Friday, April 22, 2011

How I Spent Good Friday

It truly has been a "good" Friday for me.
I did two things that are just… awesome.
Firstly, I did not put on pants. I love it when I can sleep in, then walk around all day with just my jammies on [and by jammies, I mean underwear, basically] and get paid for it!
Secondly, I read an entire novel.
The Fire Gospel [2008] by one of my favorite authors, Michel Faber. In a word? --> TERRIFIC!
--> Redonculously good!
The last time I read an entire novel in one sitting was five years ago. Bernard Schlink's The Reader. Rarely am I so captivated by a book that I finish it hours from starting it.
The Fire Gospel is part of the Canongate "Myths" series, and I've read a few of the others. In this one, the myth of Prometheus is satirically treated. If you recall, Prometheus brought fire to humans in defiance of Zeus and was summarily punished by having his entrails plucked out by an eagle.
Here in Faber's book, Theo, a Canadian scholar on assignment in an Iraqi museum discovers hitherto unknown scrolls when a bomb explodes and a busted statue disgorges its inner contents. Surviving the blast, he stuffs these documents into his briefcase and smuggles them back to Canada. Theo is the world's leading expert in Aramaic and these scrolls are serendipitously written in that very language.
Turns out these scrolls contain eyewitness accounts of the last days of Jesus -- they indeed constitute a fifth gospel, and one written prior to the other four biblical ones.
In that sense, they carry a weight and authority that the others do not.
The author is Malchus, a servant to Caiaphas, the high priest who is said to have organized the plot to kill Jesus. This is almost crazy, but I actually gasped when I discovered that the author was Malchus -- just thinking of how valuable such a find would really be, in real life. This guy was present in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was betrayed by Judas [according to the Bible].
And the Bible says that one of Jesus' own disciples, in a fit of revenge, sliced off Malchus's ear with his sword. The biblical account has Jesus healing the amputation at the scene, restoring Malchus's ear to wholeness. However, in Malchus's own words, the wound was never really healed, per se, and his sliced ear sort of dangled from his neck the rest of his life, “like a woman's adornment.”
Malchus, present at the crucifixion, says that as Jesus is about to be affixed to the cross, he cries out and pulls his arms to his sides in fear, "in the manner of an infant tickled by its mother." The soldiers must place their knees directly on Jesus' arms as they pound in the spikes. Malchus says, "This was not cowardice. This is how the flesh behaves under such provocation."
Makes perfect sense to me, actually.
In Malchus's gospel, Jesus' last words are not "It is finished" but "Please, somebody, please somebody finish me." Again, seems pretty understandable to me.
He defecates and urinates all over, including directly on Malchus -- the new convert stays so close to Jesus as he dies. Birds pluck Jesus' eyes out.

All of this may seem downright sacrilegious for me to be even mentioning… especially as I am mentioning it on Good Friday, the very day that commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. But The Fire Gospel, in its raison d'être, its construction, etc., is not at all about any sort of re-evaluation of what may have taken place on Good Friday. Not at all.
It's moreso about the emphasis we place on written accounts of anything, the reports of which, by the way, will contain varying degrees of accuracy and inaccuracy in the telling.
Theo's translation of the Malchus gospel becomes a smash success.
Millions of books are sold. And as Theo makes the rounds of the book tours, he is accosted by fanatics, offended at what he has unearthed. Undone by what he has done.
[Enter the Prometheus myth]… it is not long before some of these fanatics take it upon themselves to punish Theo, or at least undo the damage he has caused.
They do so, with their own brand of violence.
I don't want to give away too much of the action sequence of the latter stages of the story -- suffice it to say that I found it engaging enough to sit here, entirely pantsless, until the last page was read. And this is, as I said, rare for me.
What a terrific book. Faber has not failed me, ever.

Just the other day at work a co-worker of mine, a consummate Kidder-Arounder who shares a first name with an actual gospel-writer… he looked over at me and asked, "What exactly is Good Friday? Isn't that when Jesus was born?"
Again, not to be sacrilegious or anything, but this book has made me decry anew the level of [religious] ignorance at the root of many atrocities committed on behalf of "God"…. when ultimately, for most civilized people today, including Yours Truly, the real significance of religiously sponsored holidays is the fact that we do not have to go to work. We can stay home. In peace… at one with our undergarments.



Melwyk said...

Days spent in undergarments are wonderful. I agree. And reading an entire novel is also marvellous. But to do both and THEN to read this exquisitely constructed blog post which is both perfectly topical and brilliantly written, well, that is perfection.

Cipriano said...

You know what is so refreshing to me? I was convinced that no one even sees my blog any more [my own fault] I have been in a state of such abject neglect... but you not only see it, you leave a nice comment like this.
Thank you so much.
I encourage you to read ANYTHING by Michel Faber... he is phenomenally good.

Sonics said...

This is an amazing post. It's very well written. I greatly agree that just because something is written, it doesn't mean it is always truth. Stories get twisted and changed quite constantly. I played a game as a kid, called "telephone", where a group of people would sit in a circle and a person would be chosen to start with a sentence and would whisper it ever so quitely into the ear of the person next to them. It was to be repeated by the second person along to the third, and so on and so on. By the time the last person had heard the sentence, it was almost completely different! This is not the same as what you are saying I know, but it could be a metaphor for such. Glad you enjoyed this book! ;)

Cipriano said...

Thank you, Sonics.
Your example of the game "telephone" is an entirely apropos example of what happens as stories make their way from age to age.
With the combination of time [distance from event] and re-telling, original events can become legends/myths.
Add to this the problem of translation into other languages and wow... all kinds of things can happen. If the biblical Gospels are rearranged according to the time they were composed, Mark would appear first [rather than Matthew, as it is in the Bible]... and in Mark there is no account [for instance] of Jesus being born of a virgin. But in Matthew and Luke, [written subsequently] we see this legend being solidified -- this is where we find the Christmas narrative. But wow, when we get to the gospel of John [written decades later than these others] all of a sudden Jesus, in the first verse is existent even PRIOR to being born of a virgin on Earth. He is God, really. Existent before the universe itself was created... in fact, he created it, along with God the Father and The Holy Spirit. He is an active part of the Trinity concept of the Christian God.
I am greatly simplifying the discussion here, but suffice it to say that it's important to consider that the Pauline Epistles, which appear in the Bible after the gospels, but were actually written BEFORE any of the Gospels.... when you consider that Paul never ever even mentions the virgin birth at all -- it becomes apparent that the Matthew and Luke stories [as well as John] are a mythologizing of alleged events. If the virgin birth were an actual event, would not have Paul, first on the scene as a New Testament writer, have mentioned such a momentous thing?
But when we understand that Paul was writing prior to the Gospel writers... [to go back to the "telephone" game analogy]... we can fairly conclude that he had not even heard of this virgin birth thing at the time. It was invented [that part of the story was]... later.
Thanks for reading Bookpuddle.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for the length of this entry. I will have to post in two entries.

Anyone who is a regular reader of you, Cipriano, knows of your theological background. They know that you went through the training and study but are no longer a practicing minister.

What I find commendable is that you seem to be a person who can use what knowledge you have gleaned to arrive at new realities. Nothing has gone stale with you – nor do I find bitterness at the way you were taught (apparently a fundamentalist biblical education) even though you have come to believe that the holes in fundamentalist theology are many.

You respect the truth.

And by that I mean, not Your Truth...but - as close as you can come to it - The Truth of the Text in Question.
This you do, even when those answers may not be the most conventional or the most comforting ones.

What I find interesting is that you did not throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to say, but have used your theological foundation to arrive at something that you feel is closer to the actual truth.

And you have done it - seemingly - without fear. Without regard for what you may want to - or even need to - believe. That takes a certain kind of toughness, I think. A certain courage.

I feel it is a courage that many do not have. In fact, I am guessing that many do not know that they lack it.
They are willing to accept even the most contradictory messages that are shoved their way...despite their personal gnawing apprehensions that the old pat answers may not be quite what they are able to genuinely believe. They ignore those quibbling doubts and just take the path of least resistance. Of least thought.
I am not really faulting those who may do this. Most men, Thoreau said, live lives of "quiet desperation." I have been there myself, reaching to grab any oar to keep me afloat. We are mere mortals, after all and we seek hope. Hope – the thing, according to Emily Dickinson – "with feathers" that may fly away even when the need is greatest for it to "perch" within our "soul."

Yes. The better parts of this “greatest story ever told” - quite ironically - has soothed generations of people as well as caused us, as you point out, to do unspeakable acts in the name of “God.”

But so long as it does no harm to others (though, as you have on many occasions pointed out, this is proven to not always be the case), I think I lean toward "Let be." Though it is true that Not all those who wander are lost, it is also true that many who feel forced to wander may indeed become lost...and they may be the ones incapable of surviving the dismantling of their old comfortable religion without going nuts. Losing hope. You know?

At any rate…what a lovely post and discussion of what myth really does accomplish.

Anonymous said...

Part 2 (sorry!)

I am a person who is interested in the power of story. The power of myth. I am not a "believer" but what intrigues me perhaps most is the way that later writers of the gospel (we are assuming they were not “divinely” inspired…but perhaps inspired nonetheless) enlarged upon a story that was already quite large, quite the “great” story – yet a story, nonetheless, that was conceived by a creature called Man. Man: a potentially magnificent creature capable of imagining beautiful hopeful – yet still metaphoric - things.

If we can look at that fact - to see the literature of the Bible for what it is - a multi-translated, honed down, exaggerated, and mercilessly fiddled with collection of words...if we can appreciate that it was created by Shape Shifters blowing life into Story. . . perhaps we can appreciate more than ever the thing that the first chapter of Genesis tells us to heed: that In the beginning was the Word.
And Man thereby took it upon himself to mold it into myth.

Isn't that fact alone miracle and mystery enough?

Anonymous said...

P. S.
Keep the beard.
After all, it is only an "e" away from Bard.

Cipriano said...

Anonymous -- what a great series of thoughtful comments, ending in an endorsement of my facial hair -- what could be better! Thank you.

You could not be more correct as to my current attitude toward theology in general. I am no longer what one could call a "believer" but I hold no bitterness toward what I once believed, nor to those who still believe it.
I think of all things that you said, the thing I appreciate most and want to elaborate on is your "Let be" paragraph of Part1.
Such an important message for me.
Often I forget to be lenient with others when they speak of their faith, etc. And I find it incredibly difficult to not proceed with enlightening anyone that is believing something that is full of logistic holes. I LOVE pointing out those contradictions and absurdities, etc. And even though I never do it in a spirit of meanness, it does of course come off that way, most of the time.
I have to monitor my impatience sometimes, with people that are perfectly happy to believe in something that is essentially intellectually intolerable.

I've heard it said that you cannot reason someone out of of a position that was not attained through reason. And yet I myself contradict that axiom daily, because I was once, as you say, an unreasonable fundamentalist believer.
Reason found me.

Thank you for these profound comments.

Isabella said...

This sounds like a truly remarkable book. I've read a few from the Myths series, and love the concept of them.