Blessed are the Poor in Spirit...

Recently, FOX news programs have caused a stir about a New Hampshire couple who pulled their son out of high school because he was assigned an "anti-Jesus" book in his personal finance class: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. The parents, and their son, were outraged over many passages in the book, including one which called Jesus a "wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist."

"Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich, is the personal account of an author who went undercover to see how well she could survive on minimum wage jobs. Without revealing her Ph.D. or relying on the skills she acquired in college, Ehrenreich found average, unskilled jobs, such as waitressing or housecleaning, and wrote about her experiences.

What does this have to do with Jesus? Ehrenreich's thoughts on Jesus make several appearances in her book. What's curious is that her so-called "anti-Jesus" book can also be seen as a "pro-Jesus" book. In it, Ehrenreich makes distinctions between Jesus's teachings and some of today's Christians.

It seems quite clear from her writing that Ehrenreich is pro-Jesus, but exasperated with Christians who don't appear to be following his teachings, particularly when it comes to the subject of poverty. Of course, that observation may leave you wondering how pro-Jesus it is to call him a "wine guzzling vagrant."

Taken out of context, "wine-guzzling vagrant" does sound like an insult. And, precocious or not, "socialist" is clearly considered a dirty word by many Americans. Yet what's interesting about this quote is that the passage in question was defending Jesus by saying we should put his words and deeds, as described in the Bible, above what is preached about his death.

Here is the quote, with a longer excerpt (taken from page 68 of Nickel and Dimed):
It would be nice if someone would read this sad-eyed crowd the Sermon on the Mount, accompanied by a rousing commentary on income inequality and the need for a hike in the minimum wage. But Jesus makes his appearance here only as a corpse; the living man, the wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist, is never once mentioned, nor anything he ever had to say. Christ crucified rules, and it may be that the true business of modern Christianity is to crucify him again and again so that he can never get a word out of his mouth.
This passage is talking about church services that Ehrenreich attended in Maine. If you look past the potentially inflammatory "wine-guzzling vagrant" and "precocious socialist" phrases, she is clearly upset that the Christian minister is overlooking Jesus' teachings and focusing only on his death. Her word choice is deliberate--drawing up a human, relatable image of Jesus, as opposed to his image as a crucified savior--but not meant to be disparaging.

Instead of dissecting this passage ourselves, we can read the author's own explanation, which was given in light of the recent controversy:
“What I was critical of in the revival was certainly not Jesus,” she said. “It was more the evangelical preachers who were speaking to poor people but in no way ever touching on what (Jesus) said about poverty and the immorality of great wealth. For me, it was a big pro-Jesus awakening when I was at that rally, to think of what Jesus would have said to this crowd or what he would have done. The preachers were in fact interested in raising money for themselves.”
In the same interview, Ehrenreich goes on to point out that Jesus did drink wine and was a vagrant (after he quit his carpentry job, left his home and spent his time as an itinerant preacher). She also says that his teachings--which frequently advocated giving up material possessions and admonished personal wealth--were in line with Socialism.

In other parts of the book, Ehrenreich paints some Christians (not Jesus, but Christians) in an unflattering light. During her time as a waitress, for example, she observes that "Visible Christians" were often her most troublesome patrons. She describes them as leaving small tips, or none at all. She also says (on page 36) that they would always look disapprovingly at their servers "as if they were confusing waitresses with Mary Magdalene's original profession."

Is "Nickel and Dimed" anti-Jesus or pro-Jesus? Is it anti-Christian, or a call to Christians to remember Jesus' teachings about poverty? But even more importantly, shouldn't high school students be old enough to make that judgment for themselves and focus instead on the book's primary objective (exploring socioeconomic inequality in America)?

Most atheists expect that their children will be confronted with religious messages, even in secular public schools. When it happens, the vast majority of atheist parents do not pull their children out of school, or run to tell their story to the local news. Instead, they discuss the event with their children, answer their questions and help them understand that people have different beliefs.

In the case of this New Hampshire couple, and other fundamentalist Christians like them, why can't they take a similar approach? Regardless of the blunt terminology, why is a portrait of Jesus that is based on his own teachings and actions--as described in the Bible--such a threat to their belief system?

Perhaps we'll never agree on one answer to any of these questions, but one thing is for sure: When Christians are offended, FOX news will be ready to tell their side of the story.*

*FOX claims that Barbara Ehrenreich "did not respond to requests for comments." Ehrenreich says that FOX lied and did not contact her by phone or email. 

No comments:

Post a Comment