Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Jesus Seminar

The writing in the dust

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Note: I’m taking some time off for the holidays, so I’m republishing a few pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 22, 2017. 

About a year 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.

The Long Good Friday

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Every week, my five-year-old daughter brings home a handout from the children’s class at our local church, which we’ve attended now for several years. I’m agnostic, but my wife and I like the community there, and I make a point of finding out what they’ve been telling Beatrix. Usually, we just talk about it for a minute and then move on, but earlier this month, she showed me a worksheet with the five pictures that I’ve reproduced above, which were scrambled up at random. The instructions said: “The Bible story puzzle pieces are all mixed up! Use your stickers to put them in the correct order.” And if they had simply told the story of, say, Noah’s Ark, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Instead, they presented a series of episodes from the death and resurrection of Jesus—the crucifixion, the sealed tomb, Mary Magdalene in mourning, the appearance of the risen Jesus to Mary, and his meal with his disciples. And it occurred to me that if you weren’t familiar with the source material and were asked to put these scenes back together, you’d probably end up with something very different. Reconstructing the sequence wouldn’t take any special knowledge or narrative sophistication. It would be more like a rudimentary logic problem. In the absence of any other information, a reasonable person would presumably come up with an order much like the one that I’ve reproduced below, which goes from the encounters with Mary and the disciples through crucifixion, mourning, and burial. The final image is one of the tomb. It’s pretty depressing, like a Chris Ware comic, but that’s clearly the last picture. How could it be anything else?

This may not seem like much of an insight, but it stuck in my head, and it took me a while to figure out why. The account presented in the canonical gospels hinges on taking the natural sequence of events and then forcibly rearranging them. You might say that Christians, by one definition, are those people who are given these five pictures as a kind of psychological test—but instead of placing them in the “correct” order, they put them in a totally illogical sequence and insist that this is how it was. (It probably isn’t a coincidence that this occurred to me after I saw the passion narrative depicted in what was essentially a comic strip, or what Will Eisner liked to call “sequential art.” When the panels are out of order, you notice it at once.) It’s a narrative inversion, as much as a religious or philosophical one, and you could push it even further and say that this reversal of expectations is analogous to what little we know about what Jesus actually taught. He told us to love our enemies; that the poor are blessed because of their poverty, not in spite of it; that the first will be last and the last will be first; and that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or the leaven that a woman hid in fifty pounds of flour. Many of the miracle stories play on similar violations of an expected sequence. People who are on the verge of death generally don’t just get better, and the dead don’t come back to life. And if experience is any indication, many of us evidently find it easier to believe in the raising of Lazarus than in the idea that we’re supposed to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor.

But I’m also haunted by the sequence that simply ends with the tomb. Many scholars of the historical Jesus have struggled with it, as well as with the possibility that even this version amounts to wishful thinking. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan arrives at an unforgiving conclusion:

What we often forget about crucifixion is the carrion crow and scavenger dog who respectively croak above and growl below the dead or dying body…What actually and historically happened to the body of Jesus can best be judged from watching how later Christian accounts slowly but steadily increased the reverential dignity of their burial accounts…In either case, his body left on the cross or in a shallow grave barely covered with dirt and stones, the dogs were waiting. And his followers, who had fled, would know that, too. Watch, then, how the horror of that brutal truth is sublimated through hope and imagination into its opposite.

Crossan is speaking here of the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who conveniently appears at just the right time to provide a proper burial. But you could easily extend the process of revision to the resurrection itself, which denies the most difficult truth imaginable—that the life of Jesus concluded in unbelievable pain, despair, and death, and that this was the only ending to his ministry that he ever knew.

This is unbearably painful to contemplate, and it might actually be psychologically easier just to rearrange the pieces, in defiance of everything that we think we know about how the world works. But part of me also wants to come to terms with the other version. In the book The Acts of Jesus, the Jesus Seminar is very clear on this point: “The resurrection was not an event that happened on the first Easter Sunday; it was not an event that could have been recorded by a video camera.” But it adds: “Since the earlier strata of the New Testament contain no appearance stories, it does not seem necessary for Christian faith to believe the literal veracity of any of the later narratives.” Many Christians would be unlikely to agree with this. But it’s still worth asking what it would mean to have faith in that message even if the gospels ended there. As Crossan says: “It is a terrible trivialization to imagine that all of Jesus’ followers lost their faith on Good Friday and had it restored by apparitions on Easter Sunday. It is another trivialization to presume that even those who lost their nerve, fled, and hid also lost their faith, love, and hope.” It seems clear that there were early Christians who thought that this story ended with the tomb, and they still believed—which might be the most remarkable fact of all. And I agree with Crossan when he writes:

What happened historically is that those who believed in Jesus before his execution continued to do so afterward. Easter is not about the start of a new faith but about the continuation of an old one. That is the only miracle and the only mystery, and it is more than enough of both.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2018 at 9:22 am

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.

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.

Written by nevalalee

November 11, 2016 at 9:04 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

On Walden Pond

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is a public menace, and he needs to be stopped. That’s the impression, at least, that we get from the critic Kathryn Schulz’s puzzling essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a savage takedown with no apparent news angle aside from the author’s determination to bury, not praise, Thoreau. Schulz tackles the task with relish, pointing out that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Let’s set aside the point, for now, that literary masterpieces in any genre aren’t likely to emerge from any other kind of personality: Walden, Schulz writes, is the work of a misanthrope “whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” The article’s attitude toward Thoreau’s antisocial tendencies is indignant, even strident, and it’s even stranger when we realize that it occupies the same prominent position in the same magazine—and was presumably the product of the same editorial process—as Jonathan Franzen’s equally baffling essay on climate change, in which he more or less advised the rest of us to resign ourselves to a “human catastrophe” to make room for more deserving species. And I can’t help but feel that Schulz has chosen a peculiar target for her rage, at a time when Thoreau, for all his flaws, stands as a necessary counterexample to the unsustainable impulses that surround us on every side.

I could tell that I was going to be out of phase with Schulz almost from the beginning, when she refers to the opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” as “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.” I’ve always found it riveting—it’s possibly the most heavily underlined section in any book I own—and I revisit it on a regular basis, while I rarely feel the need to reread Thoreau’s nature writing, which Schulz likes. But there are other early warning signs that we shouldn’t expect a fair hearing. Schulz dismisses Thoreau’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, including his work as a conductor on the underground railroad, in a single paragraph, and she concludes: “But one may reach good ends by bad means.” (If history has taught us anything, isn’t it that we need to be more concerned about the opposite?) “His moral clarity about abolition,” Schulz writes, “stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” Yet that abstract conviction led him to take positions and actions at considerable risk to his own safety, while the “compassion” of so many others, then as now, resulted in nothing more than moral self-congratulation at a comfortable remove. Walden, Schulz says, is “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” but in practice, it resulted in a greater sense of obligation and responsibility than many of the social and economic platitudes with which we surround ourselves today.

Marker for Thoreau's cabin

Which isn’t to say that Thoreau isn’t a deeply problematic figure. The core of Schulz’s position is familiar, and basically correct: Walden is a work of imaginative literature, not reportage, since Thoreau wasn’t nearly as removed from civilization as he claimed to be, and he wasn’t able to stick for long to the mode of living that he pressed on his readers. Schulz concludes: “So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.” (There’s also the fact that even contemplating such a retreat is a luxury afforded to very few. E.B. White’s famous quip that Thoreau wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected” carries more weight than Schulz’s essay does in its entirety.) But this also misses the point. “His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel,” Schulz writes, but this is a charge that can be leveled, with just as much reason, at other moral exemplars who have manifestly asked for the impossible. Walden is less like a practical handbook than what the Jesus Seminar calls a case parody, an admonition so exaggerated—like “Turn the other cheek”—that it exists only to shock us out of our old assumptions. A more reasoned approach, of the kind that Schulz would evidently prefer, would have had about as much impact as such arguments usually do, which is to say none. Thoreau overcorrects toward an extreme vision of simplicity because so much of America, both in his time and in ours, skews just as strongly in the other direction.

And it’s only through a conversation between extremes that we get at the kind of reasonable middle ground that Schulz finds acceptable. Thoreau wrote that even owning a doormat might mean succumbing to a kind of materialist temptation, of which Schulz says: “Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope.” But this misunderstands how balance arises in the first place. The kind of moderation that Schulz—and I—see as the best way of living doesn’t emerge from aiming constantly at the midpoint: it’s an averaging out of extremes, a pragmatic slalom that allows for a play of competing forces that otherwise would shake themselves apart. (In fact, the best defense of Schulz’s essay is that its shrill attack on Thoreau might be the corrective we need to get at a more realistic portrait, which doesn’t make it any more convincing on its own.) “Restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life,” Schulz writes, as if this were a flaw in Thoreau’s argument, when in fact he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics who recognize that strict rules of simplicity, requiring constant vigilance, are the only way to generate the right kind of complexity. “The hypocrisy,” Schulz says, “is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one.” Yet I don’t think the reader comes away from Walden with any impression other than that of a man of enormous inward complexity enabled by the outward constraints on which he maddeningly insisted. Thoreau’s example, even if it was inherently unattainable, points the way forward. In the words of the man who owned the land on which that cabin was built: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

Written by nevalalee

October 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

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