Saturday, April 9, 2011

The humble church

I've been sitting with Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It's a challenging book—probably to nearly everyone. It's no atheist screed, wiping the supernatural before it with a materialistic sneer. But it does play—lovingly—with the two sides of the character of Jesus Christ: the radical millennialist and the founder of an eternal church. It does this with the device of separating the one man into two twins. Not the easy device of a Jekyll-and-Hyde, Cain-and-Abel dichotomy; these brothers complement each other, fight each other, and end up playing parts in a story they're neither of them entirely happy with. But both seek to do the best they can do, and be the best they can be, with what has been given.

The book more or less follows the narrative content of the Gospels, along with some childhood legends. And near the end, with Jesus kneels in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking one last time for God to speak to him, to make Himself immanent to him. This paragraph has embedded itself in me:

'Lord, if I thought you were listening, I'd pray for this above all: that any church set up in your name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it would wield no authority except that of love. That it should never cast anyone out. That it should own no property and make no laws. That it should not condemn, but only forgive. That it should be not a palace with marble walls and polished floors, and guards standing at the door, but like a tree with its roots deep in the soil, that shelters every kind of bird and beast and gives blossom in the spring and shade in the hot sun and fruit in season, and in time gives up its good sound wood for the carpenters; but that sheds many thousands of seeds so that new trees can grow in its place. Does the tree say the the sparrow "get out, you don't belong here?" Does the tree say to the hungry man "This fruit is not for you?" Does the tree test the loyalty of the beasts before it allows them into the shade?
I don't really have much to add. I think Pullman's vision of the kind of church Jesus would have put up with is spot on, and is a challenge even for the liberal sect I belong to. I think I need to carry this around with me some more.