Everyone has a Hall of Heroes. Even if you don’t like the word “hero” or choose to downplay the significance of respected figures in your life, we all have them. This private pantheon, when reflected upon, can teach us a lot about ourselves. I borrow the phrase, Hall of Heroes, from Sam Keen’s book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, a book I read in my early 20′s.
I have thought a lot about my own private Hall over the years, noticing certain figures bow and drop out to be replaced by others. When I studied literature in college, D.H. Lawrence stood front and center in my Hall. I had read his novels, essays, poems, short stories (many masterpieces) and about his fiery defiance of conformist British society. The sheer quantity of brilliant literary work he produced in a tuberculosis-shortened lifetime left me in wonder. Lawrence is still in the premise somewhere but I don’t read him much anymore.
If you had to pick just one to write about, as I will do below, who would you choose? As an exercise, when you reflect on the people you esteem most highly, limit yourself to living ones. Such a self-imposed restriction will weed out some of the more obvious choices like Louis Armstrong, Gandhi, and Helen Keller. For kicks, I gave myself a further limitation: the living person can not be one whom I have met.
As a way of introducing my choice, I will relate the story about a former “Esteemed” one of mine. Flannery O’Connor, beyond a doubt, had a genius for fiction writing. She died in 1964 and the general assessment of her writing only grew greater over time. But for me reading her was always a tense, guarded experience. Sentence after sentence of perfect, vivid, and wicked prose led you wanting more. Sooner or later you would get to the end of the story and the trap would be sprung, forcing the character (and us readers looking on) to confront the Certainties: God, Jesus, and all of the Christian rigamarole. After struggling with her a bit and reading a letter she wrote in 1955, I’d decided I’d had enough and showed her the door. Here she is in that letter:
I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. . . . She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.
It took me a while to work out why her words angered me so much. Looking beyond the specific example of the Eucharist in her letter, I saw that it was a move applied commonly in ANY discussion of biblical interpretation, miracles, and events in the gospels. Accept the literal interpretation, or to hell with it. Since I’d never been a devout Christian (maybe some other kind?), why should I care what those people think? Christianity is a dying duck anyway, right? So just forget about it and get along with life? To put it simply, I don’t like the alternatives. And anyone who desires a more just world should hope that a properly harnessed Christianity will pull a lot of weight in bringing about justice here and now rather than focusing on pie-in-the-sky salvation.
When I started reading John Dominic Crossan, I knew I’d found what I’d been looking for. I’d begun with Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Here was a historical account of Jesus that stressed the life he’d lived rather than just the way he died. Furthermore, Crossan made no demands upon my intelligence to accept as literal facts the miracles of the gospel: no womb-to-tomb mumbo jumbo because no virgin birth and no flesh-and-blood resurrection of Jesus’ body. His stark conclusion is as follows: the Roman Empire crucified thousands and more likely hundreds of thousands, so where is the archeological evidence of people taking dead loved ones down from the cross and burying them? The number of cases is infinitesimal. Why? Rome didn’t want the bodies taken down! A crucifixion was like an act of state terrorism, a bloody billboard which warned onlookers, “Do not do what this person did.” And so the bodies on their crosses hung there until consumed by wild dogs and scavenger birds. No tomb. So no need to debate if the resurrection of Jesus was literal or metaphorical.
Tomorrow is Easter Sunday. The real debate, according to Crossan, should be how we can bring about a just world and how to live as Jesus lived. In other words, how do we get with the program?