Celebrity Equals Celestial in Mailers' Gospel

It was only a matter of time. Sooner or later, someone was going to write an "autobiography" of Jesus Christ -- but did it have to be Norman Mailer?! In her 1985 New York Times review of Peter Manso's biography of Mailer, Barbara Goldsmith summarized the author as an "embattled liberal, boxer, thumb wrestler, belligerent head-butter, monumental drunk and drug user, wife stabber, scatological poet, New York mayoral candidate, talk-show guest, antifeminist, political protester, filmmaker, actor, patron of the killer-author Jack Henry Abbott, husband of six wives, father of nine children and...benign social lion." Perplexed book critics the world over are scratching their heads and asking what this author could possibly have in common with Jesus Christ, the myth or the man?Well, they're both Jewish -- that's about it. But as Mailer is an author long-obsessed by the cult of personality and celebrity, Jesus Christ is in some ways an inevitable, if not completely logical, subject for novelization. The fact that he chose to do it in autobiographical form will no doubt be offensive to many Christians, but it's not surprising coming from Mailer -- a prolific writer (this is his 30th book) who's always been willing to exercise nerve at the expense of judgment.When it comes right down to it, however, this book clearly says more about Mailer than it does about Jesus Christ or the origins of Christianity -- and it probably should be evaluated on its merits and flaws as such. Although some passages are lifted directly from the King James version of the Bible most Protestants are familiar with, the stamp on said passages is quintessential Mailer. (His presentation is Christianity-Lite, lyrical at times, but hardly scholarly.)Take for example the narrator's relationship with his mother. There's very little biblical history to support Mailer's description of Christ's mother. He writes, "If Mary was modest, she was also vain, and I would suffer by both ends, for her will was graven in stone. Yet she did not see herself as strong, but frail. Worse! She saw me as being like her...She had a heart large enough for a queen, but like a queen, she did not enjoy what she could not understand...She did not make my way easier."Whoa there Norm!! This is the BLESSED VIRGIN you're talking about -- not the next guest for "Coffee Talk" on Saturday Night Live. You wouldn't have to be a raging fundamentalist to be offended by this description.Mailer had just better hope the Pope doesn't get his hands on a copy of this Gospel, because this certainly doesn't sound like the Mary everyone has come to know and love from the Rosary ("Hail Mary, full of grace..."). It does, however, sound quite a bit like one Fanny Schneider Mailer, who by all accounts could've invented the prototype for the stereotypical controlling Jewish mother.Continuing in that vein, Mailer also manages to skewer the Vatican near the end of the novel with, "There are many churches in my name and in the name of my apostles. The greatest and holiest is named after Peter; it is a place of great splendor in Rome. Nowhere can be found more gold." That may be true, but it's about as subtle as a sledgehammer.The narrator also makes much of the fact that the traditional gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) were written years after the death of Christ and are riddled with inconsistencies. That's accurate, but it's not exactly news. It's been an acknowledged and accepted fact by Christian scholars for years. Each gospel presents the author's own take on the life of Christ, and the results are somewhat similar to those that might be presented by four different witnesses at a car wreck. Each has a different perspective, and a different view of the scene -- it doesn't necessarily negate their value.Mailer also takes a curiously anti-modern, Old Testament view of sin and suffering for an author who's made a name for himself as a crusty old liberal. When a man is cured of his paralysis, it is clear that Jesus views the man's affliction as a punishment for his sins. He reflects, "Those who came to me had undergone much torment and so were ready to recognize the weight of their sin. Thereby, they were ready to be cured. This paralyzed man had become equal in his suffering to the evil he had wrought, and so I could forgive him." Oddly, passages such as this appear to align Mailer with right wing fundamentalists who argue that AIDS (for example) is a punishment from God for a decadent lifestyle. This was a popular notion in the Old Testament -- but it doesn't account for sick infants and children or the common phenomenon of bad things happening to good people. Of course, such scourges could always be attributed to "original sin," but that doesn't appear to be Mailer's argument in this passage.This book certainly isn't the first time an author has played fast and loose with biblical history and it won't be the last. But for a more sophisticated, less New Age approach, readers might better occupy their time with Archibald MacLeish's poetic drama J.B. (based on the Book of Job), Nikos Kazantzakis's Last Temptation of Christ, or even John Irving's parable, A Prayer for Owen Meany. They're equally controversial, but with far more spectacular literary results.Mailer has clearly set out to shock readers with this "autobiography," and while it has its lyrical moments, it's about as theologically significant as Madonna standing in front of a field of burning crucifixes and belting out "Like a Prayer." Whether or not it constitutes blasphemy is up to the individual. All it really means is Pepsi probably won't be sponsoring Mailer's book tour. [IMAGES] Available from Random House

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