I want to write about the character of Jesus today. I admit I have a grievance and blogging about it seems to help. The pivot point, the point I will keep returning to until I start to feel better, can be called “narrative integrity.”
“Integrity” isn’t just a good word for me because I have gotten used to seeing “integer” in it. It is the wholeness of the integer, the fact that it has not been divided up into fractions, that makes it a good model for the notion of integrity. “How is the character of Jesus to be understood?” is the question for today.
Twenty years ago or so, I started pulling apart the birth narratives provided by Matthew and Luke. Raymond E. Brown, in The Birth of the Messiah, divides the book very sensibly into two parts: what Matthew tells us and what Luke tells us. My practice over the last couple of decades has been to read the Matthew part one year and the Luke part the next year. Slowly, my imagination began to be rescued from the Advent Goulash that we have invented by throwing the stories together.
That was when I started to understand what narrative integrity is. It turns out that the story Matthew tells is surefooted, effective, lucid, and even—leaving out the genealogy—rather spare. Luke isn’t spare at all, but all the embroidery has a purpose in Luke, and the characters, not too many of them, are richly drawn. It is things like that that you find out when you read the stories one at a time and it is things like that that I have in mind when I talk about narrative integrity.
Raymond Brown has also written a book called The Death of the Messiah. I have maybe six to eight years of work into it. The division of the gospel accounts can’t be handled simply, the way they can in the birth narratives, but if you begin with the instinct for narrative integrity—for what each account, taken on its own terms, has to offer—you can come to see how very different the accounts are. For most purposes, it is good enough to divide the accounts into three: Matthew/Mark is one narrative stream; Luke is another; John is yet another.
I have jokingly called the process of getting away from the Gospel Goulash and understanding the separate accounts as “getting clean and sober.” Like getting clean and sober, it takes a long time and it requires discipline and relapses retard whatever progress you were making. I was making a lot of progress in getting clean and sober about the stories about the arrest, trial, and crucifixion—called, as a group “the passion narratives”—when our church choir began rehearsing a goulash-style oratorio to sing at our church’s Lenten services. The music is really quite nice but the narrative is awful. Truly awful. And there is no recognizable Jesus in it at all. This is the problem of “the character of Jesus” to which I alluded at the beginning.
Now let me start at another place, just to try to illustrate for you how bad this is and why publishing companies don’t allow their authors to do things like this. In a good novel, there is a real array of characters. Well beyond the good guys and the bad guys, there are the comics and the pathetics and the schmucks and the recognizable bit parts, like the hero’s mother-in-law who makes wonderful yoghurt in her kitchen. You get the idea. But every one of those characters obeys the laws that govern narrative. If you want readers to care about your book, you want them to care about your characters. That means they have to find them credible. That means that if a character does this, she simply can’t also do that.
So here is Allison, the daughter of Steve and Martha, whom you might remember from some other stuff I have written. These are all completely fictional, by the way. Allison is in high school. She is a cheerleader. She belongs to the local Goth faction. She is a top notch student. She chews her fingernails down to the quick in her Goth life, but as a cheerleader, her nails are long and painted with the school colors, which, it seems, are green. She is in a state of perpetual conflict with her teachers, which is pretty much required as a Goth, but is in a very close relationship with them as a cheerleader and as a serious academic talent. She sits in a corner of each room, as she changes classes at the high school; sullen, aggressive, withdrawn. But during each class session, she participates actively in the discussions and very often asks permission at the end of class to give a little plug for the team in the upcoming game.
Got a good grip on what Allison is like? I hope you like her character because I am going to send it to a major publisher and I want to be able to forward to you all the rejections that tell me that nobody—nobody at all—is going to be able to attach to Allison. She is incredible, in the worst and most literal sense of the word. Making a narrative about her is simply a waste of time.
There is a way to save this book. It’s easy and it has often been tried before. You just have three narrators. Allison is described by the advisor of the Honor Society; by the member of the counseling staff who has seemed most effective against the Goth invasion; and by the sponsor of the rally squad. The Honor Society tells about the successes of Allison the Good Student; the counselor tells about the tribulations of Allison the Goth; the sponsor bubbles over about Allison’s athletic abilities and her perpetual good humor.
Now it is true that each narrative will leave out some material. The sponsor will tell you about the manicured green fingernails, a detail that fits beautifully into her narrative. The counselor will tell you about the brutally chewed nails, which advance the narrative he is telling. Each has a story in mind. In each story, there is an “Allison” who comes to life in that narrative and who is vivid enough to drive the plot forward. Readers can believe the cheerleader and the academic and disbelieve or pay no attention to the Goth.
That could work. The Goulash Allison will not work. No one will be able to make any sense of her—not enough to empathize with her situation or to deplore her friends or even to criticize her persistently bad choices. If this bad book receives any awards, it will become the kind of book that people know they need to refer to, but no one will really read it and no one should.
Now let’s come back briefly to the Passion Narratives. You will not be surprised, at this point, to learn that different writers have seen Jesus in different ways and have written compelling narratives about his arrest, trial, and death. You might have seen Matthew/Mark, Luke, and John in my Honor Society, Goth Enclave, and Cheerleader. You were supposed to, so I hope you did.
Beginning with the Gospel Goulash, I have been working at getting clean and sober. I have been having some success. I understand that the Jesus we see in Matthew/Mark is really a truly different from the Jesus of Luke. The Jesus of Matthew/Mark is a recognizable character. When you see that A happens to him, you are ready to expect that B will happen soon. In Luke, when you see that C happens to him, you are ready to expect that D will happen soon.
In Mark, the relationship between A and B—between the agony of Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane and the abandonment he feels as he dies alone on the cross—makes sense. You can feel the loneliness; you can see Jesus looking hopelessly down the barrel of the gun the Romans have pointed at him. In Luke, the relationship between C and D—between the appearance of an angel to strengthen Jesus for the ordeal and the connectedness with the Father he feels, even as he dies that awful suffocating death—makes sense. It isn’t pretty, of course. It’s a ritual execution by torture. But it does make sense. It is a real narrative with a real character. This Jesus—either the one Matthew/Mark tell us about or the one Luke tells us about—is someone you can care about; someone you can invest your emotions in, as you can in any well-drawn character.
This Jesus does not shed understanding and empathy the way Allison does. If he did, there would not be a church. You will not be surprised, by now, to see what effect it had on me to sing a chorus about Jesus dying on the cross alone, abandoned even by God. And then, immediately after, sing a chorus in which Jesus confidently commends his soul to his beloved Father, knowing that even in this awful moment, the Father’s purposes will be achieved and that God suffers with Jesus through all the pain and mockery. Jesus turns, in the midst of all this, to pardon a thief who is being crucified along with him. This Jesus is full of compassion, not despair.
So we sing about the despairing, abandoned Jesus; then about the confident, caring Jesus. The one right after the other.
If we were trying to get the general readership to care as little about Jesus as they have learned to do about Allison, I can hardly think of a better way to proceed.