By Madonna Hamel
I fell asleep last night, and woke this morning, to the donkey braying in the field behind the Nativity of the BVM. I haven’t heard him in a while. It’s fitting that his sad and urgent call has entered my sphere again, as I’ve been deeply engrossed in a book where the donkey figures greatly. “The Last Week” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan is one of my Lenten reads. The two are biblical scholars who describe their work: “Our involvement with the sacred texts of our tradition has always been about, ‘what does then have to do with now?'” The book is subtitled: “What the gospels really teach about Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem”.
I’m interested in what the texts of every sacred tradition have to say to us living now, because the “powers that be” of the secular world don’t seem to be giving me the nourishment I yearn for- or perhaps, they just do not resonate deeply enough, nor assist me, in any consequential way, as I age. “They don’t”, to use an expression befitting a person who lives in Saskatchewan, the world’s biggest producer of mustard, “cut the mustard!”
Borg and Crossan’s painstakingly detailed chronicle of Christ’s last week on earth begins with Palm Sunday. “Two processions entered Jerusalem on a spring day in the year 30… One was a peasant procession, the other an imperial procession. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Christ’s crucifixion. Pilate’s military procession was a demonstration of both Roman imperial power and Roman imperial theology.”
Meanwhile Christ enters from the other side of town on a donkey. He is surrounded by a crowd waving branches. They believe he is the king who will “banish war from the land – no more chariots, war-horses or bows.” Finally, everybody can get some peace and justice.
Today we would call Christ’s procession a planned demonstration. And what he was demonstrating against was the “domination system” of the time. It was a social system marked by three major features: 1) political oppression – the many were ruled by the few; 2) economic exploitation – farmer’s wealth went into the coffers of the few above; 3) religious legitimization – the king had divine right and high priests acted as intermediaries to keep the farmers in check.
Being both a linguistic and political history scholar, Borg insists we understand the root meanings of biblical words. Especially, in the case of this book, the word “passion”. Yes, passion comes from the word “suffering”. But to just focus on the violence of Christ’s last days, as Mel Gibson chose to do with “The Passion of Christ”, is to focus on “Pilate’s punitive justice” and miss Christ’s true passion: “distributive justice.” Borg and Crossan end the chapter by asking: which procession would you chose to be part of?
Sometimes, the donkey sounds so sad I feel like crying along with him. He sounds as though he is crying for the world. For our lack of caring, our lack of spirt. Or our false moves, in search of spirit, only we call it something else: maybe its success, or wealth, or excitement or whatever it takes to make us feel safe and secure. I know I have gone looking for spirit in all the wrong places, calling it love, approval, respect, admiration. I’ve peered through the doors of pubs, bars, shops, cafes, bookstores, theatres, clubs and while I’ve certainly experienced enjoyment and been thoroughly entertained, relieved of any nagging unnameable emptiness for a bit, at some point the marketplace just didn’t cut it and so I look for the temples. And found the doors were locked.
And then, on Sundays, when they are unlocked I am late – as I was this past first Sunday in Lent.
“But hey, I’m aware that I’m late, that’s gotta stand for something,” I say to myself, rushing out the door still pulling on my gumboots. “I’d make a good Buddhist!”
I stand in the back and listen to Fr. Joe talk about the slippery slope to hell. Words like sin and devil also prevail. I try to stay open and present, but those are some of those double barrelled words, those sticky, scary, annoying words that set my teeth on edge. I know darn well about the dark side of life, I am not a just-think-good-thoughts-and-it-will-all-go-away kind of person.
I know some things are out of our control, most things, actually. It’s just that I feel my whole being suddenly shrink in the presence of a language so old and tired and obviously designed to frighten young children.
Not that I don’t get Father’s message which is we trick ourselves into doing things we know we shouldn’t in tiny incremental ways. As in my case, drinking “only decaf”, and only one cup a day. It’s not an evil act, it’s just not something someone with adrenal fatigue should be doing if she wants to be healthy. And of course, my one decaf grew to two and my two grew to a nice big cup of Tim’s dark roast or a latte from Urban Ground on the way out of town after a long day in Swift and before a long drive home.
When I lived in Memphis I took a course on Meeting the Devil as a theme in literature and art. The professor was a brilliant woman with a soft Georgian accent. She was also the librarian at the art school. She gave us Geothe’s Faust to read, and when we were finished we all trundled off to the New Daisy Opera House to watch the opera of the same name.
Faust’s craving and downfall was his obsession with youth and all he believed would come with it, most especially a beautiful young woman. His concept of immortality was relegated strictly to human flesh.
Versions of Faust can be found everywhere today, where lust is personified, usually as a woman. And usually she’s fully to blame, which is one of the convenient things about a well-designed devil, we can absolve ourselves of all responsibility for our actions.
We also examined German prints with horrific and fascinating depictions of the devil, a mix of dragon, conman and brewing storm. Our last piece of art was a viewing of the movie “The Crossroads”, fitting, as we were a half-day’s drive from the iconic crossing of Highways 61 and 49, where Robert Johnson was said to have sold his soul to the devil to become known as the greatest blues musician in history.
The movie, made in 1986, is about a classically trained guitarist named Eugene, played by Ralph Macchio who begins working at a nursing home in Harlem and befriends an old bluesman named Willie Brown played by Joe Seneca. Eugene helps Willie escape, and the two journey to the Mississippi Delta to confront the devil concerning a pact Willie made, similar to Robert Johnson’s earlier pact. The confrontation ends in a play-off with Ry Cooder (the fingers of Machio) heading off against Steve Vai, as the devil. It’s worth asking why the young man wasn’t black, but we know the answer: in 1986 movie producers doubted an audience would go to a movie with a black man playing lead, even though this story is cut from the cloth of African-American history.
Today that devil could easily be a record producer, asking you to sign your art away for a few sure hits or a jingle for a company you are not fond of. Today, Robert Johnson is indeed considered by many to be the greatest blues musician in history, and merging one’s art with a brand is common practice.
I recently read an article by Charlie McMann in the magazine 1843 about Coca-Cola’s new live-music show in Pakistan called “Coke Studio”. “The show takes viewers inside a recording studio to watch a diverse range of musicians perform everything from Sufi devotional music to pop to rock to traditional ‘monsoon melodies’.” It’s a hit; 90 per cent of Pakistanis who own a TV watch it religiously. But of course, there’s a catch. “Musicians must realize that their talent is in the service of a company that cares, ultimately, not about music but about its product,” writes McMann. Coca-Cola only works with artists who claim to drink and love Coke. “Blue, the colour of Coke’s rival Pepsi, is an issue, especially when artists want to wear it.”
There is no funding for the arts in Pakistan. Musicians interested in making a living need brand patronage. So, “the best gig in town is Coke Studio. Just don’t see red if you want to wear blue on Coke’s stage. Remember: you’re with the brand”.
Coca-Cola will always have a stream of struggling artists filing through their doors. I’m just not sure I want to be part of that procession.
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.