Monday, May 19, 2008

The Velveteen Jesus, or How Postmodernism Becomes Real

This is in response to someone’s pigeonholing email question: “Are you really a Christian, a feminist, a postmodernist, or . . . ?”

Here’s a short response: “I’m only really just glad you asked in email, so respectfully, and privately. (Do feel free to reply here publicly, or to continue the email dialog).”

Here’s the long response:

One of my wife’s friends recommended to her the book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, which seems to me at first glance an adult’s version of Margery Williams’s The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real. I’m imagining a sort of postmodernist’s guide to the galaxy of Christianity and a Christian’s guide to the galaxy of postmodernism.

For some reason, in my “quiet time” this morning, I thought about that. I was reading in the gospel of Mark and came across this reply of Jesus to a public pigeonholing question:

γ εμι κα ψεσθε τν υἱὸν το νθρπου κ δεξιν καθμενον τς δυνμεως κα ρχμενον μετ τν νεφελν το ορανο

While I was thinking about repainting and Elvis and was chasing other real metaphorical rabbits, like your email, it dawned on me that Aristotle almost never answered in the first person like Jesus did. But then again, I’m not sure Aristotle said what Jesus said, did what he did, or was questioned as he was. Jesus was so much more blatantly subjective than Aristotle. And Aristotle was not always as pigeonholed as Jesus. Aristotle was much more the pigeonholer, as far as I can tell.

Anyway, seems to me Mark is translating an inside joke here between this Joshua (of Nazareth) and the religious leaders who are trying to pigeon hole. Somehow, the subjectivity gets him into loads of trouble, painful stuff.

Now, one of my favorite Bible translators seems not to be a Christian, but neither was Jesus. So I think we might as well see how Willis Barnstone translates Mark’s Greek translation. It’s that Greek blurb earlier in this post, or Mark 14:62 in your Bible, which Barnstone puts this way:

Yeshua said,
I am.
“And you will see the earthly son
seated on the right of the power”
and “coming with the clouds of heaven.”

Now, Barnstone gives us English readers something Mark doesn’t give us Greek readers: a footnote. It goes like this: Lines 1 and 3 of Hebrew scripture cited are from Daniel 7.13, and line 2 from Psalms 110.1. I presume Mark’s readers might know the Hebrew scripture references, albeit perhaps in Greek translation. At any rate, the Hebrew, and the Aramaic Jesus presumably speaks, and the Greek, and now the English all give us some sort of residue of the inside joke.

In this, there’s the kind of cultural literacy going on that some of the reporters speculated about recently when U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama started asking supporters to get their friends, relatives, and even their “cousin pookie” to vote. (That was before all the Reverend Jeremiah Wright strange-brew brouhaha, which seems to be to many now, no laughing matter).

So now the finger points to me, at me. Okay, it is your private email to me. But it is letting me know that I’m working here and doing rhetoric research at a university (with “Christian” as its middle name), where there was that recent stir over whether the divinity school faculty members here had any business at all, once upon a time, inviting the Reverend Wright to campus for an honor, for helping his church help people who really needed it, once upon a time. Stranger than fiction. “So, what are you doing there? And who do you think you are? And where do you stand on Christianity, on feminism, on postmodernism?”

Let me just say this. Can I ask this of us? “Let’s not talk like the disembodied head in That Hideous Strength, you know, in that novel C.S. Lewis wrote. Remember it took all the imagination he could muster to get his evil characters imagining, in the “Moonlight at Belbury,” that they should “Learn to make our brains live with less and less body; learn to build our bodies directly with chemicals, no longer have to stuff them full of dead brutes and weeds. Learn how to reproduce ourselves without copulation.”

See what happens? The body is for sex, for race, for person, for brain, for food and food for thought both. That’s extremely utterly personal stuff. So let’s take care lest we pigeon hole it, or lop it, or the like. Let’s re-member it. We are created equal, male and female, in his image; he said, Let us create them.

Other things can happen from time to time, even when “Christians” try it. When there are attempts to pigeon hole someone, without listening to him or to her, when making them into just a head.

Once upon a time, a visiting Scholar to TCU, to our divinity school got something published in our magazine. He came as a distinguished professor-in-residence at Brite Divinity School and president emeritus of the Cambridge Theological Federation in England. And he wrote the cover article which he entitled “Questioning Faith” and which he ended “some of the foundation is firmly laid.” To me, he was trying to use velvet to make Jesus real for everyone. The scholar made Jesus out to be some disembodied head, and completely ignored what all of my friends of various bodies (male, female, “red and yellow black and white”) believe about this person.

So I wrote a response, which says I suppose as much about me and my Christianity, feminism, and postmodernism. Here’s what I said (and let me just say in this headnote that I’m the “guest linguist” I mention here):

The journalists from the Dallas Morning News aren't yet asking, "Does Brite Divinity School teach only humans?" or "Are non-humans excluded from the list of 'acceptable' students?" Nonetheless, the press could be concerned.

First, very many religious people understand the problem of "species-ism." (The problem has been carefully reported by a Hindu student in one of my writing classes.)

Second, there is university research on the intelligent communication of pygmy chimpanzees, challenging the widely-held view that only humans are capable of language. Third, at least one well-respected TCU Religion Professor has conversed (via a human interpreter in India) with a pachyderm named Emily the Elephant; privately, he now questions to me the assertion of linguist Noam Chomsky that "The human faculty of language seems to be a true 'species property,' varying little among humans and without significant analogue elsewhere."

Public questions about lines of discrimination can be dicey in America, where the intolerant elite rudely draw hegemonic lines. So there's no surprise when several TCU Religion professors and students couldn't or wouldn't answer the question, "What is religion?" (a question posed by a guest linguist talking with the religion department on "Language and Religion"). To define 'religion' might be to exclude any one of the various religions represented by the audience. And it's no surprise that Brite distinguished Professor-in-Residence Kenneth Cracknell gives Universalistic answers to a Dallas Morning News reporter's questions ("Questioning Faith," Summer issue).

Universalism's "Christian theology of religion" works to show that "[the Christian] God will find many non-Christians 'acceptable.' " Its concern is to erase those "strange" lines "that Christians throughout their history have spent so much time" drawing and redrawing as "middle walls of partition." But how strange this Universalism would seem to the religious Buddhists and Confucianists and Taoists and Moslems and Animists and syncretistic Hindus I've met in Viet Nam, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Most would describe their respective faiths as "a million miles away" from any absolute drift towards a trinitarian god whose sole door to the afterlife is Jesus Christ, even if that Christ is "unknown" or "latent." These individuals do pray: to ancestors, or to a plethora of spirits and gods, or to the One God whose chief prophet supercedes Jesus, or to no god at all.

Could a Christian deity be tricking all religious non-Christians into praying to him and thereby surreptitiously drawing them closer to him than many Christians? No, the trick is the Euro-centric construct of a small society of professors in North America.

My non-Christian friends in Southeast Asia would find the Universalist meta-narrative suspect. My Christian friends are suspicious too. The Universalist excludes the views of many, many others by imposing an either-or choice: Either there's a snobbish bigot of a God who "condemns the great majority of humankind to hell" just because they won't buckle under and "believe in Jesus Christ"; or there's a smiling wimp of a god who glosses over even the most heinous evil of the most wicked persons -- especially if they're a part of "a fast-growing religious community" of some sort -- so that "absolutely no human being . . .is outside [this god's] convenant."

Let the reporter ask, "Is the Universalist's the only way to legitimately read the Bible?" But whisper your answer to Emily.


Nathan Stitt said...

I'm curious what your take was on Velvet Elvis.

J. K. Gayle said...

Except for the font, which seems to me exceptionally or pretentiously odd, I like pages 10, 11, and 12 very well. Honestly, haven't read any past that. But I do imagine very vividly and strikingly the author's velvet Elvis, though I don't think I'll ever see it in real life. I think I might like the rest of his book. If I ever read it. How about you?

Nathan Stitt said...

I actually couldn't relate to the Velvet Elvis painting analogy that well, and thought it fell a bit flat. The rest of the book was stellar and influenced my thinking a lot last summer (even now I suppose). Some of his Nooma videos are pretty good, especially the one about Breathe (#14?). I'm hoping to watch the DVD he released recently as well.

eclexia said...

I read and enjoyed the book. He gave me a lot to think about in manageable and humorous bite size pieces (both of which I appreciate in my overloaded days and often way too serious approach to those days.)

As far as Nooma, did you ever see the Nooma spoof about "burritos"? It was a lot of fun, especially while I was reading the book and discussing it with a friend.