Discussing Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus

Mark Richardson is President and Dean of Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California. For the last six years he has moderated The Trinity Institute International conference. This year’s conference, “Reading Scripture through Other Eyes,” featured Mary Gordon as a principal speaker. The experience inspired the following conversation with CDSP student, Martin Elfert, about Gordon’s Reading Jesus (Pantheon, 2009). Mary Gordon will offer a response at the end of this conversation, and readers of this blog are invited to respond as well. Dean Richardson would also like to encourage readers to follow Barbara Falconer Newhall’s discussions on the CDSP Facebook Discussion Page (go to www.facebook.com/cdspfans and click on “Discussions”), which comments on the weekly lectionary from the perspective of “the pew.”

Martin Elfert has an interest of his own in narrative. He has just completed a collection of short children’s stories entitled John the Baptist is Coming to Dinner, and Other Stories. Most of the stories are based on children’s sermons which he delivered at All Souls Episcopal Parish, in Berkeley, where he attends with his wife, Phoebe, and his two children. “Sermons and stories for children are always at risk of being patronizing, of degenerating into ‘kids say the darndest things.’ I try to build upon the dilemmas and the wonders that children already understand.” Martin is a graduate of the University of British Columbia in theater, and began his career in the performing arts. This year he is a senior at Church Divinity School of the Pacific anticipates being ordained this summer.

Thanks for joining me in this conversation, Martin. I wanted to discuss Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus with you both because this work touches on topics, and with passion, that many readers of the bible care about, and also because her life as a novelist, and as a life time Catholic in honest struggle, seems to shape her attitude toward reading scriptures. I find this combination quite fascinating.

Take, first, her own art as a story-teller: How do you see this feeding her insight into the gospels? What struck me is that complexity, even contradictoriness, are so much a part of plot and character development in her writing and experience, so when she sees this in Jesus’ story she is not thrown off by it. In fact, it lends to the realism that makes Jesus’ life credible. It seems to feed, not detract from, her conviction that Jesus, like no other protagonist in literature, can show us what is holy.

I loved her thought in the chapter on ‘divinity’ that religion makes the ordinary holy, and this is made biographical in Jesus. I’m not sure I’d say ‘biographical’ because we spent a century getting over the misconception that we have a biography of Jesus. But her point is clear enough: if we get even a small glimpse into the incomprehensible mystery we name ‘God’ it is through personal life and its structured interactions. I liked her lines that “…the experience of birth, friendship, suffering, and death was shared by the divine…And this, to me is the pearl of great price.”

Would you agree that this connection through narrative imagination was the strength of her ‘reading of Jesus’? I’m also curious to know your favorite instances of this in the book.

Thank you for inviting me to chat with you about Reading Jesus, Mark! I’m looking forward to our “book club” on this blog, and especially to hearing from the folks who choose to join in our conversation.

I agree with you about the strengths of Reading Jesus. In particular, I enjoyed hearing Mary Gordon the author in “dialogue” with the authors of the Gospels across a couple of millennia. Reading Jesus is at its best when Gordon talks about the writer’s craft – when she celebrates the art and the technique which the Gospel writers use to tell us about what it was like to meet Jesus. I was glad for her reminder that scripture can be both a testament to the divine and great literature. We don’t need to choose between the two!

One especially strong example of Gordon as literary teacher comes in the chapter entitled The Dark Garden. Here, Gordon engages in what our brothers and sisters in the Jewish tradition call Midrash: an imaginative retelling or interpretation of a passage from scripture.

The chapter begins with the arresting opening words, “It is a scene played out in darkness.” Immediately, we are invited to stand with Jesus in Gethsemane – and to think about the moments in our lives when we may have stood somewhere similar. Much as in her later chapter on Jesus’ divinity, here is Gordon demonstrating how Jesus finds the holy in universal experiences. And what is more universal than confronting the reality of our mortality? I loved Gordon’s decision to highlight the rhythm of this scene: the “jarring alterations between movement and stasis, inquiry and rest.” This is what grief and anxiety is truly like. Through their craft as writers, the Gospel authors testify that Jesus shared such an experience with us.

Speaking of Midrash, and the Jewish art of dialoging with sacred scriptures, this takes me back to her chapter on ‘The Problem of Perfection’. There Mary Gordon seems to negotiate with Jesus, even critique him about the meaning of perfection as she struggles with his Sermon on the Mount. In doing so she carries on the art of human story and counter story.

She probably questions along with many readers of the Sermon on the Mount who struggle with Jesus’ moral vision and how out of step it seems with life in history (e.g., having enemies such as Hitler or any of recent history’s totalitarians, and wondering how to get along with them without being run over by them), or in nature (knowing temptation which at times run wildly contrary to how we ought to act). She openly questions whether it is morally acceptable to turn the cheek in a violent and unjust world such as this, and whether we can compare a pre-moral lustful imagination with reprehensible sexual actions. In both cases, I think she effectively brings Jewish moral realism into dialogue with Jesus and the moral ideal he inspired in centuries of Christians.

The final twist, after all of her criticism of Jesus the moral teacher, is that she far prefers this seemingly unreachable standard, rising from life under the vision of divine holiness and goodness, to the maxim, ‘do your best’. There is no greatness to be found in the latter, only mediocrity, and middle class moral casualness.

Martin, did Mary Gordon treat to your satisfaction the distinction she wished to make between ‘perfection’ and ‘completeness’? For her, perfection conjures a lifelessness hovering above or outside history. I understand her point. But how does this definition of perfection as ‘completeness’ help when it comes to dealing with Jesus’ ideal and absolute moral teachings, the ones that trouble Mary Gordon so much?

I can’t encounter this subject without thinking of Leonard Cohen, who sings of “the staggering account of the Sermon on the Mount – which I don’t pretend to understand at all.” Jesus’ odd and awesome speech gives us the Beatitudes (the series of couplets beginning, “blessed…”), which many believers identify as Jesus’ mission statement. But it also gives us some of Jesus’ hardest and most opaque statements.

To begin, I appreciated the parallel that Gordon draws between perfection and completeness. This is a welcome argument. As she demonstrates through the anecdote about her son rejecting Christianity, there is an unfortunate strain in our tradition which has interpreted Jesus’ perfection as meaning that he wasn’t really human – that he knew nothing of essentially human experiences such as making mistakes or of feeling shame. Speaking of Jesus as a complete person, by contrast, allows the contemporary reader of the Bible to ask the much more helpful question: what does it mean to live completely? What would a complete six-year-old, or thirty-three year-old, or eighty-year-old look like?

My own suspicion is that Jesus’ statements are often more nuanced – more complete, if you like – than we allow. We read Jesus through the eyes of generations of interpreters (e.g., Augustine, Calvin, Jimmy Swaggart), many of whom correlated Jesus’ perfection with their own pathological relationship with the physical body. Thus, these interpreters spun Jesus as someone who knew little of real life and was essentially humorless. Whether we recognize it or not, we are influenced by them. This causes us to miss Jesus’ frequent use of irony, hyperbole, and plain old jokes.

Let’s take the question of Jesus’ teaching on adultery, which Gordon wrestles with: if you have looked at a woman with lust, you have already committed adultery with her in your heart. Note that these words imply a question: have you ever looked at a woman (or, in the interests of inclusivity, a person) with lust? Augustine and company insist that the answer to this question is, or ought to be, no. But Jesus, being not just fully divine but also fully human, would have known that the answer to his question would be of course. Everyone has looked at another person with lust – lust is a universal, biological reality – and, wait for it, that makes all of us adulterers. I wonder if this saying is not about agonizing over your fantasy life but, rather, if it stands a complement to the story of the woman caught in adultery: let you who is without sin cast the first stone.

One aspect of the Sermon on the Mount that I wish Gordon had touched on is that, well, it’s a sermon! It was, in other words, never intended by Jesus to be read. Not only has this essentially oral method of communicating been constrained on paper, but it has been translated twice (from Aramaic to Greek and from Greek to English). Thus, this speech is only partly visible to us, obscured by a cloud of time and paper. I am curious as to how many of Jesus’ sayings which we experience as difficult made a whole lot more sense in their original language and context. Are we right, for instance, in supposing that “turning the other cheek” means standing by cheerfully while you get beaten up? (For those readers interested in a provocative and powerful treatment of this question, I commend Walter Wink’s book, The Powers That Be.)

Martin, perhaps we can move on in this last exchange to the end of the book. I was quite touched by Mary Gordon’s candor regarding the utterances of Jesus at the end of his life: “… these words are the basis and the foundation of my religious life.” She is referring, of course, to what we often name ‘the seven last words’.

Preachers have struggled over blending these short saying of Jesus, taken from the four gospels, into a single Good Friday sequence of homilies, without regard for context and authorship. Her instinct is to look past these technical problems. What if we treated each of the seven on its own terms and not as a progression, giving each our concentration, and remaining present to the particularity of each?

In this spiritual reading of Jesus’ end, she offers moments of vivid insight. Divine abandonment (Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani) is made all the more harsh by public aloneness as Jesus experiences human cluelessness around him in this final hour. His last loud cry “…is a relief from the unbearable rushing meagerness of what makes up most of human activity.” What dramatic contrast to the recognition in the story soon to come!

Next she teases out a classic problem buried in the utterance: “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” How can you forgive those who have no knowledge that something’s gone wrong? Here the specter is raised that we humans possess far less moral knowledge and accountability than we think, and a much narrower capacity for change. Does history march on with human beings captive to forces that contradict their self-understanding as free moral creatures? For Mary Gordon, these few words of Jesus contain the classic problem of freedom and necessity. This ought to catch our attention if ethical monotheism hinges on the assumption of human freedom.

Well, I could go on about this dense last section of Reading Jesus, Martin, but I’d rather ask what you found in it.

I’m glad that you’ve highlighted Gordon’s closing chapter, Mark: it is the high point of Reading Jesus, the place where we really get to hear the fullest expression of Gordon’s passion and faith as well as her craft as a writer.

How are we to read Jesus’ words, “father forgive them, for they know not what they do”? It is disquieting to think that Jesus is giving humanity the kind of pass that a judge might give to a small child! Are we really amoral perpetrators, incapable of forming intent and, therefore, cheerfully crucifying the world? Maybe. Most of us do commit evil without giving it much thought: the last time that I was in a box store, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea how or where the goods on sale there were made. I wanted to believe that the merchant was taking reasonable precautions to ensure fair trade in its dealings. But, really, I couldn’t be sure that my purchase wasn’t helping to crucify Jesus in the factories of Asia. But our very awareness of this troubling possibility gives me hope: much as in 12-step spirituality, the first step in becoming most completely ourselves and, therefore, in moving closer to God comes in telling the truth about our failings.

Gordon is a masterful student of the text, and she knows that there are few accidental words in great books, especially in their key scenes. “They know not what they do,” in other words, doesn’t tell us something as superficial as “it’s not your fault.” Rather, it is intended to provoke precisely the question which Gordon has invited us to ask: when have I casually committed evil? How, if you prefer, have I crucified Jesus? How may I become aware and behave differently?

Finally, I loved the closing reflection in Reading Jesus, “The Resurrection is the possibility of possibility.” Yes. Today, when we struggle so mightily to find experiences of wonder – when the electric light keeps us from seeing the milky way, when hospitals and mortuaries keep us from seeing death, when PDAs keep from seeing each other – to invited into wonder, to possibility is as urgent as it is countercultural.

In the quest for the historical Jesus, in our fascination with reading the Gospel through the lens of the scientific method, it’s easy to forget that Jesus invites us into the possibility of possibility. What if really came back from the dead? And, if he did, what else might be possible?

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One Comment on “Discussing Mary Gordon’s Reading Jesus”

  1. Katherine Ellis Says:

    “Is it possible,” Mary asks, “that ‘perfection’ is a mistranslation, or an anarchism?” My little Pocket Latin Dictionary gives “complete” and “finished” as meanings of the word “perfectus.” I’m reading an interesting book called A New Kind of Christianity by Brian McLaren in which he argues that the equation of “perfect” with unchanging stasis is not a Jewish idea but was brought in through Greek and Roman philosophy, particularly Plato’s idea of the real as the invisible and unchanging. Creation was perfect and unchanging from Day Six on, so the fall brought about change, and therefore destroyed forever what God had done.
    The Latin root of the word suggests making, going all the way to the end, carrying something through as far as possible at any given time. Our God is either static, and Jesus is pointing us in that direction, or he is inexhaustibly making, carrying through, and Jesus is urging us to do that. I of course adopt the latter reading.
    I don’t go along with the idea that anything short of striving for the impossible produces nothing but middle class complacency. This implies, to my way of thinking, that we are fundamentally flawed and always will be, that nothing we do can ever be good enough for God.
    I don’t think this view leads to loving behavior and peacemaking. In fact, I think it may be what lies behind so much Christian violence that we have seen over the centuries: a projection onto others of our own sense of imperfection and a determination to eliminate it–through violence if necessary.
    From my Buddhist meditation I have come to believe that only if we see ourselves as fundamentally good can we really love our enemies, as Jesus tells us to do. That goodness was planted in us, and in our enemies, by God, and though it has been, and is being covered over, it has not been extinguished.

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