08 December 2010

Was Jesus Insulted?

The Christian-right media are trying to stir up a jihad against a New Hampshire school that assigned Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed as required reading for a finance class. The call to arms was first sounded by the parents of one of the students, who were enraged to discover that Ehrenreich had described Jesus Christ as a "wine-guzzling vagrant." At first glance, it seemed a self-evident insult to the anointed one. Obviously envious of some Muslims' apparent ability to intimidate the irreverent into submissive silence, some Christians want equal respect or fear shown toward their sacred persons. Whether they actually expect to compel the school to purge the book or are simply exploiting an opportunity to act out is unclear.

For some superficial browsers, it's an additional insult to describe Jesus as a "precocious socialist." What sort of author portrays the Man of Galilee as a guzzler, a vagrant and a socialist? Assuming all the terms to be pejorative, we might expect the author to be an irreverent Menckenesque libertarian or a contemptuous Randian atheist. Barbara Ehrenreich is nothing of the sort. Nickel and Dimed is her attempt at empathy with the working class whose cause she espouses, an account of her effort to walk a mile in their shoes in low-wage jobs like housecleaning and waitressing. Where does Jesus fit into the narrative? Here's the controversial quote in context:

The preaching goes on, interrupted with 'dutiful' amens. It would be nice if someone read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he had to say. Christ Crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so he can never get a word out of his mouth (p.68-9).

Later in the book, Ehrenreich writes that her spiritual philosophy draws "on the Jesus who was barred from the tent revival, the one who said that the last will be first and that, if someone asks for your cloak, give him your robe as well" (108). On her website, Ehrenreich addresses the charge, apparently not a new one, that "wine-guzzling vagrant" is an insult.

In fact, Nickel and Dimed received a Christopher Award, which is given by a Catholic group in recognition of books "which affirm the highest values of the human spirit." In the section at issue, I observed that the social teachings of Jesus went utterly unmentioned at the tent revival I attended. The revival preachers clearly preferred the dead and risen Christ to the living Jesus -- who did indeed drink wine and could even make it out of water. As for the vagrancy charge: that’s what he was, a homeless, itinerant preacher.

Ehrenreich probably made an error of tone, failing to appreciate that "guzzling" isn't a flattering verb for anyone. She most likely used the irreverent language to emphasize Jesus's earthiness, his own perceived irreverence, as a man of the people. While she could have phrased that line more carefully, we can still ask whether Christians are taking offense because they misunderstand Ehrenreich, or because they understand her quite well. Some critics probably are simply ignorant and think she called Jesus a drunk. For others, Ehrenreich's account of Jesus renews the century-old battle over the "social gospel," the debate over whether Christians' primary mission is to minister to the material needs of the poor, by radically reforming society if necessary, or simply to save their souls. That debate isn't ending soon, but let's recall that it has nothing to do with the immediate provocation. Ehrenreich's musings on the messiah don't determine her book's relevance for a course on finance. Whether they're taken to insult Christ or Christians, they shouldn't determine whether Nickel and Dimed is retained in the syllabus. Any Christian mullahs who hope to make an example of the book or the school should be disappointed -- and if they think that imitating their Muslim counterparts will make a difference in the controversy, that's when an example should be set.


Anonymous said...

If they were truly "christians" to begin with, they wouldn't have been offended, or rather, they would simply have "turned the other cheek".

Having read the bible it is my devout belief that there are no true christians in the United States. Anyone who supports war: not a christian. Anyone who supports any government of man: not a christian. Anyone who supports capitalism (ie the accumulation of wealth): not a christian. Anyone who judges his fellow human beings: not a christian. I think you can get the point here.

People in this country seem to be under the misapprehension that just because they claim something, it is automatically true. People in this country are stupid.

Anonymous said...

I just spoke to the lord. He said quite contrary. He was rather amused, although he denies being a vagrant. He claims he always had a place to stay, but he did enjoy a glass or two of wine with his meals.

He was glad that Mary Magdelene wasn't mentioned, as that gets a bit annoying after a while...your girlfriend being an ex-crumpet and all.