Jefferson’s Bible and the Tears of Christ
At a New York University bookstore recently, I came across a facsimile of "Thomas Jefferson's Bible." Jefferson famously cut out parts of the Bible he could not embrace (mostly the miraculous accounts) and collaged them back together. In the introduction I read the fascinating account of how this "Bible" came to be, including the account of Jefferson's conversation with Dr. Joseph Priestley who challenged Jefferson to write out his own convictions about the "Christian System."
My curiosity immediately led me to see what he had cut out. All of the miracles and the Resurrection passages were gone, and the Gospels were rearranged in a linear fashion, edited and pasted together as a single narrative. Then I looked particularly to see what Jefferson did with John 11.
Why John 11? For the past several seasons of Lent, I have been meditating upon this account of three siblings: Martha, Mary and Lazarus of Bethany. In particular, John 11:35 has become a central passage for me to consider in self-reflection, because an artist learns very early that creativity demands boundaries and limits to thrive. When I began on my recent journey to illuminate the Four Holy Gospels for Crossway publishing's celebration of the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, I needed to find a thematic boundary. I was so overwhelmed with the grand scale of the project that I chose this shortest passage in the Bible—“Jesus Wept”—and that decision has led to many discoveries along the way.
"Jesus Wept" is, to me, the most profound passage in the Bible. After I gave a recent lecture on this verse at Duke University, Richard Hays commented on my reflections: "The Incarnate Word of God stood wordless at Bethany." Indeed, Jesus' tears make no logical sense, as he came to Bethany with the specific mission to raise Lazarus from the grave. He told the disciples his mission (and why he intentionally delayed his arrival, knowing that Lazarus lay dying) and revealed to Martha that he was and is the "Resurrection and the Life." So why did he, upon seeing the tears of Mary, waste his time weeping, when he could have shown his power as the Son of God by wiping away every tear, telling people like her, "Ye of little faith, believe in me!"?
In my reflections, this "irrational," emotional response from Jesus became a central means to understand the role and even the necessity of art in the midst of suffering—what I have began to call our "Ground Zero" conditions. Art, like the tears of Christ, may seem useless, ephemeral and ultimately wasteful. But even though they evaporate into our atmosphere, the extravagant tears of God dropped on the hardened, dry soils of Bethany, or onto the ashes of our Ground Zero conditions, are still present with us. Because tears are ephemeral, they can be enduring and even permanent, as with “Jesus wept.” In the same way, perhaps our art can be so as well. What seems, at first, to be an irrational response to suffering may turn out, upon deep reflection, to be the most rational response of all.
Predictably, "Jesus Wept" did not make it into the Jefferson Bible. John 11 was cut out entirely, falling onto the floor of his Monticello home and discarded, along with Martha's confession. Jefferson's rationalism allowed only a distant deity that made sense in reference to objective ‘scientific’ calibrations, not ephemeral marks of compassion. Yet, when this attitude is actually applied to the sciences, they also become, like Jefferson's Bible, a “cut and paste” product, based on a limited viewpoint.
Even with my rudimentary understanding of the early phonetic and acoustic research my father was part of at Bell Labs in the 1970s, I know that the optimism of many scientists there was based on reductionistic assumptions. I described my father’s wrestling with the basic theses of linguistic research in a previous essay:
In the 1980s, [while in his] early 50’s, my father began to send a series of notes to his colleagues questioning the basic tenets of acoustics research, as he found them flawed and inadequate for the goals pursued. . . .[W]hat the early research assumed was that by segmenting speech patterns, you could have enough data to rebuild speech. It would be a bit like dissecting a frog, and stitching it back together, only to expect it to jump again -- A typical reductionist/modernist assumption. (Refractions 24: "The Resonance of Being")
My father began to challenge these underlying but over-simplified assumptions and as a result, came under criticism for abandoning many of the positions held by his peers. I continue:
My father’s Converter/Distributor theory (C/ D theory) assumes that computer technology is now capable of anticipating contextual patterns of speech, and is able to simulate an architectural structure to account for the morphing of speech production. Rather than the segmental approach, he calls his new thinking prosodic, as it accounts for the complexity of speech and language. But it would take years of research to get to a point of presenting his new ideas to the linguistics/phonetics community.
My father, who had rarely had problems finding support for his research before, was in for a battle. . . . He could not find funding, and found himself fighting the establishment of the research world—the very establishment he had helped to build. After my father’s many futile attempts to secure funding for his new research, my brother, a successful entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, stepped in to fund a post for a graduate student at Ohio State, to help my father compile enough data to be able to begin his research.
To my father, the integrity of the scientific process demanded such a course. He never considered that his challenge to reductionism would be seen as a threat by many of his colleagues. He simply was seeking after Truth.
Even in the objective rigor of the research process, then, human factors intervene—sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Our presuppositions surface eventually, and it becomes clear where we place our "faith. " My father's C/D theory is an intuitive leap, arising from his love for synthesis and beauty, but pulled up by hard data and a stubborn commitment to the truth of matter. It is an example of the way intuitive, subjective insight can connect the ephemeral with the rational, objective and concrete. Should we seek, then, to make the sciences a Jeffersonian cut-and-paste re-narration of our reality? Are we so inflexible in how we will understand the great mystery of our being? If so, the gap between that reduced ‘reality’ and what is truly human is the very gap into which Jesus' tears still fall.
Jesus wept for Lazarus, but also, perhaps, for Jefferson as he snipped out John 11 with his own hands; for to dismiss Jesus’ tears as irrational and unnecessary is to miss Jesus entirely. Jefferson sought to cut out the Deity, but also lost the Man. Without Jesus' full humanity, coupled with his Divinity, we do not have a Savior. Without this fullness of humanity—concrete and ephemeral, intuitive and objective—we lose perspective on why we are doing our research to begin with. If we assent to the fragmenting, segmental assumptions of modernity, we will have stitched the frog back together only to bury him anyway. If the dead are to live, we will require a Miracle Worker to show us that the world that is cohesive, and rational, but only when seen through a veil of tears.