Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Thick and Ordinary

Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.
-- John Lennon

In the December Harper's, (the very one graced by the warmly welcome return of Harry Flashman on its back cover) Erik Reece accomplishes a feat of syncretism so mighty that it deserves its own goddamned ZIP code.

The piece in question is titled "Jesus Without the Miracles: Thomas Jefferson's Bible and the Gospel of Thomas." Reece, a Virginian and a fallen-away son of a Baptist preacher, asks just what the hell Thomas Jefferson thought he was doing when he edited the New Testament to expunge all the gee-whiz miracles, the Virgin Birth, the dubious historical narrative, the He-Died-For-Our-Sins guilt-trippery, and indeed, even the Resurrection, and stripped the whole thing down to what Jesus actually said and taught. This edited New Testament is now published by the Beacon Press as The Jefferson Bible.

Any faint hope Christianity had of counting me among its flock was lost when, in an undergrad course on New Testament hermeneutics all those decades ago, it became howlingly obvious to me that the John the Baptist story was a piece of religiopolitical propaganda, stuck into the middle of an existing narrative with the sole purpose of attracting members of one of many rival cults that were hopping around in the highly charged, Roman-occupied, apocalyptically inclined Province of Judea, barely post-Jesus. Read it with that in mind, it couldn't be more obvious: Look, your guy, John, yeah, he was cool, sorry about the beheading and all -- but check it! He said he wasn't even fit to tie our guy's shoes! No, for real! He said that! It says it right here in this book we call Q that won't be the New Testament for two-three hundred years... Come on, let's be pals and go hassle some Romans!

A book so obviously constructed with the intention of Impressing the Easily Impressed with woo-amazing miracles and magical tales of Resurrection plainly belonged on the same bookshelf as Jack Chick tracts and Dianetics. So overbearing were the insults to my intelligence perpetrated by its obvious appeals to my Id's childish desire for magic and wonder that the social-justice aspect of Jesus' teachings, the primacy of the poor, the murderous hypocrisy of the powerful, the revolutionary inversions of the Sermon on the Mount, became far more palatable coming from other mouths, post-Enlightenment mouths uninclined toward the poetry of prestidigitation: Marx, Nietzsche, Wilde, Joyce.

This must have been something like the train of thought in the mind of Jefferson, Scion of the Enlightenment, when he set out to expunge Magic from the New Testament. Says Reece,
To read the Gospel of Matthew or Luke is to be dazzled by one miracle after another. In that context, the actual teachings seem almost mundane. But to read Jefferson's to face a relentless demand that we be much better people -- inside and out -- than most of us are. Which leads, as Jefferson must have suspected, to this unfortunate conclusion: the relevance of Christianity to most Americans -- then and now -- has far more to do with the promise of eternal salvation from this world than with any desire to practice the teachings of Jesus while we are here.
Here is where Reece performs his Syncretic Leap, with a graceful pirouette of scholarly panache: He brings this tension forward 1800 years, and places it firmly in the context of the Founding of America. Jefferson, the Agrarian Utopian, who believed so strongly in the humanist and naturalist nature of Jesus Christ that he quietly edited the New Testament to play up this side of the man, wrote in his only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, "Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he has made his deposit for substantial and genuine virtue." Continues Reece:
The manufacturer, by contrast, is a specialist, a cog, a wage-slave. "Dependence," Jefferson concluded, "begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition." A manufacturer can only be a citizen of a democracy, only a consumer within an oligarchy.
Enter Alexander Hamilton, chased by a bear.
Four years later [1791], Hamilton submitted to Congress his Report on Manufactures, in which he dismissed Jefferson's agrarian vision in favor of developing industry, division of labor, child labor, protective tariffs, and prohibitions on many imported manufactured goods. Today, fewer than 1 percent of Americans work on farms, and many of those are huge, industrial farms that generate massive amounts of toxic by-products. That Jefferson's self-reliant farmer is so unrecognizable to us today is evidence enough, should we need any, that we have inherited Hamilton's America, not Jefferson's.
Reece gives us this chilling syzygy:
The difference between Jefferson and Hamilton is the difference between a version of Christianity based on Jesus' life and death and Resurrection, and one based on his teachings.... To live by Jesus' teachings would be to live virtuously as stewards of the land; it would be to create an economy based on compassion, cooperation, and conservation; it would be to preserve the Creation as the kingdom of God. Jefferson was proposing a country of countrysides, a pastorale in which we would want to live; Hamilton was was giving us a nation of factories from which we would want -- perhaps in the end need -- to be saved. [Emphases mine.]
Yes. There you have it, as stark as you could possibly want it: the thing that divides us so deeply. If you penitent faithful are idly wondering why the rest of the flock doesn't come, trailing our tails behind us, into the MegaChurch, here's the Question You Ain't Answered Yet: Either the Kingdom of God is immanent, or the Kingdom of God will obtain only after everything in Creation is utterly, irretrievably destroyed. We're waitin' to hear what you think.

Of course your answer won't make a good goddamn. The path's already been chosen.

Hope you enjoyed votin' for 'em. Bright move, guys. Bright move.

It must be said, I have only scraped the surface of Reece's astonishing piece in Harper's; not even having mentioned the Gospel of Thomas I can't be said to have summarized even half of Reece's piece. Please forgive me. Go read the whole thing, please, only $6.95 at your local newsstand.


An Upstep or a Downstep said...

Political corruption is not solely the province of Republicans, nor Democrats for that matter, but rather is a disappointingly common trait for all political parties. Just as formal religion kills the understanding of the ineffable, so too do political movements defile the true hearted hopes of the idealogue.

Neil Shakespeare said...

Save me from the shitpile of my own devising. That about sums up religion alright.

corndog said...

Neddie, I was just reading that same article last night. If it hadn't been after I'd finally got the boys to go to sleep, I would have been huzzahing in assent. Like Andy P. so memorably sang, "Bless my soul, I'm already there."

So the lot of you Millenialists or Sovreignists or whatever you call yourselves, quit screwing it up! This is what we get, now help us make it better.

deezlyuu - What Zappa would say when his son left the refrigerator open.

Vache Folle said...

The Kingdom of God is all around us, but we don't realize it. I have decided, in consultation with the Holy Spirit, that it's perfectly OK to read the New Testament critically and give greater weight to the teachings of Jesus than to the miracle stories or the writings of the early church fathers. Most Christians miss the point entirely- that Jesus was calling for transformation here and now and in how we treat each other in the world.

Annapolitan said...

Slacktivist has a regular feature deconstructing those awful "Left Behind" books (the "Left Behind" archive is on his website and highly recommended), but in his first installment, he discusses the roots of premillennial dispensationalism, the scary, troubling perversion of Christianity:

Not to repeat myself, but Highly Recommended reading from a very good (professional) writer. I have been so enlightened about American (tm) Christianity.

XTCfan said...

Fuck. And here I am, still reading the October issue. Gotta catch up.

That said, Reece isn't saying that we actually had the choice to follow Jefferson's agrarian vision, is he? Because it never could have happened. Hamilton's America came to be because it was the only way to keep up with the rest of the world.

rraroog (the sound made by the horn on the first automobile, precursor of things to come)

Neddie said...

Reece isn't saying that we actually had the choice to follow Jefferson's agrarian vision, is he? Because it never could have happened.

No need to be quite so literal. The choice we had, back then, (and, implicitly, now) was for Jefferson's clear-eyed, magic-free humanist interpretation of the Gospel -- one man talking to other people, about how to live one's life in this world, much like the Buddha -- which might tend to make one more concerned with justice in the here-and-now, with striving to immanentize the Kingdom of God, with acting with the thought in mind that This One Shot is all we get. The opposing view is the one that holds sway at the moment -- that there's no need to be a good steward of Earth or treat people nicely because the whole thing's a big vale of tears -- crappy jobs in crappy factories -- that one strives to escape.

dpgzwbnc, which I'm not even going to try to do anything with.