Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Happy Birthday, John and book

Today marks the feast day of John the Baptist. It also marks the official release date of my new book of John the Baptizer. In recognition, I am cross-posting here the piece I recently wrote for the Powell'sblog, the link to which can be found in the prior post.


The abiding impression of working on my latest book John the Baptizer was of walking down a very familiar, and yet strangely untrodden, path.

Most of us know at least something about John the Baptist, whether from sermons we’ve heard, movies we’ve seen, or museums we’ve wandered through: that he wore a camel skin coat and ate locusts and honey; that he was Jesus’ cousin and baptizer; that he was beheaded at the apparent whim of a girl and her stepfather the King. These images are familiar to us, as is the idea that John was the forerunner, the one who came out of the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.

And yet despite all this, and despite the fact that John is the character who sets in motion what is, at least by measure of influence, the most significant drama in the history of the Western hemisphere, there exist remarkably few comprehensive accounts of his life; none, at any rate, which has managed penetrate the culture and establish John’s saga as one that stands on its own, worthy of our attention in its own right.

The animating idea behind this book was simply that: finally to set John at the center of his own story, and to tell that story from beginning to end in service of no particular religious or anti-religious agenda, but simply to try to see who this man was, and whether our impression of him and of history changes at all when we look to him as the central charisma of his own undeniably extraordinary drama.

The bulk of the material in John the Baptizer is drawn from three wells: The gospel accounts, of course; the writings of great Jewish historian Josephus; and finally the sacred stories and scriptures of a still practicing sect called the Mandaeans, who by certain reckoning may be the last living Gnostics on earth, and who also happen to be devoted followers of John the Baptist.

There were many other sources as well -- including historians, archeologists, non-canonical gospels, hagiographies and apocrypha – but in addition to these, I made sure to include as wide a range of relevant art, music, and literature as I was able, in the explicit hope that it too would inform my thinking and the story I was trying to tell. The reader may as a result detect the influence of Oscar Wilde in certain of my depictions, and of Gustav Flaubert, of Caravaggio and Da Vinci and even Arvo Pärt, inasmuch as they all had something to say, some light to shed on the subject of John’s life and legend.

I adopted this more open approach because I realized early on that, though my overriding purpose in writing the book was still to fill what seemed a gaping hole in the record, I was not going to be able to – nor did I want to -- offer a traditional biography or anything remotely like a “search for the historical John.” Too much sand, too much wind, and frankly too many different agendas have treated themselves to John’s name and legend for me to pretend that I would be able to reconstruct with any academic certainty the paths he walked, the precise mechanisms of his influence, or the absolute nature of his relationship with his followers, his disciples, and with Jesus. As a matter of record, John’s life is and will probably always be something of an unknown to us, a subject of endless surmise, conjecture, and frustration.

But no less vital for that. The various mysteries we encounter in trying to weave our way through what we do know of John’s life – questions having to do with his youth and upbringing, his own religious influences, his disciples, the doubts he harbored about Jesus -- are far too compelling, and John himself is far too significant a figure to languish as he has, the disembodied sum of various notorious episodes. Revisiting his life and his legend, and trying at long last to put all those pieces together is part and parcel of the same organic process going on all around us, wherein the ecumenical explosion wrought by technology, archeological discoveries, and the ever-flattening landscape of our new world compels us to revisit and revise many of the assumptions we bring to our history, our traditions, and our faith, whatever our faith may be.

By that token I understood that though the archive of trustworthy history and artifact regarding John was not great, I nonetheless stood at the receiving end of nearly two millennia of inspired thought and reflection on the subject of this man's life and death, coming in the form not only of prayers and sacred stories, but paintings as well, and dramas and sculptures and song. Given that extraordinary endowment, it struck me that to confine myself to the meager province of “what really happened” would not only have been futile, it would have deprived me and the reader of far too much beauty, too much possibility, too much of what draws us to John in the first place, which is the mystery, the magic, and the beauty of the tales that have been attached to him, and the ongoing appeal that he makes to our imaginations precisely because he is at once so important and so elusive. Literal truth can be a wonderful thing, no question, but there are other truths that we discover when we set aside the fetish for “known facts,” and allow a story to come down to us through the centuries, and witness how it has managed to survive and grow and evolve in the disparate prayers and hearts of so many distant, different, and far-flung seekers.

This, then, was the task I set myself – not to invent, not to hypothesize or imagine what else might have been – but to try to combine and to distill what was already there; to take what we know, take what we have found, what we have been told and what we have imagined to be so, and to try give it some coherence; to ascribe privilege to no one source over another, but assume that all contain elements of truth, all contain elements of fiction, and that all could be used to serve the same end: of informing a single, comprehensive account of a story that, remarkably, no one had yet tried to tell.

Of course, that experience -- of standing before that mountain of paint and prose and song – was a daunting one, and chastening, too, but in all the right ways. To find that Rembrandt or Khalil Gibran, or Ernst Renan has already been where you are trying to go is undeniably humbling to one’s sense of mastery or worthiness, but rightly humbling to one’s sense of purpose as well. In wading though all that material, I couldn’t help developing my favorites. Of the painters, Caravaggio probably loomed the largest in my thinking, for reasons having as much to do with lighting and aesthetics as with his portrayal, and I can’t really say that there was any one image in particular, or singular passage that stood out to me as having captured the essence of the John that I was seeing. Rather what was most instructive and moving about looking through all these different treatments was seeing how distinct they were (the best of them), and how in every instance, though the artist had made sure to include the tell-tale iconic details that would identify the subject as John – the pelt, the staff, the accompanying lamb – they each had had to apply something individual as well; something, that is to say, of their own world, their own sensibility and selves in order finally to imbue the image with life.

It was good thing to be reminded of this, that as lofty and impossible a task as I sometimes felt I’d set myself, that ultimately my account would be rendered – that is, made possible -- by the inescapable limitation of my own perspective and experience. I am no less a product of my own baggage and beliefs and tastes than any of the authors and artist and composers who came before, or who will come after. Whether squinting at the world around us, or at a legendary figure from the distant past, all we can ever really do is offer our own particular reflections on what we see through our own little lens. So it is I offer the book not as the definitive portrait of John, not as the last word, but something much closer to the first; the first, at least, to try to take all the separate chapters of this man’s story, and give them a single spine. John the Baptizer is a starting point, an introduction and an invitation to consider anew this profoundly important, profoundly troubling, and profoundly beautiful life.