I have a confession to make. Prior to reading Norman Mailer's THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON, I had never read any of his novels or essays in their entirety other than excerpts or critical reviews of others. So I am dependent on what others have said about him for the background and assessment of this great American writer. Norman Mailer achieved celebrity status at age 25 in 1948 with the publication of his first book, a novel, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD. Since then he has authored some 30 books over a period of 49 years, two of which won him Pulitzer Prizes, one for his study of the American psyche during the Vietnam War, ARMIES OF THE NIGHT, in 1968, the other for his masterful portrayal of the life and death of convicted murderer, Gary Gilmore, THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG, in 1980.
This is not the first time Norman Mailer has attempted to write about famous people. He's tried his hand at Mohammed Ali, Pablo Picasso, and Marilyn Monroe. Being a celebrity of sorts himself he confesses he enjoys writing about larger than life figures. "I have always been fascinated by worthy protagonists," he says. This is the first time he has written extensively about a renowned and revered religious figure, and one certainly more famous than himself, Jesus of Nazareth. A worthy protagonist indeed! In writing about Jesus, Mailer noted that "there was the added challenge, the artful difficulty, of writing about someone who is nicer than yourself. That is very hard to do." At least he's honest about the attempt.
Mailer, who is of Russian-Jewish descent, says of himself, "Ultimately, for better or worse, I am a religious writer. I have my own religion, and by that I mean a private religion with personal beliefs." Mailer once described himself as an existentialist who has long had an "obsession with how God exists." He sees the world as a field of struggle between forces of good and evil and God is by no means the guaranteed victor. God is a finite infinite God, meaning that He is less than all powerful. He could lose the game and his experiment in creation could end in failure. Back in 1958 Mailer declared, "God is in danger of dying....He exists as a warring element in a divided universe, and we are...perhaps the most important part of His great experience." In his latest book Mailer takes this notion "of God's vulnerability" and grafts it "onto the Christian story of a God who does indeed die" (Paul Baumann, BOSTON GLOBE), and then is resurrected into a world that 2,000 years later is still far from the Kingdom of Heaven.
Norman Mailer is not the first writer to attempt a novelistic portrayal of the life of Jesus. Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy tried it as did D.H. Lawrence and Nikos Kazantzakis. D.H. Lawrence, in his little novella, THE MAN WHO DIED, tells the story of a Jesus who survives his ordeal on the cross, taken down and presumed dead, and then later revives in the tomb from his unconscious stupor. He then escapes and wanders through the countryside seeking the meaning of human existence which he discovers in a temple of the goddess Isis by the waters of Lebanon through a sexual encounter with a young woman whom he impregnates. This is, of course, far from what the Gospels relate and is pure Lawrencian fantasy.
Nikos Kazantzakis' novel, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, was made into a highly controversial movie, controversial because it portrayed a very human Jesus who experienced temptation and thoughts of sexual passion. The so-called "last temptation" was one that came to him during his dying moments on the cross. He has a dream that instead of following his divine destiny as a martyr and a savior he chooses instead to fall in love with Mary Magdalene, to sire children with her and raise a family, in other words, to be a normal human being and fulfill his natural desire to love and be loved as a human being, a husband, and a father. He is tempted, but in the end he embraces his destiny as a suffering servant and son of God.
The last temptation of Norman Mailer's Jesus is not love or sex as with Kazantzakis or Lawrence, but revenge. When one of the Roman soldiers torments him while he is hanging on the cross the voice of the Devil speaks in his ear:"Join me," he says, and "I will introduce this Roman to a few humiliations I can lay upon men. There is no pleasure greater than revenge itself. And I will bring you down from the cross." Though tempted he chooses not to yield. The last thing he wants is to die with a curse in his heart. He realizes how blind and self-deluded his tormentors are and he prays for their forgiveness. His last thoughts, in Mailer's Gospel, were "of the faces of the poor" and how beautiful they were to him. Mailer's Jesus has a very strong social conscience.
My colleague in ministry, Clarke Wells, now retired, notes that...Church history records minor sects who believed Jesus escaped the cross. This variant myth persists in Lawrence [and Kazantzakis], and in a tiny group in Japan who think Jesus made it across to their island and lived as long as Socrates and died in a good old age. These stories [says Clarke] aren't true. But they are all right. [He comments] If Jesus, as I sometimes fancy, ducked out of town, settled down and played parcheesi and went to the movies every Saturday for the rest of his life, that would be O.K. with me. I would love him just as much. And I bless any of you who can't take too much, who decide there are enough crucifixions without looking for them....[Amen, Clarke]
Other myths and legends about Jesus surmise that he traveled wide and studied in India and the far east before assuming his prophetic role. Mormons believe that after his resurrection he came to America and
preached to native tribes on these shores all of which is recorded in the Book of Mormon. English poet, William Blake, wrote a poem, entitled "Jerusalem", in which he fancied that Jesus once may have walked upon the green pastures of England:
And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pasture's seen?
And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?
Norman Mailer's Jesus does none of these things. His days on earth are confined to the
locale of Palestine and its environs. In fact Mailer's Jesus follows pretty closely the
accounts already recorded in the four Gospels. He rearranges the narrative stories a bit,
fills in and elaborates upon them, but he does not wander too far afield of the Gospel
accounts. Mailer takes his readers into the world-view of the Gospel writers, a world in
which God's voice still speaks to his prophets, the devil or Satan is a personal being who
contends with God for control of the creation, demons are cast out of possessed souls,
miraculous healings take place, the blind are made to see, the dead are raised, water is
changed into wine, crowds of people are fed with only a few loaves and fishes. We
experience this strange world
through the eyes and consciousness of the main protagonist of the story, Jesus, the Son of God. It is a fact that Jesus left behind no writings of his teachings or his life. What would happen if by some miraculous means we found a first-hand account of Jesus' life and teachings from the Master himself? That is what Mailer attempts to give us in his first-person narrative THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON.
Mailer's attempt reminds me of a course I once took when still a theological student at Andover Newton. It was called, "The Psychological Use of the Gospels." What we were asked to do each week was to read one of the healing incidents from the Gospels and to reflect upon it by taking ourselves inside the consciousness of the characters in the story, including Jesus himself, to imagine what he was thinking and feeling as he was asked to heal those in need. It was an interesting exercise. It helped me appreciate the power of the Biblical stories regardless of whether I thought they were historical fact or religious fantasy. What Mailer has done is to extend this exercise in religious imagination to the entirety of the four Gospels
and to do it solely through the consciousness of Jesus himself.
It is interesting that Mailer begins his Gospel by having Jesus say that there is much exaggeration in the four New Testament Gospels, that they put words in his mouth that he never uttered, that they described him as gentle when he was in fact pale with rage. Jesus says, "Their words were written many years after I was gone and only repeat what old men told them. Very old men. Such tales are to be leaned upon no more than a bush that tears free from its roots and blows about in the wind." And then he says, "So I will give my own account." But his account sticks pretty close to what the Gospels have already told us. The difference is that you hear the stories from his point of view. Apart from telling us that LUKE's story of his rejection at his home village in Nazareth was "rank with exaggeration" and that his disciples "added fables to their accounts" of his resurrection, Mailer's Jesus does not revise the main details of the New Testament narratives.
At the beginning of his Gospel Mailer's Jesus tells us that he was apprenticed over a period of 14 years as a carpenter by his mother's husband, Joseph, who he never refers to as his father, because of the Virgin Birth which Jesus relates as Gospel truth, the full Christmas story, but he tells us that he didn't hear about it until he was 12 years old from the mouth of Joseph himself. He also tells us that his family were Essenes who were sticklers for ritual and physical cleanliness, who seldom married, and those who did only lay with their wives when God told them to make a child, and no more. Jesus' mother wanted him to join the Essenes at Qumran rather than to become an itinerate teacher and prophet. Jesus, of course, did not accede to his mother's wishes.
Speaking of his mother, Mailer's Jesus tells us that there was emotional stress and conflict in their relationship. Jesus felt guilty that he had once hurt her feelings by refusing to acknowledge her or meet with her and his brothers when he was teaching the crowds. "Who is my mother or brother?", he asked, but they who do the will of God. When Jesus' words are reported to Mary she weeps. Jesus confesses that he was sorry for humiliating her in public and later tried to make amends. "How I wished to gather those words back," he says. "I owed much to her, even if our ways together had never been smooth." Maybe this is Mailer's experience with his Jewish mother being read back into the life of Jesus. But at least it shows a very human side to the son of Mary. Do we not all give our mothers and fathers grief at one time or another in the course of our growing up? Why would Jesus be any different?
The most interesting part of Mailer's GOSPEL is his account of the encounter between Jesus and Satan in the wilderness following his baptism by his cousin, John the Baptist, and his extended period of fasting. Mailer is at his most creative here as he describes Satan "dressed in robes of velvet that were as purple as the late evening," and wearing "a crown as golden as the sun." Jesus says to himself, "The Devil is the most beautiful creature God ever made." After refusing to accept the offer of wine and roast lamb from the Devil's hand Jesus is amazed to hear Satan say that he has a better understanding of God's creation than the Lord Himself who has lost touch with the creatures and spirits he has created. Moreover, he tells Jesus that God is not really in control of his creation, that he is less than all powerful, that he is but one god among many, that the breadth of His rages are unseemly for a great god, that He issues too many threats, and that He is not even in command of Himself. What amazed Jesus was that Satan did not inspire fear but comfort, that he could talk to him like a companion drinking wine in a tavern.
Though he manages to resist the Devil's enticing offerings and temptations he does not escape from the encounter unscathed. As Satan made ready to take leave of him he says to Jesus, "Having high regard for you, I would like to touch your hand." Jesus reports, "because I had wanted him to leave, I touched my right hand to his, and knew in the same instant that I had surrendered a share of the Lord's protection." I suppose the lesson here is that if we touch evil, even if we do not consent to it or practice it, we are nonetheless tainted by it.
The other interesting character in Mailer's GOSPEL is the figure of Judas. Mailer has Jesus utterly intrigued by Judas, so much so that he tells us that he loved Judas even more than he loved Peter whose faith was "blind as a stone" in contrast to Judas whose faith hinged on how Jesus would respond to the poor and oppressed. Jesus says he truly admired Judas whose "beliefs were as powerful to him as were mine to me." Mailer gives us nearly ten pages in developing Judas' character and relationship to Jesus, more space than any other disciple. Even when Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss he does not condemn him, for he feels in his heart of hearts that Judas still loved him more than he knew. And when he learns from the Roman guards that Judas had returned the 30 pieces of silver paid to him by the elders and then hanged himself Jesus has all he can do to prevent himself from weeping from one side of his heart to the other. I think this was the most poignant moment in Mailer's GOSPEL ACCORDING TO THE SON.
Near the end of his GOSPEL Mailer's Jesus tells us that "God and Mammon still grapple for the hearts of all men and women", and that "since the contest remains so equal, neither the Lord nor Satan can triumph." He refers to the "holocausts, conflagrations, and plagues" of the second millennium as "worse than any that had come before." and he complains that God does not often speak with him due to his preoccupation with the ongoing struggle between good and evil. Nonetheless, he tells us, "the Lord sends what love He can muster down to that creature who is man and woman, and I", meaning Jesus, "try to remain the source of love that is tender."
What Mailer offers us is neither a God who is all powerful nor a Son who is perfect love, but a creative divine power that is caught up in the struggle and passion of life and whose will for love and justice is still trying to make itself known in the human heart. This is not a rational Unitarian Gospel, nor an irrational fundamentalist reading of Scripture. It is instead an exercise in literary imagination taking us inside the consciousness of one who struggles to make sense of both his full humanity and his divine identity, a struggle, I would contend, that every human being must come to terms with as we
choose the values that give our lives meaning and which bind ourselves irrevocably to one another and to the power of being that gave us life. As Unitarian Universalists we are free to choose--guided by our own reason, experience and conscience--what beliefs about Jesus are most meaningful and sensible to us. What Norman Mailer does for us is to invite us to use our imagination as well as our reason in that endeavor, and that we just might learn something about ourselves in the process.