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Interviews | January 6, 2014 2 comments
If everyone got to talk to Richard Powers for 45 minutes, humanity might go ahead and evolve to its next level. Unfailingly kind and generous,... Continue »
The Great Imaginary Presidentby Roland Merullo
Even then, I knew why. There is something about politics and about religion that goes to the heart of who we think we are. Nothing not sex, love, money, power, family, sports, or our taste in clothes can upset a dinner party, destroy friendships, or encourage divorce as quickly as an argument about politics or religion, and this is because politics and religion are all about the way we wish the world was. If we are of the liberal persuasion, then we believe that if everyone were liberal, the world would be a better, maybe even a much better, place. Same for conservatives. Same for Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and even a few Protestants. We think, if only everyone saw things — the really important things — the way I see them, then there would be peace and prosperity. No more welfare cheats. No more overpaid CEOs. No more heathens. What a wonderful world it would be. And in our eternal wishfulness, we are not deterred by the fact that never in human history has the world been in agreement on these big issues.
I have been fortunate enough to have been exposed to a variety of religious and political viewpoints, and at close range. My wife was raised Protestant. I was raised Catholic. About a third of our friends come from a Jewish background. One of our close relatives is Bahá'í. We have atheists at our kids' birthday parties. And we ourselves confess to a particular admiration for the way Buddhists, Hindus, and Sufis explain the great mystery of life.
Things are similar in the political arena: I'm a liberal independent from a huge family of right-wing Republicans. We joke a little, we get along, we love each other...and there are certain topics we never go anywhere near.
I used to believe that, one day, there would be such a great president that he or she would bring all these disparate political and religious ideas into one American Opera of peace and prosperity. We would experience so much harmony between the races and sexes and classes, such a degree of fiscal stability and environmental equanimity, that it would be obvious that one side had been right all these years and the other side wrong. I no longer think this is likely. A very conservative friend of mine says, "There are two rivers of fact." In other words, you can find plenty of evidence as to why Bill Clinton was a great president, and plenty of evidence as to why he was a bum it just depends on the point of view you start with, the filter through which you run the nightly news. So, with all this in my mind friends across the religious spectrum, relatives across the political spectrum, a passionate interest in the variety of both the religious and secular explanations for life I had the crazy idea to write a book in which Jesus runs for president of the U.S. It seemed to me, at first, that if such an impossible thing ever were to happen, everyone would listen to him, admire him, even agree with whatever he said we should do to straighten out the country. But, I soon realized how foolish I was to think that, and so the whole idea became more interesting to me, and more promising as the starting point for a novel.
As a child, I was steeped in the Bible. In spite of that, I came away with the naive idea that everyone around Jesus had been special. They were special, of course, and yet almost all of them were disturbingly human: not just the betrayals by Judas and Peter, but the cowardice, the pettiness, the competitiveness, the fear and worry and enduring doubt. So, when I started the Jesus campaign and gave him a small staff, I decided to surround him with the most ordinary and flawed people I could imagine. They were at once special the chosen ones, as it were and perfectly mundane.
As for the character of Jesus, he is the Jesus of my imagination: a kind, loving, compassionate spirit who does not put up with a lot of nonsense from those around him, and who defends the world as it is, even while trying to improve it, and even in spite of his disciples' intense wishes that it were otherwise. Writing deeper into my fantastical campaign, I thought a great deal about the Book of Job, which seems to me to do a wonderful job of dealing with the difference between what we want and what we get, and how we explain the difference to ourselves. In the end, the Book of Job is all about humility, and humility is an impossible tightrope walk for a writer. By presuming to publish a book, you are asking people to listen to you "talk" for hours and hours, and, in most cases, to pay 10, 20, or 30 dollars for the privilege. What could be less humble than that? If you imagine a god-like figure (or a God, depending on your point of view) at the center of your book, then you are not only walking the tightrope, you are trying to hop and do cartwheels along the way.
So, why do such a thing? Because I care about America, I guess and, by extension, about the world. Because I feel that the political conversation has become stagnant and vile in many cases, and the religious conversation an excuse for hatred or feelings of superiority, and completely lacking in humor. I cherish the hope that, even without a holy figure as president, we can do better than we are doing, that we can be more compassionate in a world where compassion is seen as an invitation to attack, that we can at least partially set aside selfishness and egocentricity and treat others as we would care to be treated. As was the case in two similar books I've written Golfing with God and Breakfast with Buddha my hope was that I could approach the big, volatile questions with enough of a sense of humor, enough humility, enough respect for the differing views of my friends, relatives, and fellow Americans that I would, if nothing else, avoid starting fistfights and keep my seat at the bar.
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Roland Merullo, is the critically acclaimed author of seven books, including the Revere Beach Trilogy, three novels about growing up in a tight-knit community outside Boston, and Golfing with God, a novel about a man's unexpected spiritual journey. He lives with his wife and two daughters in eastern Massachusetts.