Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mary Gordon on the Amplitude and Complexity of Scripture: Reading the Gospels as the Bishops Target Gays and Women

I wrote yesterday about what happens when we grab a handful of carefully selected scripture passages to prove a political point, as we ignore where the weight of the Judeo-Christian scriptures falls—their preponderant emphasis on love, mercy, and justice. To be specific, I wrote about what happens when religious groups are permitted by civil society to use carefully selected scripture passages that belie the central thrust of the bible as these groups mount successful political attacks on vulnerable minorities.

I wrote about what happens when those religious groups have the ability to control civil law and its interpretation and the courts that parse and enforce civil law. I wrote about the theological problems—the problems of faith—created for those who read the Judeo-Christian scriptures as centrally about love, mercy, and justice, when religious groups whose interpretation of the scriptures militates against love, mercy, and justice control civil society’s understanding of faith and of the relationship between faith and the public square.

I’d like now to draw readers’ attention to an excellent recent article that analyzes some of the questions implicit in my previous posting. Questions like how the scriptures are to be read, and what they mean in a culture intent on demonizing others in the name of God . . . . . This outstanding resource is Nathan Schneider’s interview of novelist Mary Gordon about how to read the gospels in a culture hellbent on construing the scriptures as all about enemies to be demonized and vanquished.

Schneider interviews Mary Gordon about her recent book Reading Jesus. Gordon is a Catholic who incorporates a decidedly critical perspective about church leaders into her understanding of Catholicism. As she told Trudy Bush in 2005, though she continues to attend liturgy, she is very uncomfortable with the hierarchy and ashamed of its behavior, both in the pedophilia crisis and the political sphere. In Gordon’s view, “The church has really squandered its moral patrimony by its sexual phobia.”

Gordon also brings a Jewish sensibility to the challenge of reading the scriptures. Her father was a Jewish convert to Catholicism who instilled in her the Jewish habit of questioning God, of living with uncomfortable contradictions while rejecting easy answers that resolve those contradictions in the name of a unitary truth that ignores every other truth, and of refusing to excuse the inexcusable, even in the name of God.

Gordon brings this sensibility to her reading of the gospels. As she notes, her book Reading Jesus springs from a concern to understand what it is about fundamentalism that attracts so many people today. In her view, the attraction to fundamentalism is understandable: fundamentalism feeds a profound spiritual hunger.

But what it offers is too easy. It feeds hungry souls with junk food. The fundamentalist option resolves the challenging complexity and diversity of the scriptures by focusing exclusively on what feeds fear and rage, while ignoring everything else in the canon that does not feed this appetite for fear and rage:

The question that I kept asking myself, which I always try to ask myself as a fiction writer, was: why is this succeeding? It was feeding some appetite. It's easy to say that all fundamentalists are stupid, or wicked, but that didn’t seem like enough to me. The Bible registers for them on an emotional level, mainly as fear and rage. I was hoping to open a way of accessing the consolation and the richness that the Gospels offer.

Fundamentalism hijacks the bible’s complications, then. It flattens the amplitude of a text much more multivalent than the one-dimensional fear-rage preoccupation recognizes. The challenge we have to keep in front of us if we want to read the scriptures as they’re meant to be read—as multivalent texts full of complexity and contradiction—is the challenge of holding together contradiction and respecting ambivalence:

Over the years, I keep coming back to them [i.e., the gospels] because they seem to hit more tones and evoke more human possibilities than other texts that I know. Yet that very amplitude makes them difficult. I felt I could understand where the fundamentalists’ need comes from, but it seemed to me like that that hunger was being fed with junk food. I wanted to meet people at the point of their hunger and say, “This other way is difficult, but at the end of the day, it’s more satisfying.” I was thinking of people who have turned to fundamentalism out of fear, as well as intellectuals who can only see religion as it is in the hands of fundamentalists. I felt that the Bible’s complications had been hijacked, and I wanted to open them up.

In Gordon’s view, it’s important—it’s essential—that we learn to hold together contradiction even (and especially) as we read the bible, because much that is wrong in the world comes from the simplistic impulse to make things easy and comfortable by glossing over contradiction in pursuit of simple-minded formulas that purport to explain it all to us:

Fundamentalists know yards of scripture. They’ve memorized it. They’ve clearly read it a lot. But how do they read? I would like people to read better rather than reading more. We have some fantasy that, at some point in history, things were fixed and therefore life was easier. The Gospels are not fixed, they’re complicated and contradictory. A lot of the evil in the world comes from not being able to endure the pain of contradiction. Rather than endure it, people act violently, because anger and aggression cut out contradiction. They say, “We’ve lost something.” But reading the Gospels carefully and openly means blasting through a fantasy of stability that never was.

In the end, then, Gordon’s reading of the gospels comes down on the side of questions rather than answers, of complexity and contradiction rather than a monochromatic fixation on fear and rage, on enemies to be vanquished. It does so because the Jesus on whom the gospels focus was a failure rather than a success, a question mark rather than an answer, someone who entered into suffering rather than overturning it:

Jesus was a failure. He died on the cross. He died like a criminal. How can there be an answer to why human beings suffer? There’s no good answer to that. There are only a series of bad answers: because it will all be all right after death, or because God knows better. That stinks. The only good answer to the problem of human suffering is, “I don’t know.” “I hope.” “Love unto death.” I would rather be in uncertainty than a false fixity, as painful as that is. To have an answer to meaninglessness, or to the mystery of suffering, is a little disgusting. It betrays those who have been betrayed. It betrays the innocent who have suffered. It betrays abused children. It betrays children who were born with horrible diseases and will only suffer and die. It betrays the starving. It betrays abused women. Jesus is a model of someone who suffers grotesquely. His model is of accompaniment rather than comprehension.

In my view, this conversation about how to read the bible in our contemporary cultural context is an important conversation to have because the ongoing discussion of the relationship between faith and politics in American culture is always bedeviled by misuse of the scriptures and of the norms of faith by religious groups who have significant influence in the public square. I’m using the word “bedeviled” deliberately here.

I like Peter Laarman’s recent observation that the Stupak amendment to the Congressional health-care reform bill carries with it “real devilment.” Laarman says,

In my view the real devilment is that getting it [i.e., the Stupak amendment] included in the House bill now gives the Catholic bishops and their non-Catholic patriarchal friends an undeserved moral high ground as the bill moves toward conference committee and eventually to the President’s desk.

Devilment. Note the point Laarman is making here. Devilment is what happens when those who have not earned moral authority quote scripture and manipulate the central symbols of a religious system to shore up their crumbling claims to dominance. Devilment occurs when such empty religious authority figures abuse scripture in an attempt to make themselves appear to be admirable moral agents, when the contrary is the case.

Devilment is what happens when the devil quotes scripture for his own purposes. Devilment is going on when people with no real moral authority want to posture as moral experts and spiritual adepts and to shut up all critical discourse designed to expose their lack of moral foundations. With lies and tricks, if possible. With lots of money to propagate those lies and tricks.

We know we’re dealing with devilment, it seems to me, when something about the representation of religious ideas and faith-based policies by those claiming to speak in God’s name offends our deepest religious sensibilities, sensibilities that point in the direction of love, mercy, and justice rather than in the fear-rage direction that those quoting scriptures want to urge us towards with their selective biblical citations.

Such devilment torments people of faith. It makes us want to give up on faith and religion altogether, because we know that the real center of faith—love, mercy, and justice—is radically removed from everything that the devils spouting biblical verses hold and want to promote. Devilment produces particularly painful quandaries for those who know that the weight of scripture is on the side of love, mercy, and justice, and that scripture and norms of faith are being seriously abused and misrepresented by those who, while claiming to be all about God, make the lives of others a living hell in the name of God.

As Peter Laarman notes, what makes the Stupak amendment especially devilish is that it gives moral high ground to those who have not earned that high ground and do not have the right to claim it—to the Catholic bishops and their patriarchal friends, whose motives in shoving the provisions of the Stupak amendment down the throats of the nation are, to say the least, dangerously mixed.

While claiming to be all about love, mercy, and justice, the leaders of the Catholic church have been making war on women for some time now (and that war continues with the Vatican’s current investigation of American women religious)—just as they have been waging war against gay and lesbian human beings. While claiming to be all about creating a culture of life, many American Catholic bishops have done everything in their power for some time now to serve political leaders who proliferate wars, who lead us into needless conflicts with other nations while lying about their motives, and who clearly care far more about the wealthy than about the wretched of the earth.

The leaders of the Catholic church have not earned the moral authority they wish to claim now in their crusades against women and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered human beings. As Tom Roberts noted at National Catholic Reporter recently, the U.S. Catholic bishops keep trying to change the subject—e.g., (my point, not Roberts’) to the moral failings of gays and the inferiority of women—while they refuse to address their own glaring, incontrovertible, scandalous moral failure in the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

Even as the bishops now celebrate their “victory” over their gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Maine and their “victory” over women with the Stupak amendment, which abrogates and goes beyond the stipulations of the Hyde amendment, their lack of moral authority to address any issue at all, while they will not address their behavior in the clerical sexual abuse crisis, has precipitated a serious crisis within the Catholic church in the United States. Thousands upon thousands of Catholics have walked away from the church and will continue to walk away, as a result of the bishops’ moral emptiness.

And no amount of devilment produced by beating up on the gays and women is going to change that fact. No matter how many scriptures the bishops spout as they continue the beatings. No matter how often they remind us that they represent God to the rest of us. No matter how long their pink cappa magnas become or how frilly and elaborate the lace they sport as they preach to us about how nature and the scriptures dictate that men be men and women be women.