Monday, June 23, 2014

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


It’s no secret that the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, has been an endless source of inspiration for poets, dramatists, composers and artists for many centuries, but I am interested in a current trend in novels based upon Scripture.
Time was, Biblical novels were works of piety, often dressing up received religion in colourful melodrama. Now Biblical novels tend to be works of scepticism.  This could simply reflect the transition from a Christian to a post-Christian age. But it is intriguing how small a stock of ideas the Sceptical-Biblical genre of novels displays, and how quickly the genre’s stratagems have become clichés.
I will skate very quickly past those witty Jewish writers who have taken satirical or otherwise critical novelistic shots at parts of the Hebrew Bible – what Christians call the Old Testament. Dan Jacobson’s The Rape of Tamar (1970) – reviewed elsewhere on this blog - is a sardonic dissection of events in the reign of King David, which can be closely referenced to Scripture itself. Howard Jacobson’s The Very Model of a Man (1992) is his version of the wanderings of Cain, questioning the justice of the Biblical conception of God. I remember when I was in my twenties reading and enjoying the German-Jewish novelist Stefan Heym’s The King David Report (1973), which I passed on to my mother to read. She both chortled in delight and gasped in shock over it as she checked it against the Books of Samuel and Books of Kings. Heym’s is an unflattering account of King David as a devious, untrustworthy seeker after power, who got his scribes to lie for him in order to whitewash the nastier things he did on his way to the top. What both exhilarated and shocked my mother was the fact that Heym tweaked the scriptural accounts only a very little to make his fictitious case.
Perhaps the best person to provide a good critique of these Jewish writers would be an expert Jewish exegete.
What interests me more, however, is what has been happening to the way the New Testament and early Christianity are now depicted in novels.
When novels based on New Testament and early Christian themes began to be written in large numbers in the nineteenth century, they tended to be either expanded Sunday School tracts, or arguments for a particular form of Christianity. The bellicose and anti-papist “Muscular Christian” Charles Kingsley, for example, in his novel Hypatia (1853), managed to be at once hysterically anti-Catholic and hysterically anti-Semitic in his depiction of the early Christian community in Alexandria. (Apparently only virile Nordic types were good enough to be real Christians, according to Kingsley.) In answer to Kingsley, the following year the Catholic Cardinal Thomas Wiseman wrote his stilted and now fairly unreadable novel Fabiola (1854), which presented early Christians, persecuted in pagan Rome, in completely Catholic terms. Though I give both novels shelf space, they are now largely forgotten, but they were immensely popular in their day. Hypatia was once regarded as Kingsley’s best novel. Fabiola was regularly serialised in Catholic newspapers, and was filmed a number of times in the silent era.
The big nineteenth century blockbusters of pietistic Christian novels, with at least some connection to Scripture, were, however, the American Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur (1880) and the Pole Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis? (1896).
Ben Hur was the episodic story, with lots of drums and trumpets and battles, of a young Jew whose path crosses that of Jesus a number of times and who is duly uplifted and enlightened. Quo Vadis? was a story of St Peter and other early Christians being
persecuted in the Rome of Nero. They both sold in their millions. They were both dramatised and filmed a number of times in both silent and sound versions. They were both completely pietistic in tone (even if Wallace set out to write a sceptical story but changed his mind mid-way through his research). And, of course, they are now regarded with something near to contempt by respectable literary critics, who see them as little more than superannuated bestsellers written in a fake “ye olde” style. Perhaps this is to underrate them. I admit that I only ever read a kiddie’s version of Ben Hur when I was quite young (though I have seen both the silent 1925 and talkie 1959 film versions of it). But I did read Quo Vadis? with some pleasure when I was a teenager; and Sienkiewicz was an early Nobel Prize winner.
The problem was, though, that these two novels set the pattern for Hollywood’s version of Christian origins – lots of spectacle with a light dusting of religiosity. Later the
likes of Lloyd C. Douglas produced bestselling novels such as The Robe and The Big Fisherman (about St Peter) which were duly turned into Hollywood movies in the 1950s when Cecil B. de Mille and his ilk were churning out bloated things like Samsom and Delilah and Solomon and Sheba and The Ten Commandments and Kings of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told and re-makes of Quo Vadis? and Ben Hur. (Those were the Cold War days when the USA cast itself as the God-fearing democracy facing off against the Godless USSR – pseudo-Biblical movies were part of this self-image and chimed with the mood of the times.)
But setting aside this tinsel (and there are still fat pietistic historical novels written for America’s Bible Belt), it is hard to find intellectually acceptable novels now that present a Christian view of the early church and of early Christians.
One of the few I know is the Irishman Niall Williams John (Bloomsbury, 2008) which I reviewed for the Sunday Star-Times when it first came out. It is, in effect, an account of Christianity at a crisis point in the late first century, when the messianic hope of Jesus’ immanent return was gradually being abandoned and when Gnosticism was nibbling at the edges of Christian orthodoxy. The aged John, depicted as the “beloved disciple”, realizes that he has to get down the essential Christian message before he dies and before it is swamped by heresies. Niall Williams knowingly assumes a few things that most scholars would now question – such as that the author of the fourth gospel was actually the “beloved disciple”, or that this was the same person who wrote the scriptural letters attributed to John. Even so, this is a sophisticated, intellectually aware novel which accepts Christian orthodoxy and which deals with it poetically and with great insight.
But there are very few such novels now.
Which brings me to the established genre of the Sceptical-Biblical novel.
In the mid-nineteenth century there were people like David Strauss and Ernest Renan writing their sceptical “lives” of Jesus, which were then regarded as works of scholarship. Taking their cue from such works, by the early 20th century some writers of fiction were imitating their scepticism.
Anatole France’s short story The Procurator of Judea represented Jesus as an insignificant colonial troublemaker whom Pontius Pilate can barely remember in after years.
George Moore’s The Brook Kerith (1916) is basically a sentimental agnostic’s
version of Jesus, drawing heavily on turn-of-the-century Christology and playing out something like a novelised version of Ernest Renan’s milk-and-water sweetie of a Jesus in the Vie de Jesus. The story is told by Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus is a simple Essene shepherd who preaches love and peace. But he has a period of mental aberration and briefly becomes a crazy fanatic calling himself the “Son of David”. For being a troublemaker, the Roman authorities crucify him. But he’s only on the cross for a few hours so he doesn’t die. He revives when friends take him down and look after him. Chastened by his experience Jesus stops being a fanatic and goes back to being a peaceful and harmless shepherd. However years later, a delusional fellow called Paul of Tarsus has worked up this true crucifixion and revival into a fantastic story of death and resurrection, and he is going around saying that Jesus is the saviour of the world. When confronted with the real Jesus, Paul refuses to accept the real Jesus as anything other than a madman and goes on his way to invent a new religion. Joseph of Arimathea  - presented as a Jew who admires Roman civilization and scorns the ignorant religious Galilean peasants – is really a self-portrait of George Moore – an Irishman who admired British civilization and scorned the ignorant religious Irish peasants.
Paul as the “real” founder and fabricator of Christianity soon became a familiar trope in the Sceptical-Biblical genre. If you saw Martin Scorsese’s film version of The Last Temptation of Christ, you might recall a scene in which Paul, after years of preaching the risen Christ, meets the real and still living Jesus and simply dismisses him from his mind. In the 1980s there was an historically-shaky bestseller by Hyam Maccoby called The Mythmaker: Paul and the Invention of Christianity which presented the same Thesis.
After George Moore’s, the next significant Sceptical-Biblical novel about Jesus was D.H.Lawrence’s last work The Man Who Died, a.k.a. The Escaped Cock (1929-30). Jesus dies and rises again, but he decides he won’t go to heaven. He’ll live by his senses in this world. So he makes love to a goddess of Isis. Ah yes, the cock has escaped once again, as it does in so much of Lawrence’s fiction. And what does this tell us but that Lawrence doesn’t believe in an afterlife, and considers only the material world real? Okay – it can be a valid viewpoint, and this short book has been praised as a piece of poetic affirmation of the here and now. But like so much of Lawrence’s work, it overdoes the phallus-worship and ends up as an adolescent masturbation fantasy. Jesus as D.H.Lawrence, affirmed by his senses.
Claud Cockburn’s Jericho Road (1978), the next Sceptical-Biblical novel I’ve read, is mainly an adventure story about first-century Palestine with a Samaritan as a hero, and making sardonic comments on Roman imperialism and the complexities of Jewish religion.  But in its incidental details, its portrait of “the Gailiean” is very similar to Moore’s in The Brook Kerith – a nice, peaceable chap much misrepresented by his followers.
Which brings me to the New Zealand contribution to this familiar genre. C.K.Stead’s My Name Was Judas (2006) is basically more of the same –Jesus is a nice chap who says some good things, but he gets carried away and starts talking nonsense and thinking he’s God. The miracles are just exaggerations of natural events or outright fictions. The narrator Judas, living peacefully years later, is the voice of reason and scepticism, who rejects anything transcendental. All the other disciples, apart from Judas, are undiscerning and credulous blockheads. In other words, as in Moore’s and Lawrence’s novels, My Name Was Judas contains what amounts to self-portrait of the author. Sceptical materialist Judas among those thicko apostles is sceptical materialist C.K.Stead among those thicko Christians.
As a book reviewer, I get sent many oddities to review, and a year before Stead’s book came out I received Simon Mawer’s The Gospel of Judas (2005). It has no connection with Stead’s novel, however. It is one of those thriller-type things about dark deeds as the Vatican attempts to suppress the “real” gospel written by Judas. In other words, it’s just a whisker away from the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code sort of cack; and whatever the flaws of Stead’s novel, I wouldn’t rate him as low as that.
In their different ways, what Moore, Lawrence and Stead do is attempt to impose 20th or 21st century values and perspectives on an ancient historical situation, in order to reject a religion they dislike. Jesus is recast in their own image (Lawrence) or as a straw man to be knocked over by the author’s greater intelligence (Moore, Stead). Of course this sometimes leaves them with characters who are highly anachronistic. The most extreme case I’ve encountered, as a reviewer, of Jesus being remodelled to suit an author’s ideology would have to be the Australian atheist Leslie Cannold’s The Book of Rachael (2011). It is, in effect, the story of Jesus’ [fictitious] sister, who just turns out to have all the attitudes and values of an early 21st century feminist and atheist activist. Gosh. So ham-fistedly is this done, however, that the novel rapidly becomes raw polemic and its relationship with anything even vaguely resembling ancient Palestine is highly notional. [I have not read, and therefore cannot comment upon, Colm Toibin’s recent The Testament of Mary (2012), but I understand it is somewhere in the same ball-park].
As I have already asserted, this anti-Christian Sceptical-Biblical type of novel is now a genre of its own, and its moves have become fairly predictable. A complete rejection of anything resembling the transcendent or miraculous. The weak Jesus, who is infinitely less intelligent than the sceptical author or narrator who follows him. The depiction of Christians as less perceptive and more doltish than that author or narrator. The assumption that Jesus might have been a nice chap, but anything Christians have been written about him is grossly exaggerated.
Like any other genre it can be done well or ill, and between them Moore, Lawrence, Cockburn and Stead, though generally condescending in their attitudes, at least show some style, deploy some wit and even provide the occasional insight. (Mawer and Cannold are, by contrast, merely literary embarrassments.)
But I’m always amused by the more naïve – and less experienced – newspaper reviewers who think this sort of stuff is daring, “controversial” and likely to blow people’s socks off. The fact is, novels taking superior biffs at scripture are at least a century old by now. The ones I have mentioned here are only a small selection of those that are available [they are simply the ones I have happened to read]. And their propositions are now as familiar as the kitsch of religiose blockbusters once was.

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