Busted: Mary Gordon

The renowned novelist and critic on Reading Jesus

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BH: When people want to talk about the Bible literally it sometimes feels equivalent to treating The Catcher In the Rye like a handbook on juvenile delinquency. There’s a level of imagination that is necessary to truly be able to engage certain texts. Do you think some of the conflicts are rooted in fear of the imagination?

MG: I think the Gospels would be a very good antidote to fear, because if you just read them and read them slowly they’re simple, but they’re very complicated. So, it’s a way of easing people into a larger way of looking at the world. So even if you take what Jesus says very literally, you have to turn the page when he says something else, and so I actually think the New Testament opens an imaginative life to quite ordinary people. The parables open an imaginative life to people. Here’s a great storyteller, a great fiction writer, he’s a poet, and so I think what’s wonderful about the New Testament is that it allows everybody to be imaginative.

BH: As a teacher, how do you help a student experience the texts they are reading through a more imaginative lens? Can that be done?

MG: One of the great things that helped me as a teacher was taking dance classes. I like to dance, I’m an okay dancer not a fabulous dancer and what I understood was the more anxious I got the worse dancer I became. A good teacher was somebody who could break it down and say lets start from the part that you know and then we’ll move from that. It’s the same as the person who taught me to garden. I thought if I dig a hole, put something in it, it’ll die. I had to be able to ask the question, How deep a hole do I need to dig and do I water it and when? So I think anybody can learn anything if they relax and if they think it is theirs. So I think, for example, the parables speak to that part of us that wants to hear a story. But you look at, if you look at them and it’s just a matter of — you don’t have to be that smart — you say, Okay, who’s in the parable of the Prodigal Son and what’s the surprise? What do you think should have happened but it didn’t happen, did it? I think if people really relaxed into the New Testament it could be quite transformative.

BH: You ask questions along the way and you talk about the contradictory nature of a lot of what Jesus says. At any point in writing this book did you think it might be better if you simply went to read scholarly material on the Gospels instead of relying on your own reading?

I think that a lot of people don’t understand how you can stay in the Catholic Church and be a dissident. Their notion of the Catholic Church is it’s a top-down hierarchy and that’s what you sign on for, and if your habit mind isn’t to be unquestionably obedient you should become Episcopalian. I understand that. I don’t know how much longer the likes of me are going to be welcomed in the Church. For now, I feel like there’s a great tradition of dissidence in the Catholic Church that I partake in but I don’t expect non-Catholics to get that.

MG: Well I thought that that would give me an easy way out that I didn’t want. I’m the kind of writer and reader that wouldn’t first go to a Shakespeare scholar; I would first read the Shakespeare as thoroughly as I could and then ask, What are the resonances of these words for me? So I would go to the scholar afterwards, but what seems to be unique about the Gospels to me is, people have these books in their hotel rooms, they have their grandmothers bible from the attic, they don’t have scholarly commentary and they look at these words and these are the words they have, and they try to decide how to live a life based on these words. That was the place I wanted to be in and so that if I were some farmer in Iowa and I read, “Let the dead bury the dead,” what would that mean to me? I wouldn’t even know what library to go to. If you believe these are inspired words and sacred words, what do those words do to your heart, to your spirit, to the way you have to live a life? Virginia Woolf called it the common reader. They don’t read it thinking that they should have scholarly commentary; they read it as though it was being whispered into their ear. So I wanted to be in that place of whispering, not in the place of hermeneutical interpretation, because it just hasn’t fed people’s hunger. As I said in the book, fundamentalism speaks emotionally and that’s why it’s successful. If you answer emotional speech with intellectual speech it doesn’t work. It seemed to me that literature is the place where reason and emotion come together. They often come together in the place of story and imagery. In order to create story and imagery you’re not just babbling, you’re making a shape of things. You’re using the mind, you’re using reason, you’re also speaking emotionally; you can say, I love, I hate, I fear, while a biblical scholar can’t say, I love, I hate, I fear.

BH: What you just said about trying to find places between the critical, historical, intellectual pursuit and the emotional, fundamentalist pursuit struck me as being an unwitting defense of the Catholic approach to scripture.

MG: Well yes. I do think, at its best, Catholicism insists on both. What scared Protestants a lot about Catholicism was the appeal to beauty. They thought that that was seductive. To me that’s the greatness of Catholicism. So, at its best Catholicism is not dualistic between the emotions of the mind and the body. You wouldn’t know that from the current Vatican but I’m talking about the greatness of the tradition and what one who knows that tradition can be drawn on and be fed by.

BH: You said you were interested in the reaction Jews would have. Can you talk a little bit about what it has been like?

MG: For my friends, they said, “This is the book we’ve been waiting for.” Some said “I never read the New Testament and I almost felt guilty about reading it” — that was very sweet to me, to feel that because I acknowledge there was a problem, a huge centuries-long problem of anti-Semitism which drenched the text, I felt that once I acknowledge that, it gave them an opening to read in a way that was exactly what I had hoped.

Virginia Woolf called it the common reader. They don’t read it thinking that they should have scholarly commentary; they read it as though it was being whispered into their ear. So I wanted to be in that place of whispering, not in the place of hermeneutical interpretation, because it just hasn’t fed people’s hunger. As I said in the book, fundamentalism speaks emotionally and that’s why it’s successful. If you answer emotional speech with intellectual speech it doesn’t work.

BH: You mention as well that many of the intellectuals you’re dealing with have sort of a resistance to organized religion and perhaps any sense of belief at all. Having been in the academy for a long time can you talk a little bit about what that’s been like?

MG: I think a lot of them have taken 90 IQ points off me and I often have to keep re-earning my bones in a way that’s a little annoying. I never will earn those bones by virtue of particularly being Catholic and I really understand that. When the official Catholic Church is so censoring and so anti-intellectual and shuts down free speech and you get a situation in America where Catholic universities are only allowed to hire Catholics and certain things cannot be taught in Catholic universities, when there’s a protest against Barrack Obama speaking at Notre Dame, it would be like being in Europe and thinking if you’re an American maybe you voted for George Bush. And I think that a lot of people don’t understand how you can stay in the Catholic Church and be a dissident. Their notion of the Catholic Church is it’s a top-down hierarchy and that’s what you sign on for, and if your habit of mind isn’t to be unquestionably obedient you should become Episcopalian. I understand that. I don’t know how much longer the likes of me are going to be welcomed in the Church. For now, I feel like there’s a great tradition of dissidence in the Catholic Church that I partake in but I don’t expect non-Catholics to get that. I really understand why they would be hostile or suspicious of my being religious. When you think about what the religious community has done to American politics I understand why they’d be suspicious, to say nothing of what religious fundamentalists around the world have done in terms of mass destruction. I really understand why people would be suspicious of a religious perspective. It doesn’t surprise me, it doesn’t alienate me, and I feel as though they have to know me pretty well to try to understand that I am much more in their camp than I am in Benedict’s. But that’s not a sound bite, it’s not a quick conversation, but I understand the suspicion of a religious imagination.

What makes me sad is that for a lot of younger people, including my daughter, the homophobia of the institutional church, the sexism of the institutional church, is a deal breaker, and it is such an ethical quandary that they won’t even approach the prayer life or the communal life that the church could provide. So I think what makes me sad is that for younger people of good will and ethical imagination, they’re deprived of a kind of community of prayer and worship because they’re so alienated particularly by the sexual hysteria of the institution. It’s ok for me; I can step over it. I can’t even tell you why but I can just step over it. Maybe it’s being Irish and Italian; you just don’t expect institutions to be fabulous. I mean why would you? If I thought about Columbia/Banard University, I think ‘how can I live in this apartment they own, look at what this institution does?’

I feel like that with America, with people saying “If John McCain wins, I’m leaving.” Well, you’re not going to. That’s bullshit! Your job is here, your family is here, your pension is here. You’re not going to Canada. Shut up! You’re an American and if you’ve ever tried to live anyplace else you realize you’re an American. Does that mean I’m totally proud of everything America has ever done? No. Are there possibilities here that I am comfortable with and hopeful about? Yes. That’s how I feel about the Church.

What makes me sad is that for younger people of good will and ethical imagination, they’re deprived of a kind of community of prayer and worship because they’re so alienated particularly by the sexual hysteria of the institution. It’s ok for me; I can step over it. I can’t even tell you why but I can just step over it. Maybe it’s being Irish and Italian; you just don’t expect institutions to be fabulous.

BH: You dedicated the book to your son “The Seeker” and your daughter, who sounds like a seeker on some level as well?

MG: I think my daughter will probably convert to Judaism. She’s married to a Jew. She’s studying and she feels that it is possible to be ethical and comfortable in Judaism with her ethical decisions and the way she does things. But she wants a woman rabbi and she knows she’ll never have a woman priest and that matters to her.

BH: How do you feel about that?

MG: Because my father was a Jew, I feel like he broke the circle in a way and I almost feel like she’s closing a circle my father had broken. I love Judaism so much and I feel such affinity to it. It’s fine with me. If I have grandchildren I’ll read them the Lives of the Saints. As my daughter said to me, “I never make an ethical decision without thinking of Jesus first.” Both my children said that to me, and when I think about what is good and what is not good, the first authority I consult is Jesus.

BH: When you speak to the generation of spiritual seekers that show up in your classroom every year and these sorts of questions become engaged, what do you say? Do you have any advice for that journey?

MG: I would say try to figure out what is the way that would make you most fully human, and in a way an institution takes you outside yourself, takes you outside your comfort zone—and, to use a musical analogy, which way most hits the most tones. One of the things I like about a large urban church is there are people I’ve never talked to that I’m kissing at the kiss of peace while saying Lamb of God at the same time. So I really like that — I like to encourage them to be a part of a community which breaks down race, class, gender, sexual orientation, educational divisions, and to remember that the religious imagination is not just me and God but me and God and the world. I guess I’d say, see how much can you hold your nose and get what you need to get.


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