Tuesday, January 5, 2010

You're Either For Me, or You're With Me

There's a bit too much god-talk for my taste in David Levithan's 2006 young-adult novel Wide Awake, and I can't tell whether there's any irony in it. There should be.

Here's the deal. It's the middle of the 21st century, and America has been through some tough times: more terrorist attacks, wars, and a Greater Depression. By a very narrow margin the US has just elected its first gay Jewish president. Duncan, the book's narrator, is a gay Jewish teen who worked for Abe Stein's campaign. Stein, of course, has a lovely husband, Ron, and two lovely children, Jeffrey and Jess. One of the political forces behind Stein's success is the Jesus Revolution, which emerged early in the century from What Would Jesus Do? bumperstickers. A Jesus Revolution church doesn't have a crucifix over the altar; instead it has an image of Jesus as Buddha.
Over the altar, where a crucifix would preside in a Decent church, there was a beautiful statue of Jesus, peacefully watching over everyone who wandered in, his face showing sympathy, patience, wisdom. Even though it was carved in stone, his eyes shone bright. I was Jewish, but I was still familiar enough with all the old paintings and the old ways to be struck by this.

“You’re seeing?” [Duncan's friend] Gus said. “You expect there to be a cross there, na? But here’s the point-thing: What matters to us, and what mattered to God, is Jesus’s life, not his death. A miracle happened. But the miracle happened because of who Jesus was. The point is to live like him, not to die like him” [38]
Kids, that's real cute, but 1) all the old paintings don't depict Jesus on the cross -- images of the baby Jesus have always been popular, and in demotic American Christianity you'll find Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Jesus blessing children, and Jesus looking soulfully at the sky on the walls of people's homes, though of course the cross is the dominant decoration above altars; 2) an altar is no more cuddly in its meaning than the cross -- it is a place where burnt offerings were made, whether of vegetables or of animals, so its presence in a Christian church invokes Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God. (No, Jesus isn't the Lamb because lambs are cute fuzzy little critters.) And 3), how do the Jesus Revolutionaries know what "mattered to God" any better than the Decents do? (The Decents being the doctrinal heirs of the Christian Right in the novel.)

This comes up again when the governor of Kansas tries to snatch away Abe Stein's victory, alleging irregularities in the voting. Stein's Great Community rises up as one to affirm him as President, and there's tension in Duncan's school.
With a loudness we hadn’t known she still possessed, she [Mary Catherine, recently relapsed to Decency] was beseeching the Lord to swing Kansas to Stein’s [so far unnamed] opponent. The few people in her flock shouted their assent, while the rest of the students just want them to get out of the way.

Janna [a teen Jesus Revolutionary] was pissed.

“I prayed last night, too,” she said to me, glaring in Mary Catherine’s direction. “I prayed for a good long time to God to do the right thing in Kansas. That’s all I said – the right thing. And I guess that’s the difference between Mary Catherine and me: I don’t need I feel I need to tell the Lord what the right thing is. I have the faith the Lord knows [70]”
And by an amazing coincidence, the "right thing" is what Janna wants. Earlier, when Stein's victory had first been announced, she declared, "Somewhere Jesus is smiling." Of course religious believers usually tend to think that what they want, God wants; one of the reasons I'm an atheist is that I notice that they are so sure God wants mutually exclusive things. There's not much difference between Mary Catharine and Janna here; what I wonder is whether David Levithan knows it.

But I'm only halfway through Wide Awake. Duncan and his boyfriend Jimmy have just climbed onto a church bus bound for Kansas to support President-elect Stein. If there are any major revelations ahead, I'll report back.