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Finding Jesus in White Noise

I am endlessly intrigued by allusion to Jesus in literature. Intentional or inci-/accidental, affirmatory or critical – it all expands on the conversation; all highlights and reinforces the permeation of his shaping presence in reality.

There's lots of examples to choose from. Writers, it seems, are themselves endlessly intrigued by him – at least, within the largely Western, recent centuries' traditions that encompass most of my reading choices. It's the subtle instances that most delight me, like the following scene in the pleasingly quirky White Noise by Don DeLillo [1]...

The family of college professor Jack Gladney – along the rest of their town and the inhabitants of the surrounding region – are displaced by an 'airborne toxic event'. They are temporarily housed in an abandoned scout camp. The place is rife with uncertainty; rumours of varying degrees of extremity proliferate; concrete information is scarce. Anyone boasting a claim to knowledge, however tenuous ("One person worked in a chemical plant, another had overheard a remark, a third was related to a clerk in a state agency") attracted crowds of eager hearers...
True, false, and other kinds of news radiated through the dormitory from these dense clusters. It was said that we would be allowed to go home first thing in the morning; that the government was engaged in a cover-up; that a helicopter had entered the toxic cloud and never reappeared; that the dogs had arrived from New Mexico, parachuting into a meadow in a daring night drop; that the town of Farmington would be uninhabitable for forty years.
To Gladney's surprise, his 14-year-old son Heinrich 'comes into his own' in this context, as a confident purveyor of information and insight on the disaster. A singular and detached young man, skeptical, searching and pessimistic in his outlook, he has been following radio updates meticulously and was anticipating the unfolding drama long before his family and their neighbours were confronted with the inevitability of upheaval and cause for concern. He seems born for the moment...
What a surprise it was to ease my way between people at the outer edges of one of the largest clusters and discover that my own son was at the center of things, speaking in his newfound voice, his tone of enthusiasm for runaway calamity. He was talking about the airborne toxic event in a technical way, although his voice all but sang with prophetic disclosure. He pronounced the name itself, Nyodene Derivative, with an unseemly relish, taking morbid delight in the very sound. People listened attentively to this adolescent boy in a field jacket and cap, with binoculars strapped around his neck and an Instamatic fastened to his belt. [...] People moved in closer, impressed by the boy's knowledge-ability and wit. It was remarkable to hear him speak so easily to a crowd of strangers. Was he finding himself, learning how to determine his worth from the reactions of others? Was it possible that out of the turmoil and surge of this dreadful event he would learn to make his way in the world?
Heinrich's role as a clear-spoken adolescent nihilist forecaster is surely intended as a somewhat cynical 'compare and contrast' with this one recorded episode from Jesus' childhood:
Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:41-52 ESV)
The young Jesus' deep insight into the Jewish scriptures and "his Father's" involvement in the world astounds all who hear him, even his parents, who could be supposed to know him best. His message, as it unfolds throughout and through his life, is one of wholeness and promise, transcending the hopelessness of circumstance.

DeLillo's allusion to Jesus in the temple is canny; in evoking an already (relatively) well-recognised scene he is able to convey more than the sum of his own words. A wealth of history, scripture and religious tradition is brought into play with no need for laborious spelling-out. He gently suggests a subversion of the human hope for salvation, for something bigger than ourselves, for an intervention from a higher, greater, more loving Power. His child prodigy is a confident messenger of cold hard science: Nyodene D has come and, let's not beat about the bush here, it will have consequences.

At the moment I've too much hope in Christ to be much troubled by DeLillo's challenge to the Christian hope, but I am keen to hear it, and I enjoy his literary devices in conveying it. Especially as the passage he alludes to is itself already bursting with allusion.

You see, as it happens, Luke is playing a similar literary game. The whole of his gospel is woven with references to the Old Testament intended to draw attention to the ways in which Jesus is the continuation, the fulfilment, of a narrative that has been playing out throughout Israel's history and relationship with Yaweh. And the temple scene, and the birth stories preceding it, are particularly evocative of the birth and early years of Samuel, a prophet dedicated to the service of Yaweh from childhood, whose ministry began at a time in Israel's history when "the word of the LORD was rare [...] there was no frequent vision". (1 Samuel 3:1)

As in the case of White Noise, it's something of a 'compare and contrast' – there are similarities, and there are differences. Both births are unlikely: Jesus', because Mary is a virgin; Samuel's, because his mother Hannah has long been unable to conceive. Another striking similarity is that between Mary's 'Magnificat' (Luke 1:46-55; "...he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty...") and the prayer of praise spoken by Hannah when she dedicates Samuel to the service of the Lord (1 Samuel 2:1-10; "...The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap...").

Both children, in some sense, 'belong' in the temple. In Samuel's case, his parents (Hannah and Elkanah) recognise this early on and make the bold and sacrificial decision to actually leave him there as soon as he is weaned, to serve under Eli the Priest (1 Samuel 1:21-28). Mary and Joseph find Jesus' special calling more bewildering to grasp – "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49) – and Luke makes a point of saying that he honoured their parental authority rather than asserting his belonging in the temple (Luke 2:51).

Both make an impact on their elders at their young age: "the Lord was with [Samuel] and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord" (1 Samuel 3:19b-20); "all who heard [Jesus] were amazed at his understanding and his answers" (Luke 2:47). And, as though to make sure that we have absolutely got the point, Luke closes the story by echoing almost word for word 1 Samuel 2:26: "Now the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the LORD and also with man" (cf. Luke 2:52).

By drawing out these parallels between Jesus and a prominent figure from Israel's past, Luke uses literary devices to profound theological effect – disclosing the way that God is continuing something already begun whilst at the same time doing something new. You might say that he is embodying in story what the writer of Hebrews states frankly: "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son..." (Hebrews 1:1-2a)

I wonder if DeLillo was aware of these multiple layers when he was penning his own allusions? If he recognised the full venerability of the conversational circle that he was politely elbowing into, or was acting akin to a PhD student at a conference reception, waxing confident about his views on asymmetric encryption, oblivious to the fact that he is addressing some one of R, S and A himself? [2]

I love the way that scripture opens up to these extended conversations – questioners, doubters, seekers, cynics, explorers, suggesters; I love seeing anyone dare to engage. We Christians have a tendency, sometimes, to fearfully elbow people out: this is 'our' conversation, and everything that needs to be said has been said already; what could be more dangerous than a 'new' idea at this late stage? But I don't think it is the nature of the Bible itself (in its complexity and vastness), or God (whose word it is, by our own insistence) to lock down the circle. He may be unchanging (cf. James 1:17), but we – our culture, our experience, our understanding, our plans and hopes and fears – are permanently shifting. God is not intimidated by our variability; the Bible is not silenced by the passage of time. T.S. Eliot wrote about the inevitably dynamic nature of literature – that the work of the present is influenced by that of the past but also impacts on that of the past  – and a similar process, I believe, applies to scripture. As we think and say and ask new things, the Bible continues to speak back – words which are at one and the same time old and new. And right there, in the middle of the many voices, Jesus: still listening, still asking questions, still amazing many with "his understanding and his answers".

[1] A book I had promised myself as a treat once I finished Blood Meridian and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (great works – especially the former – but not, for me, great reads. More on that another time, perhaps).

[2] RSA is a popular asymmetric encryption algorithm, named after the three eminent cryptographers who invented it (Rivest, Shamir and Adleman). The analogy is inspired by personal experience, only with less confidence on my part and less eminence on the part of my audience.

[Thumbnail image cc from Kyknoord on Flickr].


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