Currently Reading:

Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Invisible Man

Invisible Man

Ralph Ellison

As a white American, it’s really difficult to talk about issues of race, in much the same way that it’s difficult for a male to enter into a conversation about women’s rights.  One has the feeling of walking out into a minefield.  We become desperately self-conscious, trying not to say anything that could be construed as racist, while at the same time trying not to say anything that could be construed as patronizing.  We weigh and measure every phrase, every word.  It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation about race that’s simply open and unguarded.  And unlike a lot of issues, being better educated doesn’t make talking about it any easier.  If anything, it makes it worse.  We go beyond phrases and words, and start getting paranoid about subtext and context.  We retreat into the realm of theory, where there are no actual people or actual feelings to get hurt.  The whole discussion of race becomes, for educated whites, an exercise in abstraction, in part because we hope that nobody can get offended by abstraction, and we want so desperately to be one of the Good Guys.

In popular American literature and film, we take a different approach — one that assumes that there is a white experience, and a black experience.  Cop movies usually have the white cop and the black cop.  They drive each other crazy, but they learn to get along and defeat the (white) antagonist.  Books portray the black as the victim, done in by white society.  The Magical Negro shows up to drive Miss Daisy home.  The Blacksploitation films of the 1970s gave us the badass jive-talking black man being cooler than cool to a funk soul soundtrack.  All of those conversations reflect and create some aspect of racial reality in America.  But almost none of them do so with real honesty, with real sincerity.  They mostly just repeat stories that people already think they know.

Ellison doesn’t permit himself that luxury.  He’s not going to tell the story of a black man repressed by white society.  He’s not going to tell the story of a black man with a heart of gold who rises above his circumstances.  He’s not going to tell the story of a black man who kicks ass and takes what’s his.  Instead, he tells a story with honesty and sincerity.  A young black man, raised in the south, eager to prove that he’s better than those ignorant blacks that surround him.  A young man embarrassed by poverty, trying to differentiate himself so that he can blend in to the world of wealth, into the world of “success”.  He believes that through hard work, through education, through self-sacrifice, he will finally be able to “pass”.  Everywhere he goes, he feels the pressure to “uplift the race”.  Those he hates most aren’t white racists, but blacks whom he considers to be backwards, who make his own skin color look bad.  He ends up in the employ of Marxists, who prop him up as a public speaker to rile up the Harlem ghetto with the rhetoric of class war.  Again, his greatest rivals aren’t the white bourgeoisie, but black nationalists who see him as a sellout and a house negro.  Eventually, the Marxists demand that he stop speaking in public, because his speeches are too successful, too emotional, and they want time for the rest of “the movement” to catch up.  Rather than rising above, the narrator ends up feeling a fool — duped and used at each stage of his life, always a representative of his race, his class, his upbringing, and utterly invisible an individual.

It’s a bold book to write, but clearly it struck a chord with people when it came out in 1952, and continues to strike a chord with people today.  It’s one of the few things I’ve read or seen that doesn’t devolve into caricature or tip-toe around the minefield.  It’s honest, it’s sincere, and because of that, I feel like I’ve learned a great deal by reading it.  There is no black experience in America.  There is no white experience in America.  There are a multiplicity of experiences, and while race deeply affects those experiences, we rob ourselves when we reduce it to the white cop and the black cop swapping quips and fighting the bad guys in the spirit of racial harmony.

The Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot

The Lost Gospel of Judas IscariotThe Lost Gospel of Judas Iscariot: A New Look At Betrayer and Betrayed

Bart D. Ehrman

I’ve written before about historical Christianity.  The topic is fascinating to me because modern mainstream Christianity is so stubbornly anti-historical.  It insists that truth is truth, that the word of god is unchanging and transcends history, that the words and message of the bible are the same now as they were 2,000 and 4,000 years ago.  All of which is of course utter rubbish.  Early christian scholars argued over whether there was one god or many, whether Jesus was divine, whether the old testament and new testament god were the same guy.  Eventually they converged on rough consensus through much political wrangling, execution of their competitors, and a whole lot of book burning.

But every once in a while, some preserved (or partly preserved) text surfaces that shows us just how diverse early Christianity actually was.  The gospel of Judas, unearthed in Egypt some time in the 1970s and passed around the hands of various scoundrels and collectors until finally being made public some ten years ago, is one of those texts.  Ehrman interprets it as a Gnostic apocalyptic gospel: apocalyptic in that it predicts that the end of the world is imminent, and Gnostic in that it claims salvation comes not through faith, but through secret knowledge.  Knowledge that the god of this world is evil.  Knowledge that there are other, greater gods that sit above the creator god in the cosmic hierarchy.  Knowledge that each of us contains a spark of the true, higher-order divinity, and that only in being released from our physical bodies and the corruption of this world can that divine spark bypass the creator god get back to luminous truth.

This ain’t the pope’s Christianity.

And it gets better — according to the gospel of Judas, of all the disciples, only Judas understood the true nature of Jesus.  Only Judas had a Gnostic understand of the world and his place in it.  The other disciples thought that Jesus served the god of the world — the evil creator god.  Judas alone grasped the truth, and the bulk of the gospel of Judas is composed of dialog between Judas and Jesus, in which Jesus explains the workings of the cosmos, so that Judas my have complete knowledge and so be freed.  And Judas returns the favor by “betraying” Jesus — turning him over to the authorities that he may further his divine plan, be released from his physical body, and allow his inner light to return to the divine.

It’s heretical, of course.  But Ehrman does well to remind us that heresy and orthodoxy exist only in retrospect.  At the time, they are only competing world views.  Only after one gains power and prominence can the other be discredited, suppressed, and labeled as heresy.  There’s no appealing to the bible to arbitrate the dispute, because the bible itself was assembled from among hundreds of competing and contradictory documents, and the ones that were kept were the ones that fit the orthodox view.  Most of the rest were burned.

I find these stories fascinating not because Ehrman’s writing is fascinating; it isn’t particularly.  It’s fascinating because the stories themselves just are fascinating, and because Ehrman does a good job of unearthing them and placing them in context, with all of their nuance and contradiction intact.