Writing Heaven and Earth

I wrote the first version of this book in 1999 and 2000. The book developed over a few years, but the impetus for the book was an event that occurred in the fall of 1998. In October of 1998 a couple of dim-witted cowboy wannabe’s in Laramie, Wyoming brutally beat and killed a young college student named Matthew Sheppard. (An achingly biblical name.) They killed him because he was gay. They were tried and punished, but the situation, like many in America, created a strange media response and a weird public discussion of homosexuality and gay rights. One comment that I found particularly troubling came from a major television evangelist. It was either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. I don’t really care which it was because both are equally noxious. The televangelist said that he certainly didn’t condone murder, but we should remember that homosexuality was anti-Christian. At the time I wasn’t remotely literate about the Bible, but I had read the Gospels and I didn’t recall Jesus ever condemning homosexuality. In fact the only time I could recall Jesus discussing sexual morality was in the famous story where he said “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

I did know that the Old Testament condemned homosexuality, and I seemed to think that the issue was discussed and condemned in at least one of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. But I was far from a Biblical scholar, so there was a good likelihood that I was wrong. So I re-read the Gospels. In order to make it easier, I got a Bible where all of the things Jesus said were printed in red. The good think about the Gospels (among many good things) is that they are relatively short. In my Bible, the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are just over 200 pages, and Acts is only another 50. And this is a study Bible with many notes and references, so the actual text is less than 150 pages. So it took me barely a week to re-read the Gospels and Acts. This confirmed by initial belief.

Jesus doesn’t mention homosexuality once in the Gospels, and in the only two situations where he discusses sexual morality he ridicules those who are condemning someone for their behavior. The most famous story, from John (8:2-11), is where a woman accused of adultery is brought to Jesus, and he says that those who are without sin should cast the first stone. Of course no one does. There’s a second incident where Jesus is dining with a group of prominent Pharisees when a woman, described as a harlot, comes in and washes his feet. The Pharisees condemn her, but Jesus says she is better than they are because she has shown him her love by washing his feet. So not only does Jesus Christ, for whom Christianity is named, not condemn homosexuality, he doesn’t even seem particularly troubled by other forms of sexual immorality.

This made me wonder why Christians seem to focus on certain provisions of the Old Testament, but completely ignore others. Why, for example, are they so wrapped up about issues of sexual morality but ignore teachings on food, clothing, hygiene and many other issues. So I started to study the Bible and Biblical history, and read some theology. I also continued to think about what Jesus said and did in the limited recording we have of his life, which is the Gospels. There are a number of places where he specifically rejected teaching from the Old Testament. Perhaps the most famous is in the Sermon on the Mount, where he says that it is written that punishment shall be an eye for an eye, but he says to turn the other cheek. Now the “eye for eye” rule of punishment isn’t just some throw-away line from the Old Testament. It is God telling Moses about punishment under the Commandments. (Lev. 24:20). Jesus is specifically rejecting Old Testament teachings. So Jesus Christ, for whom Christianity was named, rejects teachings of the Old Testament. So again, why do Christians, who proclaim themselves the followers of Jesus Christ, randomly incorporate teachings from the Old Testament?

This idea was in the back of my mind as I studied the Bible. I also read a number of books about Jesus and the Bible. One of the first was Rescuing the bible From Fundamentalists, by Bishop John Shelby Sponge. Sponge laid out the history of the development of the New Testament, and said that to understand the New Testament and Christianity a person should read the books in the order they were written. Paul’s letters were written first, and Sponge said that if you understand why Paul was writing and who he was writing to, and then read the Gospels in the order written, and understand who the authors and audience was, you’ll gain a better understanding of what we really know about Jesus and what his ministry meant. I did this, and it was very enlightening. It started me thinking about the entire Bible, why it was written and by whom. But this is a story for another time.

As I read through the Bible in a more organized manner I started to wonder not only about the relationship between Jesus and the Old Testament, but also about the relationship between Jesus and John. Clearly John came before Jesus and prepared the way for him. The Bible says this in so many words. That, I said to myself, sounds like an interesting story. What was the relationship between Jesus and John? How did John’s teaching influence Jesus and his ministry? I did a little research but found very little. Someone should write about that, I thought. I am not a theologian or a scholar of the classics, but I am interested in writing, and so I thought that would make a good story, and might be something I could write about.

I should note here that I have always been interested in writing. For most of my life I expressed that interest through reading. I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid. I come from a family of avid readers, so reading was natural. As a reader I have always admired writers, and probably somewhere in the back of my mind I thought about writing. But I never really tried it. I have notebooks from college and beyond, where I scribbled down thoughts and ideas, but never worked out those random thoughts into anything more structured. I studied engineering in college, a subject that doesn’t entail much writing, and worked as an engineer for a couple of years in the military, and the only writing I did was the occasional letter or technical detail for a construction plan. I worked as an engineer for about two years and then applied for flight training, and spent the last four years of my military career as a B-52 navigator. That entailed absolutely no writing, beyond a word or two on a chart, like “turn to heading 165.”

But in my last few years in the military I started working on a Master’s Degree in History, and that involved a great deal of writing. I found, much to my surprise, that not only did I enjoy writing, but I was passably good at it. I was shocked when a professor told me I was a good writer. Who’ld a thunk it? The best I could figure, all of the reading I did showed me what good writing was, what it looked like, what it sounded like, how it was structured. I knew the difference between good writing and bad writing, and so I tried to make my writing like the good stuff and not like the crap. It seems simple enough, but really it’s not. I’ve always been irritated by a story or a book or a newspaper article that’s poorly written, and I often thought about how it could be fixed. I also found that I liked doing research and synthesizing information and presenting them in writing. Most of my history classes involved writing papers, so I had lots of practice.

I got out of the military and finished the history degree. At that point I had to make a career choice. There were no jobs in the civilian world for aircraft navigators. (Even in the early 1990’s GPS was replacing human navigation.) I thought about getting a PhD in History, and teaching, but those jobs are few and far between and they don’t pay very well. I also thought about law school. The law is a mix of history, politics and philosophy and I’m interested in all of those. There are also a lot more legal jobs than teaching positions, and many legal jobs pay quite well. So I opted for law school. To a very large extent law school is all about writing. Every class ends with a final exam which is three hours of non-stop writing. The only way to succeed, if found out, was to create a structured outline of the subject matter that could easily be regurgitated in the form of an answer. Quite a few classes also involved papers like legal memoranda or draft pleadings. And unlike history, the law is also constantly changing. Everything in history is old, but much of the law is new. Not only does every case involve an application of new facts to existing law, but new laws are being created all the time.

After I graduated from law school I started to write more. Most of it was related to politics, law or history. I was amazed, as I read about political events, how often politicians say things that are not supported by actual history, actual fact, or actual law. So I wrote some op/ed articles discussing these glaring omissions, and sent them to magazines and newspapers. I actually got a few things published, which was quite a thrill.

Of course I was also working as a lawyer, writing patents and legal memoranda and briefs. Trying to present ideas in a concise and logical manner was outstanding training as a writer.

I also started working on longer law review articles. A law review article addresses a single legal issue and typically analyzes the background of the issue, the relevant history, and the applicable statutes and case law.

But in the back of my mind I started to think about writing a novel. I’ve always read as much fiction as nonfiction, and so I thought I should try my hand at a novel. I drafted up a couple of rough outlines for novels, and tried to write some sample chapters. It was much harder than I thought. Keeping everything straight while keeping the story flowing was no small task. This was particularly true where you were making it all up as you went along. It would be nice, I thought, if there was an external framework to the story. Historical fiction sounded interesting, since history created the basic outline of the story, and the author just had to fill in his own details.

It was at about this time that the Matthew Sheppard story unfolded. I don’t want to suggest that the stars aligned, they certainly didn’t. It wasn’t fate, nothing fit together perfectly. It just happened at roughly the same time.

So I was researching the life of Jesus and the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. This gave me the framework for a story. Jesus meets John, Jesus learns from John, Jesus leaves John, Jesus begins preaching, and John is killed. Was it possible that the relationship with John had some direct impact on Jesus’ teaching? I thought it was particularly interesting that Jesus leaves John, goes into the desert, and it tempted by the Devil. Clearly something must’ve happened that either sent Jesus into the desert, or at least caused the Temptation. Perhaps Jesus and John had a falling out, perhaps Jesus disagreed with, or even rejected, John’s teachings.

This story framework was in my mind as I continued to do Biblical research. I found many good books about Jesus. I skimmed all of them, and read many, looking specifically for information about the relationship between Jesus and John, and the impact that had on Jesus’ ministry or theology. I was surprised that there was next to nothing. Even the longest and most detailed books about Jesus, for example John Dominic Crosson’s “The Historical Jesus,” had only a page or two, little more than the information from the Gospels. When I was studying history this lack of information would have immediately turned me off, but now, looking for a story, I saw an opportunity.

From my research I developed a rough time line of this period of Jesus’ life, and also developed a rough outline of John’s theology and Jesus’ theology. And I started writing. As the story unfolded I realized that I could use this story to explore the question that brought be to the subject in the first place, which is the relationship between Jesus’ teaching and the teaching of the Old Testament. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that he will not change a “jot or a tittle” of the law, until Heaven and Earth pass away. (This gave me my title.) But then he rejected specific teaching from the Old Testament (divorce, punishment).

So do I have Jesus – called Yeshua in the book – set out what provisions of the Old Testament to follow and what to ignore? Not in so many words. But I do address this conflict in some detail. Spoiler alert: my version is as ambiguous as the Gospels. I leave it inconclusive because the Bible leaves it inconclusive. But I do suggest that the Jesus who rejects the Old Testament teach on adultery is probably closer to the real Jesus than the Jesus that many fundamentalists conjure up to support their ugly views.

As I was working on the book I read and reread the Gospels. I used a study bible with a detailed concordance, so I was able to read a section in the Gospels and then read sections from the Old Testament that provide background, or context, or in some cases actual quotes. It was interesting to learn that Isaiah was frequently used or referenced by the Gospel writers, so I read Isaiah. This was proving a detailed, though scattershot, education in the Bible.

I should probably explain, at this point, my religious education and experience. As noted, I’m not very religious. This is most likely because my parents weren’t religious. With one exception, we didn’t go to church when I was a kid. My mother was raised Catholic, but wasn’t observant. Most of her family is very religious: my aunts and some cousins went to mass a couple of times a week. But my Mom wasn’t observant. She told me once that she just never thought it was very relevant. Occasionally though, when visiting her family, we’d go to church. So I was familiar with Catholic mass, if not Catholic theology. I have one particularly vivid memory of going to an old church in Chicago when I was four or five. The priest was dressed in red and was in a small pulpit mounted on a huge column at the side of the main section near the front of the church. He spoke a foreign language (I now know it was Latin) and faced the cross at the altar. It was strange and foreign to me, and I found it fascinating, but not enough for me to want to start going to church.

My Dad is also not religious, and I can’t even say not very religious. He is simply not religious. He has no interest in religion. His mother, my grandmother – Gramma Wilder – was a devout Christian Scientist. Christian Science is a strange religion that believes in faith healing. It was founded in the late 1800’s by a woman named Mary Baker Eddy. Most of its early followers were women. My grandmother was very involved in the church, and she tried to drag her kids to church with her, but by the time my dad and his brother were ten or eleven they revolted and stopped going. And, for the most part, have not gone since.

My main lesson in religion was brought to me by my Gramma Wilder. My father was a career military officer and we moved frequently. We moved to the Florida Panhandle the summer before I started third grade, and we lived there for three years. At some point my Gramma and Grampa Wilder visited and decided to stay. Gramma Wilder joined the local Christian Science church and we started going with her. At some point she became the “first reader.” Christian Scientists have a lay ministry, and members of the church are readers. The “first reader” reads “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures” by Mary Baker Eddy, and the “second reader” reads the Bible. In a typical service, to the best of my recollection forty years on, the second reader reads a selection from the Bible, and then the first reader reads Mary Baker Eddy’s explanation of that particular passage.

I remember only a few things from that early religious experience. The first was that most of the Bible passages were interesting (not all of them, there is Leviticus), but the Mary Baker Eddy explanation was boring. (And that was the part my Gramma read. Sorry Gramma.)

The other thing I remember most vividly were three signs in the church, one behind the altar and one each over the doors on either side of the altar. The church was small, not much bigger than a small house, with rows of pews facing a small raised platform with two podiums for the First and Second Readers. There were two doors, one on either side of the platform, which led to a small office in the back of the church. When my Gramma was the First Reader my sister and I would often go back to the office with her to count the collection money.

In any event, the sign over the door on the left said: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” That’s John 8:32. I liked that quote, and I’ve often thought that my life has been a search for the truth. I didn’t know then, but know very well now, that many Christians take that phrase to mean something vastly different from what I thought it meant. My father is a meteorologist, and a firm believer in science, so growing up, truth for me meant science and fact, or truth as found in science and history. But for many Christians (though not all) “truth” is God’s revealed truth as set forth in the Bible.

The other sign was a quote from Mary Baker Eddy: “Divine love always has met and always will meet every human need.” (From Science and Health.) This is the foundational belief of Christian Scientists. If divine love can meet every human need, then appealing to the divine can be the solution to very real and very human problems. This supports their belief in faith healing. Let me interject briefly and say that in my opinion faith healing is a bunch of crap. No doubt a positive attitude can help in dealing with or recovering from an illnesses, but prayer isn’t going to set a broken leg or cure an infectious diseases.

Finally, the largest sign, in the middle at the front of the Church said “God is Love.” (1 John 4:8.) This sign is common in many Protestant churches, and to the extent that I believe in any of that, I can certainly say that I agree with this. This idea—God is love—to a great degree is the main idea behind this book. That is Yeshua’s main observation as he learns from John, and as he deals with people and events in his life during and after the time he spent with John. When he sees love between people he sees an affirmation of God’s love. He sees love in acts of kindness and respect and tolerance and forgiveness. He sees it in a mother’s comfort to a hurt child, and in the father’s comment to the same child that he better dust himself off, dry his tears, and get back to work.

Jesus is often called the Prince of Peace, (that comes from Isaiah 9:6) and his teachings are rightfully described as lessons in love. If you read the Gospels, his focus on love and compassion is unmistakable. The few times he gets angry or churlish it is because the people he is dealing with don’t seem to get this concept.

I learned a great deal about religion, the Bible, and Jesus as I did research for this book. But I had only one real revelation. At the end of his life, as he is eating with his friends at his last supper, Jesus tells his friends that “I give you a new commandment, love each other. As I have loved you, so to should you love each other. People will know that you are my disciple by how well you love each other.” (This is my paraphrasing of John 13:34.)

I was blown away when I read that passage. Many Christians talk about the Ten Commandments. Many want to post the Ten Commandments in public places, like courts and other government buildings. Some say people should “live the Ten Commandments.” Many of the people who talk about the Ten Commandments (like the previously mentioned either Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson) and want to foist them on others, are mean, judgmental people. Perhaps the Ten Commandments are a good set of rules to live by. Who can disagree with not murdering or stealing? But what about Christ’s New Commandment? Why don’t these Christians mention Christ’s New Commandment? Why isn’t it emblazoned, in a large neon sign, across the front of every Christian Church? Big bold letters that say: LOVE EACH OTHER.

Christ never said to strictly obey every single one of the Ten Commandments, and in fact he even questioned the commandment to keep the Sabbath Holy. (For more on this see my essay Jesus and the Old Testament.) So why are many Christians so worked up about the Ten Commandments, but ignore the one Commandment specifically given by Christ?

As I said at the beginning, I’m not very religious. I don’t know if there is a God, and I really don’t believe that if there is, he’s a human-like being that lives in the heavens. I don’t believe that he created the earth in seven days. The physical universe, and everything in it, is fully explainable by science. I don’t believe that God guides our lives or answers our prayers. I don’t see any evidence of that. But I do know that people have an enormous capacity to love each other. I see this every day. (People also have a capacity for cruelty and stupidity and carelessness and in some extreme cases a capacity for evil. But even the most depraved and evil person has at some point and to some degree been loved even if they have never given love.) I see this love expressed in hundreds of ways, through simple kindness and generosity, but also in extreme acts of compassion and bravery. People jump onto subway tracks to save complete strangers. That’s an extreme case, but the reality is that most people, most of the time, treat others with kindness and respect, which is a mild form of love.

There’s an inexplicable connection that all people feel toward all other people. It can be suppressed or ignored but it can’t be denied. We flinch when an actor in a movie is in danger, we feel a twinge of nausea or grief when we read a horrific story of human suffering in the newspaper. Just recently I read about the sinking of a ferry in South Korean, and a recovery divers described finding the drown bodies of dozens of high school girls in one room, wearing life preservers. Just reading that made me want to weep. We feel these things because we have a connection to other people. Some explain this connection as the presence of God in each of us. We love each other because God loves us and we love God, and we show our love for God by loving each other. I may not believe in the standard Christian God, but I believe that we show our love of God through our love for each other. So, to the extent that I believe in God, I believe that God is love.

That is what I have tried to show in this book. It’s a cliché (but probably true) that every author who writes about Jesus creates Jesus in his own image. I have tried not to do that, except to the extent that my Jesus also believes that God is love. I think that was his main lesson during his ministry, and that is what I have tried to show in this book.

To the extent that I have succeeded, I have my main character to thank for that. Any failings are purely my own.