Authors Katie Nolan and H.L. Hix, both philosophers, speak here about their recent releases, The Gospel according to H.L. Hix (Broadstone Books) and Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter. Through a conversation that took place during this past election season, they touch on care and freedom, the notions of ideality and reality, as well as hobos and “Pushback Jesus.”
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Katie Nolan: I love your statement in the first section: “The Gospel resulted from asking what the gospel looks like from a different vantage: What if we give attention equally to canonical and noncanonical gospels?” Reading further, I find this question (your translation) from the disciples: “When will the new world arrive?” Followed by Jesus’ answer: “What you’re looking for has happened without your noticing.” This mystical concept of being in aware presence, popularized as “the Now,” was stated by Jesus! This is a more lucid translation than others I’ve read, so it was a marvelous realization for me. I’m wondering if you were also struck by discoveries as you explored these ancient texts and created a different vantage, through translation and synthesis, among other things. Could you speak about whether you made similar discoveries during your process?
H. L. Hix: One thing I enjoyed about synthesizing canonical and noncanonical sources was the release it gives from the pressure of belief. The religious tradition in which I was raised was very belief-centric. The fate of your eternal soul was determined by what you believed. This emphasis played out in particular beliefs, such as believing in the literal occurrence of all the miracles related in the canonical Bible, but not believing in the occurrence of any miracles related in other texts.
Putting canonical and noncanonical accounts together is a reminder that such a belief rule has to do with the canon, not with the stories themselves. There’s nothing about the stories themselves that makes adult Jesus’ restoring dead Lazarus to life more plausible and edifying than child Jesus’ restoring dead Zeno to life. Synthesizing the narrations highlights that the attitude I was encouraged to adopt toward canonical stories has more to do with enforcing church authority — the institutional distinction between canonical and noncanonical — than with discerning what meaning the story might have to offer. I experienced it as liberating to read familiar and unfamiliar stories alike, without regard for the institutional distinction.
I wonder if there’s something similar happening for you in Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter. The very first words the reader sees after the title are the clarification about what is true, what is fictionalized, what is uncertain, what is composite, and what is changed. What possibilities did it realize for the story you’re telling, to set all those strategies into play?
KN: I did experience the use of composites as liberating. I was concerned with the ethics of memoir; that involves many things, but what was most important to me was to ask whether it will harm others. I’m committed to the principle of non-harming, a basic Buddhist ethic, so I struggled with that.
Relating to “what is fictionalized,” I attended a week-long workshop with Pam Houston who suggested we “lock the editing bitch in the closet.” Before that workshop I was bogged down with an attempt to be absolutely truthful, to attempt to not relate anything that I wasn’t certain my father actually said or did. That made for some very brief encounters with his experience because, for one thing, I didn’t tape record the stories as he told them. Pam Houston encouraged us to loosen up our writing, so yes, when I did that there was a great deal of uncertainty as to whether I was accomplishing an accurate account.
HLH: Your commitment to non-harming comes through. The epigraphs in Hobo’s Daughter make clear that this narrative will explore the relationship between politics and love. But there is a lurking third term, care. How would you talk about the role of care in this book?
KN: I can see that I had at least an unconscious desire to ask readers to care about people like my father, individuals who are cruelly, unfairly imprisoned. It’s unnerving to realize that, today, if my father killed a guard in self-defense to escape, he likely would be put to death by the state after a stint on death row. Poor whites and Blacks — Blacks in particular due to structural racism — do not have adequate representation. Having visited a prison, the iron bars of the stacked, rows and rows of cages is a frighteningly vivid image for me, and recalling the click of the security doors sends a chill down my spine. And they actually put my father in a cage on wheels, a cage that resembled that used for circus animals! If we knew each prisoner’s story in-depth, as I attempted to do for my father, would we care? Would we end the practice of putting human beings in cages? At my book launch in Seattle, people very naturally asked me about these issues, and it was a relief when they had empathy for my father’s plight.
When I finished reading your book, I began to think about whether there is anything coincident between our projects — a memoir in my case and, in your case, a creative research and translation related to ancient biblical texts. To find anything in common with them is a bit of a stretch, I realize, but what immediately came to mind was psychological turmoil and loving concern. Because I think you exhibit a great deal of care and concern in your projects — for example, there is the profound insight into collective psychological problems in American Anger, insights that may be helpful to us now in this fraught election season. I am wondering what concerns you might be addressing in this project?
HLH: Thank you for seeing a connection to American Anger, and the sense — with which I concur — that our projects don’t need to show a lot of surface connection in order to have a deep connection. I take it as one concern of your book to pose the question how robustly our actual legal and economic and social arrangements realize our declared ideal of liberty and justice for all. One concern of mine in The Gospel seems to me to have some analogy with that concern. I take The Gospel as posing the question how robustly the dominant mode of presenting the Gospels (identifying four and only four as authentic, constraining certain elements of contemporary English translation more by precedent of prior English translation than by concord with Greek originals, and so on) realizes the ideal of offering evangelion/gospel/good news.
Your notes at the end of the book are a reminder of how much Hobo’s Daughter is about history. How do you manage to keep the feeling of reading it consistently “private” and “personal,” all the while keeping the narrative open onto something “public” and “political”?
KN: My grandfather’s and father’s generation, and my own, exemplify the ongoing gathering of wealth into the hands of a few, where there is a huge wealth grab with each depression/recession. So the “ideal of justice” you mentioned, particularly economic justice, is not real. My book covers, roughly, the historical period of the 1920s to 2010. Like my grandparents, who lost the homestead in the Great Depression, I lost my house and much of my life savings in the Great Recession. So what happens historically and politically has so much impact on our personal lives! In that sense, the personal narrative couldn’t help but open onto the political.
It seems the Nolan family’s lived lives are driven by Foucault’s concept of “politics,” in the sense that we lived in a society that “prohibits and permits,” where what occurred in politics was “crucial to our existence.” Foucault said that politics was the “most crucial subject to our existence…[it is] the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions…and [the] system of power which defines permissions and prohibitions related to our conduct.” The economic relations, in particular, affected our family rather dramatically. My father experienced economic injustice, loss of liberty, and state-sanctioned police violence. The society in which I grew up, a fundamentalist Christian one, provided multiple sexual, and other, prohibitions — many of them were legislated — which has some bearing on my struggle with my religious roots.
In Thich Nhat Hanh’s Going Home, Jesus and Buddha As Brothers, he states that our spiritual roots are important. What he means, I think, is that even if someone decides to reject Christianity, if that is their spiritual beginnings they still need to somehow acknowledge, perhaps even respect, those roots. Would you comment on that? What are we missing by not looking more deeply into these ancient texts, as you have done?
HLH: That insight from Thich Nhat Hanh connects for me to a couple of current involvements. I’m teaching a course this semester on ignorance and disinformation, and one recognition that runs through the literature related to “manufactured ignorance” is that we don’t start as blank slates that we then fill up with knowledge. Instead, we arrive at mature, reflective consciousness within “epistemic communities.” Taking Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice, it would be wise for me to acknowledge that my roots are in an epistemic community that places high value in practice on the four canonical Gospels, and in principle on the gospel.
Also, I’m writing a book about the novelist George Eliot. The standard narrative about her life is that she rejected the Christianity of her youth, but I’m trying to show that it’s more accurate to describe her as revising the religion of her youth, not replacing it. Revising one’s “roots” can be deeply respectful, a substantive commitment rather than nominal loyalty.
KN: I’m intrigued by the idea of revising the religion of our youth. And how that could contribute to a more aware “mature, reflective consciousness,” to change us in ways that would free us from certain prohibitions.
HLH: There’s a subtle way in which Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter records such a change of self. It’s not until I’m well along in my reading that it finally “clicks” for me that Katie, too, is a character: that the time lag between the experiences narrated here and the narrating of them, the writer has changed and is looking back on the person she was at the time(s) of the events. As soon as I become conscious of it, it seems really important to me, but is it important to you as the writer?
KN: I do hope Katie has changed! I was reluctant to have my son read the book and found myself insisting that I’m not the same person now and he should skip over the “Katie” parts and just read the “Bud” parts (Bud being my hobo father and his maternal grandfather).
During the process of writing, I didn’t really come to grips with the fact that people would see what I wrote — somehow I put that aside until now, when some part of me actually fears that people will read Hobo’s Daughter and realize Katie is me, or at least some past version of myself. Well, I do want people to read it but I feel rather vulnerable in having “bared my soul,” as one of my readers put it. For my sample paper required to enter graduate school in philosophy, I wrote a phenomenological ontology of shame. That was long before I wrote my memoir, but maybe a sense of shame is a preoccupation of mine!
Now, it helps me to go beyond the everyday, phenomenal level, the form realm, where I discovered this poor, deluded Katie as myself, a realm in which we identify ourselves with our jobs, families, spouses, lovers, and so on. Because on a spiritual, or transcendent level, the formless realm, which goes beyond the phenomenal level, we are not the stories we tell about ourselves — rather we are part of the Divine (Godhead, Brahman, Nirvana, formless realm, whatever you call it). By the time I finished the book I had some revelations that helped me see how I had acted out based on shadow material (perhaps the source of my shame), and it gave me greater impetus to more faithfully practice Buddhist meditation. That is, I think the tools of psychology are helpful, perhaps required, on a spiritual path.
Resolving questions about my path has been important to me. Along those lines, I would suggest that The Gospel according to H. L. Hix be read alongside your book, Understanding W. S. Merwin. Early on in your work on Merwin you state he “blurs the distinction between annunciation (a verbal event) and conception (the event in which the divine becomes human), Merwin makes the word God.” In your book on Merwin you also state: “A definition of God as the whole universe fails to distinguish God from the Devil…” Please tell me more about your views on theology, and whether they were changed due to your research, translation, synthesis project on these ancient texts.
HLH: Another thank you, for another association with one of my previous books. It’s a generosity, your awareness of and attention to my prior work, and I’m grateful for it.
Changed theological views are for me probably more cause than consequence of this project. Once upon a time (long ago and far away!) my theological views closely tracked those into which I was socialized as a child raised in a fundamentalist evangelical protestant Christian family environment. Now, though, I don’t participate in any organized religious group, or identify as a Christian or theist. My preoccupation with Gospels once would have emphasized what I took then to be the distinction of the four canonical Gospels from other works of literature, but now has to do with Gospels’ being works of literature. I am interested in the ways stories depict our struggles with the tension between reality and ideality: Antigone caught between justice (the “real” law, in the form of Creon’s edict) and Justice (the “ideal” law, that Creon’s edict violates), Sethe caught between the reality of slavery and the ideal of freedom, and so on. Stories of Jesus depict the same struggle.
KN: I was raised in a Baptist church and as a child won a King James version of the Bible by memorizing verses from these first four books of the New Testament. Do you remember the first time you were introduced to the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, presented as the canon, and does that have any relevancy as to why you chose this project?
HLH: I too was raised in Baptist churches, in which it was just a given that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the Gospels. Until I was in college, I didn’t even know there were any other Gospels!
My analogous memory to your verse-memorizing experience isn’t of a one-time event but of a recurring one. It’s definitely relevant, though, to my having chosen this project. My paternal grandfather was a “non-denominational” fundamentalist preacher. When my father’s extended family gathered for Christmas at my grandparents’ home, the celebration always featured (before opening gifts) everyone sitting quietly together, listening to my grandfather read “the Christmas story,” which was a collation of the nativity narratives from the canonical Gospels. He himself had selected and arranged the various passages into a single story, and typed them out, in the King James Version, of course: I specifically remember the archaic phrase “on this wise” from the beginning, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise,” and the old verb form “holpen” somewhere in the middle.
Even though my grandfather would have objected strenuously to almost everything about my version of The Gospel (its inclusion of noncanonical material, its reference to God and Jesus without assigning them masculine gender, its challenges to King-James-dependency in translation…), his active construction of “the Christmas story” by culling elements from multiple Gospels and arranging them into a single narrative was one precedent for my project.
KN: I think the Nolan family was more obsessed with the Ten Commandments than the Christmas story! As a child, I anxiously stared out the attic window, wondering whether I’d been good enough for Santa to come.
HLH: Of course I love the “Nolan Commandments”! I don’t experience them as exposition, exactly, but as capsules. I just mean that I get context and character and so on from the stories themselves, but the commandments become little souvenirs that recall the given story and the emotion of the story. Is that experience of them anything like what you had in mind by featuring them?
KN: Thank you for the “not-masculine” God, and for asking a question about the Nolan family commandments, because I actually made a new discovery while trying to answer it. I think those commandments peered at me from the writing due to my childhood religion, perhaps related to your grandfather setting a precedent for you. But I can’t say that I knew what I had in mind — they seemed to tumble out of the writing. From the repetitive reinforcement of those commandments, by the end of the book, I made a discovery about trust and love.
But my new epiphany is that they also might have been a resistance to my rather puritanical upbringing by my Christian mother (pleasure is the road to damnation) — even movies and dancing were taboo for a time. Some of the commandments, or values, are contradictory to the Ten Commandments. For example, one of the commandments was “Thou shalt keep it close to the chest.” In following this commandment, the hobo’s daughter frequently lied by omission. That’s a very uncomfortable confession. There have been many contradictions in my life because of having these two sets of commandments to follow!
As I continued to read The Gospel, and discover, another passage stood out, related to a long conversation Jesus had with Judas. And I thought: That passage didn’t make it in! At least, I didn’t recall that it was included in the four canonical gospels. It seems so Buddhist, or certainly mystical, whether Buddhist or Christian: “There exists a vast, limitless realm the extent of which not even emissaries can measure, inhabited by an infinite, invisible breath that not even an emissary’s eye can see, and that no mind can comprehend, no name can designate.” Did you also think that these passages dramatically revealed more mystical, esoteric teachings than the canonical version? Are there examples that stood out for you?
HLH: That particular passage comes from a very recent rediscovery, The Gospel of Judas, found in a burial cave in Egypt in 1978, and not available to scholars until 2004. The passage you cite does have a mystical, esoteric quality that I happen to be drawn to. I take it as a beckoning toward reverence (humble recognition that the real exceeds what I do, or can, grasp) and away from piety (confident self-assurance that I have grasped the truth, and nothing but the truth).
By way of kinship with canonical Gospels, I take it as allied with John 1:1 and John 21:25, which The Gospel translates as “At the origin was the word, and the word was of the god, and god was the word” and “Jesus worked many other wonders, but were they written one by one, I doubt the very cosmos could contain the books thus written.” I take all those passages as reminders that no one Gospel is the gospel, reminders that any particular Gospel points toward the gospel and that it’s unwise to mistake the pointing-toward for the pointed-toward.
KN: I think the “infinite, invisible breath…that no mind can comprehend” is a pointing-toward my theology! It also fits with Maimonides’ (a Jewish mystic) concept that “God has no form whatsoever.” When I get on the train again, I plan to explore infinity and invisibility in my next project (Building Solitude, working title), in which I’m attempting to weave between the form realm (actual building with salvaged lumber) and the formless realm.
HLH: Obviously, the train is crucial to your exploring your father’s experience, but it seems to be, like your love for your father itself, also an opening onto other aspects of life. I’m thinking of moments such as this: “Travel can be a form of amnesia, suspending one in stillness, obliterating the past. My mind tends to float away when I travel.” It makes me think of the fictional character of Sylvie in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Are there other analogous associations for you? Other resonances?
KN: It interests me that there are some pasts that we really don’t want to obliterate. We both have a past that includes childhood religion, for example, where respecting and reflecting on that past is useful.
However, that passage opens onto a sense that we can let go of a past we might wish to obliterate. There is a zen parable where the master suggests to his students that they would benefit greatly from putting down their “bag of rocks,” an extremely heavy burden that represents psychological problems. It seems a fantasy that complete amnesia regarding our past is possible, but I’ve found that it helps me to still the mind with meditation and the moment to moment practice of aware presence (mindfulness), such that the past stops creating so much mental anguish. Of crucial importance for me is freedom from regret in lingering on the past, and freedom from anxiety from dwelling on the future.
Presently, I live in a rural area a few blocks from the railroad tracks and when I take walks and look down those parallel lines to a distant horizon, I feel that sense of freedom! A Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche told me “these [Buddhist] practices are all about freedom.” This has such a strong resonance for me, both during the writing of my father’s stories on the train, and now.
Your project actually resonates another type of freedom for me — freedom to go beyond authoritative scripture. You’ve demonstrated what an astounding project can be accomplished with a great deal of disciplined effort and creativity, an endeavor that included avoidance of “translation inertia,” among other strategies. What inspired you to do the project of The Gospel?
HLH: The broad background behind my taking on this project is the combination of an ongoing preoccupation with the gospel and a deep distrust of the institutional forms into which it gets squeezed. I’m not the first person to develop a sense that pursuing authenticity in relation to the gospel demands getting rid of a lot of baggage.
The immediate occasion for The Gospel was that my work on a poetry project led me to the Nag Hammadi library, an extensive collection of ancient gnostic texts only recently (in the scheme of things) rediscovered: found in 1945, not made readily available to scholars until the 1970’s. I hadn’t been reading in those texts very long with an eye toward the poetry project, before the project that became The Gospel urged itself on me.
The broad background had planted in me the questions: What if I read more Gospels than institutional religion gave me permission to read? And what if I read those Gospels in ways, according to principles, not sanctioned by institutional religion? The immediate occasion then prompted The Gospel as one answer to those questions.
KN: This is a shift of topics to writing process. I was taught while studying philosophy that these historical figures, lovers of wisdom from Socrates on down, were exceptionally good at synthesis. It was fun for me to see your claim that you were only doing what the original authors of the Gospels were doing — using sources available to them and synthesizing them to fit the time and place. Can you speak a bit more about your synthesis of these many ancient texts? About time and place? Perhaps some details about the texts themselves? I’d like to know more about the process you used.
HLH: The texts themselves turn out to be quite readily available, so if a reader wanted to study in their entirety the sources from which The Gospel draws portions, all those sources are published, so anyone with access to a library that has inter-library loan can find them. (Or anyone with a high credit card limit! A few of the editions would be pricey to purchase.) A headstart on locating editions is given in the “Additional Reading” note in The Gospel, and a complete list of the sources I drew on is given in the “About This Book” section.
In some ways, my process was pretty “mechanical.” I read all the sources I could find, selected passages that seemed like they might belong, arranged them into coherent order, and translated them. For passages from the synoptic Gospels, I used a Gospel parallel to choose which version to include. It was a labor-intensive process, not only because of its scope but because of my limitations; for instance, my Greek isn’t great, so in translating from Greek originals I’m a lumbering plodder, not a fleet runner!
For all its laboriousness, though, the process was not without its pleasures. At one crucial stage in working on The Gospel, I enjoyed the marvelous gift of a residency at Pine Meadow Ranch in Oregon. The staff offices for the foundation that sponsors the residency are in the same building as the residency itself, and I suspect it amused the staff members when I colonized an unoccupied room in the building one day to work on the sequence of the elements. I printed out the draft at the tiniest scale at which I could read it, and cut it up into segments; then I spread out all the segments on the floor, and arranged and rearranged them. Probably the staff still laugh at the one loopy resident on his hands and knees all day on the hardwood floor, shuffling slips of paper around and scotch-taping them together.
I’m curious about some analogous matters of process and craft in relation to Confessions of a Hobo’s Daughter. For instance, some of your stories are told in the first person, in your father’s voice. What’s the pleasure to you, and what’s the offer to the reader, in presenting them that way?
KN: I wrote another version in third person. It didn’t work for me at all, so I experimented with first-person, which also required “shuffling” many bits of paper. It brought me closer to my father and, in some ways, let me keep my father. Perhaps we are never finished grieving, but it seemed to help me complete at least some of that process by “hearing” him speak. It offers the reader a more intimate view of him, as well, when he shares his inmost feelings, in one vignette, through stream of consciousness.
HLH: At some point I associate your father’s “Irish story-telling” with “riding the rattlers.” Is that a stretch, or do you associate them, too?
KN: I learned the phrase “riding the rattlers” from my research on hobos, and initially wanted to use it as a title for the book. The many men riding the rails were kind to my teenaged father in explaining to him how to stay safe on the rattlers (the passenger trains as opposed to the freights). “Don’t try to catch a rattler running too fast,” they counseled, “If you slip you’re gonna end up under the wheels.” He also learned that you should hide in the bathroom until the tickets were taken. Or ride on top. There was this intimate, bonded community, both on the ride and in the hobo camps, that included a communal code of ethics. My father always expressed this as “you gotta help the other feller out.”
There is similarly the process of becoming psychically close, when the ancient tradition of an oral storyteller reveals themselves to the listener. Both my Irish grandfather and Irish father were quite the storytellers! So the closeness of the extended family seemed to revolve around sharing stories, usually while gathered around our wood stove, with the children sprawling nearby on the worn linoleum.
So there is this association related to intimacy—an emotional ride whether on the rattlers or via storytelling.
HLH: Intimacy is very important to your book. In conversation (p. 192), Katie says it’s “difficult to see how these stories have gotten in the way of my intimate life,” and Martin says it’s obvious. Who’s right?
KN: Maybe a short answer is in order here, although I was tempted to go all postmodern with my answer and discuss at length “lack of essences” and “all things are relative” — where nothing is obvious! It’s Martin!
HLH: Here’s another either/or. Is your father the string on which the pearls — the stories — are strung, or the necklace composed by the strung-together pearls? I’m thinking of analogies such as Winesburg, Ohio, where something holds together stories each of which has its own wholeness, in that case, a place, in the case of your memoir, a person.
KN: I can tell I’m asked a question by a poet-philosopher and so this has really made me think! After “mentally pacing” some, I feel strongly that it was definitely my father that holds the stories together. He is the string on which the pearls are strung! Bud’s story is so strong, and in many ways unbelievable, so I think he is the story and not a necklace around which the stories are strung. On the other hand…okay, I’m not sure. Dad is the necklace upon which I clasped my stories? Well, no, because his story is at the forefront. On the other hand…
HLH: I promise to let this go (!), but one more question on this thread. This could have been just about your father, or it could have just been about you. Why was it important to you to make it about you both?
KN: Originally, I did write just about my father. But the same writing mentor I mention in the book was unrelenting in asking me: “Why are you writing this book?” The honest answer was: I thought knowing more about my past by conjuring it up from occluded memories would help me know myself. Both psychology and Socrates assure us we need to know ourselves. So it seemed, at the time, that Katie had to appear more often in the story. My writing teacher’s next question was: “Whose story is this?” I’m not sure I have the correct answer to date, but I think it’s Katie’s story.
Well, this isn’t about process per se but it’s about something your creative process brought forth. I was astonished when I read the account of Jesus’ childhood because it portrayed Jesus as a rascally young boy, which challenges the dogma I was taught that Jesus was without sin. For example, he got angry with his playmates and he talked back to his father. You stated in the first section that you’ve only synthesized the texts that were already there — that you did not make anything up. Were you struck with amazement, as I was, that Jesus could be both beneficent and a bit of a rascal when you first read the source for this? Did you have reasons for selecting these passages?
HLH: The canonical Gospels offer various depictions of “Pushback Jesus,” Jesus testing or resisting social expectations and conventions: Jesus hanging out with social outcasts, Jesus breaking rules of piety, Jesus taking the side of the disempowered against the empowered. But in the canonical Gospels it’s mostly adult Pushback Jesus. I was interested in how vivid some of the stories were in various noncanonical Gospels of the child Pushback Jesus.
One of Blake’s Proverbs of Hell is that “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” In a lot of wonderful literature for young readers we enjoy and value depiction of protagonists acting out that principle: Curious George figures out how much curiosity is enough by learning how much curiosity is too much. I love how some of the noncanonical narratives let child Jesus act out that principle, too. I think I would have liked those stories when I was a child, and I don’t think I would have been harmed, or that my image of Jesus would have been tainted, by hearing such stories!
KN: I can’t help but think that if “Pushback Jesus” had been here in the flesh during the Great Depression, he would have hung out with the hobos!
So my next question is also related to astonishment. I cannot get over the image of the withered hand of the midwife who checked Mary’s virginity. Do you think this symbolizes something beyond the text? Was there more than one source for this unusual account of the birth of Jesus?
HLH: That particular passage (which I too find striking and memorable) comes from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, an infancy gospel in Latin, probably written in the seventh century, and apparently popular in its day: various manuscripts of it survive. I didn’t encounter that particular story anywhere else. The writer of the Pseudo-Matthew Gospel was very Mary-focused: his additions to his sources (he drew on the Protevangelium of James, for example) emphasize Mary’s virginity. So, for instance, in his account Mary didn’t just happen to be a virgin: she had purposively protected her virginity from an early age.
That’s how I take the story, by analogy with other miracle stories, as physicalizing of a spiritual quality. How much spiritual sustenance does Jesus offer? So much that from what otherwise would sustain only one person (five loaves and two fishes), Jesus can sustain five thousand people, with sustenance to spare! How pure was Mary? So pure that she wasn’t just a virgin before giving birth, she was a virgin even after she had given birth!
KN: I enjoy that concept of physicalizing a spiritual quality. In one of the Buddhist practices I’ve learned, I am asked to visualize the many-armed Bodhisattva of compassion. Perhaps that is similar.
So based on these new images I’m discovering in The Gospel, I find I’m wanting to go back to my translation of the Bible and compare. And to share your project with friends, maybe even a pastor, and get them to discuss it with me! Have we been kept from a more esoteric understanding of the Bible, due to omission and translation inertia? Or because of some of the other issues you brought up in the first section, such as “source bottleneck”?
HLH: Yes, I think so. It shows up in “local” ways, such as one of the words mentioned in the “About This Book” section. In the religious tradition in which I was raised, it was unquestioned doctrine that birds inhabit one place and God another: the Gospels as they were offered to me spoke of “the birds in the air” and “our Father in heaven.” But that distinction is a convention of English translation: it’s not there in the original language. It’s a single Greek word, ouranos, translated as “air” in one case and “heaven” in the other. Birds and God are both in the ouranos. They’re in the same place, not different places.
It also shows up in “global” ways. We recognize in other areas that imposed restrictions on what and how to read can be limiting or distorting. In political understandings, it’s easy to see confirmation bias at work in a person who only gets news and information from a single source (whether that source be CNN or FOX). And if I’m trying to develop a robust understanding of humanity, we easily see that if I only read accounts written by European males my perspective is impoverished. I take there to be some analogy regarding the gospel. I was told — we are told, by the Church and by “secular” social convention — to read only four accounts of the gospel out of the very many accounts that have been written. I say: No, thank you, I’ll decide for myself!
KN: You state in the first section: “This book is not advice on how to secure gospel from a Gospel, but a Gospel from which one might seek to secure gospel.” Also, you state: “Although I hope it adds perspective, its purpose is not primarily to add information.” Would you comment further on your meaning of gospel as opposed to Gospel?
HLH: There might be various ways to make, or to get at, the distinction. One way I appeal to in the “About This Book” is by analogy with a piece of music: a score of Beethoven’s Fifth is a score of Beethoven’s Fifth, not Beethoven’s Fifth itself. The “according to” that identifies Gospels is a cue that the distinction applies. This Gospel is the Gospel according to Matthew, say, not the gospel itself.
But there might be an easier way to make the distinction: description and described. I can give you a description of my kitchen, but my description is a description, not the thing described. It’s a description of my kitchen, not my kitchen. A Gospel, canonical or noncanonical, is an account — a description — of the gospel, not the gospel.
KN: The Bible has often been used for political purposes, by claiming gospel, including justifying slavery, arguing against abortion, and denying LGBTQ+ rights. Quite some time ago (and identifying with Q), I discovered that the Methodist pastor I was working with on homelessness issues was also progressive on LGBTQ+ rights. He accepted an invitation to be a guest speaker at my Applied Ethics class and he used a different interpretation of the verses my conservative students were using to condemn the community; he demonstrated that the Bible would neither condemn the LGBTQ+ community nor their lifestyles.
He didn’t speak about the abortion issue, but was aware that abortion is never mentioned in the Bible. It is becoming well known that Amy Coney Barrett’s views are similar to those of my conservative students, so I’m wishing this pastor had had a say in the Barrett confirmation to the Supreme Court! Is this project, in either intentional or unintentional ways, a political response to a misuse of the Bible? Is it correct to call it a misuse of the Bible? That is, I am not assuming author’s intention, I’m just wondering whether these issues occurred to you in some way?
HLH: I wish it had been your pastor up for nomination in place of Barrett! Alas, self-righteousness and hypocrisy and proof-texting and dogmatism will be with us always. The Gospel won’t stop that or even slow it down. But the kinds of application/interpretation of Biblical texts that your students were performing certainly were among the factors that drove me away from the religion of my youth, and the will to attend to a Jesus who embraces the marginalized rather than one who recommends or participates in the marginalizing was among my impulses toward the project of The Gospel.
KN: Well, I like your Pushback Jesus who cares about the marginalized! I think I now see another deep connection — it has to do with care and freedom!
Thank you for honoring me with this interview.
HLH: Thank you for your taking such care with this conversation about care.