Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Jeffrey Hunter & my Eastertime confession

The main character of the novel I'm working on grows up in an Italian family in Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s. The story moves back and forth in time, but some key chapters take place during her teen years in the late 40s and early 50s, and as I was working on it recently I started worrying about verisimilitude. Specifically about trying to get the experience of being raised Catholic in that time and place right. This character is something of a wiesenheimmer and I'd been imagining a scene where she and her best friend make fun of the saints and their various gory stories. Then I realized I don't know those stories. So, remembering that I still hadn't used a Barnes & Noble gift card I'd been given as a holiday present, I got online and ordered the book that apparently most good Italian Catholic girls in 1950s Brooklyn would have been given, which my protagonist would have been perhaps devoted to as a younger child and which by the time she hits her mid-teens be making fun of: Lives of the Saints by Rev. Alban Butler. It just arrived. I'm looking forward to browsing through it, and I'm going to think hard about which of the stories my Ginny would be drawn to and then repulsed by later on.

As for the big story, the Jesus story itself, what do I know? I did take home a copy of Gideon's Bible last time I was at a hotel because I'd realized a while back that it's a useful reference to have around. But to the larger point, my knowledge base about the life story of the protagonist of the tale, broadly speaking whatever I learned I learned as a kid. Watching Jesus movies. Which, yeah, is nothing to brag about, but the truth is I had a fascination with this genre, and, well, sort of still do. So let me confess: what I know about the origins of Christianity* is the Hollywood Jews' version of the Roman Catholic version of the New Testament. The King of Kings/Greatest Story Ever Told/Jeffrey Hunter/Max Von Sydow versions. Which I used to love to watch when they came on TV at this time of year. This did drive my mom a little nuts, mein Yiddishe Mammeleh, but she'd sigh and roll her eyes and leave me to the TV, and go back to rolling her matzoh balls which were renowned for their unusual lightness though truth to tell I never had a taste for them. Anyway. I loved these movies, and to be honest I still find it hard to pass one up if I happen upon it on TV, which now drives mi amor Mexicana more than a little nuts because having been raised in the church she's less tolerant of this stuff than my atheist Jewish parents were. We have often discussed why I find them so compelling and the best explanation, besides the obviously glorious glitz and glamor, seems to be that, like a good ghost story, this is at base a tale of the supernatural. The movies that tell it are spooky and eerie, with a cast of thousands and lots of special effects of the sort that an atheist Jew doesn't come across very often anywhere else.

There's another aspect. Watching these movies, with their pageantry and grand drama, helps to give me a little taste, perhaps, of the appeal of religion in general, which otherwise is difficult for me to fathom. These great sweeping shivery stories full of magic and miracles, all the thousands and thousands of these great stories of supernatural beings that humanity has invented over the millennia, have an undeniable and very human appeal. It's good to be reminded of that, I think.

*I'm exaggerating a bit. I've read Karl Kautsky's The Foundations of Christianity, an absolutely fascinating study. I've read Elaine Pagels' The Gnostic Gospels, which provides rich insights into the early Christians and how, over the course of several centuries and much debate and strife, they ironed out agreement on a narrative for the story of the founders. I've watched lots of documentaries and pseudo-documentaries on TV, as well as every successor to Old Hollywood's classics. But somehow it's those old Technicolor gospels that stick with me.