Against a Multiple Choice Jesus

One of my ten best friends (she wouldn't have guessed she was in the top ten; but so it goes...) has been doing these ridiculously entertaining "Torah Talks" on a -- how to describe it? -- unpredictable website called lukeford.net. They're covering everything awesome in this latest talk -- from the nature of G-d to the nature of sex to close readings of Genesis and so on.

I really recommend you watch some of these videos, but I want to focus briefly on the last one (scroll to the bottom of the page). In the video, Monica's making a superstar point about how knowledge can bring melancholy -- Luke, our moral leader, asks the question: "Like which knowledge has been the most... unhappiness-giving?" Here's Monica's reply (starting around the 2:10 mark in that last video on the page):

The more I learn about religion, the more I learn about Judaism, the more I learn about the Hebrew Bible, the more I study it – it’s kind of a paradox because in many ways I feel closer to G-d, but in other ways I feel farther because I learn so many things about like the construction of the text and so on and so forth that, like, I don’t know any more, I don’t know the answer. I don’t know… what G-d is anymore. I don’t know. I mean I know—I know the Hebrew Bible, that I know, but I don’t know what that means… I think that… that’s just, it’s scary, I mean there’s something liberating about it, but I think it can be kinda frightening too. Like it’s easier just to know – that’s what’s so easy about Christianity… it’s… just, Jesus is [inaudible]. That’s so easy.

The reason that Monica's in my top-ten friends list is what she says in the first half of this soundbite. It seems so deeply true to me that knowledge brings a kind of sadness, and that the more we learn about G-d, the less we feel that we know. In my experience, it has been the rare person who is able to express this point as authentically as Monica does, and to (nevertheless) go on living in the unknowing. As I complained yesterday, almost everyone I know seems to know what they believe in, whether that's "Obama" or the Bible or Darwin or ABC's LOST or whatever... most days I feel like the only person I know (except Monica) who is utterly confused.

Read my post from yesterday. Nothing seems as complicated to me as trying to bring people to agreement on what Jesus was... undoubtedly, Monica would be frustrated by the strange and calcified orthodoxy of my Southern Baptist students who seem to imagine Jesus as a kind of clean-cut business man along the lines of Clark Kent. But what about Jack Kerouac's Jesus? What about Philip K. Dick's Jesus? What about the Jesus of African American theology? Or the Jesus of mystical theology, as presented in St. John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila? What about Simone Weil's Christianity? And most importantly, what about the Jesus of my meditations?--my understanding of Jesus is absolutely too complicated for words, so complicated that I haven't even begun to convince myself that I know what G-d was, and how (or if) Jesus fits into that. The widespread reaction to Obama's association with Jeremiah Wright ought to reveal precisely how deep the divisions of interpretation run within Christianity -- but it has been anything but "easy" for Jeremiah Wright's congregation to continue supporting him. It has not been easy for me to agree with his views while mainstream Christianity has been appalled by his "radical" interpretation of the life of Jesus. Read about Philip K. Dick's experience in Christianity (seriously, take the time to read PKD's essay!) -- no one could call that "easy." What about Kierkegaard's Jesus? Or Dostoevsky's? Or Gabriel Marcel's? To pick on "easy" Christianity is no different than to "pick" easy Christianity instead of selecting a more complicated version (including even, possibly, a version that leaves behind the label "Christian" altogether?).

While I agree that the Jesus of Sunday school and Christmas plays and the Methodist Church of my parents seems uncomplicated, I recognize that I am and have always been fully able to disagree with that oversimple (and possibly entirely misrepresentative) presentation. After all, the Adam, Moses, and Abraham of Sunday school seemed just as two-dimensional.

I used to dislike Classical music. Then one day I realized that my "dislike" probably revealed much more about me than it did about Bach... the problem was with me, not with Bach's music. Watch Letterman interview Lauren Conrad, and watch the look of surprise on LC's face when Dave asks her if she might be the problem (right around the 1:10 mark):

So... well, I guess I'm trying to kindly ask Monica to stop bashing a big part of my secret religion!

In another of Monica's appearances at Luke's website, Monica says, "Within Christianity I wasn't necessarily encouraged to think about different interpretations of the same verse." I can't encourage Monica from "within Christianity," but maybe she'll be pleased to hear (from "without") that I wholeheartedly encourage that kind of interpretation of the New Testament -- indeed, I encourage that kind of (Midrashic) reading of the OT, the NT, and any literature (supposedly "Holy" or not) that Monica might stumble upon.

THE SOUL selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I ’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

(Emily Dickinson)


Monica said...

Well said, Casey! And I never mean to bash, at all--I think I'm just more or less disappointed with my experience with Christianity, because for a long time I loved it so much and it defined everything I was and did. When I say "within Christianity," I am referring, though, to my experience with Evangelical/Fundamentalist (Assembly of God) experience of Christianity, which did NOT encourage midrashic kinds of interpretation. I think that there are a growing number of Christians or people somehow within the Christian tradition who have integrated more "Jewish" ways of examining texts into their own biblical study and scholarship. It's just that within Judaism the mode has such a long and well-developed history.

My whole thing about being confused does, in fact, stem from my being pulled in both directions. My history is in Christianity, and I can't deny this because it is what led me to do what I do today, and it is what compelled me to love the sacred texts as much as I do. But it is Judaism that opened them up for me in a new way and showed me a way to love G-d again in the wake of (what I experienced as) Christian legalism and hypocrisy. Whenever my Bible as Lit students used to ask me whether I was Christian or Jewish, I would say "Both, and neither." And that's complicated, but for me it's more authentic than choosing one side of a binary religious construction. But, then, as I implied, sometimes it would just be easier to pick one...

Sorry for the novella...

Casey said...

No apologies needed -- I appreciate that you are able to understand that I'm not even trying to urge you to convert, because, as I inexplicably hold it in my head, I don't imagine that I understand exactly what you believe, and I also can't express (in words) what I believe, so I wouldn't be able to tell you either A) what to convert from or B) what to convert to... This will sound crazy, but the way I imagine it, I totally agree with you about everything except the language -- which means (to me): I totally agree with you.

Anyway, thanks for being a good sport -- I think those videos are really awesome, and I'm trying to get up the guts (and funds) to buy a digital camera so I can make my own ten-minute clips about everything...

Monica said...

Oh, you really should do that--I want videos of Casey leading us to the tr-th.

Oh, and just to clarify--I consider myself both Jewish and Christian in the sense that, while I presently identify myself as Jewish, I also refuse to deny my Christian history. That may make sense only to me, but it works...
I went to a talk on zionism at UCLA today, and one of the respondants said something about there being a Hebrew saying about two conflicting viewpoints for the greater good (which is deeper understanding). So it's kind of like that...

Casey said...

I met a Buddhist Catholic once, and I told her that didn't make sense. That was back when I was an idiot...