Jesus Is All Over the Place

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the folk-rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, but their songs are some of the most fragile, scary and beautiful things ever. The lead singer’s voice warbles and trembles like he’s not singing but instead like he’s being born. Oh, and their entire second album is all about Anne Frank.

And this is the room one afternoon I knew I could love you
And from above you how I sank into your soul
Into that secret place where no one dares to go

And then there’s one song that starts slow, then builds into a manic jamming war between a single trumpet and an acoustic guitar that’s strumming so fiercely it sounds like its strings are going to rip off…and then it drops out into a low, meditative drone, and the singer, Jeff Mangum, sings, simply, plaintively: “I love you, Jesus Christ…Jesus Christ, I love you.”

It’s like, he gets your defenses down and makes you cuddle him and then he punches you right in the stomach.

I know it’s not really that. It’s probably ironic. Or maybe he’s not even talking about that particular Yid — maybe he’s saying “Jesus! I love you” like you’d say “Goodness gracious! I love you” or “Hokeysmokes! I love you.” But still — as someone who’s studied Jesus in an academic setting, and as someone who’s been occasionally ridiculed and beaten up for not believing in Jesus, sitting through that and listening to it is just freaking weird. 

I mean…Jesus.

Not long ago, I posted on Facebook: Feeling distinctly sabotaged. Neutral Milk Hotel is singing about loving Jesus, I’m reading Narnia with my kid and now I have to explain how Aslan used to be dead and he isn’t anymore.

A few days later, a friend replied — he’d created an edit of the song that eliminates the “problematic content.” (There’s an mp3 in that link where you can find that version, if you want to find it.) And now, my 7-year-old and I are reading A Wrinkle in Time together and, yep, we’ve hit it again:

“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.

“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Jesus!”

“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”

“Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”

“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”

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We were reading it out loud, and it caught me by surprise, and I took some liberties. I’m not a censorship kinda boy — I mean, I definitely think that not all books are appropriate for all occasions, and my first novel Never Mind the Goldbergs was, ah, added to and subsequently omitted from several reading lists, and my picture book My First Kafka is not permitted in my kids’ school because of depictions of non-kosher animals — but I definitely take some liberties while we’re reading stuff aloud, partly because some vocabulary/concepts go over their heads and partly because, well, I do think that my kids will be able to figure out some things on their own but they really don’t need to at the age of seven. Caught in the moment, I replaced the line with another of my heroes —

“Shakespeare!” Charles Wallace said. “Why of course, Shakespeare!”

And then ran into the unfortunate luck that Madeline L’Engle actually mentions Shakespeare in the next line.

I replaced him with Cervantes. It felt kind of cool, kind of subversive — I totally love Shakespeare, but I do think that Cervantes gets slighted. He mastered all these storytelling techniques that we’re still trying to figure out, and he did it 400 years before any of the rest of us.

But maybe I shouldn’t discount my kids. Because another time we were reading The Chronicles of Narnia, which might be the mother of all religiously sketchy mentions. In tenth grade, I had a really wonderful friend who happened to be a Christian fundamentalist, and she totally shattered my childhood by telling me what should have been obvious: that Narnia was an allegory for Christianity. And in Book 4, The Silver Chair, there’s a particularly intense section about Aslan, and how he created the world, and how he takes care of us even when we’re not around.

And I’m trying to dance around it, and half-read passages, and of course my daughter picks up on it — she’s a smart one, now — and she’s like, “Papa, don’t say your own words. Say what it says in the book.”

“Well, in the book it doesn’t say that — ”


” — It says Aslan.”

“And Aslan’s kind of like Hashem!”

Wham. Way to hit the nail on the head, kid.

“Well, yes,” I backpedal a little, fumbling for what to say next, “I mean, some people believe different things — ”

She starts giggling wildly.

“But he’s not like Hashem, Papa!” she says, as if both —
a) it is the most obvious thing in the world, and
b) I am the stupidest parent ever created —
“Aslan’s not real, he’s a fictional lion!”

So there. I feel like this is what happens most times when I try to educate my kids: They end up educating me instead.