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“In the daily exercise of Our pastoral office, it sometimes happens that We
hear certain opinions which disturb Us –opinions expressed by people who,
though fired with a commendable zeal for religion, are lacking in sufficient
prudence and judgment in their evaluation of events. They can see nothing
but calamity and disaster in the present state of the world. They say over
and over that this modern age of ours, in comparison with past ages, is
definitely deteriorating. One would think from their attitude that history,
that great teacher of life, had taught them nothing. They seem to imagine
that in the days of the earlier councils everything was as it should be so
far as doctrine and morality and the Church's rightful liberty were
concerned. We feel that We must disagree with these prophets of doom, who
are always forecasting worse disasters, as though the end of the world were
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from The Onion: "Report: Majority of Americans unprepared for Apocalypse"
It won't take as long to read this article as it does to listen to Bruckner's 8th Symphony, nicknamed "Apocalyptic" (not by Bruckner), but here's a performance by the Dresden Staatskappelle from April of 2013 (just think, if the Mayans were "right" we never would have gotten to hear this)
Godmusic blog page #5 December 2012--present
Days of Noah
If the History Channel has been getting it right these last few years, this will be my last article. It has been a pleasure writing for you. Now we go up on our rooftops and wait for the world to end.
According to the Mayans, says the television, December 21st of this year is the end of the third epic cycle of the calendar, and will usher in the end of the world. Nice knowing you.
Maybe it isn’t nice to sound skeptical about these things, but this has got to be about the 8 billionth time just in my lifetime that somebody somewhere said the world was going to end, so if it does, I have to say, I’ll be a little bit surprised. To apocolyptics, however, this is just part of the formula. Just you wait and see, they’ll tell us:
“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about it until the flood came and took them all away.” (Mt. 24:37-9)
Wait a second—how did that Jesus fellow get in here? Is he really here to tell us the end times are upon us? You, too, Jesus?
Well, at least there is one way in which I should breathe easy. Jesus’ 2,000 year old challenge is one thing. I’ve got to process that somehow. He's on my team, or rather, I'm on his team. He's my Head Guy, so I have to at least pay some attention to everything I think he might have said, including things the gospel writers might have "helped" him say. But the Mayans are those other guys. They’re pagans. Their prophecy doesn’t count. It’s ok for me to laugh at it, right?
And laugh at it we are—everybody I’ve talked to, anyway. We’ve been around this kind of frenzied end-of-the-world stuff for a long time now. People get all worked up and nothing happens. Then it’s on to the next publicity hound with the next scary bedtime story.
Oh, I know, such skepticism is exactly what many apocolyptics feed on. They are the true believers, and we are the ones who aren’t going to be laughing in a moment. We are the ones living ‘as in the days of Noah,’ eating and drinking and marrying, having a good time, little realizing, little prepared, until—bam!
I’ve got a good theological answer, though, for why I don’t need to get too worked up. It’s a concept John Dominic Crossan calls ‘Secondary emphasis’---In the case of Primary Apocalypticism you do something only because the end is near and you are preparing for it. In the case of Secondary emphasis you “do what you are supposed to be doing anyway” and if the end comes it comes. The point really isn’t whether the end is near, the point is how you are supposed to be living your life the way God wants you to live your life and if the whistle blows and the game is over all of a sudden you’ll still be found a ‘good and faithful servant’ and if the clock continues to unwind for another thousand years or so you won’t die of starvation waiting on your roof—or get butt splinters. Every coach I know would tell his team to keep playing the full game, which is hard to do if you’ve stopped doing anything useful, packed your bags, and gone off to sit under a tree somewhere.
And what good would that do anyhow? Notice, in the quote above, that the people don’t have any idea a flood is about to come upon them. It just happens to them suddenly. There isn’t anything they can do about it. They’ve already been declared wicked beyond redemption. We are given no indication in Genesis that they’ve been told of their sentence, it just happens. Apparently, this was before people figured out what a cottage industry could be made from preaching impending disaster.
By the way, I found it amusing that Jesus used the terms ‘eating and drinking’ to describe the populace. He himself, you’ll recall, was once flagged for excessive celebration with his disciples by some Pharisees who thought he was being much too relaxed about these things. Now it is Jesus’ turn to put on the stern face and wag the finger at people doing what comes naturally—eating, drinking, and not paying attention.
You might have been under the impression, as I was, that Noah’s neighbors had a chance to repent and didn’t take Noah up on it, that they laughed at him for building the ark, that they basically ridiculed the whole project and scoffed at God into the bargain. That part isn’t in the Bible. It came to me courtesy of some cartoon dramatizations, I think, growing up. There is also something similar in the Koran, where Noah gives a long speech and has a dialogue with his unrepentant neighbors. Just another case, I think, where those Christians who make it a business to hate Muslims would find, if they bothered to read it, that they might actually prefer the Koran to the Bible. Besides the relative abundance of hellfire imagery (which as a doctrine was more developed by the European middles ages in Christianity as well, contemporaneously with the Koran), there is a great deal more of the psychological defensiveness that often accompanies a believer in a skeptical world.
There are, if you go back to the source, several other differences as well. If you grew up in a church, you would have been inundated, at a very young age, with the story of Noah and the ark. Every church seems to have a wall mural or some kind of artwork on display with this picturesque and dramatic story. It is one of the first stories we are told. Unfortunately, when we grow up, it is also one of the most difficult stories to find relevant, if not downright preposterous, if we take it as literal history. I’ll show you what I mean:
“This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God. Noah had three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence. God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways. So God said to Noah, ‘I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy them and the earth.”
Here is our first problem, and the last one. Does God really want to solve the problem of mankind’s wickedness by wiping everybody out? And aren’t we just as wicked now as they were then? Keep in mind what God said the problem was, though. “The earth is filled with violence because of them.” Does that sound like anything you heard in Sunday School? Nothing about sin or worshipping the wrong gods. God is unhappy because people are filling the earth with violence. You don’t hear a lot of preachers getting worked up over it, though. Odd.
“So make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in it and coat it with pitch inside and out. This is how you are to build it; the ark is to be 450 feet long, 75 feet wide and 45 feet high. Make a roof for it and finish the ark to within 18 inches of the top. Put a door in the side and make lower, middle, and upper decks.”
Ok, here’s a visual problem. Remember all those wall murals for the kiddies? You know how they’ve got all those cuddly animals sticking out of the windows like they are riding a school bus, with a giraffe thrown in there for comic effect? The only opening this ark’s got is a foot and a half window right below the roof. And if you can’t squeeze through that you don’t get to experience the outside world. Besides, Mrs. Noah would probably tell you to keep all your appendages inside the ark until the ark comes to a complete and final stop.
“I am going to bring floodwaters on the earth to destroy all life under the heavens, every creature that has the breath of life in it. Everything on earth will perish.”
Got it. Not the fish, though.
“But I will establish my covenant with you and you will enter the ark—you and your sons and your wife and your son’s wives with you. You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you. Two of every kind of bird, of every kind of animal and every kind of creature that moves along the ground will come to you to be kept alive. You are to take every kind of food that is to be eaten and store it away as food for you and for them.”
Here might be a good time to discuss the universalism of this apocalypse. God keeps saying that everything that has life will be destroyed, but he never mentions the fish. Aren’t these alive? I get that they don’t breathe air (except the dolphins, which aren’t fish, but do live in the sea; what do you do with them?) but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a very serious chunk of the world’s living things. So do I put on my lawyer hat and decide that the phrase ‘breath of life’ is the determinant? (that still doesn’t solve the problem with the dolphins). Either way, we’ve got a very inexact taxonomy here!
And it isn’t like the fish aren’t going to die. Later on, we are going to be told that the floodwaters covered the earth up to a depth of 20 feet above the tallest mountains. Now imagine what this detail adds. It is supposed to solve a problem, as is the case with all doctrine. The author of Genesis doesn’t want somebody out there saying, “Well, what if some people or animals were standing on top of mount Sinai when the flood came, and survived the flood?” Nope, got that one covered. With water.
But while the author of our account is congratulating himself on a job well done, let’s think about this for a second. What he apparently didn’t know was that Sinai isn’t the tallest mountain on earth. Instead the honor goes to Mount Everest, which is about 22,000 feet above sea level. Now unless water behaves differently now than it did then, that means you are going to need 22,020 feet of water (or so) all over the earth, which would mean some parts of the earth would be about as far under the surface as the deepest part of the ocean is now. It means that the pressure from the sea water would kill everything that lives in the oceans now unless they rose with the water level or could stand enormous pressure (like those curious specimens near the bottom with eyes on stalks and two eyes on the same side of their heads and other innovations). But the water—22,000 feet of fresh water?---would kill any and all fish that need salt water to survive. Which is pretty much all of the ones in the oceans. The ones in the lakes have no guarantee of ever getting home again, not to mention having their very specific dietary needs satisfied, and seriously messing with their local ecosystems. Since they didn’t know about any of these things, none of this would have seemed like a problem in ancient times, so long as the objection about the mountains was addressed.
And while we are concerned about the fish, let’s not forget the actual passengers on the ark. There will have to be a lot of them, surely, and the author knows that, which is why the ark is bigger than a football field. That sets us several more problems, among them that the ark would have to be bigger—significantly bigger—than any known ship of the ancient world. Another is that it was to be singlehandedly built by a 600 year old man. Even the most conservative, literally-minded recreations of this story have Noah’s sons helping build the ark, though the biblical account says nothing about it. Of course, we could posit the idea that Noah was simply the head of a large consortium and that, as a common convention then and now, only the head of the project gets credit for it (as, for instance when a pillar says, referring to a king “I conquered such-and-such” when the king obviously did so with a little help from his army. But you never see armies of workers in dramatizations of the story. I will wager that the Noah’s Ark exhibit from the Genesis Experience theme park in Kentucky, where all of these stories are taken literally, did not start out by casting one octogenarian to play the part of Noah and expecting him to build the ark by himself, but instead involves all the high-tech construction that a large corporation can throw at the project. So much for the way it “really happened.”) (sidebar: how would Noah have gotten his neighbors to help and then not let them on the ark?)
Again, the detail is supposed to get things to make sense but it only succeeds in making things worse. Sure, the ark is enormous, but how on earth could one man build it, even if he had a hundred years to do it? How does one person, even in the prime of his life, move all that lumber around? Or make it seaworthy?
Actually, I like the part about the pitch. God tells Noah to seal it generously all around with a coating of pitch, which should cover up any amateur sloppiness in his joining and keep it from leaking. The question is, where did he get 50,000 gallons of pitch? It wasn’t from Home Depot.
Questions like that, I suppose, don’t really doom the project. It is possible that somehow, someway, by some method my 21st century mind, formed by modernia and ignorant of the various practices of the ancient world (like how they managed to get those Obelisks in place), it could have been accomplished, even by way of details left out of the story. But even given the enormous size of the ark, the author of Genesis had no idea just how many animals were involved.
Back to those wall murals. There are always a pair of lions, monkeys, elephants, and so on—as if there are only one kind of elephant, monkey, bear, on earth, and not several varieties. Think about how many different species are clamoring to get on board. There are 14,000 species of beetles alone! Imagine the parade of arthropods, who rarely get any representation in the popular accounts. Also, one has to imagine they would be on their best behavior. Did the termites have to promise to fast for the next year in order to be let on the ark?
Then there are the animals not native to the locale of the ark. We are told that God would provide them, and indeed, the popular accounts have parades of animals all lining up to get on board. But the ones in North America would have needed to get a pretty serious head start in order to arrive on time. Presuming the land bridge to Russia was still there. Once on board the ark, should we assume that Noah was able to rig up some ancient system of climate control? How did those Polar Bears and penguins manage to survive in the bin next to the dromedaries? For that matter, how did they manage to cross all of that Palestinian desert to get to the ark in the first place?
The foregoing makes the prospect of a worldwide deluge sound pretty ridiculous. Even my rather conservative study bible suggests in a footnote that perhaps the entire planet was not flooded, despite the fact that the text clearly states that “all the earth” was covered with water. In attempting to explain the discrepancy, it quaintly suggests that perhaps that was all the geography familiar to Moses.
If you are confused why it should matter to Moses, remember that there is a tradition wherein Moses is said to be the single author of all the first five books of the Bible. How he had time to write them all while guiding the Israeli ship of state, and how every scribe and author in Israel had nothing to contribute of any legal, historical or analytical worth is beyond me. It would be like saying that George Washington wrote all of our founding documents by himself.
At any rate, even the persons behind my tradition-sure study bible are not so sure about a worldwide deluge. And, after all, it does not seem very economical. It is possible that at this point all of mankind was concentrated in a fairly small portion of the globe. Historically, what might have happened was that some sort of huge flood wiped out a large portion of Mesopotamia, and that was enough to assume that the entire world had been soaked. If that were the case, it would have saved God a lot of water. It seems unlikely that there is enough water in the heavens or the earth to cover the whole planet to a depth of 22,000 feet. Plus that kind of expansion might even affect the earth’s orbit a little.
How that might have affected the animals is another matter. We are told, by the way, that all the earth was corrupt and violent. The text does not tell us that people were worshipping the wrong gods or that they were in some theological way being sinful. The words corrupt and violent mean something else, namely treatment of creatures by other creatures: dishonesty and dismemberment. And they refer to the behavior of the people, but in any case, God does not spare the animals. Most likely they are also killing each other, which is pretty violent. I am not sure that their behavior has improved any since. But it is the behavior of man that concerns God; the rest of the earth is added as an afterthought: “I am going to destroy them and (oh by the way) the earth.” In a pre eye-for-an-eye society, it may not have seemed problematic that God chose to wipe out everything and start over for the failure of one species, or that it is unlikely that absolutely everyone was corrupt except for one family, though that is what we are told. I suppose it is possible. But even God has to be talked out of his penchant for wholesale destruction in the 18th chapter of Genesis when Abraham points out that there might be a few righteous people in Sodom. Surely there were some babies in those days who hadn’t learned how to be corrupt and violent yet. It is easy to imagine this mentality because we are still surrounded by it: persons who are certain that every single member of a religious group with a billion members is a terrorist. Persons who are sure that the last earthquake to hit another country was God’s judgment on it: or on ours, for tolerating something that they hate. It is unfortunate that God does not aim better: the hurricane that wiped out most of New Orleans actually spared a lot of the gay community, which is a curious message to send if you are angry at them. And God routinely sends tornadoes that veer off course and devastate portions of the Bible belt when we know they were meant for one of the coasts.
Back to the animals for a second. Did Noah put them all in cages, or did they all just stand around and stare at each other’s toenails? Did they have to stop being animals? Maybe Noah made the lions sign a waiver before he let them on the ark that they promised not to bother the zebras. All it takes, remember, is for one carnivore to be having a bad day and engage in a little unsaintly behavior. If a single member of a single species dies during the year they are on the ark, that species gets wiped out. Not that I expect that idea to bother a lot of Noah-believers. It doesn’t today; trying to ‘save the somethings’ is just a bunch of liberal goody-goodyism to some. If Noah left a few animals off the ark, so much the better. We don’t need them anyway. I vote for the mosquitoes (so did Mark Twain, by the way).
So here are Mr. and Mrs. Noah, presiding over a floating zoo with a collection that any modern day zoo would envy, with a staff of eight to run everything. Of course, any and all objections as to where they got a year’s supply of food for all those animals (vegetables for all the meat-eaters; maybe a few extra mice for the boa-constrictors, unless Noah made sure they had eaten before they came on board) will be answered by the moral of this tale: God provided. All that impossible stuff happened because God made it happen. The animals lined up and marched into the ark without a fuss because they knew their collective survival depended on brotherly love. Just like us. The ones who like to binge on their food practiced discipline so their food would not run out, and so Ham and Japheth wouldn’t be run ragged rationing their food. They would have had enough to do cleaning their stalls, although I wouldn’t be all that surprised if that ark they "found" on Mr. Ararat covered in ice turns out to have indoor plumbing. There’s nothing in Genesis about this; doubtless the scribe didn’t want to handle the delicate details. It is possible that the animals didn’t poop for a year. Maybe God ‘sealed up’ their anuses. Or they all took turns going up on deck and shoving their hind-quarters into that 18-inch window on top. Otherwise: well, does anyone want to calculate just how much sh—is going to wind up as a result of about 4 trillion animals defecating for a year?
This is the problem with taking such a story literally: one winds up offending the sensibilities. Reverence requires we not consider the problems too deeply. After all, God provides. Except when He doesn’t: there are whole hordes of people in Africa who could use a year’s supply of magic food, such as manna from heaven, right now. Or, we could feed them. Humanity has enough food. And we could stop the wars and chaos and grabs for power that are causing so much devastation around the world so the food would actually get there. But that would require we start acting like animals. The ones on the ark, of course. This would change society so radically I can’t even imagine what it would look like. And require a shift in behavior so massive that no miracle in the bible would even touch it.
There is another message of the ark story. God will judge. Your behavior will get you in trouble. That threat has never been enough to keep people from killing each other: violence still reigns on the earth. Exploitation and greed has been a constant problem ever since. Someday it will end, one hopes. But will humanity end along with it?
There are some who think that Jesus will come back and magically usher in a new age of peace. But I even have my doubts about that. Of course it would look great for a moment, but as soon as Jesus asked some people to ‘redistribute’ their wealth and ‘punished’ the achievements of others, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the millennial kingdom from the Obama administration.
As long as people have a "left behind" driven idea of
eternal bliss for themselves and chaos and destruction for everyone else, why
not cheer that the end is near?
As long as people have a "left behind" driven idea of eternal bliss for themselves and chaos and destruction for everyone else, why not cheer that the end is near?
This, for some, might just be the message of Noah’s ark. First, it is a fun story that the kids and enjoy, so long as they do not focus on the mass carnage in it: maybe they can then grow up to enjoy action movies that feature hordes of people getting mown down by machine guns and feel merely that they are getting what they deserve: they are the bad guys, after all.
But it is supposed to be a reminder that God will judge the earth, and already has. The problem with any good moral involving God, however, is that some of us like to insert ourselves into the lead role. God may be judging the earth, but we get to spread the news. And there is no bigger message, apparently, then “the end is near.” Several folks have tried it out lately to see if it worked and, evidently, God does not want to be rushed.
Maybe God doesn’t care for cheap prophecy. I’ve heard plenty of it myself. ‘Repent or be destroyed’ might have some truth to it, but it still sounds like a prophetic shortcut. Jesus' version of the old saw, "repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" doesn't strike me as exactly the same thing. Not that there might not be a certain amount of doom lurking around for the unrepentant, but I often think we over-emphasize that. The Old Testament prophets are largely known for prophesying doom for Israel. And it happened, eventually, after a lot of bad kings, and a few good ones, and some more bad ones. Some of the good ones ransacked their own temple to pay off would-be invaders, and hardly any of them got rid of the people's pastime of worshipping Canaanite deities entirely. It's not that easy to tell the good ones from the bad ones, actually. And eventually, disaster struck. And beyond that, restoration, something that the prophets also called attention to in nearly every place that they forecast disaster, as if the two were linked. And in the meanwhile, they kept complaining about how their fellow citizens, and the ones in power, were paying lip service to God but not really that interested, and how it was obvious in the way they treated their fellows. Justice! Mercy! Taking care of the poor and the oppressed and the downtrodden! The prophets did more than twiddle their thumbs and whistle whilst they waited for God to do something about the situation. They spoke out.
But for every one of those (radical liberals all, by the way) there are lots more whose message isn’t so creative, nor is their poetry half as good. They are aware that God isn’t pleased with the world the way it is, and they are taking it personally (which may not, as far as that goes, be a bad thing). But they can’t wait for the world to meet a fiery doom because they think they are on God’s good list and as an extra bonus, they can’t wait to see all the people they don’t like very much get punished. I’ve never been that big on retributive justice so I have to imagine what that feels like. When somebody does something very wrong I hope society puts them away, mainly so they won’t do anything similar to anybody else, not because it will make me feel better to see them suffer. And, like scorned teenagers (including some who have taken guns to school and shot up their classmates), there are those who think that the rest of us are just poking fun at them—poking fun at God, and when the great deluge comes we won’t think its so funny.
I agree with that--we certainly won't. And I think there are a lot of things that aren’t funny now, never mind when the end comes. It isn’t necessary to take bible stories literally to see value in them. But as we’ve just seen, sometimes the psychology lurking around these stories is just as much a problem. Is the message, they’ll get theirs in the end and I can’t wait because I’m part of the ‘in-crowd’? A feeling of power that some folks feel is being denied them the way things are now? That seems to be missing the point a little. And I hope people with that mindset are able, through the influence of others and of experience, to grow out of it.
I also don’t think it’s particularly fair to fault people for thinking the end isn’t near, either. There has always been a disaster of some kind of another lurking around the corner. People live their lives because they don’t know what will happen next, or if it will happen. And, despite all the various calamities, life does go on. Despite the warnings of the first Christians and lots of people since, the world keeps turning. It makes you wonder if maybe God has a longer attention span than a lot of us.
But things might end tomorrow. So, you know what I’d do? I’d stop worrying about cosmic destruction narratives and treat people the best you can. Stop worrying about how they are treating you and see if you can’t find the capacity to show some love despite all your grievances. Because the reason God got so fed up with mankind in the first place, as it says right there in the story, is that people were doing violence to each other. Let’s try putting a lid on that for a while.
Because if that happened, maybe Jesus would have to return just to see what on earth had gotten into us all of a sudden.
Scientists think they have located a gene that may factor in the way we process criticism, some of them announced yesterday at a press conference in Acapulco. The gene, known as FU7734, is largely responsible not only for the detection of criticism, but the way we react to it, says Omar Goodnis. "People have a very highly developed sense of the critical" he says, a trait which is not found in other species. The gene is responsible for the making of a chemical that causes tempers to flare up suddenly, and is largely unknown in the animal world, although slightly smaller amounts of it have also been found in fire ants.
Goodnis pointed to a study in which people were asked to read short emails. Most of the material was complimentary, he said. But, buried in the third paragraph of the note was a statement about something that the writer felt could use some improvement. "When asked about the content of the note several hours later, all anyone could recall was the part in which they had been asked to improve. They felt they had been personally attacked." People's response to criticism is often disproportionate to the intent of the one doing the criticizing, says Noah Wey of the Institute for Research on Everything.
"Perhaps the most intriguing part of the study is that people's reaction to criticism did not depend on the content of that criticism. While one group was asked, in a very politely worded note, to please refrain from some behavior that might be deemed offensive by others, another group was simply told in all captial letters that they had a funny-looking nose, followed by mocking laughter. The funny nose group got no more upset than the group the was kindly told to modify its behavior" said Wey.
This might be because the chemical saturates the brain and effectively "maxes out" our response to any and all critical comments, he says. "People can detect criticism like a shark can smell blood" he said. Once detected, our brain sends a red alert signal to our body, preparing it for battle. "Criticism challenges our sense of reality, which is super important to us" he said. "If someone doesn't see things the way we do, they may try to destroy everything we value and work for, and that's a high stakes problem."
Compounding that difficulty is that critical people may share their negative opinions with others, who will then spread it so quickly that within hours the news could circle Jupiter five times.
However, dealing with criticism in an exponentially critical manner does not
seem to help matters. "In a confrontation, each party exaggerates the effect of
the other's critical words. It is as if I came at you with a knife and you
assumed I had a nuclear warhead. I would get pretty defensive in a hurry."
"This chemical can remain in the bloodstream for days, making it very difficult to establish equilibrium once it has been lost" he opined.
Goodnis suggested that it might be possible to create medication that would help
to turn off, or at least dampen, FU7734, which would then help us to respond
more calmly to criticism. Scientists have begun preliminary research into the
idea of creating a "chill pill" which would make it virtually impossible for
random yammering to get us upset. Some people have already proposed putting
trace elements of the pill in our drinking water, a suggestion that has others
Mark Twain appeared to me in a dream and said he hadn’t managed to get around to transcribing this one and that perhaps I wouldn't mind finishing it for him. He also recommends dressing in layers—for the next realm.
Third of Adar
Had an appearance by a deity today. I wasn’t expecting my shoddy altar would attract one and was a little surprised that I got one on the first day. Maybe beginner’s luck. The god greeted me by complimenting my workmanship, which made me a little suspicious, frankly. If I could have gotten Ham to help—but no, he was busy partying with his friends. Kids in their 90s are so difficult. Japeth was no help at all even though he tries to be: he kept spilling the pitch all over everything. Shem was away on business. I was a little embarrassed by the quality of the altar but I had nothing else to do on account of the rain, so I decided to try it out.
This deity says he is very disappointed in mankind, generally. I suggested a fleet of altars in the area which could offer more sacrifices, mainly because I wanted the contract, but he has the odd notion that human beings are killing each other too often and in order to remedy this he wants to wipe us out entirely. It is a strange plan. He told it to me because I am to be saved from this with my family. All I have to do is build a boat and put a small sample of every animal on board so they aren’t drowned.
That seems like quite a bit of work, not to mention taking the long way around the problem. I politely asked him what authorized him to bring about this kind of universal cataclysm and whether he had consulted with all the other local gods to see if they were alright with having their jurisdictions flooded with water (he keeps using that phrase with water as if to suggest one might just as easily flood something with locusts). He shrugged off the question with some solipsism about being who he was and suggested I begin building immediately.
10th of Nisan
Well no wonder he is anxious for me to start. Today I reviewed the plans. The project is enormous. I’ve never even built a boat, much less something of this size. We live quite a way inland, and there is no reason for this kind of transportation. I had to write to my brother on the coast for some library books on boats so I could even see one. Apparently it requires some engineering. Not everything will float, particularly if it is so large. I tried again suggesting that he simply put everything he wants to save on a tall mountain but he is insistent that this is the only way to prevent abuses of the system, namely, that some unauthorized creature will get up there and spoil everything. I think he places too much confidence in my boat building. Besides, I am not so young as I used to be, and the idea that I will have to spend the next year on this strange hobby fills me with dread. But I suppose that is what gods are supposed to do, anyway.
4th of Lyar
13th of Tammuz
We are working feverishly on the boat. I told Ham that it was going to be a recreation center that his friends could use for parties in order to get him to help. Shem travels a lot, but he is eager to help me with the “hunting lodge” that I am building. Only Japeth knows the truth, that is, I tried to tell him what it is really for, but he thinks I am kidding. His unshakeable conviction is that I am building something to surprise his mother and winks at me knowingly as if we are keeping some kind of great secret. The speculation is also growing among the neighbors. It is already a sort of miracle that we are building this thing at all. My six-month battle to get a building permit was finally brought to an end when the zoning director got a bad case of boils and I took that opportunity to tell him that my god was very angry with him and he would see worse if he didn’t allow the ark’s construction. He changed his mind immediately—went to every council meeting after that and argued for the permit and the rezoning. People around here are so superstitious.
25th of Tishrei
2nd of Sivian
That ark is somehow nearing completion. He insists that there only be one hole near the top, which, of course, makes getting water on and off of the boat near impossible, if it makes the problem of leaking less. Also the animals on the lower decks will all have to come to the top floor in order to have access to air, and the biological necessities. I have tried it—it is a long way to go when nature is calling you.
Have tried getting a list of the animals. I have also suggested to him, almost from the beginning, that he start rounding up the animals and not wait until the last minute. The trouble is that some of the animals will have to come an awful long way, and are very slow. I have heard rumors of creatures that grow in different regions which are unlike any of the animals we have in stock. If he wishes to save them he will have to provide me with information concerning their dietary needs, and their natural predators so that I do not house them in the wrong place.
5th of Sivian
Once roused, this god gets annoyed very easily. After months of begging, he finally provided me with a list of earth’s creatures—all of them. I think he listed some of them twice just to spite me. There are trillions. I convinced him he could leave off the ones that live in the water—that shortened the list considerably. But then the updates started to come in. I have been informed that the list of species changes daily, that some die and others are born almost continually. This means that from one day to the next I have no idea what the final contents of the ark will be. Under these impossible circumstances I am supposed to set sail sometime next month. I use the term loosely since there aren’t any sails. Some of my neighbors came by today to point out this fact in no small amount of merriment at my expense. They have been guessing at what it was all year and have had no shortage of fun over it. In their enthusiasm for coming up with one more explanation more ridiculous than the rest they have finally hit on the idea that it is to be a boat—without sails. Imagine that! A floating temple, somebody called it. To the god of the fish. They think they are hysterical. I am looking forward to seeing them drown.
8th of Sivian
Waiting for the rain. Still no sign of the animals. This plan is getting worse every day, but I can’t say anything about it. I came close to getting smited several months ago when I suggested that it would be easier if he simply made a sufficiently impressive flood to get people talking about it: drown a few people, cover a few valleys, but leave off covering the whole planet. We could go somewhere safe and ride it out. Eventually someone could be hired to write it up in the papers—it wouldn’t have to be a universal deluge. I’ve heard how stories work—they start out one way, and every time they get told they get bigger and more amazing. In a few years the result would be achieved in everyone’s telling without actually having to accomplish it. It would save us a lot of trouble. He wouldn’t hear of it—said he wanted to put it in his book, and everything in it had to happen just the way it said so. The worst part is I don’t know how this is going to solve anything. Once my kids starting repopulating the planet I don’t see how things will be any different. I’ve seen my boys. I love em, but they aren’t exactly a different brand of human being. But you can’t tell him. I suppose the thing to do now is simply to get through this—if we can.
14th of Elul?
So much has happened in the past few months that I have had no time to write about it. As you would expect, the days of waiting and of anxiety were endless, the tension increased, there was no sign of any help from the deity, and, though the ark was theoretically finished, there was no way to know it was seaworthy, that the rains would actually come, or that all of this hadn’t been a big mistake. Already in my mind plans were forming to create a theme park and charge admission, when suddenly everything happened at once. One morning before daylight I was awakened by the sound of animals—a great multitude of them had lined up in front of the ark, demanding to be let it. I only managed to just save the door before one of the great creatures bashed it in with its enormous head. None of them had the slightest regard for doing things in order—animals of completely different kinds had lined up behind each other, and I was not able to check them off of my list as they entered. I still have no idea if we have got all of them. I suspect a rather large number did not make it. I suppose this is really not my problem. If there are only 8 of us on board in charge of several trillion animals we can’t be expected to get everything right now, can we? Feeding them has also been a challenge. We have been forced to simply put out the food and announce as best we could that they are on the honor system—no way to feed all of them at regular intervals throughout the day. The nocturnal ones keep us up half the night anyhow, and there is no way we are going to spend every instant of every day feeding and cleaning up after them all. It is simply an impossible task.
I have decided to try to make the best of things and see if I can catalog each animal we have on board in the year ahead. The deity tells me that the animals were all named by a man named Adam, but he can’t find the list—apparently the one I was given before we set off is a garbled compilation of the memories of several angels, after the fact. But they are all the sorts of names a child would give a pet—there is no order to it. And I observed that several of the names were used twice. Well, why not? There are so many of them. How would one person be able to keep track of them all, without some kind of underpinning logic behind it? So I developed the idea of giving each basic kind of animal a name, based on its characteristics, and then, within that large category, creating a descending series of sub categories, into which each individual type of animal would fit. At present there are five levels of classification. That may not be enough. I am still working it out. It does give each animal a rather long name, but the beauty of the system is that, upon hearing it, you know exactly what kind of animal it must be, and what its close relatives are.
I gathered from our last conversation that this deity thinks of himself as not merely another local god, but the creator of everything, and therefore within his rights to dispose of his own created objects as he sees fit. It is hard for me to believe that the deity I have been talking with could be the creator of all things. The bewildering diversity of life aboard this ark seems to me to speak of a restless creativity: perhaps a need to try every possible combination. I had not noticed before, but even the noses on these creatures come in thousands of varieties. Every detail seems, if not carefully thought out, at least in the spirit of bold experimentation. There is an elegance in this staggering chaos of beings. The thought even dawns on me that they may somehow be related to one another—what if one kind gave rise to a slightly different kind? On the other hand, this deity seems to be much too wrapped up in his own affairs, which seem so small next to the vastness of the created order. Or perhaps he is simply an absent minded genius who, after an act of breathtaking creation, is beset by insecurities and pettiness and seems altogether unworthy of his own marvelous ability?
I have not slept for days, and my speculations may not be the product of a sound mind. Oh, to get some rest! And the smell is noxious! What little spare time I have I spend on the deck playing shuffleboard in the rain with Ham, who is a horrible loser. O save me from this life!
It is some months since I last wrote. At least, I think it is. It is awfully hard to keep track of time down in this hold. For some months it rained continually, and the sky was dark. I was not able to determine when it was evening and when it was morning. The hilltop fires are not being set to tell us when a new month begins, and the moon is rarely visible behind the clouds. At last, when it stopped raining, some semblance of the passage of time began to be restored to us. Only, I have no idea where to being my reckoning. In my former life, that was not my business. Am I supposed to be in charge of everything when we land? It is too much for one patriarch, I tell you! I cannot be all things to all eight of us. Not even to myself.
The waters recede. I cannot tell how much. From the deck it appears we still have some way to go, though I cannot tell if that is the case everywhere. I have sent out a bird to see if it can find land. I am desperate to find it. My wife lost her senses some months ago and had to be penned up with the other primates, who are looking after her with tender concern and a bit of caution. Japeth has stopped speaking and simply stares at the wall. After Ham tried to kill me with a puck I confined him to quarters. Only Shem is left with some kind of sense about him, but he writes poetry now and says things I do not understand. Their three wives have been down in the hold from the beginning of the trip, in the pen next to the cattle. We sometimes use them to carry things up to the deck, but mainly they keep to themselves.
We had a little bit of a leak around day 300 (or so) but on the whole this vessel has held up remarkably well. Japeth credited it to the enormous coating of pitch with which we slathered everything, inside and out. This was when he was still speaking. He boasted that that may have been what attracted the god’s attention in the first place, since our altar was unnecessarily coated with it.
We have had a number of fatalities on board the ark, which, unfortunately, results in the removal of a species. The deity doesn’t seem too concerned about it, oddly. But then, this seems to be a natural condition of creation—types of animals passing out of existence every day, as I so unceremoniously found out when trying to get an accurate manifest. Ham’s homicidal tendencies were not limited to the day of his near patricide. He has also managed to eat a few of the mid-sized carnivores: said he was hungry. I can hardly blame him. That barley-spelt combination that we were commanded to make in such large quantities is really starting to grate on me.
I have gotten mightily tired of having to climb three floors to get to the restroom. The others think I am too delicate and should simply relieve myself wherever I happen to be at the time, rather than going over the side—after all, most of the animals do it. They couldn’t be reasoned with, however I tried. Once I tried patiently explaining to my wife that all of that dung, fecal matter, guana, shit, and the like would weigh the boat down and it would sink in a matter of days. A trillion creatures defecating constantly is not only sure to make a mess (and a smell) it is impossible to dispose of as fast as it is being made, and it will eventually doom us. Then Japeth asked well if that is the case how come we aren’t sinking now? He didn’t imagine the food suddenly got heavier after it passed through the animals. Logic problems like this make my head hurt. Shem mentioned he’d heard of a fellow named arkimedes or something that showed that you could get even really heavy things to float as long as you displaced an equal amount of water weight. We argued about it all night—that was several months ago. I am still not really sure how it works, but we seem to be getting along fine, so I’ve stopped asking.
Other questions keep coming. What will I do when we land? Will I have to rebuild the cities and towns? Are there any roads left? At least I won’t have to pay taxes to anybody. But reducing the entire human population to 8 members for the foreseeable future seems like it is taking an incredible chance. Some overwrought mastodon could wander into camp and take half of us out before we could even blink. I have no clear memory of how we got most of these animals into their pens without being eaten. And I have no earthly idea how we are going to get them out again. We certainly are not going to be able to get enough of a running start on the cheetahs. I suppose it is best to let them out first, and remain in the ark for a while. To this end I am trying to rig up a system for opening the stalls while standing in an enclosed pen nearby. Ham wants to have his hunting bow at the ready in case of trouble, but we are in a hard place: if we kill any of them, we lose their kind entirely.
Adding to the stench on the ark itself, there seem to be an incredible number of dead fish floating in the water nearby. I think the deity must have miscalculated their ability to survive outside their native environments. I think he will have to start over with some of them. I am really not sure why he doesn’t simply recreate each creature instead of having hatched this elaborate plan to try to preserve each kind. It doesn’t seem to have worked terribly well. We are having a little better luck with some of the animals we brought on board for sacrificial purposes. Being a god, of course, he wants nothing better than that we kill some of the animals on an altar as soon as we get wherever we are going. It certainly seems odd: going to such lengths to keep them alive all year only to snuff them out at the end. I am going to ask if we can have the leftovers. At least there are seven of them; nonetheless, some mysterious ailment seems to have broken out and killed the lot of one of the species of zebras. This was shortly after one of the boa constrictors escaped and we lost one of the gazelles. I think some of the wood is also beginning to rot and we are taking on water. We really cannot land soon enough. The increased moisture also seems to have been a boon for some of the spiders; when we started, we had only two and now there must be a million on board. I am not sure what species, only I can see them when I close my eyes. I think I must have swallowed a few in my sleep as well.
The noise of the cicadas is really starting to get to me. I realize now putting them on the bottom floor was a mistake—they think it is night all the time. You would think they would get tired of singing after a while, but no. You would be quite mistaken. I am beginning to hate all life.
Japeth’s wife is pregnant. One of the horses gave birth last night also. Several of the cattle are showing signs. We are not going to have room for them all. I wish they would show more restraint.
There must be a hundred rats on board the ark. It is not helping our hygiene. This morning I noticed some unusual marks on several of the livestock. It had better not be the beginning of a plague. We really need to get out of here soon. Several of the birds have flown off without permission: apparently the cages Shem built to hold them didn’t last. Although there have been several problems with discipline on board recently and I wonder if some of the animals didn’t kick them open. The problem being that we often take some of the animals up on deck to get them some exercise, which, unfortunately, frightens the denizens below, since the sound of their stampeding hooves reverberates throughout the ark. The alternative is letting everyone’s muscles go completely to hell, and I am not in favor of that. Besides, it keeps the animals from putting on weight, and we don’t have room for it—the cages are tight enough as it is, such that most of them can only stand up but are permitted no movement at all.
Once again, much time has passed since my last entry. Eventually, we hit land—rather hard. We weren’t aiming for it—there is no way to steer this vessel with any effectiveness, so we floated aimlessly until at last we hit what is probably the side of a mountain. It shattered part of the hull and some of the animals drowned. So of course, he is going to have to create them all over again. I had been keeping a list but I really don’t give a flying f--- anymore. He can find which ones are missing if he is so in love with them all. I am sick to death of getting bitten by the same two mosquitoes and listening to the same pair of woodpeckers trying to drown us with their nonstop pecking at the side of the boat.
Eventually we managed to disembark. The door took about a day and a half to wedge open, naturally, and the elephants couldn’t be persuaded to do the job (they just aren’t very smart; couldn’t figure out what I meant, even after I showed them several times and dislocated my shoulder in the process). Most of the animals that are left found their way out through the hole in the hull anyway, though it is dangerous to go out that way, through the wreckage and the water that is still waist deep. Apparently a few sea animals are still alive down there because I heard a few squeals and looked up in time to see a pig disappear into the foamy brine.
Naturally our first order of business was to build an altar for the sacrifices. It was nice to build something on dry land for a change, though it is hard to get used to standing still without pitching and rolling. Then we had another tragedy. Shem’s wife couldn’t find one of her ear rings and naturally had to go back on the ark to look for it. She met one of the bears who hadn’t found its way off, yet. We buried her near the altar.
This is Japeth. I am finishing my father’s diary for him. The old man has completely taken leave of his senses. He yells at things in his sleep, convinced that things are crawling on him, biting him, charging him, and so on. It has really been a difficult few years watching him slip into senility. It was a traumatic few years for everyone, of course, but he is old. I think it blew his mind to see how large the world really is and how many hostile things are in it. There are moments when he thinks he is still on the ark. He yells at things we cannot see, and then, if we stare at him, will challenge us. “I had to put up two of those things, too, you know! Not just the common variety visible ones.” We can’t really be sure he isn’t telling the truth, sometimes.
He is approaching the end. I am going to put this diary next to him when we bury him. Parts of it are waterlogged and could not be saved, but there is enough. No one else should have to go through what we went through. That rainbow better mean something.
the First Christmas Really Happened
When shortly afterward Joseph got a letter in the mail informing him that he had won Herod’s little Tax Lottery and Dislocation Sweepstakes, he launched afresh into something that I shall also refrain from printing, mainly because it would embarrass Joseph to see it in print so many years later. Or at least it ought to.
The gist of it was that those idiot bureaucrats have to make things impossibly complicated, particularly for small businessmen, and why the heck do taxes have to be so high in the first place not to mention you have to go to the other end of the planet in order to pay them as if they can’t keep track of their own population which you know bloody well they can because of all the other illegal surveillance they are doing because they—well, I said I was going to exercise restraint, and I am, on Joseph’s behalf.
Nevertheless, it gave him a good excuse to vent his frustration on the People In Charge and on the system in general, which didn’t really care what he thought about it, and it gave Mary a chance to agree with him for a change. They had a common enemy for a few moments which gave them a break from domestic rancor. The move was also going to give Joseph an opportunity to get away from Mrs. Leadstein who wouldn’t stop complaining about the addition he’d put on her house and was planning to sue him for every penny he had because he put in a few nails cock-eyed.
“We’ve got to get a better look at it!” said Kaspar.
“It’s a star. I don’t think we’re going to get a better look” yawned Melchior.
“Well it does appear to be heading East” said Bob.
“That’s ridiculous. It can be in the East, but it can’t be heading East.” Returned Melchior.
“Well we can’t just stay here. We need a better angle. Field research. Field research. That’s what I’m always telling you guys. We can’t stay stuck in our ivy tower.”
“Yes, but it’s covered with ivy. Isn’t that where the expression came from?”
“No” said the other four.
“Look, we’ve never had any reason to head east before, but I think this would be an excellent opportunity to apply for funds from the council of matters astronomical, and if we happen to stop at any hot springs along the way, you know, cure your rheumatism, Bob. What do you say?”
“I think you are an idiot. Stars don’t move.”
“I’ve been watching it for five nights. This one does.”
“Then, by definition, it is not a star.” He went back to reading his journal.
Six years and two months later the funding came through and they began their journey to Bethlehem, sans map, sans any real plan, but they had managed to pack some really useless things for the journey that the council wanted to dispose of anyhow, and a little cash. By that time, of course, the star wasn’t shining in the sky any more, but it had been put there to herald the birth of Augustus Caesar anyhow, and by the time of their journey another and even BIGGER star was shining in much the same general direction as the last one. They got out of town quickly enough that no one asked them to update their funding application and go through the process a second time.
Mary and Joseph have packed for the journey, and repacked, and packed again, and forgotten a few things, and had to return to wherever it is they started from, twice, and used most of their money bribing guards along toll roads to let them through, including some pretend ones who were actually just fellow tourists trying to get money for lunch, and have finally gotten within sight of their destination which was uncomfortably hot and bright because of a celestial body in the vicinity. The wise fellows from the graduate school of astronomical occurrences and celebrity gossip (they had to merge for financial survival) are also converging on Bethlehem; in fact, they are making better time than the holy family, being young, comparatively fit, and what with nobody in their party being nine months pregnant.
Daryl, the other head shepherd, was
taking it in stride. He cocked his head a bit, listened, and pronounced stiffly,
“Could use a bit more bass. The sound could use a bit more definition,” he said. “A little more clarity. Plus, I like
when you can really feel that lower end just go right through you.” “What are
they singing?” asked head shepherd number four. “I think it’s in Latin” said
one. “That can’t be good,” returned another. He had heard that Latin was spoken
mostly by big-city liberal elites and the people who had conquered them, namely,
One of the angels volunteered, “I
supposed we’d just start singing again.”
Meanwhile, a handful of intelligent
looking figures in hoods was advancing on the city from the other direction. “I
told you that trying to follow a star to somebody’s house was a completely
stupid idea. Now we’re lost again. You can’t see the dumb thing in the daytime,
and at night it isn’t very specific. But no, you said it would point the way
right to the spot, like it was a treasure map. As if stars aren’t these
monstrous balls of gas millions of miles away. I suppose you think they’re just
little dots hanging in the canopy of the sky like the poets! Idiots.”
"I think the last sign said
"Nineveh, 18 miles."
"Then shouldn't we be heading west?"
It’s not in our plan! He fussed.
Everything is in God’s plan, Mary said beatifically (this was between contractions).
“No, I mean in
our plan. Our health plan doesn’t list
this barn. I know we will wind up with a huge co-pay. I just know we will” he
“Woah,” said Melchior in a suddenly hushed voice. “Is that girl with child?” He emphasized these words to Kaspar who nodded, rattling the lampshade on his head. Melchior was having the kind of mystical religious experience you can only get when you are very drunk.
“Yes she is. And if you would very kindly leave now—“ Joseph was standing and motioning to the door when a light shone in the darkness of his brain. “Hey, if you guys aren’t at the inn anymore that means there must be some places empty. Come on Mary, we’re moving.” He strode to the door, but unfortunately his way was blocked by oncoming traffic. It was the shepherds, at least a dozen of them (though they may have picked up a few curious onlookers on their way through town). They stumbled into the dark of the barn after the blinding "sunlight" outside.
Joseph made a few feeble attempts to get through but he knew he was defeated. Mary rolled her eyes at the ragtag circus in front of her and opened her mouth to order the whole lot out when another wave of contractions hit her. At which point one of the cows had a mild panic attack and was soothed by Cletus, the head shepherd, who wasn’t a head shepherd for nothing. There were a few raunchy jokes about the situation from the shepherds which I will not soil your eyes with, and then a strange thing happened. Everybody got quiet. At first it was from the discomfort of being so close to a woman in labor (Old Mud didn’t even like to be around when his sheep were giving birth). But eventually it struck even these yokels that Something Worthy Of Paying Respect To was taking place.
And a mere five hours later, a child was born. Lo unto us.
The residents of the barn had remained pretty much silent the entire time, which is not so difficult for shepherds, who are used to long stretches of staring ahead at nothing going on. The academics had brought journals with them to be productive, and the holy family was pretty busy. Joseph gave the boy in the corner his last 50 cents to stop playing his bongos. They could hear the noise from the inn, though even that had pretty much dissipated by four in the morning. Incidents of broken pottery only occurred about once every fifteen minutes; the last flute player had been strangled, and most of the inn’s guests had collapsed in drunken stupors. There weren’t many cries of ‘stop, thief’ and police chases through town, either, when the baby was born.
A few of the shepherds missed the event. They had been going out to smoke in shifts every few minutes, mostly to escape the awkwardness. Kaspar had sent Bob out to find a midwife (and to sober up) but he had evidently gotten lost. He couldn’t handle the stink from the shepherds anyhow, so it was just as well.
The next morning, of course, Joseph would be arrested for failing to pay his taxes, which the records said had been due the previous month at the other Bethlehem, and despite trying to sort out what had obviously been a huge official blunder he had to take a collection from all his guests to bail himself out. The rest of the gold and most of the Frankincense had gone into the pockets of the officials. They also generously gave him 48 hours to figure out where the other Bethlehem was and to pay the remainder of his tax bill which was of course impossible and gave Joseph the idea of fleeing to Egypt well before he was warned of the attempt on the child’s life which Matthew gives as the real reason for their sojourn.
But before all of that, before real life in all of its dramatic squalor resumed apace, there was a moment when everything seemed to be going well. Some of the cattle began mooing quietly; the child woke up and listened intently. Earlier He had put up a screaming match to lay claim to the universe but now he was being good and Mary rewarded him by making short, repetitive, sing-songy noises in his direction. “You’re a good Son of God. Yes you are” she kept saying. And Joseph realized, as if an angel were whispering it at his elbow, “this is the part we’ll remember. Lethe can have the rest of it.”Then he felt an urge more immediate than the peace of the heavens and made a dash for the out of doors, pushing aside the scholars and knocking over one of shepherds. “Out of my way,” he exclaimed. “I’ve got to pee.”
Have you ever had the experience of seeing a movie again for the first time since you where a child? Something you hadn't seen in over twenty years? Your perspective is bound to change considerably over the years, is it not? Such has been my experience while watching "Jesus of Nazareth," a biblical epic of the life of Christ made in 1977 by Franco Zefferelli and a cast of thousands.
I was five years old when it was first broadcast, and
probably in middle or early high school when I saw it on television. I remember
being fascinated by its epic sweep, the grand soaring music, the sheer length of
the broadcast (I think it was on for about two hours a night for three or four
nights which made it a real commitment, and an event—in those days, you had to
watch it when it was on, and not whenever you felt like it), and of course, as a
Christian, this was an immensely important story which I already about as well
as the average Christian, which is say I knew it generally, though I might still
have been hazy on some of the particulars, not having read the gospels more than
a few times at best and otherwise having to subsist on Sunday school lessons and
story book versions of the life of Christ. I have, to understate things
considerably, undergone quite a metamorphosis since the last time I saw it.
My wife now tells people I have an unofficial masters in theology (which is a
bit of an overstatement, but...).
My wife now tells people I have an unofficial masters in theology (which is a bit of an overstatement, but...).
In fear and trembling, I started the movie. The reason for the fear is that I remember liking the movie when I saw it as an adolescent and I was more than likely now to wonder what I saw in it. The grand, haunting music was still there. And this time, because I am able to listen structurally, I realized that the bizarre loud percussive crash that is the first sound you hear in the movie is a foreshadowing of the music during the crucifixion, which happens about five hours later. I think it makes more of an impact if you realize what it represents, though of course I didn't realize it at the start of the movie, but only later. Which reminds me about the nature of prophecy and revelation. But we'll come to that in due season.
Another thing that I noticed about the film is that it brings together an all-star cast. I have to say I found this a bit annoying, because like the man at the center of the story I seem to have developed a distaste for nakedly obvious marketing, and it was apparent that this was designed to bring large crowds to see the show. I imagine it is also supposed to say “see how everyone who is anyone wants to be in this really important production” of what the DVD write-up calls the “greatest of all stories.” The last time I saw it, I wouldn’t have really known much about the celebrity of the cast members like I do now. It was practically a who’s who of Hollywood from the late 70s. And to give you time to bask in the anticipation of the premiere cast, the production opens with their portraits and names in alphabetical order while the “overture” plays. Adding to the emphasis on marketing, the trailer that is packed with the movie spends about half its length telling us that you can purchase the entire set of three VHS tapes for only 49.95, which didn’t really help.
You would also expect an emphasis on piety, given the progeny of this production. When I was young and gullible I was under the impression as many believers are still, that there is basically one story of Jesus, and one way to tell it. I have since been disabused of that notion by way of education and learning to think, and it is this which has caused my encounter with the film to have been so interesting this time around. I now realize how much a story can change based on who is telling it, and what details they choose to include or not include. Each of the four canonical gospels tell the story from their own angle; this cinematic version is, in essence, a gospel with its own purpose and agenda.
Generally, that emphasis is pretty mainstream orthodox and mimics the way the four gospels are dealt with by the average believer: any detail unique to one of the Biblical gospels and not reported in the others gets added to the composite account, situations in which two or more gospels report the same incident but disagree on the particulars are brought into agreement, usually with the more striking details of either or both accounts preserved and the others ignored. The focus of Jesus on himself from John is that gospel’s major contribution, while the timeline, in which Jesus goes to Jerusalem only at the end of his ministry (and not several times), cleansing the temple just days before his crucifixion, and the general order of events, comes from the first three gospels, which tend to agree on this larger plan.
There are, however, bits of dialogue and imaginative incidents that do not appear in any of the gospels. These serve to heighten the drama, which is generally welcome. This is one of the best Jesus movies that I know of, in a genre that rarely rises above the pathetic, and part of the reason is that, despite the obvious emphasis on piety, and that frequent use of Jesus movie clichés that are supposed to establish Jesus’ otherworldly holiness (such as that he often speaks v e r y s l o w l y and quietly), the movie is not afraid to also include tension, excitement, passion, and loud argument, albeit that this is usually among the characters around Jesus, and certainly not in the Messiah himself! It is hardly necessary to point out that Jesus never causes anyone to do something as irreligious as to actually laugh, even though his recorded parables are filled with intentionally ridiculous images and conceits, designed to make a serious point, of course, but by way of humor. The Jesus of all the movies that I know of dispenses with such frivolity as unbecoming of a holy man. Or nobody ever gets it.
This Jesus is basically the eye of the emotional storm, and spends a lot of his time simply staring at you with his piercing blue eyes when he isn’t performing a miracle. Still, most Jesus movies are shorn of emotion and flat with piety, but not this one. There is plenty of drama in the surrounding cast, and enough scenes are inserted early on to give time for some of the story arcs to build tension, and for the characters to despise one another the way actual human beings tend to do. None of these imaginative additions is the least bit unorthodox, most reflect traditional understandings of incidents and teachings that are not in the Bible but have been approved by time and the church, and a few add to our understanding. Having Been made by a Catholic, and approved by the Vatican, there are also any number of church legends—non-biblical picaresque later additions to the gospel stories--that have also been added: I noticed a few of them and doubtless missed any number of others. The woman who wipes Jesus’s face as he is being led to his crucifixion is one of them (her name is Veronica, I think).
The opening scene of the film takes place in a synagogue, where the rabbi is reading from a scroll that proclaims that the Messiah will suddenly appear at the pinnacle of the temple. This was a non-biblical tradition in Judaism which helps shed light on the later story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness. When Satan tells Jesus to stand on the pinnacle of the temple and jump off and let angels catch him to prove he is the Messiah, he is basically telling Jesus that if he is really the promised one he should do what everybody expects the promised one to do, as it is written—not in the bible, but a common teaching of the Rabbis at the time, and written in non-canonical sources. I only learned this with the aid of The Google while watching the production, and I imagine most Christians don’t know anything about this, either. It is a bit odd that Matthew’s gospel doesn’t let us in on this tradition either, since practically every time Jesus sneezes in the gospel of Matthew it is to fulfill some prophecy or other, but remember that this is a non-canonical tradition, not by way of the prophets. I award Mr. Zeffirelli points for teaching me something in the first minute of this film.
The next hour of the movie is taken up with the birth
narrative, taken principally from the gospel of Luke, with additions by the
gospel of Matthew, and of course, church tradition, all lumped together to give
us the Christmas story as we remember it. One curiosity to note is that Mr.
Zefferelli dispenses with on-stage angels. When Mary is visited by Gabriel one
only glimpses light through a window; she can obviously see and hear something
the rest of us can’t. Later on the shepherds show up at the stable, and one of
them relates how a man (another shepherd corrects him and says “angel” but the
first shepherd continues to use the term “man”) announced to them that they
should come to see the birth of a king who would be their savior. It is odd that
there is no reference to a heavenly host at this point; I did not expect to see
Mr. Zefferelli trying to save money on the production by cutting the off-stage
cast. (I should point out that Mr. Zefferelli also leaves out the
Transfiguration, which is another episode that would have involved glowing
people, and the Ascension, which would have required Jesus appearing to fly.
Probably a wise decision).
(I should point out that Mr. Zefferelli also leaves out the Transfiguration, which is another episode that would have involved glowing people, and the Ascension, which would have required Jesus appearing to fly. Probably a wise decision).
He may have gone light on some of the more lavish effects, but his gospel is not short of the miraculous. All of the major miracles are there; the feeding of the five thousand, the miraculous catch of fish, healing a blind man (which in this telling of the tale he gets right on the first try; take that, gospel of Mark!), healing a demon possessed man—but not, apparently, the “Geresene demoniac” (no pigs were harmed in the making of this film! There may have been a shortage of stunt pigs willing to plunge over the cliff into the sea and resemble drowning.) The target audience for this film is the simple believer and the emphasis is on having faith and not thinking about it too hard. In case you still didn’t get the message, Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus, is portrayed as a scholar; all of the other learned men in the film just don’t get it, and are ultimately the movie’s bad guys. Blessed are the simple for God has hidden his truth from the wise.
the film is not above letting the simple viewer feel a smug satisfaction about
having a faith that doesn’t ask questions (or do research) it wisely does not go
further and let us feel a savage joy when Judas “gets what’s coming to him.” In
fact, the film generally sympathizes, even forgives all of its characters to
some degree, by seeking to understand their motives (Only, Zerov, the
non-biblical leader of the Pharisees—meaning they made him up-- seems to be
thoroughly bad. Even Pilate, returning to Jerusalem from a business trip, seems
to be having a really bad day!). Judas, in an oft repeated motif in recent
years, really believes in the Messiah and wants to get him a meeting of the
ruling religious leaders so he can convince them who he is; he is tricked by
them once he hands Jesus over; a meeting has become a trial. Judas meant well,
but all his plans went awry, and his suicide makes more sense that way. I found
in his story an echo of the church’s critique of communism, another philosophy
started by smart people that had gone disastrously wrong. Or perhaps it is a
cautionary about heresies in general--the origin of the word suggests it is one
who thinks (chooses) for ones self. Beware of having your own ideas
and where they might lead...
Beware of having your own ideas and where they might lead...
Since the correct alternative is a passive faith one would expect the company’s other “actor” to keep getting it wrong as well. And Peter makes his share of biblical mistakes. But this gospel does trouble to explain him a little. At the beginning of his adventure, in a correction of the hurried canonical gospels (particularly Mark) Peter agonizes over whether to follow Jesus or not, rather than simply dropping his nets and marching straight after Jesus ala elementary school pageant, as the synoptic gospels suggest. (Jesus was walking along the sea of Galilee…and saw Peter. Follow me, he said. Immediately Peter dropped his nets and followed him. No kidding. Also no back story.) Later on, when trying to convince Jesus not to go to Jerusalem and be killed, Jesus rebukes him very gently, and only at the end of his speech adds that Satan is speaking through him. If this were a production by Evangelical Protestants I have to imagine that Jesus would have made more of the line “get behind thee, Satan!” In the courtyard, on the night of Jesus’s arrest, it is easy to understand Peter’s denial of Jesus, given the behavior of the people around him who seem ready to cause a riot and have him arrested on the spot as being a dangerous accomplice to Jesus’s crimes, unless he vigorously denies his Lord, and even then he narrowly escapes. It is only at the end, in an upper room, that Peter rallies the disciples with an impassioned speech in which his faith in the resurrection sets the stage for Jesus’s final (and only post resurrection) appearance in their midst so he can quote the final lines of Matthew’s gospel.
Here I found myself meditating on the signatures of a late gospel. Zefferelli’s has had 2000 years to develop. It is characteristic of such a late entry that all of the players know intimately all of the prophecies and see everything that is unfolding around them as a fulfillment of scripture as it is happening, not, as early gospels like Mark hint, after the resurrection, when they at last come to understand what had eluded them earlier. Jesus dispenses with any enigmatic behavior such as warning the disciples not to say anything about his healings, or, as in John’s gospel, speaking in metaphors that they can’t understand. The only time he tells them to hush up is when he tells them plainly that he is the Messiah and then warns them not to mention it yet. Perhaps this is a stand-in for all the other incidents, but it also means the disciples know exactly what is going on at all times, which the biblical gospels do not generally affirm.
historical difficulty that this has always presented for Christians is that they
have no idea how the Jews of the time could possibly have misinterpreted the
prophecies as NOT referring directly to Jesus Christ and no other, since from
the mass of prophetic writings, the dozen or so verses that seem to match the
ministry and circumstances of Jesus’s life and death have long since been
extracted and explained—Matthew in particular has done our homework for us, even
if he had to invent some details so he could pull out a useful prophetic phrase
here and there. (Did the holy family really have to flee to Egypt? Only Matthew
says anything about it, and the whole point seems to be because there is a
phrase in Isaiah that says “Out of Egypt I called my son.” For more fun with
geography, see how both Matthew and Luke have Jesus being both a Nazarene and
coming from Bethlehem. The two strands of prophecy seem to insolubly contradict
one another, but both writers manage to solve the problem—differently!)
While the film has broad sympathies, and blunts (or leaves out) many of Jesus’ harsher pronouncements, it is not entirely without some of Jesus’ challenging teachings. Jesus is heard to side for the poor on several occasions, however, he seems to be bringing them hope, rather than economic justice, which the church has always found easiest to dispense. I cannot recall now whether he blesses the poor or the poor in spirit in his “sermon on the mount.” Curiously, this episode occurs right at the end of Jesus’ ministry in the movie, though it is near the start of the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke cannot agree on whether Jesus is blessing the poor in spirit (Matthew) or simply the poor (Luke). They also do not agree on whether Jesus was on a mountain (Matthew) or on a “level place” (Luke). This bit of minutiae was intriguing enough for me to take a good hard look at the screen to see what bit of geography I was staring at. Because of the ambiguous camera angle I actually could not tell! Clever filmmaker. Why pick a side when you don’t have to?
But this is a small detail. The central question for this movie is not surprisingly whether Jesus is the Son of God, and the answer is obviously yes. This is enough for the script writers to rewrite scripture passages like the 4th chapter of Luke, where Jesus appears in his home town synagogue and reads from the Hebrew bible “the spirit of the Lord is upon me….” And then says that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. In Luke’s gospel the hearers are all impressed with him at this point, and it is only after Jesus presses the point and tells them that their own hearts are hard and that God often has to work through foreigners instead of his own chosen people that they get angry with him. In Mr. Zefferelli’s gospel, the people are certain that that little phrase he uttered about scriptural fulfillment is tantamount to declaring himself the Son of God, and are furious with him. It is a bit of a leap, but it has been made so often by others by now that most viewers will not notice that there has been any revision. Jesus makes a number of other Messianic claims, most closely matching the gospel of John (which is probably the only one that has any), and makes sure not to leave viewers unsure about his truth claims by actually answering Pilate’s famous question “what is truth” with a “you’re starin at it, bub” which is a slight paraphrase from the script but still to the point. As it is in John’s gospel, the thing to do is to believe in the one who was sent. That’s Jesus, by the way, in case you still missed the point.
What is the need for a 20th century cinematic gospel? Mr. Zefferelli’s gospel is valuable at least as a record of accumulated church teachings and popular, unliterate reverence. Like the original four gospels, it applies correctives to the others, contradicting their accounts when necessary to establish its agenda. When John’s Jesus says “shall I say, ‘Lord, save me from this hour? No!’ it is as a correction of those very remarks in Mark’s gospel. You can hear the author of John saying, “Jesus never would have said that!” So it is that Jesus heals the blind man on the first try in Zefferelli and not in Mark. Nobody in the church wants a Jesus who doesn’t get a miracle right on the first try! Forget what it says in scripture!
Of course, this Protestant was reminded that the Catholic church was not too keen on persons reading and interpreting scripture for themselves (and you can see why!). In some respects, this cinematic gospel is made just for those of us who want to keep our bibles closed and imbibe our Jesus in blind faith that the story is simple and that the story teller is giving us the objective truth. And it delivers the blue-eyed, Italian Jesus with the dreamy look and the gentle voice, comforting us with the stories and miracles we already know. But on the periphery this production does go beyond that a little, and doesn’t simply quote the highlights of scripture and add a few harmless imaginative details to dramatize the characters. It preaches a little bit, too, changing the gospel record when it feels the need. And this is what makes it not simply more Jesustainment, but another gospel itself. But I suppose a lot of that depends on the notice of the viewer. He who has ears, then…