The Forgiving Manager: For National Poetry Month

The Forgiving Manager

In a story Jesus tells, there’s a manager
whose master catches him bleeding
the till– then lets the embezzler
settle the accounts. The manager forgives
great debts that are not his:
makes a thousand bushels of grain
six hundred and a thousand measures
of wine four hundred; tells each creditor
to record this, quickly, on his bill.
And the master applauds the manager’s gall,
his use of his position to ease
the weight of credit on his neighbors.

Forgiveness is a mischief that anyone
can play, releasing one’s cohorts
from the bonds of books– as Jesus
forgives payments never owed to him,
usurping undercover the prerogatives
of God. Any son or daughter of man
can do this. Who are you, he is asked,
to forgive a man’s sins? He evades
the question, proclaiming simply that sins
are forgiven. It’s not about authority.
It’s about who dares to take the pen.

-Brian Day

Don Quixote, Da Vinci and the Invisibility of Children in Literature

In Encounter Milan Kundera made the observation that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”

I found this to be quite thought-provoking.  I disagree, however, with his conclusions as to why this is.  He hypothesizes that the novel makes the protagonist “irreplaceable… the center of everything.”

If Don Quixote had children, he argues, his life would be prolonged.  His narrative would go on in the form of his children and the story wouldn’t be finished.

This makes no sense to me as the full life of a character from birth to death is not usually the span of a novel.  Novels usually focus on a particular period in a character’s life starting not at birth but just before a particular drama unfolds.  Some novels end with the death of the main character, but this is far from a requirement.  The story is finished when the drama as the author conceived it is over.  (“And they lived happily ever after” is as common in story telling as “And then they all died.”)

Stories do not include children for the same reason they do not include a lot of elements of life— the drama of a novel is stripped down to those characters and situations that are essential to portray the particular struggle being illustrated.  Children exist in our stories largely as plot devices rather than characters because adults are, for the most part, not that interested in exploring the depths of the immature mind.

The biggest problem I see with a Papa Don Quixote is that we are meant to view Don Quixote as a hero because he refuses to be constrained by ugly reality and chooses instead to live in beautiful fantasy.  He makes his own dream world rather than living with the constrains and responsibilities of his social environment.  There is a part of us that is always at war with the constrains of society, and that part loves Quixote.  But it is much easier to admire Don Quixote’s beautiful madness if it is not at the expense of an abandoned family; a wife and children who might depend on him to be present in the real world back home.

It would be even more outlandish for us if he were a woman.  Imagine Donna Quixote:  A wealthy Spanish woman who chooses a world of fantasy over reality.  She would have a hard time.  If she was childless our culture would have us assume one of two things about her.  Either she was traumatized by her barrenness (her madness might be attributed to it) or she was selfish enough to put her own needs above child rearing.  She could be either a damaged victim or unsympathetic.  Those are really the only two choices we have in our culture, especially historically, for childless women.  Neither makes for a great hero.  If Donna Quixote had children, on the other hand, how forgiving would we be if she went off to have adventures as a knight and left the kids behind?  Much less so, I imagine, than we would be for the warriors of classic literature.

Which leads to another observation about the great literary characters.  I am making this statistic up out of thin air, but my guess would be that while a full 50% of the world’s population is female, 98% of the great literary characters are male.

Historically, children were a woman’s responsibility and they were interesting to men only as heirs.  This being the case, they would rarely figure in the drama of a man’s life.  He might find his princess and she might have his children, but that would have little impact on his adventures at sea.

Kundera’s analysis of the purpose of children in literature, in fact, takes the view that the only meaning of a child is as an heir.  The child is not a responsibility or a person with whom you have a relationship.  If more of the great books focused on the lives of women then children might be more present.  In stories about women, children often exist as a pressing responsibility.

I was thinking about this question again the other day when I was reading one of those books on the search for the historical Jesus.  The book speculated on whether or not Jesus was a married man.  It would be unusual for a 30-year-old Jewish man of his day not to be married, and the author concluded that it was likely that he would have been.  The popularity and appeal of this view of Jesus is attested to by the great success of Dan Brown’s best seller The DaVinci Code.

Of course, when you speculate about the marital status of Jesus, the next question is whether or not he had children.  The author of the book on the historical Jesus touched on this question.  Just as Dan Brown does in The DaVinci Code and as Kundera does in his musings on Don Quixote’s childlessness, he frames the question of Jesus’s children as one of his bloodline. Does Jesus have descendants walking around somewhere?

This sidesteps a rather important question: If Jesus had children what kind of father was he?

We know that Jesus did not have many positive things to say about family bonds.  He told his disciples to leave their families and follow him, and he turned away his own mother and brothers (Matthew 12:47-49) and said that his disciples were his real brothers.  Would this detachment from his mother and siblings extend to the next generation as well?

It is easy to see how the idea of a Christ with children becomes problematic.  If he favored his own children over others, it undercuts his message of universal love– a love that shines out on everyone and everything with equal unconcern.  Jesus loves the beggar, the prostitute and the tax collector with the same depth and quality as he loves his mother, no more no less.  Yet as human beings, the idea of a father who does not favor his own children and give them special attention over other people is abhorrent to us.

It is much easier to avoid the issue all together by leaving his family, if indeed he had one, out of the story.

What is a Christian and Who Gets to Decide?

The other night I found myself in a lengthy discussion with a Baptist friend of mine over the meaning of the word “Christian.”  She said she found it offensive when groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are called “Christians” because what they believe about Jesus differs greatly from her understanding of him and the meaning of his story.

Because being Christian is an important part of her identity, and she understands the word to mean a certain thing, she does not like having views that she does not recognize as Christian associated with her and her church.

I agree with the argument that if the word “Christian” is defined as “whatever anyone says is Christian” then it is meaningless.  The question then becomes though, who gets to define what is and is not Christian and what perspectives that label includes?

My view is that an individual or religious group that bases its theology on Jesus, generally as understood through Biblical text (more on the Bible part in a bit), could be defined as “Christian.”  Whether they ultimately are also depends on self-definition: whether the group or individual in question accepts the label.

While Muslims consider Jesus to be a prophet, they do not consider him to be THE prophet.  He is not the center of their theology and thus Islam is not a Christian religion.

The Mormon church has Jesus’ name right in its title:  “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.”  Putting aside anything else they believe, Jesus must be central to their theology.

The statement of faith of Jews for Jesus is hard to distinguish from the statement of faith of any mainstream protestant, but apparently their Jewish identity is important to them and they define themselves as Jewish followers of Jesus rather than as Christians.  This is a bit confusing in modern terms (although it wouldn’t have been surely in St. Paul’s day) but if Jewishness is an important part of their identity and they think of themselves as Jews, who am I to say they are not?

(Please don’t draw me into the What is a Jew? argument here.  I have personally witnessed Jewish friends arguing passionately about this all night long, and I will leave them to it and get back to my What is a Christian? debate.)

My friend disagreed with my more expansive view.  The Mormons have their own sacred text, The Book of Mormon, which disqualifies them because they are not Biblically based, and their later saints reduce the role of Jesus.  The Jehovah’s witnesses do not believe in salvation through Christ as the Baptists understand it.  Rather than a vision of heaven open to all believers, they envision of Kingdom of God on Earth that will be inhabited by a limited number of people.

Her definition of the word “Christian” corresponds with what the Episcopal Biblical scholar Marcus Borg defines as the “heaven and hell framework.”  Man is born in a state of original sin (thanks to Eve and that apple), but God sacrificed his son Jesus on the cross in order that those who believe in him shall have eternal life in heaven.

I am sure that there are many people who would agree with that minimal definition of “Christianity.”

There are, however, a number of scholars and theologians, who consider themselves to be Christian, who argue that this conception of Jesus was not what Jesus and his followers would have understood and that the idea of “salvation” as a substitutionary sacrifice was not what the Biblical writers conceived.  In other words, that’s not what they meant. Marcus Borg’s Speaking Christian and many of his other works elaborate this concept.

Quaker minister and author Philip Gulley’s book If the Church Were Christian is typical of a genre of popular theology books that argue that the modern church is out of step with authentic Christian teaching as expressed by Jesus himself.  The Red Letter Christians are similar in wanting to get back to the fundamentals of what Jesus taught rather than the years and layers of interpretation by later writers.  These views are very popular with the so-called Emergent Church.

If authors like Borg and Gulley are correct and the modern church is out of step with what Jesus and the Biblical writers had to say, would that mean that this interpretation has more right to be called “Christian” than the later one?  Or does the fact that the “heaven and hell framework” is what most people think of when you say “Christian” mean that this has become the only meaningful definition of the word?

If you agree with the first concept then Baptists would not be true Christians.  If you accept the second then Borg and Gulley would not be.

It seems ridiculous to say Baptists are not Christians, whether you believe their theology is correct or not.  I, however, do not think you have to make a choice between the Biblical scholars, Emergent Church and Baptists.  They are all Christians.

Christians have never been united in their understanding of what the story of Jesus meant.  One of the great debates of the early Christians was whether Jesus should be understood as fully human, fully divine or some combination of the two.  Bart Ehrman’s Lost Cristianities provides a good history of some of the schools of Christian thought that did not win out and become orthodox.  Each of these groups had passionate adherents who thought they were the “true Christians.”

Julian Doyle author of Life of Jesus/Brian put it in the rather cheeky way:  “We know that Jesus was not the Son of God for 300 years after his death, when at the Council of Niceae it was decided by a vote that he was in fact God’s son.”

Similar decisions were made along the line when the various texts that make up the Bible were compiled.  What was left in, what was kept out, what versions of the many existent texts were to be included and considered canonical?  (The word “canon” incidentally, meaning approved law was invented by Bishop Athanasius who oversaw the council of Hippo which made the selection of what to include about 400 years after the time of Jesus.)

Even after the initial Biblical contents were codified there remained differences between what books were considered canonical in the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant Churches.  That is even before we get into things like the Book of Mormon.

Even the books themselves differ from one another based on what copy was used as source and how it was translated.  As Bart Ehrman wrote: “there are more differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”

“Many will be surprised to realize that there never has been a time when we could really talk about the Bible in the singular. There is no such thing as the Bible in that sense, and there never has been. The Bible has always been legion, a multiplicity of forms and contents, with no original to be found,” wrote Timothy Beal in The Rise and Fall of the Bible: The Unexpected History of an Accidental Book

So if you want to define a Christian as someone who follows the Bible, both old and New Testaments, you run into the “what Bible do you mean?” problem.  Then there is the problem of what believing and following the Bible mean.  Is it a literal historical understanding or a metaphorical and mythological one?  Is the Bible a book of rules for life or a book of questions to ponder?  There are Christians who come down on either side of these questions.

Let’s put that particular issue aside though.

Once something like a closed Bible was set, and as the Christian church began to have political power, those who wished their interpretation to be orthodox got to work stamping out dissenting views as heresy, sometimes through force.

I am not arguing that the fact that orthodoxy silenced the other voices means that its view was necessarily untrue, nor can I say that the fact that it won out historically by itself makes it more true.  I am just wondering if the dead and diminished early conceptions of Christ have less claim to the label of “Christian” than the one that became dominant?  What about a new form of Christian belief?  Does its newness make it unchristian?  Would an old dead form of Christianity be more “Christian” than a new but untraditional living form?

If we decide that some of these views should be considered Christian, and others should not, who gets to make that call? On what should the decision be based?

Ultimately the question comes down to this:  Who does the story of Jesus belong to?

He is Risen Indeed!

James Carroll, writing for the Boston Globe, has a very nice article on the significance of Easter. 

This is a follow up in theme to my past article on Biblical literalism and the symbolic value of Biblical stories.  I cited an article in The Christian Century lamenting our inability to read the metaphoric meaning in artistic and spiritual texts. 

“A literalist imagination— or lack of imagination— pervades contemporary culture,” wrote the article’s author, Conrad Hyers.

In today’s Globe, Carroll asks what would happen if there had been a video camera fixed on Jesus’ tomb, and what if it showed nothing?

…would Christian faith thereby collapse?

Of course not. Why? Because the resurrection of Jesus is addressed not to a machine but to the eyes of faith. The example, though, demonstrates the modern fallacy — the way a post-Enlightenment religious imagination gets easily sidetracked into questions of “scientific’’ or “historical’’ proof. What “actually’’ happened on Easter and in the days after? Were the laws of nature upended by a “miracle’’ or not?

…It trivializes what Paul means when he says “appeared’’ to reduce it to mere apparitions. There are apparitions in Virgil’s “Aeneid,’’ and in all kinds of ancient narratives. Revived cadavers are irrelevant. No, Paul is declaring that believers were enabled all at once to grasp that the abandoned Jesus was ultimately exalted by the one he called Father. That is what believers saw. Paul does not say how it happened.

The death of Jesus was not the end of the story. Indeed, with the death of Jesus, the human story is transformed, with death perceived now as entry into the ultimate reality — who is called God. Human destiny, therefore, is not nothingness, but meaning… Thus, the resurrection of Jesus was not a suspension of the laws of nature, but a fulfillment of them — a personal event without being physiological, a real happening without being “historical.’’ Christian faith is not in “after life,’’ but in eternal life, which is beyond categories of time. “Life,’’ as Jesus himself said, “life to the full.’’ To be fully alive is to be aware of being held here and now in what does not die, and in what does not drop what it holds. God. Resurrection is the word Christians have for this awareness. And why should it not have ignited the ancient world?

The Red Letter Christians today ran an article Do I Deny the Resurrection by Hugh Hollowell, which touches on the same theme.

“Do I deny the resurrection of Christ?” Hollowell wrote, “I can do no better than to quote Peter Rollins on the subject.

Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…

I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.

However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.

Hollowell concludes: “If I act hateful, or in fact, less than loving to my neighbor, I have denied the resurrection… And I can believe whatever you want about what happened that Sunday morning, but if I am not using what power I have to help God bring the Kingdom into fruition, to help make it on Earth as it is in Heaven, I don’t expect you to call me a Christian.”