I don’t need to say this, to readers of this blog. But I’ll say it anyhow: the figure of Jesus is a charged and loaded figure. To throw Jesus into conversation, or into the title of a book, is to throw a stone into waters that are stagnant with a field of passionate associations, ranging from the affirmative to the disgusted. The fact that J.M. Coetzee’s new novel The Childhood of Jesus has, ostensibly, nothing at all to do with Jesus has been raising eyebrows among reviewers. But, certainly, a clever man like Coetzee wouldn’t throw Jesus into a book title without making some kind of commentary.
I’ve long been interested in Coetzee’s strange and subtle deployment of religious symbols and discourses. There are those, of course, who want to label Coetzee as a postsecular. But this seems, to me, a little too easy. Even if there is something postsecular about Coetzee’s Jesus, this doesn’t really clear up what sort of a Jesus this would even be, or how this Jesus would function in narrative context. Would this be a Jesus that only a Milbank could love? Or would it be a Jesus that only a Caputo could love? You get my drift.
The Jesus in Coetzee’s title (who is conspicuously absent from the narrative) seems to call forth a range of associations: a meaty, sexy, carnal sort of incarnation (one entangled with bloodletting and sacrifice), a salvational logic that bodies can rise from the dead, a distaste for the regulated pace of law and mathematics, a resistance to the community as it’s given (and hunger for another one). The world of a novel is a world where none of these things are very much at home. The absence, in this world, of whatever might be associated with this uncontained, figurative Jesus is ultimately ambivalent. Things are lost, things are gained. Read the rest of this entry »