My daughter drew my attention to some remarks, published in the Guardian, by Elena Ferrante about Christianity and the Gospels, which seemed to me unusual and full of insight:
“It happened when I was around 16. I read the gospels one after another, and the entire life of Jesus seemed terrible to me. The resurrection itself I found terrifying: not a comforting conclusion. I hope I’ll have an opportunity to recount that adolescent experience of reading in detail. Here I will say only that the story of the gospels seemed to demonstrate at every step that human nature, beyond some arrogant declarations of its centrality, was depraved, devoted to either crucifying its own kind and all other living beings, or getting crucified.”
I do not have this experience of the Gospels, but I can imagine the impact they might have on a teenage girl full of hopes for her life, and perhaps guided in her interpretation of them by a Catholic penitential perspective. There’s nothing in them about ordinary living and work, about growing up, exploring relationships, sexuality and talent; nothing about music, literature and art; nothing about travel, nature, culture and the planet. But they do present human beings as tested by the presence of God, by exposure to the perspective of the eternal foreigner. Ferrante’s comment that human nature is presented as depraved, “devoted either to crucifying… or getting crucified….” is a shrewd recognition that the gospels tell the story of Jesus as an ultimate conflict between God and the powers of evil, in which “ordinary living” is given very little room to breathe. They offer only the choice between the crucifiers and the crucified, and yes, the resurrection is terrifying precisely because even after the crucifixion, the disciples are not allowed to accept the defeat of Jesus, and return to ordinary life: he’s back, alive, and resumes the conflict with evil, through them.
There are no shades of grey in the Gospels, no subtleties of character such as would interest a young woman gifted in the depiction of character. Here there are only needy people who know their need, powerful people who know their power, and Jesus with his band of disciples committed to meeting the need and facing down the powerful. Human life is a battlefield on which the powers of evil have all the big battalions, while the forces of goodness must rely on rescue coming from a God who will not however, rescue his own dear son. Ferrante’s right, it’s not an attractive picture.
But none of the Gospel writers speak in the tones of extremism or hysteria: their tone is always sober and matter of fact; this is the way things are. They are not popular reading with people whose lives are relatively free from suffering and oppression, but make immediate sense to the millions whose lives have always been under the cosh of their own weakness or the wickedness of others. Relatively comfortable believers like me, who appreciate the benefits of reason, law, democracy, not to mention music, wine, laughter and the quiet of mountains, think that the availability of all good things still depends on taking sides in the battle against wealth, arrogance, greed, selfishness, self- righteousness and intolerance in oneself and others. Read from that perspective, the Gospels are a story in which I always find myself, usually in the character of a cowardly disciple.
All of this is not a dismissal of Ferrante’s reaction. Christianity does have an issue with the starkness of its fundamental narrative. It is the issue wonderfully depicted by Dostoevsky in the episode of the Grand Inquisitor, who succeeds in convincing Jesus that an institutional church with manangeable rules, rituals and rewards meets human need much better than the wild gospel proclaimed in Galilee. You don’t need to agree with the Inquisitor to wonder how some of Jesus’ terrible words can make sense to say, the young, able, single mother with two children, whom I met at a church family event last week. Yes, she knows a bit about betrayal, but above all she wants to put that behind her as she learns the arts of survival, for herself and her children, in the world as it is. And yet there she is, drawn to make contact with the body that acts in the name of Jesus.
Perhaps the answer to my question is to be found in Ferrante’s other criticism of the Gospels, that they see the welfare of human beings as all – important, to the neglect of other living creatures and the planet itself. That’s true, and it shows why the church has always said that the Gospels are only part of its scripture, which includes the whole of the Jewish bible, with other prophetic voices like that of Jesus, but also with voices which announce the wisdom of God’s creation, as Jesus did too. He praised the wisdom of the creator in making the sun rise on the just and the unjust. He placed his own mission within the will of the creator to perfect his creation. In the church’s theology the rescue of humanity is placed within the story of the creation of the universe, the Son comes to do the will of the Father.
There is room here for some hard work by the church, to formulate a doctrine of creation, in terms that use the best science available, placing human life in an ecological and universal context. Indeed, that is exactly what the author of Genesis did in his/her time, with a radical story of a God who has to learn enough humility to work with human -all -too – human beings in the rough and tumble of their chequered lives, rather than imagining he can solve the problem with a flood. The great stories of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah, Joseph and his brothers are full of the nitty gritty of human families, living along with their flocks and crops, while struggling with their creator.
This presentation of Christian faith might help Elena Ferrante and many others, to put the Gospel story in a wider context which does justice to all life and not only to God’s splendid, disobedient and often destructive human children.