Sunday, January 25, 2009

MacLeish, Kierkegaard, Camus, Jesus....

(Storytelling, part 2)
During my Senior year of high school, I took a year-long college-level literature course called "Honors English." I still remember the first day of class, because our teacher told us our assignment for the evening was to go home and read the book of Job. How often do you hear that in a public school? (Probably even less often these days).

I went home and read all 42 chapters of the book of Job in my confirmation Bible, which was the Revised Standard Version. The next day our teacher handed us each a copy of Archibald Macleish's prose-poem, J.B.

Thus began a year-long struggle with faith.

The theme of the play J.B., like the book of Job, deals with the question of suffering. Some of the lines from the play are lifted straight from the Bible. And both the Bible and the play raised what seemed (and still seem, to be truthful) unanswerable questions about God and evil to me. A particular recurring couplet in the play troubled me:

"If God is good he is not god/if God is god he is not good/Take the even, take the odd..."

I remember coming to my teacher with my doubts. To her credit, she took me seriously and said that the Christian answer to suffering might simply be to be present with the sufferer. At the time, that did not quite make sense to me.

Throughout the year, we read Pirandello, Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Camus and Hermann Hesse. Our teacher gave us a lecture on Kierkegaard to help us to understand Camus' novel The Plague. We learned about Jung and the Collective Unconscious, and studied the Holocaust in order to read Eli Wiesel's book Dawn.

In the meantime, I was searching and questioning. The things I learned in Sunday School and at church camp did not prepare me for the things I was learning. They did not give me any ammunition to fire back at the unbelief that was creeping in. Not only that, my Sunday School lessons did not prepare me for the deep conversations I had throughout the year with Jewish friends, who asked me if I thought they were going to hell, and "Jesus people" friends who asked if I was "saved."

It seems funny to think about it now, but do you know what I did?

I went to the library. I found the theology section and I took out books about Jesus. I no longer remember the titles of any of the books that I read, or tried to read. I believe that some of the books were Historical Jesus books. I learned a little about Albert Schweitzer and the Search for the Historical Jesus. I didn't understand everything I was reading (including the word 'eschatology', which I heard for the first time), but I gathered from what I read that, in the end, the Historical Jesus was notoriously difficult to pin down. Some blamed Paul for Christianity. Others contrasted the Synoptic gospels (synoptic! another new word!) with the gospel of John.

It was a whole new world, and it didn't help at all.

The thing was, I wanted to be a Christian. I wanted to believe in Jesus, even though he was notoriously difficult to pin down. Believing didn't make much sense, but not believing made even less sense.

I remembered something my English teacher had taught us about Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Lutheran theologian and philosopher. Kierkegaard talked about "the leap of faith" -- he seemed to think that finally, in order to believe, you just had to leap over the absurdities that were strewn in your path. (Anyway, there was something comforting about acknowledging that faith didn't always make sense.)

So I did.
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