Jesus Wept

Remind me not to move to Bedford, New Hampshire. Parents in town want the right to rate and approve all of the books that are taught in their children’s high school. This way they can object to books they find offensive: books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The books’s author relays her efforts to survive on a minimum wage job.

I’ve read this book, first published in 2001, and I found it offensive all right. What I read was that many Americans survive at the margins of our society, scratching for dignity amid trying and often impossible circumstances. I imagine the book’s portrayal of desperation is even more distressing now, two years into a recession that economists call as severe as any most of us can recall.

But that’s not what outrages the parents in Bedford. They take exception to Ehrenreich’s treatment of Jesus. She wrote of her frustration listening to a preacher sell salvation from this world while ignoring Jesus’ teaching on social and economic justice. "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 ever had to say," she wrote.

Jesus is, of course, one of the greatest of our Rorschach tests: We sort denominations and creeds based on what we see in this murky historic figure. In fact, were one to apply the standards of a trial lawyer to such record as exists about the itinerant Jewish preacher, the sum of what we know fits within the confines of the period ending this sentences. It is one of life’s great and grand mysteries that we engage in the endless task to know what cannot be know. (I believe, I say; help though my unbelief.)

Dennis and Aimee Taylor feel so strongly about Ehrenreich’s fliip remark that they have removed their son from the high school, where the book is used in classes. They accuse the school of vague offenses. It is apparently no mean thing to force a child to confront views other than his own. The Taylors are temperamental bedfellows with the Imams chanting death against Salman Rushdie or Danish cartoonists for not taking Allah quite seriously enough. Creeds may change, but stone-headed idiots all look alike.

Ironically, fellow travelers of the Inquisition’s former sponsor, the Catholic Church, did not find the Ehrenreich book offensive. She won the Christopher Award, given by a Catholic group to an author affirming "the highest values of the human spirit."

The matter is now before the Bedford school board, which will be asked to decide what to do about this threat to right-thinking people everywhere. Previously, a committee had vetted and approved the work. Despite its occasional lapses into irreverence, the book’s candid portrayal of the difficulties many of the graduating students will face upon entry into the real world was deemed worthy of being read and studied. The board recommended that teachers have an alternative assignment ready in case parents such as the Taylor’s found her portrayal of Jesus offensive.

Ehrenreich’s snapshot of Jesus is, frankly, wooden and unconvincing. I am persuaded by scholars that he really was an apocalyptic figure, preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God at the world’s end. Of course, the world did not end, and what he taught had to make accommodations for the intractable way the world simply continues to exist. But I forgive Ehrenreich her caricature of Jesus. There is no monopoly on the foolishness we can do in his name.

What I cannot forgive are parents like Dennis and Aimee Taylor. They’ve spawned a child and are in the process of setting him loose on the world. That they do so firmly wedded to the blinders they now insist their son wear is saddening. It brings to mind the King James Bible’s shortest verse. I wonder if they know it?

"Jesus wept."

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


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