Monday, December 17, 2007

The angel was cleaning out his closets when the call came

So begins Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore, one of my absolute favorite books in el mundo entero. I'm a reader, I love stories, and since setting off on this religious studies journey I've come to really love religious stories, especially Jesus ones. In my opinion, four gospels just aren't enough. Ireneaus was simply wrong when he said we only needed four, because that was the right number (ah, four, one of the magic numbers (almost every number is magic, if you're into numerology) which stands for completion and structure: four cardinal directions, four walls to make a house, four seasons, etc.). We need more gospels, more more more. I like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where the child Jesus makes little birds out of clay, gets in trouble for working on the Sabbath, then turns them alive so they fly away and hide the evidence. Of course, he also curses a playmate and strikes that kid's parents blind. Oh, those wacky sons of God.

We need more gospels because the more alternatives we have to the story of Christianity, the more we might be able to see that it didn't just fall out of the sky in a singular interpretation that was just waiting for Martin Luther to articulate. Christianity had a messy, fractured beginning, with tons of different views of who Jesus was and what his message and life and identity were. We have a tendency to forget that, because we've got the one book that we call the Second Testament (because really, what's new about it? Let superscessionism be damned!) and we read all the works in it together and try to fit them into one seamless work where everything agrees.
Sorry, but it doesn't. Markan priority aside, these gospels are four distinct visions of who Jesus was to each particular group that lived in different times and places. Same overall idea, of course: son of God (whatever that might mean, because THAT has different definitions depending on who/where/when you are), salvation/justification/rectification/redemption of sins, raised from the corpses (literally, that's what is says in the Greek, "raised from the dead ones," to really punch home the visual image of Jesus hanging out in a cemetary and then he wasn't! how cool!) But some very different details, and no, that's not where the devil is but where you really get into the fun stuff. Pieces of the story get rearranged, shuffled about, reinterpreted, restated, remade; new things are added, other things are deleted, and yet we still end up with four very distinct but very complementary stories (and that's what they are, stories. Does that mean they're not true? Anyone who would ask that question obviously isn't a real reader and has never read a true story, which often don't contain an iota of fact). What you get down to is, the idea of Jesus is too big to fit into one box ... I mean gospel. So he's definately too big to fit into four.

So, why am I getting into this today? Well, it being Advent and all, we were talking about Jesus' baptism. (What? Really? Why? Wouldn't that make more sense at Easter? Yes, I know, I don't make the lectionary.) And the pastor gave this lovely sermon about John and brought up the question of why John had to baptize Jesus. After all, Jesus is God and doesn't have any sins from which to be redeemed, so why the baptism?

As a sporadic writer of fan fiction, I began to have this lovely imagining of a Jesus who was struggling with something (with what? with the whole being the redeemer/son of God thing? with something more mundane and earthly, like the loss of a spouse or child? with chronic halitosis? who knows?) and showed up at the river looking for something else (like what? guidance? a change in his life? a new message? confirmation that this knowledge he has that he's someone more special than anything is true?). He gets immersed in chaos (that's the water), suspends his life (holds his breath, this is what this is), and comes out into the world, takes a big deep breath of life and gets that something. Depending on which gospel you read, he heard God speak or everyone heard God speak. Christopher Moore has everyone except Jesus hearing it, because he was under water, you see, and you really can't hear things when your ears are stopped with water. And, depending on which gospel you read, John did or didn't baptise Jesus (they've got to show it, because it probably happened, but Luke's gospel is parTICularly vague).

But then there's the question: John, who's been imprisoned, sends out a message to ask Jesus, "Are you the one, the messiah, or should we look for another guy?" This was the focus of the pastor's sermon, and quite honestly more important theologically than the why of Jesus' baptism. What this question means, for John and Jesus and for us particularly, is that we doubt. Wow, human beings doubt! Stop the presses! No, seriously, that's the thing. We who doubt must live with that tension of whether or not what we trust might turn out to fail us in the end. That the star we've hitched our wagon to will fall and leave a dinosaur-killing crater under the Yucatan penninsula. We doubt and are not sure that the cat Schroedinger may or may not be killing right now is or isn't alive or dead. Are you the one, or shall we look for another? Well, Jesus says, does it matter? Look around, there's things going on that are good. Blind are seeing, lame are walking. Relax, man, and roll with it, you'll be happier. He never says, "Yep, here's my card, 'Jesus the Christ, son of God, messiah.'" He says, essentially, "Them that tell don't know, and them that know don't tell."
But that's just Matthew's story. There are three others in the book, and lots others. Go read them. Live with that tension, and make your bet with those Aces and Eights. And go read Lamb.


Erudite Redneck said...

Brava! Brava! Very cool.

drlobojo said...

Now anyone who throws Schroedinger's cat into the mix on Jesus' baptism probably already knows about the numerous Gospels banned by the Bishop of Alexandria, Anthaniaus in 394, which caused them to be buried in a jar at Nag Hammadi and dug up in 1945. These so called "Gnostic" gospels (Gnostic was a word coined for this usage in the 19th century) provide that expanded view you referred too. But you knew that didn't you?
As a "reader" you will see more truth than most, but you know that too.

HapaThealogy said...

I probably should have said "we need more gospels out there in the public eye." Shheeya, yeah, dude, I know about the gnostic stuff, says the girl who owns every book Elaine Pagels ever wrote ...

Erudite Redneck said...

DrLobo, remember, this gal is livin' my seminary dream. :-)

drlobojo said...

Now ER just cause I lean hard on you (and some of them there droolers you attract) all the time doesn't mean I'm not a nice guy.

Pagels, yep got some of those, and Erhman plus others.

Picked up the "Gnostic Bible" at the bookstore a few weeks ago. As far as I can tell it has all of the Nag Hammadi text in it.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

Wow!! I came here via ER, and I just have to say it again.

Wow!! Excellent.