Having spent more than three decades chronicling Catholic life as an author of novels, short stories, essays, memoirs and biographies, Mary Gordon decided to take what some might consider a radical leap for a Catholic: she actually read the bible. In Reading Jesus, Gordon attempts to understand the rise of fundamentalism by engaging the Gospels herself as a reader. The volume that resulted from this challenge is a compelling blend of meditations, reflections and memories on her own faith life and the evolution of her belief. In the interview that follows, the Barnard professor reflects on the experience of truly reading — for the first time — stories she has heard her entire life, as well as her complicated — and often strained — relationship with the institutional Catholic Church.
Busted Halo: As an English professor as well as a long-time reader and writer, was this the first time you approached the Bible as text?
Mary Gordon: Oh yeah, absolutely. One of the things I had to come to terms with was that this was the first time I really read it, because the kind of Catholic I was brought up, we really didn’t read it. It was a big difference after Vatican II but I was brought up pre-Vatican II. I had never read the Gospels straight through. I’m sixty and I’ve never read them straight through, so for me it was as much a reading as a religious experience.
BH: I like the scene at the beginning when you were in a cab and you became really frustrated at the Pentecostal Christian preacher on the radio talking about hating gays and divorcees and immigrants, etc., and you became fired up about it. Is that really what started all of this?
MG: It was a metaphor for it. It was a metonymy for it. I’m just very upset about the fundamentalist agenda, which is so heavily sexualized, and one of the things that is absolutely the case in the New Testament is that Jesus doesn’t seem very interested in sex. He certainly says nothing about homosexuality. He’s a little hard on divorce in a way that I’m not thrilled about, nevertheless. And sexual transgressors are treated very mercifully and the people who accuse them are the ones that he comes down on. To the brand of fundamentalists who are so homophobic, with anti-female agendas and punishing sexual wrongdoers, I want to say: Exactly what Gospels did you read? Because they weren’t the ones that I read. The other new kind of religious direction that upset me was the kind of Joel Osteen-type figure that says, if God loves you you’ll get rich. I want to say, What Gospel were you reading because I really know that that’s not what Jesus says? In fact he is very, very hard on people who want to accumulate money. I was very upset with people who were speaking in the name of Jesus and I couldn’t imagine what text they were using.
BH: At one point you admit that fundamentalists are readers in ways that authors like you long for — reading and re-reading. Did you come to any resolution regarding how these people could be such incredible readers of the Gospel and yet interpret it so differently than you do?
MG: As a fiction writer what I really tried to do was understand what made them read the way that they did. I just assumed that it was fear. If you do anything when you’re in a panic you don’t do it well. So I feel if they read in a panic, even if they spend time going through the black marks on the white paper, they read it with so much anxiety that they can only hear what’s going on in their brain and can’t really see the text. I actually felt a lot of compassion for that. If you think the world is a dangerous place, a terrifying place, if the only thing you can think of to do with that anxiety is to hold on tighter and be more and more aggressive, that seems like a very sad way to live. I also felt like they missed the whole resurrection part and I actually felt quite compassionate at the end.
BH: You often go back to when you’re a young girl and your sense of being afraid of hell. My assumption is that among some biblical literalists hellfire is a pretty heavy incentive to read things literally. How did you come from that to where you are now in terms of your Catholicism?
MG: One of the real memories I have is of a wonderful priest when I was a teenager. I thought I was the worst person in the world and I was confessing sins of impurity that I felt I was committing every three minutes. I literally thought, if I get hit by a car I’m in hell, and that wasn’t a metaphor. I was really terrified if I got hit by a car before confession that was it. I remember this priest saying to me, “Don’t worry about it. Think of the infinite love of God and think of how much you have been loved and try to love other people.” It was like somebody turned on the light and I thought, OK, that’s the way I’m going to live and I don’t have to be scared out of my wits all the time. The relief was so huge and I felt like it opened me up to loving and to understanding that I had been loved. So I don’t understand why anyone would prefer that terror unless you’re just imagining that everyone else is going to hell and you’re not because you’re obeying all the rules. As we are all sinners I really can’t imagine that. I don’t know why that terror feels good because, boy, it really didn’t feel good to me.
BH: Did any part of you think, “this priest can’t be right; I’m going to go to hell?” (Laughs.)
MG: No, because I think this is one of the reasons why a text is insufficient. These words were spoken by a man whom I admired so much in his lived life. This was a man who was so kind, so there for people, and whose life I could perceive as being an exemplar, so when he said words they weren’t just words, they were in the context of a life. So it never occurred to me that he was crazy. I saw the other people who were talking about hellfire, who seemed really crazy. I saw the way he lived and I saw the way they lived. I saw the way he made other people feel and I saw the way they made people feel and it was really easy for me; I really saw, this is a better way of doing it.
BH: I like what you just said about how understanding goes beyond text. You ask a similar question early on in your book: Is reading the Gospels adequate? Is it?
MG: I don’t think reading the Gospels is adequate. I think if you were in solitary confinement reading the Gospels you would have one reading experience but they were written for communities and to read them fully I think you have to read them in a lived life. That’s why I sometimes get nervous with people who say I’m spiritual but I’m not religious. What makes me nervous about that is it doesn’t seem to have a communal aspect, it doesn’t have an ethical aspect: it’s me and God and my crystals. So, I think that the Gospels were written for community, by community, and the final experience of reading them most fully does express itself in a community. Which is not to say that someone who is not a person of faith can’t have a fabulous reading of the Gospels but they are about a lived life.
BH: There is still a lived reality beyond the text that is the lives of the saints. Can you talk a little bit about that in your own life and in this book?
MG: Well there are plenty of hard things about being Catholic. I can tell anybody that wants to know. But it seems to me that if you base your life solely on a text, first of all you’re basing your life on a text from which you are quite culturally removed and you probably do need a little interpretation. So you have Jesus who is living in a particular time and place, but what I really like about the lives of the saints is that it gives so many different models for living a holy life. Great geographical span; its got a great historical span; you get people who are desert fathers, Hildegard who isn’t canonized, but maybe she should be — I’m canonizing her on my own — but Theresa of Ávila, Catherine of Sienna and virgin martyrs, Saint Francis, Saint Jerome. We can all get what we want but at the center of it there’s this life, this Gospel, which seems to me again enormously rich in its tonalities and rich in its contradictoriness. There is not one way to live according to the Gospel, and Jesus actually gives us a lot of information that contradicts itself, and I think that’s good, because one of the most important things we can learn today is that there’s not one way; if there’s one way we’re all going to kill each other. I think that if you look at the Gospels you see such a multiplicity of ways. I mean look at the Beatitudes nobody can be all the blesseds. You can’t be both meek, and hungry and thirsting after justice. Some people are meek and some people are hungry and thirsting after justice and Jesus is often in a rip snorting rage if you look particularly in Matthew, and sometimes he is very kind and compassionate, and so he’s a very rich dynamic figure and he offers many possibilities of being human — the richness of the possibilities and the refusal of a one way is what makes it, to me, so important.