Sunday, February 26, 2012

Just You Wait Till Your Father Comes Home!

I was poking around in the recent past when I found this interview of Anne Lamott by Joan Walsh. (I got there by way of Walsh's piece on Internet misogyny, which I agree with.)

Now, I like Lamott's writing, from her fiction (all of which I've read) to much of her nonfiction. Bird by Bird is a great book, not just about writing but about being a human being. Operating Instructions, her journal of her first year as a mother, was beautiful too. But when she writes about Faith and Spirituality, she turns me off; I've only read her first Christian book, and that was enough. From time to time I find myself tempted to read the later ones, just because she's a good writer; but then I remember how obnoxious she -- yes, even Anne Lamott -- becomes when she starts talking about God. In this interview she has a lot of good things to say about aging, politics, and Molly Ivins, but first she has to deliver a little sermon.
Everything in the culture says that if you’re a person who really loves Mary or Jesus or one of the Hindu gods or whatever, that you’re not supposed to have jealousy or existential waves of judgment. And I don’t think God ever said that. I think the message of Jesus is “Me too” and “It’s weird down here” and “People can be really awful and the amount of suffering you’re going to see around you, whether in San Francisco or Fairfax or a foreign country, is going to literally blow your mind.” I work like hell but I’m also secretly kind of lazy. I do tons of benefits and stuff like that and yet I’m kind of lazy and shiftless; I take a nap every single afternoon. I have a life that allows a 45-minute nap. So what I can say to people is, “There’s nothing you’ve thought, I haven’t thought too. No matter how awful you behave I can probably relate, although the details will be different.”
That last sentence is good, it's a major part of what I like about her writing. It's what comes before it that doesn't work.

"I don't think that God ever said" that "you're not supposed to have jealousy or existential waves of judgment." Perhaps she should read the gospels, where Jesus says that if you judge others, you'll go to Hell; and that if you even experience lust, let alone act on it, you'll go to Hell. The message of fanatical perfection that she blames on "Everything in the culture" is an echo of Jesus' teachings in the gospels, and particularly in the Sermon on the Mount. I'm not aware of any passages that counter them. I'm sure Lamott has her ways of getting around such sayings, but that's what she has in common with other fundamentalists. Christians have almost two thousand years' experience explaining away troublesome Bible passages. That's long enough that most of the time they can forget that it's what they're doing.
I think the message of Jesus is “Me too” and “It’s weird down here” and “People can be really awful and the amount of suffering you’re going to see around you, whether in San Francisco or Fairfax or a foreign country, is going to literally blow your mind.”
I'd sure like to see her expand on this. It's not very easy, as Lamott surely knows, to boil down all the teachings of Jesus in the gospels to a single message; probably Jesus himself couldn't have done it. It's very subjective, but what's subjective can be discussed, defended, and criticized. "Me too"? The Jesus of the gospels is quite sure that he's better than you, that's why he came to give his life for many. He is, after all, the Son of God, come to rub elbows with the canaille downstairs for a season, until it's time to carry out his suicide mission and return to the heaven from which he came. I can't think of any place in the gospels where Jesus commiserates with anybody; sometimes he takes pity on their suffering, but that's not a "Me too", it's an alm tossed to the lepers. "It's weird down here" doesn't make sense to me at all when I think of the Jesus of the gospels. "People can be really awful and the amount of suffering you're going to see ... is literally going to blow your mind." ("Literally"? I'd hope Jesus wouldn't use that word that way.  And "blow your mind" doesn't have a literal sense: it's a metaphor.) Again, I can't extract this message from the gospels. It's more like, "If you think things are bad here, wait till I cast you into eternal hellfire, you craven sinner! Wait till Our Father comes home!"

And there's the irony. Lamott's conclusion is just fine, but it really has nothing to do with Yahweh or Jesus; their concerns, as far as we can tell from the Bible, are quite different. (Yahweh's, for example, seems to be more like "Ooh, gross! Body fluids! Wash them off this minute before I get sick." Or his take on animal sacrifice: "The food is terrible here -- and such small portions." There is, I admit, more interest in social justice in the Hebrew Bible than in the New Testament, and that's good, but why would an omnipotent, omniscient be be so squeamish about the same ladyparts he created?) Lamott believes in her message because it's what she wants to believe, and I consider it preferable to anything I've ever found in any religion I've looked at. But I don't agree that it's the message of Jesus -- I know the New Testament too well to fall for that.

Which just goes to support my reversal of Gandhi's famous (but evidently apocryphal) platitude: I do not like your Christ. Some of your Christians are pretty decent; they are so unlike your Christ.