In the introduction to Joyful Noise, a collection of essays on the New Testament edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke, Moody informs us that each “generation interprets the Bible for itself.” His hope is to provide his generation’s perspective on the central text of Western civilization and to combat the “contemporary hegemony of the religious right” while he’s at it. What Joyful Noise reveals, however, is that Moody’s generationor at least what he takes to be his generationknows and cares very little about the New Testament. Joyful Noise can hardly be troubled with Jesus Christ, because that would interfere with its true functionferocious and smug navel-gazing.
With few exceptions, most of these essays reveal a lack of familiarity withor an outright dislike ofthe New Testament, and as a result, reflections on passages of scripture quickly become reflections on the writers’ feelings. Kim Wozencraft’s “Jesus Was a Convict” is principally concerned with bashing the death penalty and the religious right. Knowing that the New Testament should fit in there somewhere, she provides a quotation from Matthew (25:31-36), a passage in which Christ is speaking of a day of judgment, a day of separating “goats” from “sheep.” The sheep, Christ explains, are those who fed him, welcomed him, clothed him, and visited him in prison. The “goats” didn’t do those things, and for that they miss out on the kingdom of heaven.
Wozencraft shows herself to be positively dizzy with misunderstanding regarding the text but absolutely certain about how she feels. Of this passage she says, “I feel a strong sense of community with humankind and believe we mean well, usually.” No doubt she does, but it is obvious that the passage of scripture isn’t as sanguine about human nature. Her solution is to simply ignore the passage. “Aside from the goat bashing, this passage makes a great deal of sense to me,” she writes. That is the equivalent of saying, “Aside from the Constitution and the people who live in America, the United States makes a great deal of sense to me.”
It gets worse. In Ann Powers’ “Teenage Jesus,” we go from confusion and self-absorption to silliness and self-absorption. Powers references the famous passage in Luke where Christ’s parents discover he is missing. They are a day’s journey away from Jerusalem when they realize this, and it takes three more days before they find Jesus in the temple, according to the King James version, “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions.”
Naturally, Mary and Joseph are a little angry, but Jesus has reached the age where he is beginning to attend to God’s calling, and so he says, “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” After which, he obediently follows Mary and Joseph back to Nazareth “and was subject unto them.” Furthermore, Mary was fairly perceptive and a quick learner. Far from alienating her from her teenage son, the temple experience caused her to reflect on his calling. The same verse tells us that Jesus’ “mother kept all [her son’s] sayings in her heart.” James Dean, Jesus Christ was not.
But you will learn none of that from Powers. In her Tiger Beat-smudged hands, this critical encounter becomes: “Imagine my delight when I discovered that Jesus was a brat who fought his parents, too.” To which one must reply: Grow up and learn to read.
In “My God,” which is a more respectable essay than the two I have mentioned, Lucy Grealy announces, “It’s when I read people writing about the Bible that I feel the most alien from religion; and also when I feel the most sorry for us all.” After perusing Joyful Noise, I say amen.
Jeffrey Eugenides’ essay “Underdog: The Holy Spirit of Acts” has its moments, but in the end he, too, shrouds himself in fatuousness. He examines Paul’s sermon to the Athenians on Mars’ hill. Paul sees that the Athenians have built a temple to an unknown god, something that Eugenides rightly calls a sort of theological “insurance policy.” In Acts, Paul tells the Athenians, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him I declare unto you.” And then he gives them the Gospel, the good news.
Inexplicably, Eugenides sees this passage as a celebration not of Christ as God’s messenger to tell the world who God is but of the unknown god! He ends his essay arguing for the marvels of a God we cannot know, cheering a state of mind in which “you can never be sure that what you’re doing is right, or that what you believe is accurate.”
To take Paul’s attempt to tell the Athenians who the unknown god is and to get from it a recommendation for know-nothing religion amounts to an example of unintentional humor. Yet here again we find the seed of destruction that infests most of these essays: What’s important in Joyful Noise is not the New Testament but a testament in honor of the writer’s predilections. Eugenides wants an unknown god, and if the New Testament passage he has selected stands in the way of that, well, so much the less for the New Testament.
In “Paring off the Amphibologisms,” Lydia Davis asks us to believe that the only reputable and objective Biblical scholars in history are those belonging to the Jesus Seminar, a modern group led by Robert W. Funk and John Dominic Crossan. She tells us that the guiding exegetical principle of the Jesus Seminar is to “beware of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.” She does not tell us that the Jesus the Jesus Seminar scholars finda political radical who is not much on religious devotionholds convictions remarkably like those held by the members of the Jesus Seminar, a fact the group’s critics have pointed out.
Furthermore, Davis in one sentence tells us that “Jesus’ style was to refuse to give straightforward answers.” Yet in the very next sentence we find her pointing to a straightforward answer that Jesus has given: “Jesus emphasized reciprocity. (‘Forgive and you’ll be forgiven’ [Luke 6:37].)”
A few of the writers deserve closer attention. Bell Hooks takes the New Testament seriously enough in “Love’s Alchemy.” Ann Patchett’s piece on snake-handling is worth reading. Eurydice’s “Corpus Christi” is a passionately argued critique of the Augustinian tradition in Christianity. Jim Lewis writes powerfully about the prologue to John’s gospel. He does so from a Jewish perspective and is erudite, serious, and thoughtful. Why couldn’t some of the other writers, who claim to be Christians, be as concerned with the New Testament as Lewis? Barry Hannah’s short story is a marvel, but he is too wise to fit in very well.
The best essay in Joyful Noise is almost good enough to have made the book’s publication worthwhile. April Bernard’s “Forthwith” is a riveting contemplation on the passage in Mark where Jesus casts demons out of a boy and they enter a herd of swine that run into the sea. “I am afraid of this parable,” she writes. “I am afraid of its rhetorical power; I am afraid that its power is not merely rhetorical; I am afraid of the word made flesh; I am afraid of Jesus. Like all sinners, I am multiple, and I lead multiple lives.”
Bernard is one of the very few writers who addresses the central thesis of the central text in our culture: We are sinful, but God loves us and has made a way for us through Christ. That is what the New Testament sets forth. People in the past took that message seriously enough to give their lives for it. And critics and devotees of other generations have believed that it warranted serious and thoughtful reflection. But if Joyful Noise is any indication, that sort of thinking is passé.
“The ideal collection of writings about the New Testament, I propose, would not be a series of essays about the canonized text, but rather a whole new set of Gospels…,” Moody declares, mistaking faith for a hobby and asking us to be as trendy and fickle about our religious commitments as we are about our favorite restaurants or music videos. But grace, as the New Testament makes clear, invokes gravitas.CP