"You're Fired!"
-Donald Trump, reality television star

On any given Sunday, one can walk into a dozen churches in America and come away with as many versions of Christianity. There's no tenet at its foundation that makes this so. It's not the result of conspiracy - unless you believe Lucifer himself is behind it, stirring the pot in an effort to confuse people as to the true nature of God. Nor is secularism - that despised and oft preached against seven-headed horned beast - the cause. More likely, the root lies in Christianity itself, a hybrid of religious customs with a history of tripping over its own feet in an effort to appease ruling classes for its survival, growth, and prosperity. There's no explaining why one church is all-inclusive while the next is filled with bigots. One church finds power in the message of salvation; another keeps their congregation spellbound with fear. These are probably results of cultural influences. It's expected houses of worship in the South are more segregated than ones in the North, but what, besides geography, is behind the wide variances in worship?

The Gospel According to The Son
by Norman Mailer
Randon House, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-345-43408-1
$13.95, 245 pp

For God So Loved the World
Pulitzer prizewinner Norman Mailer takes on the thankless task of sorting out Christian theology. He doesn't just ask why Christianity comes in so many different flavors, he asks What is the foundation of it? The first question is easy enough. If you've ever read the New Testament, you've probably noticed there are four different versions of events surrounding Christ's life. These are the Gospels; more specifically, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That in itself - four versions of the same events - is cause enough for confusion and differences in churches. But Mailer doesn't stop there. Rather than play the role of theologian, droning on about his opinions and backing them with scriptures that fit accordingly, he asks himself, What would a gospel look like written by Christ? The result is The Gospel According to The Son.

The Gospel opens with Christ reflecting on the four gospels at the foundation of Christianity. Immediately, He distances Himself from them, dismissing them as accounts written by men after-the-fact in attempts to increase their flocks. "Their words were written many years after I was gone and only repeat what old men told them," Christ writes. "Very old men." The majority of religious historians accept this, even though preachers like to claim otherwise. Two thousand years later, numbers still trump accuracy.

As The Gospel follows Christ's ministry, we find He's a none too eager Messiah. He's coming to terms with His destiny, and not without a bit of self-doubt. He enjoys His wine, and is naive when it comes to women. For the most part, Mailer is true to the larger aspects of events set down in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Variances are slight, mostly just in Christ's reflection on Himself and the miracles of the day. Upon feeding the multitudes, He supposes it will be blown totally out of proportion, claiming He just divided the fish up into very small portions so it went further. Over other miracles He's just as amazed as everybody else.

Modern Love
At the time of Christ, Jerusalem was under Roman rule. The Great Temple still stood in the Holy City, and the Pharisees who ran it hoarded its wealth, neglecting the poor. This struggle between the rich, pious temple authorities and the impoverished masses is at the core of The Gospel. Christ stresses it repeatedly, warning it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. Today, in a nation which likes to call itself Christian, narcissistic reality television stars get elected to positions of power, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, and churches seem more interested in erecting super structures to themselves than helping the poor. How similar to Christ's Jerusalem this looks.

Mailer shows great restraint in the liberties he takes with Christ's story. What could have been a hatchet job is instead a thoughtful fictitious account of the most controversial figure in Western history. Although it's a novel, Mailer writes in a scriptural style. The chapters are short and the language is direct and to the point. The result is a simple eloquence, accounting Christ's ministry as if coming from Jesus Himself.

With The Neon Bible - named for the sign mounted atop

the church - Toole peels back the exterior of the small

Southern town and exposes its ugly substrate.

It's easy to imagine the power such a gospel would hold in a world where not even His followers can agree on what Christianity is. A single gospel set down by Christ, settling the disparities between the accepted gospels, would be revolutionary. How different might the Church look and act then, unified by doctrine. Though its interesting to consider, in reality The Gospel According to The Son remains the stuff of fiction.

The Neon Bible
by John Kennedy Toole
Grove Press, 1989
ISBN: 0-8021-1108-4
$9.00, 245 pp

The Gospel According to Dave
At the age of 31, John Kennedy Toole took his own life. It was an enormous loss to the literary world, although no one yet knew it. Fame for Toole came too late. He'd written a manuscript but struggled to get it published. It's supposed that his dream of becoming a published author proved too elusive, and on March 26, 1969 the promising young writer snuffed himself out of existence.

Fast forward to 1976. Toole's mother, convinced of her son's genius, delivers a manuscript to Walker Percy who was teaching creative writing at Loyolla University. She pronounced it a masterpiece, and - doubtful at first - Percy agreed. In 1981, that manuscript, that "masterpiece", won a Pulitzer Prize for Toole. It was A Confederacy of Dunces, a satirical take on life in New Orleans. With its success, interest in Toole grew, but due to Louisiana's bizarre inheritance laws, his second manuscript - The Neon Bible - would wait eight more years before it could be published.

Written at the age of sixteen, The Neon Bible is an account of life in a small Mississippi town. Set in the forties, it follows the life of David and his family. The town is full of characters, mostly bigoted. A town in which "If somebody got to hate something and he was the right person, everybody had to hate it too . . ." There are a number of town bullies, the preacher leading the way. It's a town that labels poor treatment of others as Christian charity. David and his family are the recipients of such charity in the form of expulsion from the Church because they can't afford the dues. It's a town where one's wealth correlates directly with their prestige in the Kingdom of God, and being from the wrong side of the tracks is a sin. About the preacher, David reflects:

    If [the preacher] stole some book he didn't like from the library, or made the radio station play only part of the day on Sunday, or took somebody off to the state poor home, he called it Christian. I never had much religious training, and I never went to Sunday school because we didn't belong to the Church when I was old enough to go, but I thought I knew what believing in Christ meant, and it wasn't half the things the preacher did.
David is from the wrong side of the tracks.

Crime and Punishment
When Aunt Mae - about sixty with a sketchy past as some sort of performer "on the stage" - comes to live with David and his family, the town punishes them accordingly. David describes Aunt Mae as "a big bright sweet-smelling flower . . . A red one, maybe, that had a strong smell like honeysuckle, but not quite so innocent." At first Aunt Mae is bold and flamboyant, a source of comic relief, and loveable. As time goes by though, we witness Aunt Mae's bloom fade, a victim of small-minded townies. Eventually, things take a tragic turn.

With The Neon Bible - named for the neon sign mounted atop the church - Toole peels back the exterior of the small Southern town and exposes its ugly substrate. His brilliance, though, isn't in calling out the hypocrisy which invades the whole of town life. The author's brilliance is in successfully capturing the soul of a small town through the eyes of a boy, and leaving us with an indelible record of small town Mississippi life in the 1940's. Toole won a Pulitzer posthumously for Confederacy; it would be terrific to see The Neon Bible take its rightful place in American literature as well.

posted 11/18/16