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"Easter Man: Ernest Renan’s Polarizing Biography of Jesus Christ", nonfiction excerpt

Thursday 3/26/20

I am going to have to finish this tomorrow. Have been writing since six this morning. Spoke to E. There is not going to be a funeral for her grandfather, on account of the pandemic. I responded that maybe that was easier, and she said, yes, but he deserved a service, so I suggested she pay her respects in a different way, maybe by doing something for her grandmother that no one else but E could do. Emma is an artist, so that was kind of my thinking there. Anyway. This has changed a lot. Was kind of a mess before. Good start.


One of the chief, art-related themes of Easter has always seemed to have been, “This is Jesus, he was a super magical guy.” The day smacks of the reverential, no doubt in part to the films playing on various TV stations that always seem to remain within the peripheries of our vision, as well as the parading children in their early spring finery, the blazers for boys and the white gloves of girls that only seem to get worn to church this one time of the year when it is neither cold nor warm.

In my family, post-egg hunt, we’d drive on Easter Sunday to the home of my religious grandmother, and she’s have a veritable marathon of “go Jesus go” films flicking across her antiquated TV set. The iconography creeped me out—and I also thought Pontius Pilate was this wizard-like masterful aviator millennia before flight was an official thing—in part because watching these films was like having your ears boxed with dogmatic celluloid. I was bothered, too, by this idea that you had to worship another human, just as I balk nowadays when people on dating sites express their hope that you are God-fearing. That, to me, seemed to undercut what Jesus ought to have been about, oriented around, a parabilistic lesson in person form who wanted their ideas to connect with your heart, and hopefully your head, too.

I don’t think any great human wants or needs you to worship them. They want you to be a better person through what they can teach you, they want a connection with you based on the truism that you both (hopefully) seek growth, and if they are an artist, they understand it is their work that has eternal life and bolsters your own life in the time you have on this spinning orb.

I didn’t say any of this—well, too much of it, anyway—at ten-years-old to my not-very-elderly-elders, and thus knock the day off course. But I will tell you who once did: a radical thinker named Ernest Renan who wrote a book in 1863 called Life of Jesus that exploded the seemingly safe confines of the theological world and led to quite the denunciation and a forceful abjuring of Renan himself. Despite the backlash from holy quarters, it has remained in print over these many decades, despite a controversy that has never diminished for religious antiquarians, with writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust, Edith Wharton, and James Joyce sidling up to a kind of secular-sacred blend—or a demystifying of the latter—that would inform their own work.

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