his vision was less one of apocalypse than of making the kingdom of heaven a reality in this world. Yet every act of criticism is predicated on similar preconceptions, and the Jesus Seminar comes as close as we can to highlighting material that seems to have survived intact. The rest, as they say, is left as an exercise for the reader.

The seminar starts by identifying short, memorable passages, like “Turn the other cheek,” that seem likely to have been remembered and passed down through the oral tradition, and then uses those clues as a guide for compiling a portrait that, even if incomplete, at least gives us a persuasive starting point. And its approach is best judged by its fruits. Here, for instance, are the moral statements that the seminar marked as red:

Don’t react violently against the one who is evil: when someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. When someone wants to sue you for your shirt, let that person have your coat along with it. Further, when anyone conscripts you for one mile, go an extra mile. Give to the one who begs from you. Congratulations, you poor! God’s domain belongs to you. Congratulations, you hungry! You will have a feast. Congratulations, you who weep now! You will laugh. Love your enemies. Give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor, give God what belongs to God.

This certainly feels like the heart of what remains the most challenging of all ethical paths, if we’re willing to read it as closely as it demands, and it doesn’t force us to exclude the rest—only to examine it in the light of what feels like its indispensable center. Taken simply as a work of literature in its own right, the slice of the gospels that the seminar emphasizes is enough for a lifetime’s thought and meditation, and it stands as a rebuke to all of us. And underlying it all is the seminar’s stark admonition, which we’d all be advised to heed: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2015 at 9:30 am

Books for a long journey

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A Pattern Language

Earlier this week, I read Keith Gessen’s fascinating account in The New Yorker of the voyage of the Nordic Odyssey, a bulk carrier with a load of iron ore that sailed from Russia to China through the melting Arctic ice. Gessen notes that one of the greatest challenges on a month-long voyage like this is boredom: deprived of email and alcohol, crew members tend to spend their time playing solitaire, watching downloaded television shows on their laptops, and engaging in epic ping-pong matches. Reading this, I began to daydream of the books I would take on such a voyage. I often like to ask myself what books I would keep if I were compelled, for reasons of space, weight, or minimalism, to restrict myself to a few compact volumes, and recently I’ve been thinking about this a lot, perhaps because, with a baby in the house, I’m not sure when I’ll take such a trip again. The books I’d bring would need to be dense, open to rereading, and small enough to fit in a small suitcase or backpack—which means that I’d need to leave Proust and The Annotated Sherlock Holmes behind. At the moment, in my private reveries, this is my traveler’s library:

1. Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. I’ve long been a devotee of R.H. Blyth’s eccentric, prickly masterpiece, but I’ve gradually come to see it as one of my indispensable books, and perhaps the only one I’d bring with me if, for whatever reason, I had to spend a year or two reading nothing but what I could carry. At heart, it’s an opinionated, sometimes cranky philosophy of life that owes as much to Jesus, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare as to the Zen of the title, and it comes closer than any other book I’ve found to laying out the virtues I strive, with mixed success, to apply to my own life: simplicity, detachment, and objectivity. It’s a distilled anthology of some of the world’s best poetry and prose, both east and west; a spiritual handbook; a guide to literary and artistic expression; and a mine of practical wisdom. I’ve turned to it constantly in recent years, in both good and difficult times, and it’s been an unfailing source of inspiration and pleasure. For decades, it’s been out of print and difficult to find, but I see with some satisfaction that an inexpensive reprint edition should be available in February. Pick it up if you can—I don’t think you’ll regret it.

The Five Gospels

2. The Five Gospels. Even if you’re an agnostic like me, it’s hard to deny that the gospels contain some of the most compelling distilled wisdom in all of literature, even if their message tends to be lost in interpretation and transmission. The genius of the Jesus Seminar has been its commitment to teasing out the core of the original teachings, using a sort of best consensus—based on a majority vote—of textual and historical criticism, and their findings are elegantly presented in this book, which prints the texts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Thomas with colored annotations to indicate various degrees of perceived authenticity. You can quarrel with their methodology and assumptions, and many have, but it’s still riveting to be presented with what certainly feels like the center of what remains the most challenging of all ethical paths, if we’re willing to read it as closely as it demands: “Turn the other cheek.” “Blessed are the poor.” “Walk the second mile.” “Love your enemy.” And underlying it all is the seminar’s pithy admonition, which we’d all be advised to take: “Beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”

3. A Pattern Language. Any great work of philosophy should also be full of useful advice, and the beauty of Christopher Alexander’s classic book—which is the best work of nonfiction of the past fifty years—is that it begins with a vision of the world on the level of nations and cities and brings it down to open shelving and window seats, while managing to remain a seamless whole. Reading it, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of its language and rhythms, which are simultaneously logical, soothing, and impassioned, and quickly come to seem like the voice of a trusted guide and friend. It’s primarily about architecture, but it’s impossible not to apply its lessons to all other aspects of one’s life, from political engagement to writing to web design. Each entry leads to countless others, while also inviting sustained thought and meditation. If I could give only one book to President Obama to read, this would be the one, and it’s also the book, above all others, that seems to offer the best tools to construct a meaningful life of one’s own, whether at home, on the road, or in a cabin on a ship in the Arctic Sea.

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