Friday, March 1, 2013

Reading Entirely for Pleasure Now

I stumbled on a little book at the library called So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore: An Unexpected Journey by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman (Windblown Media, 2006).  Its premise is that the protagonist meets a man who "just might be one of Jesus' original disciples -- still living in the twenty-first century ... That's Jake's dilemma as he meets a man who talks of Jesus as if he had known him, and whose way of living challenges everything Jake had previously known."  Lots of alarm signals there, but it's a small book and I decided to see what the authors made of their idea.

The cold I've had this week has put a damper on my ability to read stuff that actively annoys me, however, so for now I'm going to put the book aside.  It's due at the library tomorrow, so maybe I'll try it again later.  Here's where I got to on my first try.

Jake has a twelve-year-old daughter with asthma, and though he's a Christian he clearly hasn't been getting the strength and support from his God that Christian marketing promises.  He remembers his first encounter with the man who just might be one of Jesus' original disciples.  The stranger informs a squabbling crowd in the street:
"He was nothing special to look at.  He could walk down the street today and not one of you would even notice him.  In fact he had the kind of face you would shy away from, certain he wouldn't fit in with your crowd.
That seems a bit self-contradictory: someone whose face you'd shy away from is not someone who is "nothing special to look at."
"But he was as gentle a man as one would ever know.  He could silence detractors without ever raising his voice.  He never bullied his way; never drew attention to himself nor did he ever pretend to like what vexed his soul.  He was real, to the very core...

"And with all that love, he was completely honest.  Yet even when his actions or words exposed people's darkest motives, they didn't feel shamed.  They felt safe, really safe with him.  His words carried not even a hint of judgment, simply an entreaty to come to God... [18]."
And so on.

Well, maybe.  We don't, in fact, know anything about the historical Jesus: nothing about his appearance, how old he was when he died, we can't be sure about what he said or taught or did.  Our surest historical information is that he was crucified sometime between 26 and 36 CE, because Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect or procurator of Judea during those years, and there's general agreement that Jesus was executed under Pilate's administration.  That could conceivably be wrong too, but there's no evidence against it at present.

But if the stranger's description is accurate, it is utterly at odds with the gospels' depiction of Jesus, and I don't think that Jacobsen and Coleman want to discredit the canonical gospels.  They want to discredit some present-day people's idea of what Jesus was like, and gather them to the fold of some form of orthodox Christianity.

Any reading of a text will be subjective, but I can't see how anyone reading the gospels would come away with the impression of Jesus as a consistently gentle person, one who never judged, one who never raised his voice, one who never bullied, one who didn't draw attention to himself.  Hello!  Wandering around Galilee and drawing crowds in the thousands, doing faith healing and exorcisms and nature miracles drew attention to him, and unless he was barely sentient he knew what he was doing.  The cleansing of the Temple was hardly the act of a person who didn't care if he was noticed or not -- all the more so if, as some interpreters complain, it was a purely symbolic gesture that achieved nothing except to hasten his arrest and death.  According to the gospels Jesus drew attention to himself because that was his mission: to proclaim the good news, to arouse enmity, and to die on the cross.

Throughout the gospels Jesus is judgmental, dividing the sheep from the goats, the elect from the denied, the saved from the damned.  I'm not sure how you can read a saying like "You snakes!  You brood of vipers!  How will you escape condemnation to hell?" (Matthew 23:33) and not get a strong feeling of judgment.  As for bullying, when Simon Peter denied that Jesus as messiah would have to die, Jesus reportedly responded, "Get behind me, Satan!  You think as men think, not as God thinks!" (Mark 8:33).  Again, I suppose that someone sufficiently determined could read that -- a master reproving his disciple, with all the authority issues it implies -- as not-bullying, but I can't.  Decide for yourself.

Of course this is more or less what I expected, and one reason I think I should try to read the entire book is to try to figure out what the authors think they're doing: do they have any notion at all of how they've departed from the same scriptures they presumably regard as the true record of Jesus and his teaching?  I have no objection to people just making stuff up, but I do marvel at the doublethink it takes to make it up without noticing you're diverging drastically from your source material, and indeed insisting that you're only submitting to its truth.

Imagine that someone wrote a little book about someone who he thought might have known Frodo Baggins, and this someone told how people misunderstand Frodo: they think he's a tiny, bookish little guy, but in fact he was a mighty warrior, seven feet tall and three ax handles across the shoulders, who spent his nights carousing and wenching in the taverns before he went on his quest of the Ring.  When you're writing fiction you can do pretty much what you want, but would anyone agree that this was the "real" Frodo?  It seems to me that Jacobsen and Coleman, far from challenging modern Christians' ideas of Jesus, constructed the Jesus they'd like to believe in themselves.  And not just they, but many other Christians as well.