A Long Way From Tipperary

Although not all of Crossan’s book A Long Way From Tipperary was riveting to me (I skimmed the personal parts, devoured the spiritual thoughts), I found a few nuggets that meant something to me.  [Crossan is an ex-monk, ex-priest who’s written myriads of books on the historical Jesus.]

If you, dear reader, have followed my questions and thoughts in the spiritual vein of things, you’ll know that I’ve been left (it’s actually felt a little like abandonment) in this vast field of not-knowing, especially after all the research I’ve did for Eve…and for my second, in-the-works novel.  Thing is: like it or not, the Bible isn’t what I thought it was.  God’s not who I thought He was.  That includes Jesus.  It doesn’t mean that I’ve thrown them all out.  It just means that they hold a different significance for me now.

It’s a little unnerving saying all this, because I know how this not-knowing affects the average, conservative Christian.  It makes them nervous.  Slightly skeptical.  And perhaps a little afraid of me.  Like they’re not quite sure where I’m going with all this.  Am I still a Christian?  Or not?

I’m not going anywhere with it, or more succinctly, I don’t know where I’m going.  I’m simply plodding along, trying to answer questions as they pop up in my daily inner and outer life.  That’s all one can do, in my opinion.

And really, it’s my journey.  I can only relate to you what’s happening to me.  I very well could be in a different place next week.  Which is a good thing.  It means I’m making progress (or simply moving to an alternate location).

I’m not an academic scholar, in the truest sense of the word.  Instead I like to think of myself as a public intellectual (“intellectual” is debatable).  And I liked what Crossan said about such individuals–about their responsibility and mission.  [Although I would hasten to add that when he says “public religious intellectuals” I would change that phrase to “public spiritual intellectuals.”  There’s a difference in my mind.  An open-minded difference.]

“A public intellectual in religion is, however, a rather special case, an endangered species from the past and an uninvented species in the present.  We have high-profile religious hucksters and frauds, cheats and criminals, pederasts and rapists.  We have high-profile religious activists and ministers, pacifists and preachers, saints and martyrs.  But public religious intellectuals are much harder to find.  They live publicly and openly where reason intersects with revelation and history intersects with faith, and they answer equally and honestly to both those imperious demands.  Their job is to think out loud about religion in general or Christianity, for example, in particular, and to so do within public discourse and not just denominational confession….And ‘as publicly as possible’ is not a question of volume, but of clarity, not of spin and hype, but of honesty and accuracy.  The purpose is not indoctrination, but education.  And education means awareness of all your options.  The hope is for debate without caricature and argument without derision.”  [Boldness added by me.]

I can only hope I’m doing that.

Crossan jokes that his passion in life–studying and writing about the historical Jesus–is a little like “open-heart surgery on Christianity, and maybe also on civilization itself.”  Not many people want to be confronted with new information, especially when “I’ve believed this all my life; it must be true!”

That’s why he wrote this book.  Many reviewers of his past books had felt that perhaps Crossan was imposing his own childhood history upon the life of Jesus.  So here, Crossan seeks to tease out the strands of his own biography, place it under intense scrutiny.  Might he have done this, or no?

A few weeks ago, I posted an article from The Week, identifying the Nones, those people who are people of faith, but follow no certain denomination or church.  You can read my post here.

I found it interesting that Crossan has come upon these types of people, too, in his interactions with readers and listeners.

“After a decade of interviews in newspapers and magazines, discussions on radio and television, lectures in parishes and seminaries, colleges and universities, I now recognize a group in this country who claim a center of the road between the extremes of secularism and fundamentalism.  They are also dissatisfied, disappointed, or even disgusted with classical Christianity and their denominational tradition.  They hold on with anger or leave with nostalgia, but are not happy with either decision.  They do not want to invent or join a new age, but to reclaim and redeem an ancient one.  They do not want to settle for a generic-brand religion, but to rediscover their own specific and particular roots.  But they know now that those roots must be in a renewed Christianity whose validity does not reject every other religion’s integrity, a renewed Christianity that has purged itself of rationalism, fundamentalism, and literalism, whether of book, tradition, community, or leader.  I did not set out to speak to those people, because I did not know they existed until about 80 percent of my mail told me they did.  That, once again, was not where I expected to be, but happily am.”

I found it even more interesting that he believes that the stories in the New Testament are parables.  Even the stories about Jesus.  He’s been under fire for this belief, as you can imagine, but he explains it very convincingly.

And to back this up, he makes some valid points.  He says that we rarely argue with facts.  We argue from our own ideology.

Case in point.

“My change in answer started when, for a whole weekend, I was mesmerized by the accusation and counteraccusation between Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.  As I listened afterward to people debating those discordant stories, I heard primarily ideology rather than evidence in argument.  On one side: men do that sort of thing all the time (therefore).  On the other side: women are being socialized into victimhood (therefore).  In the trial of O.J. Simpson, a similar situation developed.  One one side: the police in general, L.A. police in particular, and one special cop railroad innocent black defendants all the time (therefore).  On the other: athletic superstars, pampered by fan adulation and media attention, think they can get away with violence and even murder (therefore).  Those competing stories seemed much less actual, factual accounts to be tested against evidence (beyond a reasonable doubt) and much more metaphorical narratives true or false according to one’s ideology, theology, philosophy, or vision of the world.”

Crossan gives a personal example: “My DePaul undergraduate class starts at eight-thirty in the morning, and I am in the room around eight-fifteen.  There is a heated argument among a small group of early arrivals over Oliver Stone’s then-recent movie JFK.  On one side: “That’s the sort of conspiracy thing the government does all the time.”  On the other: “Our government would never do such a thing.”  I listen until time for class to begin.  Both sides are definite, articulate, and unyielding.  Neither side ever mentions a single shred of evidence either way.  The story of JFK is true or false depending on the hearer’s ideology.  It is accepted or rejected as a metaphorical summary and symbolic condensation of one’s vision of reality.”

So, perhaps it boils down to where we heard the stories of Jesus first.  How and why and when and where we were raised and taught to believe.

Crossan touches on issues dear to Jesus, one of them nonviolent resistance.  He’s honest about his own shortcomings on this issue.

“Of course, the God of my reconstructed historical Jesus is loving, just, forgiving, merciful, but I am deeply aware that, when a boot presses on someone’s neck, all those beautiful adjectives change a little as seen by the boot, or as seen by the neck.  I do not want to use terms that could be loaded with complacent piety to eviscerate the message of Jesus.  And I include myself quite emphatically in that complacency.  Let me conclude, therefore, by imagining a conversation between myself and Jesus.

“‘I’ve read your book, Dominic, and it’s quite good.  So now you’re ready to live by my vision and join me in my program?’

“‘I don’t think I have the courage, Jesus, but I did describe it quite well, didn’t I, and the method was especially good, wasn’t it?’

“‘Thank you, Dominic, for not falsifying the message to suit your own incapacity.  That at least is something.’

“‘Is it enough, Jesus?’

“‘No, Dominic, it is not.’”

“It is surely better to admit that I cannot live by a message I think is absolutely true or imitate a life I think was absolutely divine than to cut both down to my own inadequacy.”

And here’s Crossan on attending church, the church he had to leave:

“Just before Easter 1994 I did a taped interview with Terry Gross for her National Public Radio show Fresh Air.  I was in a Chicago studio, she in a Philadelphia studio, and the interview was finished, but the tape was still running.

“‘Will you,’ she asked, ‘go to church this Easter?’


“‘Why not?’

“‘I prorated the many years I spent four hours a day in prayer in monastic church,’ I replied, ‘and figure I am still way ahead of the national average.’

“That was just being facetious; the serious reason came next.  In 1969 I left monastery and priesthood; I did not leave the Roman Catholic community or tradition.  I would not know how to do that, and even if I tried, it would be only a matter of externals.  But I did deliberately decide to stay as far away as possible from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, and that, for me, meant no participation in church activities.  That was originally, as I explained to Terry Gross, a negative decision.  I wanted to do my own research and publish what I found without becoming trapped in disputes with church authority, without becoming involved in its agenda, without ending with nothing to say but attack on its vacuity.  When I finished, she asked me if that could be used in the interview.  I said, ‘Of course.’  It was an honest question and deserved an honest answer.”

Today, these are the things I ponder.  They may seem trivial (and maybe slightly heady), but to me they are leading me down a path I never expected.

Such trepidation in the not-knowing-where-I’m-headed!  Such joy that I’m not stuck in one place.

And that you’re still reading.

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