Monday, February 8, 2016

The Good Book

I have been remiss in not mentioning that this past fall a fine anthology of essays was released by Simon & Schuster – The Good Book: Writers Reflect on Favorite Bible Passages, edited by Andrew Blauner. Thirty-two writers of various stripes (Pico Iyer, Rick Moody, Al Sharpton, Colm Tóibín, Tobias Wolff, Lowis Lowry, Edwidge Dandicat, etc.) were asked to choose their favorite bible passages and then explain themselves. The results, kindly arranged in their Biblical order, provide an eclectic, intriguing, troubling, instructive, and at times enlightening companion to the book they tribute. I was honored to contribute an entry as well. I chose a passage from the New Testament about John the Baptist because, well, I kind of figured that’s why I’d been asked.  

Now that the winter shopping season has passed, but you may have twenty or so dollars still left on your gift cards, I am offering my essay here below, gratis, as an example of the sort of thing you may find in the larger volume, with the caveat that my piece is admittedly a little bookish and contains a few more names and incidents than an essay of its length should probably have tried to cram into itself. (l have done you the favor of removing all the footnotes, but they are available to anyone who purchases the Blauner anthology.) That said, if you do find yourself in the mood for a slightly wonky discussion of the spiritual and literary intelligence behind the gospel’s depiction of John the Baptist, one that probably assumes more biblical conversance than you may currently possess or want to possess, but which I nonetheless do believe redeems itself with some little late-inning magic, look no further.

In exchange for that coffee-cup of concentration, let me also assure the reader of this (but mostly myself) that yes, I will get 'round to offering something other than John-related material. And soon. In fact, at the risk of sounding way too much like J.D. Salinger right before we never heard from him again, I have in my garden writing shed right now no fewer than 4 book-length manuscripts all champing at the bit to reveal themselves to someone’s eyeballs other than my own. A little more taming is likely in order, but until such time as I set them loose, please accept the following bowl of porridge as token of my ongoing affection. It will be good for you, I promise, and if you wanted to add a little butter and brown sugar, my feelings wouldn’t be hurt.

The Womb and the Cistern Cell

Now when John in prison heard about the deeds of Christ,
he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one
who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
                                                                             Matthew 11:2–4

As vivid a character as he may be—with his ragged camel-skin cloak, his diet of locusts and honey, and his howling sermon-diatribes—there is legitimate cause to doubt the portrayal of John the Baptist in the Gospels, especially once one understands that John is a required element of Jesus’s narrative.

Remember, the evangelists lived in the grip of a highly prophetic mind-set. There was nothing the prophets had not seen, nothing that had not been foretold—or nothing of significance to the children of Abraham anyway. If one wanted one’s words or actions to be taken seriously as part of that legacy, they had on some level to be seen as a fulfillment of the word of the prophets. And the prophets had been fairly clear about the coming of the Messiah. Malachi had spoken of how the Lord would send a messenger “to prepare the way.” Isaiah had described an Elijah-like figure, a voice calling in the wilderness who likewise would come to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Even Jesus’s disciples—hardly a learned bunch—understood this. Immediately after recognizing that Jesus might actually be the savior, they asked him: “But why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” Jesus replied that Elijah had come, and they all apparently knew he was talking about John.

All of which is to say—or admit—that if there hadn’t been a John the Baptist, the evangelists would have had to come up with one. But they didn’t because there was. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that there was a good man around whom the people of Judea massed, one who “urged the Jews to be more virtuous . . . and having done so to join together in washing.” Josephus calls him the Dipper. The fact that the Dipper made no mention of Jesus or any Messiah—in Josephus’s account, that is—may give pause to the devout heart, but is certainly explainable. Not all perspectives on a given historic figure are going to be the same, particularly the more contemporaneous ones, but that just points up the inherent diceyness of the proposition at question—of taking the story of one charismatic spiritual leader and using it, after the fact, to substantiate the messianic claim of another probably-less-popular-at-the-time successor. Again, one doesn’t have to be too cynical to suspect that such an effort might lend itself to moments of invention here and there, or might even—absent a good editor— descend to the level of a fairy tale, with angels and magical doves and voices from heaven and things like that.

However, to chide the evangelists for their use of poetic license—if they did use it—is to be guilty of another kind of provincialism, of assuming that such men should be bound by the same rules as David McCullough, say, or of assuming that they shared our contemporary western assumption that what is “literal” or “factual” somehow has a greater claim upon truth than what we call figurative or metaphorical. Given the profound skepticism with which the religious mind has always treated the world of appearances—that tacky realm where facts have purchase—it is doubtful that the gospel authors would have thought twice about taking liberties with the stories they received from
it. They were attempting to convey eternal—and eternally pertinent—truths, after all, not temporal or temporary ones. They were drawing a map of the soul. In that context, John’s story—and the project of weaving it into Jesus’s—may be seen as presenting an opportunity through which both the spiritual and the literary intelligence of its several authors could shine. And does.

Consider first the fact that John is almost certainly the best drawn character in the Gospels. We are told how he dressed, groomed, what he liked to eat, the sorts of things he said, and the manner in which he said them. John is, moreover, the only character—other than Jesus— whose birth and infancy are presented in any detail; and while he is not the only character whose death is mentioned, John’s is remarkable in the fact that it has no immediate bearing on Jesus’s mission. Rather, it seems to have been presented for the same reason that informs all the other moments and episodes in John’s story: to reinforce the idea of his worthiness as Jesus’s first, most emphatic, and long-foretold witness.

But among these various moments in John’s life, there are two in particular—the bookends—that taken together testify most eloquently and powerfully to the quality of mind behind the assembly of this very intricate braid.

As mentioned, we learn from Luke a great deal about the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. There was an older couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, who prayed and prayed and prayed for a child until those prayers were answered, first by angelic visitation and then by a son. Readers conversant with sacred literature will recognize that this story comes from a fairly old playbook. It recalls the struggles of Abraham and Sarah, as well as Hannah and her husband, Elkanah, as well as Anna and Joachim. We furthermore learn that John’s mother, Elizabeth, was apparently “kin” to Jesus’s mother, Mary, which again is certainly possible—it was a smaller world back then—but could just as well be one of those poetic inventions, an attempt to convey the spiritual kinship between Jesus and John by asserting . . . actual kinship.

Either way, it’s the family connection that sets the stage for an undeniably affecting moment, often called “the quickening.” Perhaps to conceal her pregnancy from prying eyes, Mary goes to visit Zechariah and Elizabeth in the hill country. Once again it is Luke who tells us that “when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.”

A simple sentence recounting a common occurrence, yet it summons to mind one of the more beautiful and unexpected images in all the Bible: of the unborn John, adrift in the dark, soothing shadow of his mother’s womb, awakened from his slumber not so much by a voice— it’s Elizabeth who heard the greeting—but by the awareness of another silent presence nearby, a being still less formed than he but apparently so radiant and delightful that John is inspired to kick. To dance.

That alluded detail is our first real signal—far superior to the more explicit angelic pronouncements and benedictions that come before and after—that John has been chosen, and well chosen, for the eventual task of recognizing the light of the Holy Spirit. (In fact, this is precisely how his mission is phrased in the Gospel of John the Evangelist, that John was sent by God “to bear witness about the light.”) The “cousins” then part ways. Regarding John, all we know—from the Gospels at least—is that he lived in the wilderness and there “became strong in spirit.” When next we meet him, his mission is in full swing. Crowds are coming to the banks of the Jordan to receive his baptism and to be warned that he is just a harbinger. There is one coming after him, he says, who will “baptize you with the Holy spirit,” who will “gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Enter Jesus, the spiritual adept from Galilee. No further mention is made of any kinship—that metaphor, if it is one, seems to have served its purpose—but John instantly recognizes Jesus’s authority. “Should you not baptize me?” he asks. Jesus, ever mindful of the need to stick to the plan, says no. “Let it be so for now, as it is right for us to fulfill all righteousness.” The baptism goes forward, with God’s very vocal blessing.

John’s disciples, however, are not so quick to glean the significance of the moment, or of this visitor. And this you don’t hear as much about on Sunday, when more emphasis is placed on John’s willingness to point and step aside, but the gospel is fairly clear that, with the exception of the Pharisees and Sadducees (to whom, let’s face it, Jesus gave as good as he got), no one is more hostile to Jesus than the followers of John. Which makes sense. If one has devoted one’s life to this master here, it can’t be easy to hear him say, “Now follow that one there.” They resist. When they see that Jesus does not fast or pray, they challenge him; and later on at Aenon, when it is discovered that Jesus is performing baptisms just up the river, they object. This interloper is not just stealing their rabboni’s act, he is debasing it by letting his disciples perform the rite, which is apparently something John did not do.

John is not bothered. In fact, he takes the opportunity to express more clearly than ever the subservience of his role. Jesus is the bridegroom, John a mere guest at the wedding; Jesus is from heaven while John is from earth; Jesus must therefore “increase,” while he, John, must “decrease.”

His disciples still aren’t having it. They have more questions, more seeds of doubt to sow, and it is their final effort in this regard that provides what is the other most surprising and troubling moment in John’s story: Not long after the incident at Aenon, John is arrested, ostensibly for insulting the royal marriage. He is taken to the fortress of Machaerus, down along the eastern coast of the Dead Sea, and held in a cell that lore has come to imagine as a cracked and emptied cistern. It’s there, in his presumably weakened state, that John is finally infected by the lingering suspicions of his disciples. He is told about Jesus’s “deeds” in Galilee. We don’t know which deeds exactly, but Jesus was performing many of his healing miracles during this time, the most concerning of which would have been the raising of the dead, an act that—to most noses, at least—carries the taint of sorcery. Whatever the cause, John was apparently disturbed enough by what he heard to send his disciples back to Jesus to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

That’s an astonishing moment, especially because these will turn out to be the last words we hear from John, and they are an unvarnished expression of doubt. They are an arrow fired at the heart of the entire Christian mission . . . from the heart of the Christian mission. The disciples oblige. They go and find Jesus and ask him John’s question to his face, and he replies at length with one of his more vexingly oblique and brilliant passages, but his answer to the question itself is fairly succinct. “Go and tell John what you hear and see,” he says. “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Notable here is how the phrasing manages to upend the priority that literal meaning usually enjoys over the metaphorical, and suggests what Jesus really wants John to hear: that the deeds in question are symbolic of a far deeper transformation in which John should take great comfort. The people are seeing now, and hearing, being purified and reborn. Readers can decide for themselves whether this reply satisfies them. Presumably that’s what John’s disciples did. The question for this discussion is whether the response satisfied John. And did he even hear it? The answer, remarkably, is that we don’t know. The next we hear about John, it’s the night of Herod’s banquet when—famously— Herod’s stepdaughter, in return for having just entertained all the guests with a dance, requests that the Baptist’s head be brought to her on a platter. It’s a stunning and chillingly capricious end to the prophet’s life, and almost surreal enough to distract us from the issue at hand: what was John’s state of mind just prior to the ax’s fall? Did he still doubt Jesus, or was he reconciled?

There are, in fact, two morsels of information from which we may be able to draw some conclusion, and once again it is an unsettling one. We know from Mark that while in prison John apparently spoke to Herod, that Herod “was greatly perplexed” by the things John said, but that “he kept him safe” and “heard him gladly,” all of which paints a frankly entertaining picture: of the king who really only arrested the prophet in order to hear him speak, to sit outside his cell and hang on every terrifying word. But did those words pertain to Jesus, the one who came from heaven? The one whose sandal John had previously suggested he was not fit to tie?

It wouldn’t seem so, since we also know that sometime later, after John’s beheading, Herod was told of the deeds that Jesus was performing in his territory. Herod’s reply? “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Hardly the response of a man who has been warned of a new Messiah. No, this is the response of a man who feared and revered John, and was regretting the role he’d played in John’s death. And kudos to the evangelists for their willingness to muddy these waters, because again the inference is clear: that in his conversations with Herod—the last he is known to have engaged in—John seems to have abnegated his role as witness to Jesus. He was not consoled—at least not at that point—a conclusion that requires our pause if only to consider the depth of the anguish it represents. John was not just in prison, not just facing the likelihood that he would never get out alive, but also—and far worse— confronting the possibility that he had conferred his mission and following on a fraud, a man who he had reason to believe might corrupt and pervert the cause to which he had devoted his life, which was to prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.

Hard to imagine a darker dungeon than that.

Now, readers of faith are of course still free to hope—for John’s sake—that, at some point between his last conversation with Herod and the arrival of his executioner these doubts were answered, and that he was visited by some intuition or some presence, sent to reassure him that in the fullness of time (or perhaps the next six months) his efforts would be gloriously vindicated.

But if one does imagine such a moment, some glimmer of light entering John’s literal and figurative darkness, one is bound to recognize that this scene is in fact a reprise, and by that token to acknowledge the striking (and deliciously disturbing) resemblance between the implied setting that opens John’s story—which was the warmth and comfort of his mother’s womb—and the setting that closes it—which is the dank, dark cold of the cistern at Machaerus. These two shadows are, in fact, the alpha and omega moments of John’s story, and it is the exquisitely implied entrance of light into the first—shed by the near presence of his cousin Jesus—that encourages us to think that maybe a similar light pierced his prison cell; to imagine, in other words, that the very same hope that awakened him to this world should have been the one that finally allowed him to leave it in peace.

But even this—the extraordinary imagery and literary stagecraft used to convey the intercession of grace in John’s life—does not answer the question why? Why, posed the task of recounting John’s role in promoting the cause of Jesus—which is the only reason John is mentioned in the gospel in the first place—did the evangelists see fit to include such stark expressions of doubt in both word and symbol? 

The answer may be chalked up to a lack of editorial vigilance, sure, a failure to nip every Derridean bud that might undermine the evangelists’ clearly stated purpose. But perhaps the decision was more deliberate than that, evidence of a collective intuition that lifts the gospel enterprise above mere history or biography, and obviates the question of whether certain of its details are “true” or “false,” seeing as they are True:

Light is born of darkness.

Darkness is the necessary precondition of light.

Belief, likewise, is born of doubt, which is its necessary precondition. Doubt is the soil from which faith grows.

Therefore, if one is determined to imagine John the Baptist as the first and most authoritative voice to recognize Jesus as savior—the first, in other words, to believe—then John must, by that token, have been the first to doubt. That, too, is Law. And if ever we encounter any teaching, or feel ourselves succumbing to any creed or system of belief, that does not admit this, and does not struggle intimately and often—in the cistern of its soul—with the fear that it is mistaken, misdirected, falsely premised, or corrupt at its heart—we should take heed:

That is not faith.

That, in fact, is a fairy tale.