Monday, February 18, 2008

Pranskter God

"Anyone else have trouble sleeping with that thought? The idea that God might be...fucking with our heads?"

This is one of Bill Hicks more famous rants, riffing on the idea of a prankster God; one who is engaged in the affairs of men, but not always in a benevolent way. Needless to say, this is not a traditional Christian way of viewing the divine, though it is certainly forgivable from someone who died of cancer at the age of 32.

However: Jennifer Berenson Maclean in 'The Divine Trickster: A Tale of Two Weddings in John,' in the book, 'A Feminist Companion to John:'

'...Common traits [of tricksters in literature] include the figure's use of deceptive speech, his ambiguous or liminal status, his ability to invert situations, often to increase his own status, his role as messenger of the gods and bringer of essential gifts to human culture, his transgressions of established boundaries and his role in shaping culture. All these characteristics are found in [The Gospel of] John's presentation of Jesus...'

Jesus as a Divine Prankster. It actually works in the context of Jesus' first sign, turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana, (John 2:1-12). The wine runs out at the wedding that Jesus, his mother, brothers and several disciples are attending. Jesus' mother makes Jesus aware of the situation, and after some controversial words, Jesus converts a vast amount of water into excellent wine. But it's a bizarre sign, theologically. First of all, no one is made aware of the miracle, other than Jesus, some of his disciples, and the readers of the Gospel. The wedding guests are never told of it, and their only comment is that is strange for the host to wait to bring out the best wine until after all the guests are good and hammered. So the vast majority of the people (including Jesus' mother) are tricked. In addition, this sign has no one being saved, healed or raised from the dead. And nothing is asked of the people who benefit from the sign; no faith is demanded. Jesus just converts water to wine and doesn't tell anyone about it.

Now plenty of Biblical scholars have written encyclopedias about this sign story, so interpretations are easy to come by, and many make sense; New wine replacing old as a metaphor for the new law replacing the old; the story is focusing on signs for the disciples and not anyone else, as that is who is being discussed at that point in the Gospel; Jesus being introduced as the Messianic Bridegroom (and therefore responsible for producing the wine), etc. But the question still remains: why that (unique) story, why not another one that would make a clearer point, and not risk having Jesus seen as supporting rampant drunkenness at weddings (as many scholars have complained.)

The analogy that Maclean raises is with the wedding of Jacob. Jacob worked for his Uncle for seven years in the hopes of marrying the hot babe, Rachael, but at the last minute Lathan, Rachael's father, substitutes Leah in Jacob's honeymoon bed. By the time Jacob wakes up, it's too late, and Jacob, who is widely shown throughout Genesis as being a trickster himself, has himself been tricked. Imagery of Jacob is prominent in the first 4 chapters of John, from the calling of the disciples in chapter 1 to Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in chapter 4. According to Maclean, The 'Trickster' Jacob is presented in the Gospel of John as representing the existing nation of Israel; Jesus is presented as the 'trickster' Lathan: the one who tricks the trickster.

But why this analogy, Jesus as Trickster or Prankster? Tricksters and pranksters can only operate at the bottom end of a hierarchy; trickery and pranks are the only means to work in a system rigged against them. One only needs to read the stories of women in the Old Testament to understand that - women use their wits to make things happen; physical power and oratory are not tools available to them as second class citizens. Think of the mother and stepmothers of Moses, secretly defying the laws of the Pharaohs to ensure Moses' survival. And, to Maclean's (and Raymond Brown's) point, think of the community that wrote the Gospel of John - by the end of the first century, a proto-Christian community struggling against a much larger and more powerful Jewish community from which it sprung. The first four chapters of John can almost be read as a story of the founding of that community.

Throughout the Bible, God roots for young underdogs, those without power and those who are marginalized. And throughout the Bible, the only tools available to those at the bottom are tricking those at the top. Perhaps Bill Hicks was onto something; a Prankster God, but one who rewards those who trick the powerful.

"I am a prankster God, I'm killing me..."

Tomorrow is the 14th anniversary of Bill Hick's death; a tribute is being held at the Gotham Comedy Club here in New York.