The most annoying sentence of the week was written by Lee Siegel in an otherwise insightful, not to mention exhausive examination of the peculiar genius of Norman Mailer in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
“Early on, Mailer understood that in a democracy in which the most radically different types of people are thrown together, a harmonious encounter with “the other” is an American dream (e.g., the national obsession with the Relationship), the reality of which often becomes an American nightmare (e.g., popular culture’s obsession with crime). For the Brooklyn-raised, Jewish, middle-class Mailer, who once wrote about himself that there was “one personality he found absolutely insupportable — the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn” — a perfect sense of the more extreme forms of otherness became artistic and intellectual mother’s milk.
No surprise, then, that Mailer’s previous novel, “The Gospel According to the Son,” in which he attempted to inhabit Jesus Christ, felt less like a creative vision than a head-butt against eternity. The material had a built-in obstruction to Mailer’s gift of sympathetic self-surrender: Jesus was a nice, middle-class Jewish boy from Nazareth. Now Mailer has returned to the right side, which is to say, the wrong side, of the tracks.” (Italics mine.)
You needn’t believe in the mystery of the Incarnation to find this characterization of Jesus preposterous. Jesus taught that the values of the Kingdom were the obverse of those of the world (Blessed are the poor. Woe to the rich.) He challenged the religious and imperial leaders of his day with a directness that got him killed, and he moved his followers so deeply that they continued to believe he was alive, even after his crucifixion.
Jesus was not “nice”; he was ferociously good.
It is hard to imagine that the Times would allow so uninformed a characterization to appear in its pages.