Thursday, December 30, 2010

Matthew 2: Have a Very Bloody Christmas!

So I held off on my Christmas post until after Christmas this year, because frankly, it's not very nice. I didn't want to mar your holiday--full of presents and nogs and carols and midnight masses--with a less savory, but no less pertinent, Christmastime image:

Dead babies.

Now hold on: don't click your browser's "back" button yet. I'm not trying to be unnecessarily provocative here.

I'm just telling you that if you want to think seriously--and Biblically--about the story of Jesus's birth, you may consider wandering wise men, singing angels, flabbergasted shepherds, and virgin births. But you must also ponder their cost: the death of every infant in and around Bethlehem.

I'm always struck by the stark differences that separate Luke's Christmas story from Matthew's. (Remember that John and Mark don't even mention Jesus's birth; both gospels begin instead with Christ's baptism.)

Luke's account of the nativity is the one most frequently read at Christmas Eve services, and it's easy to see why: the gospel gives us, in measured narrative detail, the census that draws Joseph to Bethlehem, the manger birth, the angel choristers singing "Glory to God," and the shepherds' adoration. And it ends so peacefully, with a new mother's quiet reflection: "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Not so with Matthew, for whom the delivery of the Christ child happens abruptly, in a dependent clause attached to a sentence addressing Mary and Joseph's sexless relationship: "he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son." And Matthew adds, almost as an afterthought, "and he named him Jesus" (Matthew 1: 24-25).

Matthew's one lasting contribution to the popular, synthesized version of the nativity story is the wise men (Greek: magi), who astrologically predict the Messiah's birth and then follow a star to Bethlehem to find him. However, on the way, they make a fateful misstep that will turn Matthew's nativity story into a bloody tragedy.

In the beginning of the second chapter, the magi stop by King Herod's palace to confirm their findings. They ask the testy monarch, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage" (2:2).

In considering their approach, it's always hard for me to understand how such "wise" men could be so daft. You don't go to the king of the Jews and ask, "Hey, can you tell us where we can find the king of the Jews?" That's almost as stupid as bringing embalming fluid to a baby shower. (Oh wait ... they do that too.)

Not surprisingly, Herod is threatened; he is king, and a Messiah would mean an end to his reign--and likely his life. Thus, he tries to turn these not-so-wise men into spies--a recon crew for a band of assassins to follow. And while a pair of divine dreams--one for the magi, one for Joseph--save Jesus's life and send the holy family fleeing to Egypt, the damage has already been done.

If Herod cannot use a scalpel to remove this tumorous young king, he will use a machete: "When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men" (2:16).

Thus in Matthew, one very special baby's life is spared, but countless others are lost. And the second chapter of this gospel delivers not singing and peace, but slaughter and flight.

For at least two twentieth-century authors--Albert Camus in The Fall and Jose Saramago in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ--the massacre of infants in Matthew is the salient fact of the Christmas story. No amount of straw and swaddling can cover this miniature genocide.

Camus's Jesus lives knowing that not even he is truly blameless; this spotless lamb has some blood on his hands, even if those hands kill no one. And Saramago's Jesus is forever tortured by a guilty conscience that will not let him forget these innocent dead. For both men, Jesus will carry the memory of these small ones--who died for him--all the way to the cross.

So as you sit to dine this Christmas week, bow your heads not only for Jesus, the proverbial reason for the season, but for the babies of Bethlehem who died in his stead.
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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Stephen Colbert on the Baby Jesus

It's Christmas week, and I have yet to buy all my presents, brew my own egg nog, or fashion a yule log from real yule. So serious contemplation on Biblical topics--or whatever it is I do here on a weekly basis--will have to go by the wayside for the holiday season.

But I'm pleased to say that on the last episode before his own holiday break, Stephen Colbert delivered the best Christmas sermon I've heard in years. So I pass it along to you, with warmest season's greetings.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire Blog</a>March to Keep Fear Alive
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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Little Plastic Crosses, or, Religion and the Politics of Censorship

In 1515, in the central panel of his Isenheim altarpiece triptych, the German painter Matthias Grunevald created the most macabre artistic depiction of Jesus's crucifixion ever put on canvas. No other artwork I can think of so effectively preserves the raw horror of this violent execution.

In Grunevald's painting, the Savior's body is muscled, but emaciated and contorted. His skin is pulled taut over bone and sinew, like cellophane over rancid meat. His flesh is a sickly pallor--a jaundiced yellow--and covered in scrapes and sores. A patchy beard surrounds bluish lips drained of blood, and the crown of thorns that sits atop his head is more properly a full turban of brambles tearing at Jesus's scalp.

But worst of all are the nails that pierce Christ's hands and feet. The spikes pull and distort his skin, ripping open wounds that release blood thick as candle wax. Grunewald's coup de grace is Jesus's hands, menacingly curled into stiff claws that scream the pain racking the messiah's body.

Fittingly, Mary faints, stage right.

I thought of Grunewald's painting while I read coverage, this past weekend, of the National Portrait Gallery's removal of a video by David Wojnarowicz from an exhibit entitled "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." (Wojnarowicz produced the brief piece, called "A Fire in My Belly," after losing his long-time partner to AIDS.)

In pulling the film, the Gallery was bowing to pressure from Catholic League President Bill Donahue and, later, Republican Congressman Eric Cantor, who threatened the museum's funding. (Apparently, it made no difference that "Hide/Seek" was entirely financed by private donors.)

Donahue and Cantor disapproved of a dozen-second clip, buried deep in the film, of what appears to be a small, plastic crucifix overrun by ants. According to the Times, Cantor called the film an "outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season." Donahue echoed, "I’m not going to buy the argument that this is some statement about some poor guy dying of AIDS. Was this supposed to be a Christmas present to Catholics?" (Over the weekend, Frank Rich argued that the video's censorship had less to do with religion than with sexuality, and labeled Donahue's crusade "gay bashing.")

I find the video enigmatic, eerie, and surprisingly moving--not offensive. But don't take my word for it--or Mr. Donahue's. The video follows in its entirety, though I note that it contains a masturbation scene that may not be suitable for younger viewers:

Now, you may find this video objectionable. You may find it gross, or irreligious, or tasteless. You may believe, with Cantor and Donahue, that it should not be part of a national exhibition. And perhaps someday, we can have a cup of coffee and discuss whether or not the government has the right to censor art that you think is degenerate.

But Donahue, Cantor, and the rest of their supporters seem to miss a crucial point in banning the film for its putative obscenity: by comparison, the crucifixion itself is unbearably more obscene! It is violent, provocative, disturbing--an unconscionable execution. It is cruel and unusual punishment. It is torture. It is all that Grunewald paints and more.

And, unbelievably, it is the central symbol of Christianity.

Further, its thorough provocation must swallow the "offense" that may or may not be induced by Wojnarowicz's little film. The vertiginous affront of Christ on the cross dwarfs politicians' mock outrage at insects on vinyl. To know the crucifixion is to know that we can only strive to tame its unruly semantic power--its offensiveness. We cannot add to it.

Which is why I keep returning to Grunewald and the Isenheim altarpiece when thinking over "A Fire in My Belly." This painting reminds us of the crucifixion's insuperable, disgusting force. For me, "Fire" looks small by comparison. And Cantor and Donahue look smaller still. Click here for more

Monday, December 6, 2010

A Noah's Ark Theme Park?

When I was a kid, I used to go to Noah's Ark, a sweet-ass water park in the Dells region of central Wisconsin. The best slide was "The Plunge," a head-first, straight-down shot that dropped riders 1240 feet in 0.5 seconds. (My source for these numbers is an eight year-old version of myself.)

What did Noah's Ark--the water park--have to do with the "real" Noah's Ark described in the opening chapters of Genesis? Absolutely nothing. Except for, um, lots of water.

Sadly, some businesspeople in rural Kentucky won't stand for figurative water-park titles, so they're are in the process of raising $150,000,000 for an actual Noah's Ark-themed adventure center, complete with--you guessed it--a Biblically inspired reconstruction of the big boat. The project has drawn some criticism, however, as Kentucky's governor has offered the group backing it--a conservative Christian ministry called "Answers in Genesis"--some very generous tax breaks.

Here's an artist' rendering, courtesy of "Ark Encounter":

In a story published today, The New York Times quotes one of the project planners on the rationale behind the recreation: "We want to show how Noah would have taken care of [the animals], taken care of waste management, taken care of water needs and food needs."

Well holy crap (literally). I've always wanted to visit a park devoted to recreating the "waste management" methods of mythical Mesopotamians.

So you can suck it, "The Plunge"! I'm going to the real Noah's Ark next summer! Click here for more