It’s a rare novel that has taken off if it deals with Jesus. Sure, those novels are worthy and deal with deep issues, but you’re unlikely to find a bestseller (the Bible itself excluded, not being fiction!) that has used the figure of Christ in any depth. The name ‘Jesus’ will find itself onto the pages of many thrillers and pulp fiction as an unthinking exclamation, or ‘Mary mother of God’ if the novel is set in Ireland.
Why is this? What is it about Jesus that the public are not too comfortable about? Recently I have read two very uncomfortable extracts from the gospels – I have been spending a little bit of time reflecting on them. Both are set pieces attributed to Jesus from the gospels. Put either of these alongside a ‘Reading Public’ and it would very quickly polarise opinion. The second one I will save for the next post.
Let’s start with the one I read this morning: the rich man and Lazarus. Summing it up – a rich man dines luxuriously every day, and a poor beggar lies at his gate, dogs licking his sores, pleading for the crumbs from the rich man’s table. (Ever wondered why Jesus gives the beggar a name, but the rich man is nameless? I wonder if that has a bearing on the multitudes of the rich in the West and the faces of the poor?) Lazarus dies first, and angels carry him to Abraham’s bosom, where he is comforted. The rich man dies (the impression we get is not soon afterwards) and he is placed in Hades, where he is tormented in flame.
It is made very clear that whatever the rich man does, he cannot escape the flame. His pain and anguish is so great, he asks for Lazarus to bring some water over to cool him down. He even thinks of others, and wants his five brothers to be told about the terrible outcome they will endure unless they change their ways (having just marked through several hundred exam papers on A Christmas Carol, I can’t help but see a parallel here). Jesus injects some dramatic irony into his account by closing it with Abraham telling the rich man, that if they won’t believe Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe even if someone rises from the dead.
Sharing a story like that on Facebook would be tantamount to dropping a bomb. No wonder the Reading Public want Jesus hidden away, out of sight. Leavis in her book in the 1930s lamented the ‘supremacy of fiction and the neglect of serious reading’. I think, Queenie, that THIS would count as your serious reading. This is strong stuff. No one escapes censure here, except the poor, the diseased and the forgotten. There is no doubt that Lazarus is valued as highly as the rich man by God. Abraham’s comment: ‘During your life you received your good things, Lazarus bad things. Now you are tormented, and he is comforted.’
And here is where a secular reading public will not benefit from a parable like this. They would be tempted (for heaven’s sake, I am tempted too!) to judge it. To argue round it. To question God’s compassion, or to claim that this parable is far too simple to take as a rule of life. To state that this is why Christianity has become outdated, because it gives credence to myths about heaven and hell – that this is not needed now that we have a scientific understanding of the world. Even as an evangelical Christian, this parable presents problems as it appears that it is the rich man’s works that sentence him to hell, rather than anything else. No, let’s move on, to a more promising passage in Luke. Or, better still, let’s find an entertaining novel – what’s everyone else reading at the moment? How about some feel-good read instead?
But when reading Jesus, give Him some time. We have to let it read us. How about giving yourself just ten minutes, take a breath, and re-read the story slowly again and again. Let the words sink in. Allow the details of the story to detain you. There is a ‘great gulf’ fixed between heaven and hell, and no one can cross it. Which side of the gulf am I? Which side do I feel I am on? What should I do about it?
What about the first bit: the rich man lived in luxury every day. Am I living luxuriously every day? Is that what I spend my energies on, ensuring that I live in luxury? When others have nothing? How can that be okay? And to allow God to change me, to have the poor on my heart, as they are surely on his. God is angry with the wicked every day. But he also never forgets the poor and needy. Fear Him if you are wicked, and take heart, if you are poor.
Having recently stumbled on Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, one of the prayers moves the bottom of my spirit every time I consider it: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I be doing for Christ? Reading fiction is always about how we as readers respond to what we have read. There are as many views on great texts as there are readers of that text. We can sometimes be shocked by our own responses, and if we are honest, we will inspect them and ask ourselves more questions. It’s okay to do that. But perhaps don’t do it in public, or you might get misunderstood. Find a safe space. Find a friend who understands. Use a journal to jot your questions and thoughts down.
The Reading Public, like all of us, shy away from the painful truths that Jesus brings us. But we all need them. Next time, I’ll look at an even sterner text.