Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Woman of Salt: A Novel

A Woman of Salt is a stunning poetic essay on suffering. I found myself wincing and weeping throughout. I was consumed by Mary Potter Engel’s narrative on the life of a young intellectual who was dragged through the foggy world of self-reflection. Hurtling towards the impending death of her abusive and estranged mother, Ruth confronts her buried memories. She battles the demons caused by her mentally ill mother and her own choices in an attempt to escape. Evil feels somehow filthier when enacted by the one who gave us birth.

Engel ripped open my soul, causing me to question my own understanding of relationships, vulnerability, and suffering. I wanted to crawl into Ruth’s skin and feel every ounce of her anguish.

Engel, a former professor of Christian theology who converted to Judaism, weaves her gift of biblical insight into the narrative using creative Midrash. Each chapter of Ruth’s journey is juxtaposed against Engel’s interpretative unpacking of the biblical story of Lot’s wife—the woman, who upon looking into the eyes of her burning past, was emblazoned into a pillar of salt. The power line of the novel’s characters combine with the brilliance of Engel’s theological construction like therapy for suppression of trauma. The dangers of religious fundamentalism are replete in almost every theme in the novella. I wondered throughout the novel which character would become memorialized in a pillar of salt from looking over their shoulder.

“Not one of us can help succumbing to the endemic power that eternally tempts us to re-create our past in a beauty that renders us tolerable to ourselves: to be human is to deceive ourselves,” writes Engel.

The author draws the reader into the gut-wrenching world of self-reflection. Anyone who is willing to trespass into this raw tale of psychic damage and brutalized intimacy must be ready to consider their own role in the conflict. Written almost as a lucid dream, readers could find a bit of their own disturbing and hidden self in every character.

The novella appears to be autobiographical. Engel writes her theological expose with authority. Yet, A Woman of Salt is experimental. The voice of each novella chapter alternates from the first person to third person, then back again. The technique left me with a sense of reading a series of thematic short stories. Until I understood the author’s style, I kept going back to the previous chapter to see if I had misread. Almost as if I was reading three books simultaneously. While not bothered by the technique itself, I am not convinced alternating the storyteller’s point of view added depth to the novella portion of the book. The storyline was powerful on its own merit.

Reading A Woman of Salt is a spiritual experience. We are invited to enter the story in order to find our way of being honest about our past, as well as seeking a hope for our future.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Review of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

During the last 100 years, the academic quest for the historical Jesus has wandered through at least three major cycles of research and publication. The work to uncover the Jesus “behind the text” has been almost impossible. Without fail, writers with conclusions landing outside creedal orthodoxy find their books being read more for the controversial content than for the author’s insights. Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Time of Jesus of Nazareth moved critical review into an unfortunate position. Much of the initial criticism levied at Aslan was more about Islamophobia than his progressive views of Jesus. Still, as if by design, immediately after Aslan’s now infamous interview with Fox News’ Lauren Green, his ratings on Amazon shot to the top and his publisher printed another 50,000 copies. A week after the interview, Zealot was number one on the New York Times Bestseller List.

Aslan’s historical Jesus is a zealous revolutionary, who in the name of Yahweh sacrifices all to overthrow the Roman oppression. Jesus of Nazareth is not the Son of God, but the Gospel of Mark’s Son of Man. Jesus zealously follows God’s commands for the sake of God’s people. He lives his life in defiance of the occupier leading to his crucifixion—as all others who would dare defy Roman’s crush. Aslan dismisses creedal absolutes—the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus, and bodily resurrection. He does so with a bibliography that reads like a who’s who of the last twenty-five years of liberal historical Jesus research. Not surprisingly, his conclusions are little more than a compilation of the likes of John P. Meier, John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, among other Jesus scholars.

Surprisingly, Aslan’s does not fully deconstruct the miracles of Jesus. However, he does place them alongside Jesus’ contemporaries who are magic workers. Aslan’s depiction of the resurrection is quite similar to that of the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Where in his book, Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel, Williams writes that, “something happened,” on Easter morning. Such acknowledgment by Aslan about the critical event in the life of Jesus the Christ, is quite affirming, especially from a non-Christian.

Interestingly, while conservatives are up in arms about Aslan’s portrayal of Jesus, they have said little about his quick deconstruction of the New Testament Paul. In the final chapter the author states that Paul had little concern for the human Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, Aslan suggests Paul built a new religion based upon his mystical experience with the resurrected Jesus Christ. Instead of Paul, Reza focuses on the story of the early church found in the Acts of the Apostles. The conflict between Paul and the trio of James, Peter, and John, for Aslan, is the blame for the loss of the historical Jesus. Paul, the victor in the first century church wars replaces Jesus of Nazareth with Jesus Christ, in order to make his new religion more palatable to the Romans.

In the end the question Reza Aslan leaves his reader is—can you be a follower of Jesus, if left with the historical Jesus found in the Gospel of Mark, (which has neither the birth nor the resurrection narratives). And are you be a part of the Christian Church conceived of by James, the brother of Jesus, (sans any writings of Paul)?