Afterward, when the world was exploding around him, he felt annoyed with himself for having forgotten the name of the BBC reporter who told him that his old life was over and a new, darker existence was about to begin. She called him at home, on his private line, without explaining how she got the number. “How does it feel,” she asked him, “to know that you have just been sentenced to death by Ayatollah Khomeini?” It was a sunny Tuesday in London, but the question shut out the light. This is what he said, without really knowing what he was saying: “It doesn’t feel good.” This is what he thought, I’m a dead man.
Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, published this week, Joseph Anton is about his experience of writing what may be the best known and least read book of the twentieth century, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie writes in the third person, because he didn’t want his memoir “to be a diary or a confessional or a rant.”
“He did not feel that his book was especially critical of Islam,” Rushdie writes.
The book took more than four years to write. Afterward, when people tried to reduce it to an “insult,” he wanted to reply, “I can insult people a lot faster than that.” But it did not strike his opponents as strange that a serious writer should spend a tenth of his life creating something as crude as an insult. This was because they refused to see him as a serious writer. In order to attack him, and his work, they had to paint him as a bad person, an apostate traitor, an unscrupulous seeker of fame and wealth, an opportunist who “attacked Islam” for his own person gain. “He did it on purpose.” Well, of course he had done it on purpose. How could one write a quarter of a million words by accident? The problem, as Bill Clinton might have said, was what one meant by “it.”
On some levels, Rushdie’s experience can be compared to the Christ. In both cases, creative genius puts a man at odds with powerful religious leadership, clerics who interpret his work as blasphemous and demand his death. Where they differ — and it’s a crucial point — is that Rushdie’s fate came crashing down upon him. He didn’t foresee it, couldn’t choose it as his own, but Christ did see what was coming and made a choice.
Two distinct mistakes often hinder Christians in understanding their own Christ. Either they naively presume that he walked this earth with the full consciousness of God — never asking themselves how it would be possible to live a human life if one could suddenly speak any language or predict Notre Dame’s move to the Atlantic Coast Conference two millennia in advance. Okay, fine, maybe Jesus and Notre Dame do have a unique bond, but the problem with this approach — one that takes no account of what St. Paul called the kenosis of Christ, his emptying himself so as to take the form of a slave — is that it takes away the true terror of the cross. What would it mean to say that Christ “suffered” death, if his divine consciousness, rather than faith, assured him a return in three days time?
But Christians with more savvy can make a similar mistake, which is to think that Christ was merely a passive victim, that, like Salman Rushdie, his fate came crashing down upon him. Here’s the desperately needed corrective for the second supposition. There’s good reason to believe that Christ chose his fate. One doesn’t need to invest Jesus with full divine consciousness to recognize that he understood himself to be the Son of God, that he came to see that his mission would most likely lead to his death. One need not presume that the Church put posthumous words into the mouth of Jesus when she records him saying, “The Son of Man is to be handed over to men and they will kill him, and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise” (Mk 9:31).
It’s impossible to explain the preparations that Jesus made for his last supper, or the manner in which he transformed the expected Jewish ritual to focus upon his own self donation, without recognizing that he could see death as imminent. As James Martin, S.J., points out  in this week’s New York Times — writing in response to a newly discovered manuscript fragment, one which speaks of Jesus’ wife — death’s foreboding may well explain Christ’s still rather solidly documented decision for celibacy.
So what is a modern disciple to learn from this foray into Christology? A lesson the Church has always called Memento Mori, to remember death. Martin Heidegger, the father of twentieth century existentialist philosophy, argued that death brings life into focus, that humans lead inauthentic lives when we forget that, from the moment of our births, we are shot like arrows towards death. The first movement towards authentic existence is to remember what we seek to forget: that our lives are limited, that they take their meaning from the choices we make with the little time given to us. Put bluntly, life is only really lived in the sight of death.
Of course for all his brilliance, I often wonder how much of Heidegger can be traced back to his own, Catholic boyhood. Memento Mori, remembering death, would have been a frequent refrain of Catholic sermons then. Indeed, St. Ignatius of Loyola, in guiding those facing life-changing decisions — ones where they are conflicted rationally but not emotionally — offers this advice. “I will consider, as if I were at the point of death, what procedures and norm I will at that time wish I had used in the present election (choice). Then, guiding myself by that norm, I should make my decision on the whole matter” (Spiritual Exercises # 184). Ironic as it sounds, dreams of death draw the lines of life.
Salman Rushdie was genuinely shocked when he discovered that his work had led to a death sentence. “This is what he thought, I’m a dead man.” Fortunately, Salman Rushdie is still alive, but, if the example of Christ is any guide, knowing that one is a “dead man” is truly a way to live.
Wisdom 2: 12, 17-20 James 3: 16-4:3 Mark 9: 30-37
Rev. Terrance W. Klein