Most of my activities lately have been devoted to changing my perspective. I am not always been conscious of that purpose when I start out but as with most things that purpose is always clear in hindsight. That purpose applies especially to my studies over the last year and to all of my travels too. There is little that is as perspective-altering as a trip to Israel for a person of professed Christian faith.
So imagine my surprise (or was it frustration?) when I realized that even the things I’m choosing for enjoyment lately fall into the perspective challenging category. After years of waiting, my old friend, composer Mark Adamo, premiered his new opera, Mary Magdalene, at the prestigious San Francisco Opera. Mark, who writes his own librettos for his operas, followed the outlier trend in scholarship that Mary M. was, well, more than a disciple, if you catch my drift. A not unknown perspective, but probably different for a lot of people who hear it. I was really sorry that my schedule did not allow me to hear the opening in person, but you can read the review from the San Francisco Chronicle if you are interested.
The issue of perspective seems to plague my relax time reading as well. I just finished the very interesting, if a bit mind-bending Liar’s Gospel by British author Naomi Alderman. Yes, you are right, even in my relax time I don’t really stop working. But Alderman’s book is all about perspective — she writes a story for us about what the ministry of Jesus might have looked like to the people all around him. She tells the story of a mother who mourns the loss of a son while trying to rebuild her life after his very public execution, all the while not really understanding just what his life was all about. She then tells us the story through the eyes of Judas, a Judas who faked his death after the Crucifixion and went on to live in luxury off the tales of his betrayal of Jesus. We hear perspective of Caiaphas, who handed Jesus over to the Romans for judgement and execution. And finally, we hear the perspective of Barrabas, the prisoner saved from execution by the choice of the crowd (Mark 15:6-15, Matthew 27:15-26, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38-19:16), who tells not only that story but a story that continues the tale of the Jewish revolt against Roman domination up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself.
There is so much that I like about this book — I like Alderman’s use of transliterated Hebrew spellings of all the names; I liked that everything about it reminded us that the roots of our faith are Jewish and linked forever with the theology of the Hebrew Bible; I liked the feeling and sense of real place that comes through each and every page (which was probably heightened for me by the fact that I was just there). But what I really liked was the perspective of it all. How she did it, I cannot imaging, but Alderman really succeed at putting the kind of distance into her perspective that is what each of us experiences daily as history of great importance swirls all around us. We have no more knowledge of the ongoing importance of what we experience than does any character in this book, or in the Gospels themselves, for that matter. We are human, we cannot possibly understand the story of faith and history in which we live.
And finally, Alderman’s book presents that kind of scholarly skepticism that I hold dear…that statement that despite all the things we can not know, despite our suspicion that not every word of this book we devote our lives to studying is absolute truth, despite the gnawing in the pit of our stomach when we suspect some story or another about the God made Flesh that we call Jesus — that none of this matters in the face of the Great Commandment, to love our God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. None of it matters in the face of the power of love.
That’s the thing about perspective — it does not change truth, but it may help us a little bit with our understanding. And so, as I continue to mull over the many ways in which my perspective on faith and life is stretched and changed daily, I leave you with an excerpt from The Liar’s Gospel. … just in case, you, too, are looking for a little push to the way you look at life:
Storytellers know that every story is at least partly a lie. Every story could be told in four different ways, or forty or four thousand. Every emphasis or omission is a kind of lie, shaping a moment to make a point. So when, between thirty-five and seventy years after Yehoshuah’s death, Mark and then Matthew and then Luke the complier and then John the theologian came to tell their stories it was as well for them to exonerate the Romans, who ruled the empire they lived in, and to blame the Jews, whose wickedness had clearly caused the destruction of their holy city. It was as well for them to add in perhaps a line here or there in which Yehoshuah had predicted that the Temple would fall, that the city would fall. This made him look wiser, as it made the Jews look worse for not believing, even in the face of such clear evidence. Nothing happened without a reason. …
Once upon a time there was a man, Yehoshuah, whose name the Romans changed to Jesus, for that sat more easily on their tongues. There may well indeed have been such a man, or several men whose sayings are united under that one name. Tales accreted to him, and theories grew up around and over him. He became, like Caesar, the son of a god. Like the god Tammuz, or the god Ba’al, or like Orpheus, also the son of a god, it was said he died and rose again. Like Perseus, he was born of a woman who had never known a man. He was turned into a god and certain things were lost and certain things were added.
And when one peels away the gilding and the plaster and the paint that were applied to him, what remains? So much of what he said, he took from the Torah of the Jews. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is an old Jewish ideal. But Yehoshuah was unique, in his time and place, for saying, “Love your enemy.” It is a dreamer’s doctrine. Visionary, astonishing. And a hard road, in times of war and occupation. If all involved had listened to those words, matters would have fallen out quite differently. And if those who claimed to follow him later had dedicated themselves to that one thing—“ Love your enemy”— much bloodshed might have been avoided. But perhaps the idea was too difficult, for it is not much observed, even to this day. Easier to prefer one’s friend to one’s enemy. Easier to destroy than to build or to keep a thing standing. And so the Temple burned. The walls of Jerusalem fell. The people were scattered into exile in ten lands and ten times ten. And they took with them their unusual stubbornness and their distinct ways. And a book walked those same paths, from synagogue to synagogue at first, telling a tale of how miraculous one man had been and how evil those who rejected him were, and therefore bringing good news for some and bad for others. This was how it ended. And all the sorrow that came after followed from this.
Alderman, Naomi (2013-03-12). The Liars’ Gospel: A Novel (p.259- 260). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.