The Maddening Protagonist by Barry Hannah

Music Features Barry Hannah
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Southern author and Paste contributor Barry Hannah died yesterday, as did another fine Southern gentleman, my uncle Thomas “Tommy” Jackson of Kingsport, Tenn. I don’t know if my uncle ever read Barry Hannah, but I know he would have recognized the Southern world Hannah brought to life. In 2006, Hannah wrote this essay about the faith that infused so much of his life and work. —Josh Jackson, Paste editor-in-chief


As December wears on, more than a billion people around the globe pause to remember and celebrate a Middle-Eastern birth from which we are two millennia removed. Jesus Christ. People fervently disagree on his identity and role in history. People have murdered in cold blood while invoking his name. Others have followed his voice into the poorest slums on earth to care for the dispossessed, as he once did. Paste invited a renowned Southern author to share his personal insights into the Biblical account of this puzzling figure with the audacity to call himself God.

Still the best-selling book in the world, the Christian Holy Bible sits unread and dusty on the shelf of staggering millions of professing believers.

Thousands of pastors have memorized the work and pontificated on it without an honest reading. You’d hear more honest confusion and less braying rhetoric from the pulpits if the Bible were actually confronted even by Christian-leaning ministers. You’d get fewer knee-jerk liars from the so-called-Christian Right if they could or would read their own New Testaments. The absence of many millions of sincere Christians and near-Christians from church is less a matter of apostasy than disgust.

The Episcopal and Anglican forms seem to be, in street reality, a modest and tolerant compromise for those fleeing the low and middle Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, with their cruel “enthusiasms,” charismatics, their blunt willful ignorance and mystics for money. But the Episcopals do no better at marrying God, life and man than any of the other sects, by any evidence I see. You get beauty, form and incantations that won’t even stand up to Monday.

You hear of “God-fearing” towns, and from the evidence of Job there’s much to fear even by the most faithful, from what has to seem a boasting, capricious, materialistic God to the modern mind. Here’s a God who would play a bet with Satan, and who is much like the random dealers of lust, spite and jealousy you’d expect from Roman or Greek polytheism.

You’ll hear much cursing of God in this crawling tangle of hurt and elation we have in life. But I’ve never heard advice to curse Christ and die. Neither have I heard of a “Christ-fearing” town. Christ evokes a gentle and strong silence. For me. For billions.

When asked his idea of God, Samuel Beckett, a Parisian raised in Protestant Ireland, replied without hesitation that he could only imagine him as an insane monster. Beckett was a humble and shy man, whose life was a beacon of generosity and self-effacement. He risked his life for Jewish friends under the regime of the Gestapo. When I visited his tomb in Montparnasse cemetery, I saw Star of David candles set on the granite in gratitude, this in 1997.

Beckett is the man for ultimate honesty—honesty beyond art—that seems to have come to him in an almost religious conversion on an Irish pier over tossing waters. He wanted out of art, out of mother, out of Ireland, out of lifelong depression and out of God, if he even acknowledged the deity. Many asked him if Godot meant God, in his most famous work. If this were his intent he would’ve said so, came the answer.

Still, Beckett’s drama will continue to be read by multitudes as a compelling theological journey, or more correctly, unjourney. God would seem to be waiting, itself, for an unknown entity who might change things. God is the inability to commit suicide, God is the whipper, God is a confusion who never shows up. If we force an unconscious theology on the playwright, he’s not that far from John Milton, the Protestant Christian whose giant Paradise Lost (I never got to Paradise Regained)—dictated by a blind man to his daughters—attempted the flat-out bravery of explaining the ways of God to man. In his most quoted sonnet, he serves God by waiting. Punks like me would rather hide below that big fray, Paradise Whatever, even when we’re moved by the faith that propelled the epic.

I’ve studied the mystic poet William Blake a good long while. Blake’s prophetic books—driven by a man who saw angels in trees and advocated naked free love—I can’t read except as inspired lunacy, which would also hold true for other denominational texts discounted by every theological archaeologist without rabid wolves running around his head. But where do you stop the discounting? We’re only cursing the darkness from the position of our own predilections when it comes to religion and, even more difficult, faith.

For simple truthful laymen, the Holy Bible is inconsistent to an almost sickening degree, and we mainly just let it pass. Faulkner once commented about one of his male characters who, “like most men, never thought about God one way or another.” Through the ages there seems a redundancy of the outright mad clutching Bibles to their chests and spouting scripture incoherently as they proceed from one asylum to the next.

Recently a British translator of newly discovered scriptures in the Holy Lands quit the project (more disgust) unable to bear it any longer, as quoted, “the Jews and their horrible religion.” Nobody ever, ever, escapes his own backyard, his own schooled passions. Best to shut up and at least make it a good crawl through the day.

But for many, now comes Christ. A very tough sweetness and light, this man. Simple, direct, impossible. And dangerous to serve.

Beckett, though his mother was a figure of love/hate to him, lamented ever leaving the womb, and claimed without doubt that he remembered himself alive in it. Blake also bemoaned the inevitable journey from innocence to experience. His famous “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright!” mates in wonder the lamb with the “fearful symmetry” in the “forests of the night.” The same Creator made them both. It’s true also of Christ the baby and Christ of the Temple—whip and prophetic sword in the Gospels.

The clean tale of the birth of Jesus Christ and his danger—to himself and to “the old dispensation”—follows in Luke, the only full account of the nativity, in that incomparable elliptic poetry of the New Testament, King James version. The original cuts through the lilting gas of the church when it comes to declamatory witness.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David): To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

Kindly move ahead a few brief verses to Christ in childhood and his first recorded speech, stunning and even perverse to any parent and all us earthlings.

And when he was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem; and Joseph and his mother knew not of it. But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance. And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking him. And it came to pass, that after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions. And all that heard him were astonished at his understanding and answers. And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? Behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.

And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?

And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them: but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

The Christ child’s appearance is meek and glorious. The Lamb of God has arrived. But within the space of a single page of St. Luke we’re met with a pre-teen child who, of all things, is uncommonly rude by any earthly parent’s understanding.

One feels deeply for Mary. Why has he cost her such grief and terror on his mission, such agony, lost to her in a big city? Then his scolding of her, against the famous injunction to honor thy father and mother so your days might be long on this earth. Well, his days weren’t long. Poor Mary, the very vessel that put him forth, is always wondering and pondering in her heart, and this will not be the last time she is rebuffed by him. How can the Savior and lamb be so cruel as to expect her to understand when he must know she cannot? Mary is thus all of humanity. Sweetness and light charged with good will? So promises the babe laid down in a feeding trough like the progeny of some homeless couple we might see along the highway thumbing a ride. Then almost instantly he defies us to love him.

Christmas is for children, rightly so. But extend the Nativity pageant, the Yuletide tableau of the crêche, and you get Christ’s desertion from the family, which is already doomed to dysfunctional, that stupid modern buzzword, since everybody interesting comes from such a family.

Just a page later in Luke, Christ incurs homicidal wrath from the church doctors and rabbis for his assumption of the Messiahship.

And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the Gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

To preach the acceptable year of the Lord.

And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all of them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.

And he began to say unto them, This day is the scripture fulfilled in your ears …

And they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, And rose up, and thrust him out of the city. And led him unto the brow of a hill whereupon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong.

But he, passing through the midst of them, went his way.

Passing through the midst of them? How so? How strange. This is Jesus Christ the adult, who either by sheer power of personality or shape-shifting as a fog, avoids the first attempt on his life.

I ask now who, two millennia from these words and actions, can be altogether comfortable and glib in their soul when they believe in the Savior as the Lamb of God, the Son of God, the Son of Man in fragile body, killed though the agency of his fellow man by his own omniscient Father, as a passway to paradise, his father’s kingdom where there are “many mansions”?

It takes one confused and near-absurd fellow mystic to believe, is what. The paradoxical Christ looms through the ages from the Biblical account, bothering the thoughts of even professed atheists I’ve spoken with. One of my great pals, now passed away, could not shake away from Christ, even though he called him a magician and himself a “Christian Oblivionist.” That is, Christ as the answer on earth, but death as a finality.

Years ago I had the honor of interviewing a hero, Johnny Cash—a Christian who protested the Vietnam War, began wearing black in mourning, yet still went to sing for our monstrously betrayed troops there. A man who put his body where his mouth was, Cash.

I was not a Christian then, some 13 years ago, and I asked Mr. Cash if he ever doubted. “Every day,” was his quick reply.

I was raised Baptist, among those whose interpretation of the Bible led them to decry the cult of Mary as intercessor to Christ, to decry those Roman Catholics who built their increasingly heavy, rich and gorgeous church around her. I now find myself drawn to Mary as the being who stands for us all.

Mary provides bewilderment and also faithful attendance to her son through the crucifixion, an excruciation beyond belief for a mother. She remained on Golgotha after the faithless males fled. Hers is a journey through the Passion never to be forgotten. She was a follower of the tiger and the lamb, chided and deserted by her son, whose bigger deeds must’ve remained confusing until his fulfillment.

But at the center of all my faith, as at the center of the sadly unvisited Good Book, is a man who also forgives our wretchedness. He was not always strong himself. In the garden of Gethsemane he asked his father to let this cup, the crucifixion, be passed from him. His stumbling under the cross up the Via Dolorosa reminds me always of our own stumbling and crawling, over a mighty rough pathway of words left to us by long-dead writers, toward the good mountain of our deliverance.