By Ron Charles
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
A Writer's Encounter With the Gospels
By Mary Gordon
Pantheon. 205 pp. $24.95
What an act of faith for novelist Mary Gordon to imagine that her new book, "Reading Jesus," has a prayer. She admits upfront that she's not a Bible scholar; in fact, she had "never actually read the full Gospel" until she began this audacious plan to record and publish her reflections on Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. She fears scriptural scholars will find her approach "naive to the point of irresponsibility," and she knows that conservative evangelicals who regard the Gospels as the literal expression of God's truth will scoff at the musings of this damnably liberal, feminist intellectual.
But off she goes anyhow, girded only by her considerable intelligence and disarming sincerity, determined to look squarely at the Gospels, how she reads them and how she maintains what she calls her "hopeful faith." "I am trying for a tone that is personal and self-questioning," she says, "a tone and diction that neither shouts nor threatens. . . . Above all, I have no interest in making a doctrinal point, no desire to convert."
That's a welcome promise, and she keeps it in this brisk, provocative survey of the major events and statements of Jesus's life. Though far too cursory to work as an introduction to the Gospels, "Reading Jesus" should appeal to anyone in that great multitude of thoughtful or lapsed Christians who feels the Scriptures growing stale and ossified, anyone who wants to wrestle with the uncomfortable problems and irreconcilable paradoxes of the New Testament. "I am ready," she writes, "at any time to learn that almost everything and anything I know is wrong, or at least in need of radical revision." If you share that sort of fluid curiosity in sacred matters, take this book and eat it up.
Each of her very short chapters begins with a series of quotations, such as the parable of the Prodigal Son or the story of Jesus healing the demonic man, usually different versions of the same story from different Gospels. As a fine novelist and short-story writer, Gordon is interested in how subtle changes of narration and word choice alter our impressions. She also looks at the silences, as in the story of the woman taken in adultery, and in another section she notes what's not praised in those tender, quiet Beatitudes: "the bourgeois virtues . . . keeping your word, paying your debts, placing yourself in the right place in relation to authority."
But her analytical method is almost entirely inquisitive: a long series of questions, meant to tease out ambiguities and contradictions, all the troubling dark corners that my Sunday-school teachers resolutely ignored. For instance, after Jesus casts demons into the swine and they run off a cliff, Gordon asks: "But what does this mean, this form of animal sacrifice? What does it say about the nature of human destructive force? Must animals pay the price? . . . If they are a metaphor, for what do they stand? What surplus do they represent? What expendable flesh?" On and on she goes, pushing these stories almost combatively as she tries to break through the crust of familiarity and cliche that has grown over the ancient passages.
Unfortunately, not every story lends itself to Gordon's drive-by inquisition. Her chapter on the Transfiguration -- as odd an event as you'll find in the Gospels -- seems particularly rushed. And her treatment of apocalypticism is too scattered to generate much light. But usually she manages to recast the Gospel stories in fresh, surprising ways. After describing Mary washing Jesus's feet and drying them with her hair, Gordon writes plainly: "This is a shocking story. . . . It is the most purely sensual moment in the Gospels."
At other times, she focuses intensely on those strange, weirder stories that complicate the pastel portrait of "Jesus Loves Me This I Know." What on Earth is He doing cursing a barren fig tree to death? "We might wish that Jesus were more like Santa Claus, more Candide than Christ," Gordon writes, but this is the story we have before us: "The powerful man, hungry, using his power like a frustrated child. Jesus, the child tyrant. Jesus, the bully of the world. Jesus, the failure."
She's not always the devil's advocate, but such pugnacious statements electrify her book. After all, this isn't Christopher Hitchens burping up an objection that any first-year theology student could dispel without breaking a communion wafer. Although Gordon is a confirmed believer, she admits, "There are at least as many good reasons for being appalled by Jesus as there are for being drawn to him." She wants to read the Gospels while acknowledging her own bafflement, her own sense of disappointment and betrayal. What of those "embarrassing," "cringe-inducing" miracles that make Jesus sound like some TV charlatan? How can Christians tolerate Jesus's rejection of his family, his lack of respect for the dead? Or the moral despair inspired by his demand that his followers be perfect? And aren't Jesus's efforts to confound his listeners a sign that he's "adolescently churlish, at worst punitively sadistic"?
All those difficult challenges lead up to a brief but stinging examination of anti-Semitism in the Gospels. Laid out here in the starkest terms is the real torment any Christian must confront. How much misery must a text cause, she makes us wonder, before we no longer can consider it sacred?
As a well-trained literary critic, Gordon is interested in how we read, how we form meaning from these stories "through a glass, darkly." And she wittily points out that orthodoxy isn't the only colored lens between the text and us. Most adult Christians, she notes, come to the New Testament contaminated with all kinds of vague, wildly misleading impressions from childhood, when the words were "inscribed on the soft wax of our consciousness." Reading from the King James Version about Jesus healing the multitude of "divers diseases," I remember being surprised that so many ancient people had the bends.
Gordon admits that she's constantly tempted by the example of Thomas Jefferson, who took scissors to the New Testament and simply cut out those parts that weren't in harmony with his Enlightenment rationality. But she won't let herself stoop to such violent bowdlerizing. She's drawn to the ambiguities; she agonizes over the contradictions rather than ignoring them. "I am committed to the questions," she says in closing, "unsusceptible to final answers." If you're looking for revelation, look elsewhere, but if it's enlightenment you're after, Gordon is a thoughtful and stirring guide.
Charles is the fiction editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/roncharles.