[This is part 2 of a series of blog posts about writing In the Mission.]
In 1998 I was working as an IT consultant for mid-size businesses in Germany. The business was starting to take off, what with mid-size businesses not being able to affod a full-time IT person (back in the day). I was at the point where I had to decide whether to expand the business, but before taking on responsibility for someone else’s income, I decided to try something out.
I just finished writing a book, the Handbuch der Theoretischen Philosophie, which I needed to edit. I took two months off and decided to fly out to America to do the editing as a form of vacation. I fell in love with country and its people, and a few months later I was back, hired by a wonderful (and now merged into oblivion) company in Portland.
A year later I had to change jobs and ended up in San Francisco. The reason was that it was where the jobs were, and the buzz of the Internet was hard to ignore. I joined one startup, went for one of the big Internet companies, then some more startups. The constant: work, work, work. In one particular startup, my Saturday nights consisted of going to the servers for six months, every single week, from 8p to 4a. This on top of a regular work schedule of 10-hour days.
I reacted to the constant stress and insane work hours by starting to wander off creatively in my spare time. I would remember old projects and think them a little farther every day. The story of the love bestowed upon the dead of AIDS came back to me, probably because of the location.
I started thinking about moving the story to San Francisco. Since I hadn’t been there when it all happened, I started collecting material about the time. Progress was slow until Wikipedia arrived, and suddenly you could read a ton of things about what things had happened in the 1980s, how it affected people, and what the timeline of things had been.
I settled on a priest as the main character. I wanted to write a Bildungsroman, a novel in which the main character takes a journey of discovery just as the reader is supposed to do. My priest was going to start out thinking like the average Catholic and would, over the course of time and adventures, come back to the point of view of (ancient) Christianity.
The priest would have to talk with God or a representative, and I wanted to have a Christ-like figure. To make that believable, I needed to figure out what God and Jesus sounded like to an American audience. I bought a set of Bibles and read them, haphazardly.
As I started reading the KJV, or King James’ Version, I realized I didn’t like the language. It sounded stilted and fake, the kind of preaching the televangelists would do with their fake voices of moral righteousness and anger. I remembered the translation Martin Buber had done of (parts of?) the Old Testament and went back to read it. There is was, the language of God! I suddenly understood why Jews have been reciting the Bible for this many centuries verbatim, why they worship the Word so much. The translations we hold dear are truly incompetent next to the original word.
Die Erde aber war Irrsal und Wirrsal.
Finsternis über Urwirbels Antlitz.
Braus Gottes schwingend über dem Antlitz der Wasser.
Gott sprach: Licht werde! Licht ward.Gott sah das Licht: daß es gut ist.
Gott schied zwischen dem Licht und der Finsternis.
Gott rief dem Licht: Tag! und der Finsternis rief er: Nacht!
Abend ward und Morgen ward: Ein Tag.
It is gorgeous. Believe me. It has a strength and power that the KJV translation of Genesis 1 doesn’t have – nor the Luther translation, which is the standard for the German language.
I moved on to the New Testament, already discouraged because I knew that the “original” of the Gospels was already a translation, from the Aramaic spoken by Jesus to Greek, which was probably a language whose literary tradition was largely unfamiliar to a Jewish writer of a minor sect in first-century Palestine. I personally preferred Mark, for the simple reason that, well, it’s my first name. I read through it and it presented a Jesus that was much more approachable than the God presented by my Church. Then I went on to Matthew, who was first in the list of the Gospels despite clearly having been written after Mark.
It struck me. I read a particular passage, a dialog in which Jesus starts talking. I got goose-bumps on my neck when it happened, because I sensed that these words stood above those surrounding them in a way an author can’t get right. The words were said by someone other than the author of the text, and they stood above the other things in the account like Mount Shasta stands above the plains surrounding it. Someone had said those words, they were not invented by the same person that wrote the stuff before and after them, because frankly the text around them was of poor quality.
I closed the book, because I didn’t like the implications of what I read. After all, I had been an atheist for some fifteen years and was very comfortable telling people that their God was a bad bargain, because He caused so much grief to everybody.
A strange curiosity befell me. I wanted to go back and read more, the curious scientist as ever. If there was something to it, I concluded, I better know. If there wasn’t, I better know, too. So I read. There was something. This man presented in the text was above the other people around him. Only problem: he wasn’t the guy presented by my Church (where I say “my Church” and mean the Church I had been a part of before, the Catholic Church).
I was puzzled. I could not ignore the fact I knew intuitively there was something exciting in the text, but I also knew factually that the religion we call Christianity brought too much grief (and brings too much grief) to be a divine institution. Somewhere, there was a disconnect.
I read more, and I found the disconnect. The Church we call Christian had a long history in which the text had been subjected to interpretation by the hands of people with a political agenda. I saw the remnants of it everywhere. The best example: the story of the camel passing through the eye of a needle. It was a clear and evident condemnation of the rich, and yet, somehow, churches all over the world found it opinable. To the point where some evangelical congregations preach a Gospel of Opulence. How can you possibly square that with a guy that goes into the desert for 40 days of fasting to prepare for the end of his life?
I thought: what if you read this whole text once again, trying to understand what the author originally meant, instead of going through with the 2000 years of tradition? And that’s when the project started changing, and entered its next phase.