Jesus in the bath water

Overheard on Ash Wednesday:

Coworker #1: I don’t get his whole Lent thing; you have to give up something you really like?

Coworker #2: Yeah, like chocolate or meat or beer, something that would be hard to live without.

Coworker #1: If it is something you are supposed to really care about, could you give up Jesus for Lent?

Coworker #2: You really don’t get it. That’s not how it works!

No one wants to give up Jesus lately. He seems more popular than ever. Case in point: The Da Vinci Code is still a phenomenon—reenergized by the release of the paperback in anticipation of the movie coming out May 19th. Whole sections about Mary Magdalene and the Knights of the Templar have popped up in the big box bookstores—pushing aside the Fiction stacks for this more scintillating truth. Who would not be attracted to this secret-new-revealed Jesus? He is a feminist, certainly historical if he fathered a whole lineage of French kings, and best yet—this Jesus seems fresh and progressive, not like that skinny, bloody, made-up-by-the-Evil-Vatican Jesus. I read Dan Brown quickly, loving the ride, though like a roller coaster, the thrill faded quickly.

My book shelves are filled with Jesus books—Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, and Christopher Moore’s Lamb are just a few. There is also a white chocolate cross still in its package and a “Seven Saints of Africa” candle from the “ethnic” aisle of the grocery store. I am an expatriate from the religions of my childhood, wandering hungrily through the literature and kitsch of foreign faiths, hoping something will stick. I am too mystical for the Protestants, too egocentric for the Catholics and certainly too compulsively addictive for Eastern thought. The Unitarians believe in too much, the fundamentalists not enough. In social circles I am agnostic and rational—a bit of an armchair theologian—I say, puffing on an imaginary pipe like Lewis and Tolkien arguing in a cozy study. But in private, I light my candle and watch the illuminated bleeding heart of Christ beat behind the glittery glass. Clearly, I really can’t give up Jesus, either.

It started when I was a kid. I read a story in a doctor’s office about a boy who was sick in the hospital. He asks the nurse to prop his arm up each night so that in case he died, he would be able to reach out for Jesus. Sure enough the kid dies with his hand waiting in the air. The accompanying illustration was haunting, in brown sepia, a limp little hand grasped by a glowingly handsome Jesus. At night I would tuck a pillow under my arm and remember that kind face. Just in case.

I still have a keen radar that picks up any title on any bookstore/library shelf having to do with saints, 12th-century convents, or unexplained religious manifestations—i.e. a vision of Virgin Mary in a drain leak. This Easter I am uncharacteristically reading a more scholarly work—What Jesus Meant, by Garry Wills. He begins by reflecting on the absurdity of the motto WWJD emblazoned on popular Christian paraphernalia. “What would Jesus do” in today’s world? He would run livestock over a cliff, or insult church leaders, or break up a perfectly nice bake sale fundraiser at the local chapel. Wills writes that when you take the entire record as a whole—not just the tidy parts—what we see is a God who is not like us at all but rather “a divine mystery walking among men.”

Wills challenges nearly every belief system assuming a Christian ideal: the Humanists who see Jesus’ teachings as social reform, the Catholic’s history of crusading violence and theocratic murkiness, the modern-day fundamentalists who seek to justify their pharisaical definitions of who is clean or unclean. Wills recounts Jesus’ life using sharply translated text and a wide array of religious, literary, and even popular sources, reinterpreting well-known stories with startling insight. Wills has no use for the “historical Jesus,” and accepts only the “Jesus of faith.” It is a book written by a believer, a believer presumptuous and brilliant enough to make us, if not to consider belief, at least confront lingering beliefs from past indoctrinations.

I am not sure why some connections to Jesus endure when I have scrapped all other trappings of law and prescribed righteousness. When I tossed out the bath water of my religion, what or who is the baby that I kept in my arms? What tiny squirming seed of conviction do I cling to and what goads me in my perpetual state of spiritual restlessness? Wills challenges me as well as the others—what do I believe?

I believe Salinger’s Seymour Glass when he tells Buddy, Zooey and Franny that Jesus is the “Fat Lady,” the one person and every person who seems least likely to deserve our best. I share Lucy’s loss in Narnia when she is consoled that Aslan is not “a tame lion.” I agree with Covington that “feeling after God is dangerous business.” I am entranced by this God/Man Superman who is nothing like us, who may or may not understand our troubles, who may or may not love us, and who really should have much bigger fish to give away anyway. Ultimately it is his difference, his divinity that fascinates me, not his humanity. Like Wills, it really doesn’t matter to me if there was an actual historical person. I am a creature who lives in pages and film as easily as time; what do I care if the grail is real or not? It is the magic—the hope that a drink from such a story could trigger a transformation—that beguiles me. I don’t want to “be like” this Jesus of mine, I want to wonder at some tiny reinvention; archetypal clues to life and death; perhaps the reflection of a reflection of what it means to be holy.

On Sunday I will decorate eggs and eat roasted lamb. These secular rituals will be as meaningless as my lame attempts to hide eggs from wily teenagers unwilling to give up the hunt. We will watch Ben Hur like we always do and my mind will drift toward that small reaching hand of my childhood. Others may sift through beliefs like a card catalogue, searching for a comforting one, pastel and fuzzy for Easter. But I, as always, will glimpse into dark ambiguity steeped more in literature than liturgy. I will sense what Flannery O’Conner describes as “the ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of one’s mind,” the Jesus who won’t leave me alone.

6 responses to “Jesus in the bath water”

  1. Lane says:

    Dave B has recently published an article on “America’s Jesus Obsession.” Whiile he was writing it he made this remark to me. “I mean haven’t we talked about the Bible enough already? I think it’s time we move on to talking about something else, like Toni Morrison! Anything other than this protracted conversation about the Bible.”

    When we became parents Adriana and I took a stab at liberal Protestantism. I, in particular really tried it on for size, it was a good way to pass some time the year I was home with Jasper. And now I’m proud to say that I count a really nice Dutch Reformed pastor among my neighborhood aquaintances.

    But I learned something about Christianity in that year. It really is completely ridiculous. No more ridiculous than the church of my birth, but equally so.

    I agree with Dave. There must be stories out there more interesting than Jesus.

  2. Stella says:

    I’m an atheist, but I admit I’m totally seduced by Franny and Zooey’s spritual world. Salinger articulates so perfectly the spritual longing/hunger that even I have. I could just about go back to Christianity if it meant I could be a member of the Glass family. (Stella Glass…just imagine.)

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    “The Unitarians believe in too much, the fundamentalists not enough.”… At first reading, I assumed you meant the reverse. Like the old joke says, “When’s the only time you hear the word ‘Jesus’ in a Unitarian church? When the janitor slips on the stairwell.'”

  4. JaneAnne says:

    My father-in-law’s partner, a minister in the United Church of Christ, says that UCC really stands for “Unitarians Considering Christ.” Hee.

    And Pandora, if you want to get serious about combining chocolate and religion, check out the gilded chocolate icons at I have a great chocolate Sheela-Na-Gig from this shop that I can’t bring myself to eat (it was too expensive!). So she sits on the shelf in my ktichen, in front of the cookbooks, reminding me of my own worth: my child-bearing hips, my ruby-red lips, my work-strong arms, etc. Not to mention that whole “exhibitionist” part, which I fully embrace (as at least Lane and Adriana, and I’m pretty sure Bryan and Stephanie and possibly Farrell and Matt C., can attest).

  5. Pandora Brewer says:

    Lane, I appreciate that there must be more stories to obssess on than just those in the Bible, I embrace my hypocrisy in replicating and mocking at the same time. But I do think it is curious that you would mention Toni Morrison, who writes so breathtakingly and deeply about what are essentially the same questions–redemption, forgiveness, spirituality. Perhaps we do need to move beyond the stories of our narrow western religiousity, but since most great western literature begins and move forward from this shared narrative, it is hard not to follow the trail back and wallow in it a bit now and then.

    And Stella, although we share the same fantasy–I have to concede–“Stella Glass” sounds much, much better than “Pandora Glass”–you win.

  6. How do you know when the Unitarians are trying to drive you out of town? When you find question marks burned in your lawn.