Tap-dancing around the figure of Jesus

FAITH & REASON: The Rev John Kennedy this week considers the work of George Steiner, a provocative polymath and alarmingly subtle theologian who has much to teach Christians about God.
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George Steiner upsets lots of people, especially the busy small mammals of the Lit Crit world - the Critters. He deplores their building of careers on fractional differences of opinion, to the exclusion of any creative activity. He wants deeper meanings than our age can stand. In a world that offers only practical wisdom, he craves transcendent meaning. He insists that true art is not feasible outside the presence of God. We exclude God from the act of creation, and attempt to landfill the infinity of absence with the detritus of commentary.

Steiner's cultural snobbery and frightful name-dropping invite mockery. He recalls Kurt Vonnegut's story in which the planet Tralfamadore discovers that the Earth is to be destroyed, and only can avert the catastrophe. So they send an emissary; who lands in an American suburb and knocks earnestly on the nearest door. But the Tralfamadoreans communicate in a language that sounds like a combination of farting and tap-dancing. (A wickedly precise description of how Steiner appears to some.) When the messenger begins his tale he is beaten to death on the doorstep with a golf club.

Steiner can offend. He is supremely a commentator on the Holocaust. But he avoids the customary pieties prescribing repentance and reconciliation. His longest fictional piece, "The Portage of A.H. to San Cristobal", creates a diatribe against the genocidal elements found in the Hebrew scriptures - and puts the words in the mouth of Hitler. The harsh exclusions found in both Jewish and Christian texts do invite a heavily armed chosen people to self-righteous violence. Steiner shines a fierce light into that darkness.

He is as rigorous in his treatment of Christian texts, of St Paul and of John's Gospel. Steiner shows the importance of their claim that the Jews murdered their own Messiah. He asserts that only a Jew like Paul could preach so exclusive a Gospel in the name of universal love, and ironically so exclusive of the Jews. And in one overflowing phrase he sees Paul as holding the catastrophic view that humanity is "held hostage to the Jewish 'no' to Christ". Further, the demanding nature of God's love for us, "breaks the soul". It's a telling phrase, but Steiner's instincts fail him here; the Christian devotee would insist that this is what the soul is for - not to last for ever, but to be broken daily and remade by God.

He reworks John's Gospel in an equally provocative way. He is silly to replay the received wisdom that the deaths of Socrates and Jesus are similarly decisive for Western culture. But Steiner's reflection on John's account of the last supper really does persuade us that our beloved is to be murdered. And here, only too readily to hand, is Judas; with his departure from the table, Jesus is glorified and the Jews damned, in one seamless moment. So is the wonder of Christ shown to be inhumanly exclusive. Steiner provokes us to rephrase our favourite text. He implies that God so hated the world that He gave His only son, that whoever does not believe in Him should perish.

Here Steiner's challenge has special force. He says what many theologians have said, but better. He leads Christians to a deeper, more complex and ardent devotion. But he makes us admit that such wonder entails the preposterous, the inhuman claim to be the Elect of God.

This is demanding stuff. And, contrary to his billing, Steiner's passion does seem a little exhausted, when he offers us a way out of this dilemma. He invites us to "abdicate from the Messianic". If this means doing violence to our texts, then so much the better for humanity. This notion is compelling especially for those looking back with horror to the holocaust and forward with apprehension to Europe's continuing encounter with Islam.

The abdication he proposes implies that our believing suffers from an excess of transcendent meaning, and a lack of practical wisdom. God may want his treasure carried in vessels earthier and more serviceable than those of Moses, Paul and John. It is hard to deny that our tendency to treat the world as a vestibule of heaven has turned it into a suburb of hell. But how to honour the distinctive glory of Christ in a way that is not inhuman in its exclusions? Steiner is a still passionate provoker of such thought and feeling. So read him and enjoy - but enjoy the tap- dancing and skip the rest.

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