The Book Club

The Bible as Literature

Dear Katha,

Don’t you care in the least that you’re going to burn in hell? Like, forever?

I knew how you’d read Christ because I read you so closely. But you’re a steadfast red-diaper baby; I’m a rejectionist fundamentalist Southern Baptist baby who disbelieves in God so thoroughly she’s sure she’s going to hell. I’d like to believe, even as I know I never will, and books like this make it possible for a brief and shining moment. Just long enough for me to think “maybe this stuff isn’t completely made up by apologetic misogynist running dogs smoothing the way for the master class” and pass the book, complete with the marginalia proving my close reading, along to my holy roller mama and make her day. You’re not disappointing anyone. I am. You’re an atheist. I’m agnostic. Not buying anything I’ve heard so far but still hoping to strike gold. It’s people like me who will buy this book and wistfully think: Nice try.

But seriously … given the ever-increasing agitations of the religious, it is a very helpful thing that Christ allows the reader to pretend to pass over the theology completely (oops! a Miles word), just as Geek Love or The Godfather (to complete my previous allusions) allow him to pass over mutant children and violent, Christianity-soaked criminality as cultural norm and experience a work of art on its own terms. I agree with you that the “terms” are too shaky to stand on their own; Miles has to work too hard. Still, offering it up as literature rather than that which will cost the reader his eternal soul, it would seem, makes all the difference in the world. As I said yesterday, it gives the nonbeliever a reason to engage with it in the first place, something that the hectoring teens on the Mall here shoving their pamphlets in my face will never accomplish. If our culture must be drenched with religiosity, let us all at least have ready points of reference, if only for refutational purposes. Christ, then, may be more useful as a buttress for nonbelief than for belief. Offering up the Bible and religion in this way is like offering up your freshly baked treats as having been purchased at Costco: You can’t get mad or disclose your true purpose if your cupcakes get spat out, but you can do the Holy Dance if they’re a triumph. I continue to think this pragmatic, lobbying point of view is civically necessary, flies to honey rather than flies swatted by a thug theocracy. Not ultimately persuasive, but helpful.

Sustained, consistent irrationality has its own, not to be missed, logic and transcendence. I think about the scene in Contact when a multiethnic, multinational board of inquisitors confronts Jodie Foster’s unbelieving scientist. They ask her (something like) why she should be allowed to represent the planet to aliens when she believes that the 75 percent of religious earthlings are irrational and deluded. It is at once a fair and grotesquely unfair question. The religious are always demanding respect for their irrational beliefs, but exactly how is that to be awarded? By remaining reverentially silent? By yelling, “Amen!”? By deferring to any religion-based policy proposal or candidate? What if you have no animus but no respect for a belief in a kindly, all-powerful old man who lives in the sky and watches sadly while awful stuff happens? Who gives you maybe 60 years to figure out the meaning of life but all eternity to burn for getting it wrong? Books like this provide a common language for channeling the respect or disrespect that any cultural offering attracts. That is how I read Christ, the same way I read 25 Books That Changed America in my first American Civ class—to know what the hell all the shouting was about. I still don’t buy The Book of Mormon, but I do understand why it matters to our culture. Now we’ve all seen the same movie and can argue about its significance and quality.

When I wrote that I found it extremely hard-going toward the end, I was agreeing with you that Miles was forced by the material to belabor and construct elaborate facades upon which to hang a coherent story. I did feel hectored by Part 4: “The Lamb of God”; I just had developed a warm fuzziness for Miles by then that insulates him from my wrath. What a trooper; he was out of ammo but wouldn’t stop. The harder he worked, the more suspicious I became even while lulled by a writing style that clearly drove you batty. He made me pay attention, too much attention. That’s why I wanted to know more about how the Bible was written. When? By whom? With what purpose in mind? Over what period of time? How can something written by myriad authors over centuries be understood as one work of literature, especially when the authors couldn’t have always known they were contributing editors in a mondo anthology? Big questions, questions never far from my mind as I gamely followed his sweeping conjectures. What I do have respect for is that millions, perhaps billions over time, have found solace and transcendence in these beliefs; that must be because they speak to the human heart in a fundamental way. Judging from Christ, it’s because the Judeo-Christian God is worked back to, not forward from. It’s the only way this cruel world can be made to make sense, the only way to not feel alone, adrift, and unchaperoned in it. Nice try.

Of course, the million-dollar question begged is God’s silence and inaction as regards his military abandonment of Israel. Miles posits either that God has inexplicably chosen to re-covenant his relationship with Israel in this way or has become incapable of protecting Israel. Neither revolutionary explanation is ever supported, analyzed, or judged definitive. It is things like this that make religion unpalatable to us godless yuppies. Waddya mean no more Chosen People all of a sudden? No more blood and gore? Make with the smiting, already. By the way, I give Miles major props for acknowledging the latter explanation. Could those smug teens on the Mall? He doesn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole, but he does put it unsentimentally on the record. How can we not think: What good is a God who demands strict adherence, punishes with eternal damnation, but doesn’t protect and favor? A pretty big plot hole, that. Without the eternal damnation thing, is there any reason to keep dealing with this God? Contrary to religious smuggery, rejection of religion doesn’t mean an acceptance of evil and depravity; ethics and morals survive the death, disappearance, or rejection of God. So, why keep dealing with him? Miles just doesn’t go there, but then, he said he wouldn’t.

Without a doubt, important, heart-of-the-matter issues are not grappled with but simply acknowledged and supplied with plausible next steps. You’re right, Miles strains to reconcile meanings with the texts and often comes up short—could anyone but a first-century full-time Jewish intellectual have understood this new religion? But, as you said, most literary criticism makes mountains out of mole hills and leaves you wondering if a cigar is ever just a cigar. This is why I changed my major from lit to poli sci: less political. But, given that you must be widely anthologized, haven’t you been amazed at how much the accompanying discussion questions cull from your work, much more than you were aware you had salted away in there? I’ve been floored by some of the “given that she said X and then Y, what did Dickerson mean when she wrote …” that accompanies my work in Freshman Comp textbooks. Serious readers who are searching for meaning can tap into much more than even the writer knew they were serving up. I think of the wonderful people I love so dearly who are hard-core believers and know there has to be some truth to that.

As regards your question: I think you have to figure in the necessity for God to transform the Jesus piece that he broke off of himself to make it human. That part, then, would be alienated from its God-ness, not so much that it didn’t know it had been God and would be again (this is fun!) but enough that it knew it wasn’t fully God. I mean, Jesus prays. God doesn’t, he is prayed to, by Jesus, i.e., himself. The Jesus piece would be different. Less than God but always more than any human. There’s no point in making himself human, there is no way to be human if he were to remain impervious to physical pain, humiliation, and grief. As for the fear of death and death itself, we know that he experienced those. These were, in fact, the very points, Katha. You can’t crucify a God. A deity can order and require mortals to reach inside themselves for more, to keep going even if they go weeping and puking and pissing themselves and begging to have this bitter cup pass from them, but can he inspire them to? Can he role-model it? “No prostitution? Easy for you to say, God, but try living life as a widowed Babylonian mother of four for a while.” A deity would in fact have less “authenticity” with his followers and make it acceptable to take the easy way out. After all, how can a mere pre-modern human be expected to live up to the standards of a God? This is why Jesus had to come and come as a human. It his torment at Gethsemane and his wailing from the cross that make Christ most believable to me. As a reader, even as a nonbeliever, I can be moved thinking about someone living a life of service and dying in agony when he didn’t have to just to show the rest of us that you can fight and die, if need be, for a cause rather than live as a collaborator or quisling.