The other day a priest mentioned in his homily, correctly, that the Gospels were not the biography of a “neutral observer.” They were written from the perspective of faith to proclaim that faith to others. John admits that he wrote his Gospel “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.” (Jn 20:31)
There is no scandal in this, nor did the priest suggest there was. It is useful to distinguish texts that have different purposes. You shouldn’t mistake the description of a wedding done by the bride with one done by a newspaper reporter. The bride’s exuberant report of her own wedding is not necessarily “less true” than the dispassionate account of the reporter. But if you mistook the bride’s account for the reporter’s, you might wonder why the reporter allowed himself to get so enthused about the smallest things. If you mistook the reporter’s account for the bride’s, you might wonder how this newly married woman could be so cold about her wedding.
“It is a question of perspective,” we say. Yes, it is. Whose perspective? And given that person’s perspective, what would seem important? If the mayor was at the wedding and made a pass at a bridesmaid, a reporter might think it appropriate to mention. The bride might not. We can understand both.
But I am trying to understand what a “neutral” observer would be. Scholars sometimes use the term as though we understand it. I’m not sure we do. We tend to think of a “neutral observer” as someone who does not have presuppositions and tells the story dispassionately. But is the first even possible and is the second desirable?
Consider someone writing a historical account of the atrocities of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao. What would a “neutral,” “dispassionate” account be? If someone could write a neutral, dispassionate account of such horrors, what would it reveal about the writer? That he or she was admirably “neutral”? Or utterly heartless, lacking understanding? How could you be “neutral” about the systematic murder of millions of human beings?
A person says: “Today I got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, fed my parrot, walked to the office, arranged for the extermination of 60,000 Jews, got a haircut, and went home for dinner.” “Wait,” we say. “What was that 60,000 thing again?” We wouldn’t be reassured if the person responded: “It was just another activity in my day. I try to look at things from a neutral standpoint”? You either oppose evil, or you’re allowing it to seem “normal” – like eating breakfast.
Modern biblical scholars often pose as though their accounts are superior to those of the Gospel writers because their scholarship is “neutral,” not written from the perspective of faith. They talk about these accounts as though a “neutral” standpoint was (and is) possible.
The Lord of the world became incarnate, sacrificed himself for us, was crucified, died, and was buried. On the third day, he appeared to His disciples in a locked upper room. A “neutral” account would say what? “Some fervent young Jewish men say they saw the dead man in an upper room.” A reporter might not be willing to give immediate credence to the account, but we would wonder if he didn’t try to check for himself.
A man confirmed dead is seen walking around alive, and it’s not worth investigating? Wouldn’t this be like a reporter hearing from reliable sources that aliens had landed in a field in New Jersey heading off to investigate a dog-bites-man story in Queens instead? If he doesn’t head for the field, it can only mean he doesn’t believe what he’s heard. He’s not “neutral.” He’s made up his mind it hasn’t happened.
Why would anyone expect writers to have a neutral standpoint about the appearance of the Messiah, the Son of God incarnate? God comes in person, and the people who are with the God-man are supposed to say: “Had breakfast today, went to work, talked with my cousins, met God who told me to ‘feed His sheep,’ ate some fish for lunch, got a splinter in my thumb, took a walk along the beach….”
Who would write such a thing? If someone did, would we think it “objective,” or daft, not grasping the gravity of the event? Would we say that it had captured the “real truth”? Or missed it almost entirely? Would this “dispassionate” account inspire countless multitudes and be passed down from generation to generation? My guess would be no.
I have always assumed the response to abundantly good news would be joy. To be “neutral” about it suggests one heard the story but missed the meaning. These lines may not sound joyful, but at least T.S. Eliot** understood something modern people sometimes miss about the significance of the Easter event:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.
Our only health is the disease
If we obey the dying nurse
Whose constant care is not to please
But to remind us of our, and Adam’s curse,
And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
The chill ascends from feet to knees,
The fever sings in mental wires.
If to be warmed, then I must freeze
And quake in frigid purgatorial fires
Of which the flame is roses, and the smoke is briars.
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.
*Image: The Inspiration of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio, 1602 [Contarelli chapel in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome]
** from “East Coker, IV” in The Four Quartets