Page 45 Review by Stephen
"If you consider Mary to be a sinner, you don't understand my teachings."
Love, love, love the format unique to comics, emulating the shape and weight of a prayer book.
Within you'll find nearly 200 pages of Biblical comics with a very strict theme and 75 pages of afterword / annotation. Even the afterword has been annotated, as have a couple of the annotations!
But one man's onerously self-referential is another man's thorough and I found this fascinating. I was transfixed throughout, and if you have any interest in stories - in their evolution, censorship and other sleights-of-hand - then I think you will be too.
For a start, intentionally or otherwise, they are delivered with all the droll deadpan of IF YOU STEAL and LOW MOON's Jason. Here's King David who's been availing himself of Bathsheba, wife of one of David' most loyal and committed soldiers, Uriah.
"David sends Bathsheba home before the sun rises. Weeks later, one of her servants delivers a message to him."
""I'm pregnant. - B""
Given his sincerity I'm not sure Chester was intending to be this comedic throughout, but the modern economy of that note put me in mind of Tom Gauld's GOLIATH (nothing to do with its subject, everything to do with its execution) and even the iconoclastic satire of anti-atheist Evelyn Waugh. Indeed it is that very economy and stripped-down clarity of storytelling throughout which makes much of this so laugh-out-loud funny.
Now, I've heard some of Chester Brown's peers saying that they enjoyed the comics in their own right and have zero interest in reading the annotations. Normally I might be tempted to side with them but I was curious enough about what Chester was up to (it struck me as far from clear as why these specific stories had been selected: what themes or thought processes linked them), and it took no more than three of four paragraphs to have me hooked.
The afterword and annotations in this instance are for me the absolute heart of this book and its riveting joy. A couple of Brown's arguments struck me as a bit of a leap but overwhelmingly - 98% of the time - I was as surprised by his observations as Jesus' followers were by the big man's radical rule-breaking and bowled over both by the thoroughness of Brown's scholarship and the persuasive logic of his analysis.
There is a lot to analyse: not just the stories as published in the current, compromised editions of the Bible, but previous versions like 'The Gospel of the Nazareans' which has a very different, infinitely more likely take on the parable of the Talents and was written in Aramaic (Jesus' own language) before being translated into Greek then presented as the Gospel we now know as Matthew's.
And let's face it, it's all thoroughly compromised whether through oral inaccuracies, accidental translation errors, deliberate tampering for political propagandist reasons, physical manuscript loss, omissions, misrepresentations, misinterpretations, and the slight fact that not only was no one standing next to Jesus H Christ with a microphone as he spoke, but the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were highly unlikely to have been written by anyone called Matthew, Mark, Luke or John in the first place!
And that's just the New Testament. Anyone entering into the Old Testament unaware that it's out-and-out fiction should have their heads examined. What's more I've always considered it reactionary fiction designed to intimidate, control and make subservient as opposed to liberating radicalism of JHC but what Chester Brown has succeeded in doing is marrying the Old to the New in a way that is mutually illuminating especially when it comes to the ostensibly odd tales like God's seemingly incomprehensible reaction to Cain and Abel's sacrifices.
He's done this by altering some of the stories as he sees fit, but why shouldn't he after they've all been "tweaked" so spectacularly already? It's always done with well reasoned insight, expounded upon in the back, in order to bring some consistency and coherence to the proceedings.
Context - because context is always important: Chester Brown considers himself a Christian. However, "It's a version of Christianity that's not at all concerned with imposing "moral" values or religious laws on others; its focus is inward. As Jesus said, "The Kingdom of Heaven is within". I'm interested in personally connecting with God, not in imposing my beliefs on anyone else. While I accept that Jesus was a genuine historical figure, I don't think he was God or "The Son Of God"... rather, Jesus was a spiritually advanced man."
I'll say! Basically, Chester believes in the central tenant of love rather than the hypocritical hate-mongering which too many deeply flawed, self-serving human beings within organised religions spread in God's Name without His Permission. You know, the sort of thing that Jesus himself exposed and condemned as abhorrent.
This is all vitally important because, as I say, above all else Chester succeeds in tallying the teachings of Christ with the old tales of God in a way that shows them both to be contemptuous of man-made religious law when it gets in the way of what is truly important like helping people (see 'Good Samaritan'). Moreover, his carefully considered reinvestigations of the stories strongly suggest that God was very fond of rule-breakers - those who thought for themselves utilising their God-given Talent of Free-Will - rather than simply followed subserviently like the Good Son in 'The Prodigal Son' who ended up sulking sullenly, blinded by resentment. That's never going to do you any favours.
This is where Cain and Abel come in, I promise you, along with Chester's restoration of the 'Parable of the Talents' and I say "restoration" because it is there that his arguments hold most persuasive water. Remember 'The Gospel Of The Nazareans'? Eusebius, the first Christian historian (circa 240-340) recalls the Talent contest thus:
"[The master] had three slaves, one who used up his fortune with whores and flute-players, one who invested the money and increased its value, and one who hid it. The first was welcomed with open arms, the second was blamed, and only the third was locked up in prison."
Firstly, the parable as currently represented celebrates financial investment which Jesus emphatically didn't; it fails to reflect the nature of Jesus' parables which always clash with "traditional views of justice" and "challenge conventional thinking by containing an element of surprise"; and thirdly, makes no storytelling sense in that it lacks the natural, three-stage progression - two of the slaves do the same thing with the same result - whereas the Nazarean version contains three slaves, three different approaches, three different results. Oh, and there's also the question of the circular tendency which works rather well in the older version.
I suspect I know what you're thinking. It's about the sex-workers, isn't it? You don't think Jesus would approve of blowing your wad - or someone else's - on sex workers. Well, boy, does Chester Brown have some meticulously researched and impeccably well argued news for you!
It involves the rabbis of the Talmud's teachings on the three levels of charity; attitudes towards sex workers - at no time outlawed in ancient Israel - during both periods of the Bible (as I say, context is so important: try reading Jane Austen's 'Mansfield Park' without its socio-historical context and you might mistake Fanny for a wimp when she is in fact quite the proto-feminist); and extensive research into various translations of the words for prostitute and their appearances in the Bible aaaand....
Once you've read all that and about Matthew's inclusion of women in his gospel's genealogy (and some very specific biblical women at that) which was so unheard-of as to be pointed, everything else about this book, its narrative as a whole and Chester's interest in its elements falls into place. It's at this point, perhaps, that I should reference Chester Brown's PAYING FOR IT.
As I say, I am completely won over, even to the idea that Jesus' mum was a sex-worker. Yup, that Mary, but wait until you read the research. And if part of your reaction to that is assertion is, "Eww, sex-worker," well, shame on you because that's what Jesus' enemies used too. Hope you enjoy the other ironies.
I don't think it'll come as any surprise to anyone that the titular Mary (Magdalene / of Bethany) was a prostitute but Brown delves deep into the traditions of hair in conjunction of the specific scenario in order to shore up the argument while reminding you that her specific act of anointing Jesus is what made him a "messiah", a "Christ" (translation: "anointed one"). "That's a point worth emphasising: a prostitute made Jesus a christ." It is indeed a pretty big deal, entirely in keeping with the man constantly demanding his followers rethink their priorities and reject superficial and groundless prejudice.
Umm... guess what the Hebrew for feet was often a euphemism for? I'm probably not going to go there.
Anyway, love verses piety, taking the sexual initiative, employment versus charity, Christ the questioner - and Chester too - and stop pointing your finger lest fingers point back to you, Judah!
I think the story of Tamar and Judah, as told here, may be my favourite apart from the parables. It's where onanism comes from.
There is so, so much to discover or perhaps rediscover here and I'm certainly going to enjoy re-reading this in a newly informed light.
I began with Chester's deadpan delivery which I personally cannot unsee, but more objectively it's a side-effect of Brown wisely playing down the emotional and the emotive in order to present the tales as honestly as possible in spite of him making bits up! There's a little anger in evidence from the slave master and a panel of merriment at the Prodigal's return but on the whole the cast of characters remain implacable - even Job under considerable provocation. In addition the strict four-panel grid maintains an even equally even keel free from distractions.
As to Jesus, you're only shown him only in silhouette. Another wise decision.